Jim Murphy hands Scottish Labour a chance to rebuild

Every pundit in Scotland knows what ails the Labour Party and the prescription for its malaise.

We’ve written many columns and monopolised hours of airtime telling you so.

On Saturday, Jim Murphy took his turn to lay out a framework for reforming Scottish Labour and electing a new leader and deputy leader. He did so during his final press conference in the top job, before handing the reins over to acting leader Iain Gray. #HunkyJim no more. #Murphalicious no more. That picture of him jogging in his tatty Scotland top no more.

The atmosphere was relaxed and Murphy joked with the press pack. Gone was the strain visible on his face during the campaign. He looked rested, even relieved, in a just-out-of-Barlinnie open-necked shirt. You could hardly blame him for wanting to be done with the whole wretched business.

But before he could be free, there was the matter of his changes to the Scottish Labour rulebook, which were voted through by the Scottish executive committee.

The five-point plan will see elections for the leader and deputy leader conducted under a one-person-one-vote system, councillors will be eligible to stand for the second-in-command post, the Holyrood 2016 lists will be reopened, primaries will be introduced for choosing 2020 Westminster candidates, and the leader and deputy will automatically assume the top spot on their respective regional list.

Of these changes, the most important in the short term is the decision to reopen the regional lists. This gives the best and brightest of the defeated MP crop an opening to stand for the Scottish Parliament in 2016. There are some good MSPs on the Holyrood benches but at least as many seat-warmers and time-servers. Labour can be a right sentimental bunch at times but there’s no place for pity in drawing up the new lists. Former MPs like Gregg McClymont, Gemma Doyle, and Tom Greatrex are real talents; May 7 should not be allowed to mark their exit from parliamentary politics.

The rule change to allow councillors to stand for the deputy leadership is another piece of good news for the party, which still has almost 400 councillors and a number of rising stars amongst them.

In the longer term, setting up open primaries for selecting UK parliamentary candidates could attract strong contenders otherwise put off by the “local people” politics of some constituency Labour parties. On the down side, primaries are a costly process — as Gordon Guthrie points out — and Scottish Labour isn’t as flush as its Nationalist opponents. Still, the opportunity to bring in “normal people” with lives and careers outside the political bubble should be seized.

Vitally, Scottish Labour leaders will from now on be elected on a one person, one vote basis. (“One person, one vote” could be the slogan of the Scottish Labour Party at Westminster.) The change here is that all members and affiliated persons will have an equal say and the trade unions will be deprived of some of their influence.

Nominations for leader and deputy leader will open on Monday and the final result will be announced on August 15. Kezia Dugdale has resigned as deputy leader to contend for the top spot and so far her only rival is Eastwood MSP Ken Macintosh. I wouldn’t presume to tell Scottish Labour members and trade unionists who they should vote for — though my track record on predicting the fortunes of the Scottish Labour Party is impeccable — but I would hope the answer is obvious.

There is a pungent pall of futility hugging the air. “Scottish Labour will change the way it chooses its leaders.” So what? They have one MP, two MEPs, and polls predict they’ll be light a fair few MSPs this time next year. The public has as much interest in elections for the next president of their local bowling club. That is why Labour needs an effective leader and a first-principles overhaul of policy, strategy, organisation, and communications. The party is in a fight for its survival, not against the SNP but against its own growing irrelevance.

As for Jim Murphy’s future, he insists he won’t be pursuing another career in Labour politics and won’t go to the House of Lords. (A pity, since Baron Murphy of Barrhead has a certain ring to it.) He will be giving a speech on Monday at Policy Exchange, a centre-right think-tank based in London, where he will outline his thoughts on Labour’s future. Murphy is a political star — the seizer in 1997 of the Tories’ safest seat in Scotland; a deft Westminster player; the only Scottish Secretary to hold his own against the SNP — and when he decided to stand for the leadership, it was as if a Third Division club had found itself signing a Premiership striker. (Yes, I just used a football analogy. That is Jim Murphy’s legacy in Scottish politics.)

Yet the brutal business of politics — if I may mix my metaphors and I may because I’m very fragile right now — sees him kicked out into the street like a stray dog. He deserves the gratitude of colleagues and members for his efforts on their behalf during the darkest electoral period in the party’s history.

At 47 and with a substantial political career behind him, Jim Murphy will not struggle in finding new opportunities. What lies ahead for his party is a more opaque matter. If Scottish Labour has a long-term future, his reforms could prove invaluable over the years and decades of recovery. It is, however, a very big If.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Policy Exchange by Creative Commons 2.0.

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