Is Jim Murphy's attempt to rebrand both himself and Scottish Labour too little too late?by Pat Kane / December 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
It’s the photo opp that keeps on giving for the detractors of Jim Murphy MP, the newly elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party—his grinning embrace of one end of a black model submarine (the other end gamely held up by its Clydeside manufacturer).
To be scrupulously fair, it’s a less lethal version of the replacement for Trident that Murphy has (until now) so enthusiastically endorsed. But, it could be perceived as evidence of this ex-Defence Minister’s policy record—supporting interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, doctrinally Blairite on private involvement in public services—which would usually leave him an easy target for the SNP, the Greens and the wider-left Yes movement in Scotland.
But the other defining Jim Murphy image—shrugging off an egg thrown at him during a street hustings at the peak of the Independence Referendum campaign, temporarily dethroning him from his Irn-Bru crate—shows just how tough an opponent he will be for the post-Yes tribes, perpetually seeking “more powers” for Scotland.
If Gordon Brown resonated with wavering No voters as a “son of the Manse”, echoing with the certitude (and rectitude) of the Presbytery, Jim Murphy is evidently from the other politico-religious tradition in Scottish Labour—the Irish-Catholic working-class lad made good, who knows exactly how deep the loyalties to a party of working people thrum in Scottish life.
Of course, this awareness didn’t stop Murphy’s reasonably glittering career arc through Westminster, Whitehall and other enclaves of Londonopolis (as it has barely hindered many before him). He has landed in odd places, though—for example, as a board member of the hawkish and Atlanticist Henry Jackson Society.
His first major speech as leader didn’t disappoint his supporters, it was full of bold moves and talk of reframing the party in Scotland. A new “Clause Four” will define Scottish Labour as a “democratic socialist and patriotic party” (no, that word-order doesn’t bear too much rearranging), putting “Scotland first” in all matters. Murphy’s commitment to a 50 per cent top tax rate, to be applied when the Smith Commission’s income tax powers come to Scotland, has hardened up SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to match the same rate.
Murphy’s much-proclaimed fighting spirit is now much needed. Few expect the SNP to maintain their current 20-30 point lead over Labour all the way to the General Election finish line in May. But there is reason to believe that the legendary pragmatism of the Scottish electorate, post the establishment of the Scottish Parliament—choosing the SNP to develop Holyrood, and Labour to defend their interests at Westminster—has undergone a profound mutation, post the referendum campaign.
As a consequence of the intense, passionate and networked movement which comprised the Yes vote, in defiance of the perceived UK media-establishment blitzkreig of Unionist fear messages, Yes supporters have developed a strong collective memory—reinforced by a continuing culture of meetings, blogs, podcasts, publications and social media presence. A pro-independence newspaper, The National, has been launched, reporting a print circulation of 60,000 and digital subscriptions of over 11,000.
One of the irreducible memories for former Yessers is that the Labour Party stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tories (and their poodling Coalition partners). The “Labour and Conservative Party” (as some wagsters phrase it) sung from the same hymn sheet about the poverty, doom and disaster that would befall an independent Scotland.
Murphy is betting his talents that the friable thread of trust between the Scottish people and Scottish Labour can be rewoven. He could be too little, too late. It is entirely possible that the fabled intelligence of the “Scots Voter” makes this precise calculation—that a straight substitution of SNP MPs for Labour ones is in their best interests in May. And this doesn’t just mean fervent Yessers but also devo-max Unionists, who voted No for “more powers” at least, and will have been distinctly underwhelmed by the Smith Commission offer. A recent ICM poll showed that 63 per cent of Scots want full devolution of taxes and welfare, compared to the partial offer of the Commission—and 58 per cent want full control of pensions, where there is none under the new proposals.
The new SNP leadership is making it easy for that section of the Scottish electorate to, in Nicola Sturgeon’s words, “lend the SNP their vote”. Sturgeon has ruled out any compact with a Tory party at Westminster, and has set out some attractive conditions for any deal, whether coalition or confidence-and-supply, with Labour—including the cancellation of Trident in concert with Plaid Cymru and the Greens, and a demand for “more powers” for Scotland, likely based on the SNP’s Smith Commission contribution which reserves all powers to Scotland barring currency, defence and diplomatic powers.
Although Salmond is Marmite to many in Scotland, I suspect that even some of his critics would quietly enjoy watching the Great Beast stomping around Westminster, contesting the agon with lesser talents in the Hogwarts Palace.
So, Mr Murphy has his work cut out. However, I can confidently predict that press-calls where he manhandles weapons of mass (or even targeted) destruction will not be on his busy agenda.