The Jim Murphy interview

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 3 March 2015 in Inside Politics

The referendum could yet prove to be the catalyst that changes Scotland, but for some, the change has been more personal

In 2011, Jim Murphy and I met just hours before he was to address the Scottish Labour Party’s executive committee with the recommendations of a review of the party that he and the MSP Sarah Boyack had done following its disastrous result in the Scottish parliamentary election.

Murphy was in bullish mood. His party needed to get on the political front foot and after volunteering his services to party leader, Ed Miliband, he had spent weeks examining how the party could change to achieve that aim. His review would, he told me, be as significant to the party as the emergence of New Labour. 

As a measure of his commitment to this change, Murphy, a man who famously loves his football and his family, had even missed his son’s football-themed birthday party, to work on the final stages of his proposed overhaul.

Sadly, neither his party, the public nor the newspaper headlines reflected his own enthusiasm. And in the days that followed our interview, even the Daily Record, Labour’s doughty cheerleader, ran a fairly downbeat piece about this being Scottish Labour’s chance for survival.

The bullet points listing Murphy’s proposed changes including loosening ties with the UK party and appointing a Scottish leader could hardly disguise the fact that this so-called ‘root and branch’ reform wasn’t exactly getting the reaction that could herald this as his Clause 4 moment.

When Labour so spectacularly lost the election in May 2011, allowing the SNP to not only win a second term in government but also to win as a majority government, Labour knew it had some work to do.

The party had never really recovered from the 2007 election which was won by the SNP by just one seat and allowed them to form Holyrood’s first minority government. 

Then, Labour politicians undoubtedly believed the result was a fluke and that the electorate would come to its senses. So convinced was it that normal service would simply be resumed by 2011 or even sooner – believing the experimental minority government would fall – that it failed to implement any real change.

And when the Scottish Labour vote came out in the 2010 General Election, helping the UK party to not lose that election as badly as it could have done, hopes were high that perhaps the 2011 election would save the day.

But faced with an election campaign waged by the SNP based on a clear vision, a strong team and a good reliable record in government, Labour was simply outmanoeuvred.

The loss of seats on 5 May was catastrophic. The party didn’t just lose on the constituency vote but also on the list. The leader, Iain Gray, was lucky to hang on to his seat and immediately announced he would step down.

At the same time, Jim Murphy, MP for East Renfrewshire, former Secretary of State for Scotland and then shadow defence minister, was beating a path to Ed Miliband’s door to volunteer his services to conduct a post-mortem. He told me he wasn’t prepared to watch from the sidelines anymore.

"What you’ll see...is the Labour Party uniquely putting its flag in the ground. Our passion and my mission will be about fighting inequality”

I asked him why the party had lost.

“The main reason we lost is a similar reason as to why we lost the British election [in 2010]. The public have to be able to complete the sentence, ‘I am voting Labour because…’ and not enough people could finish that sentence.”

In the four years since that interview, Labour in Scotland has gone from bad to worse with the only highpoint being a ‘No’ in the referendum which they shared with their Tory Better Together partners and which also possibly explained the battering they subsequently took in the polls. 

Johann Lamont, the party’s sixth leader since 1999, spectacularly departed with a parting shot about Scottish Labour being simply treated as a branch office for the UK party and this saw Jim Murphy, yet again, beating a path to Ed Miliband’s door but this time, with a resignation letter from the shadow cabinet at Westminster, a desire to fight for the leadership in Scotland and a mission to finally make Labour in Scotland truly Scottish.

With just over two months to go before the General Election and his party languishing way behind the SNP in the polls for [incredibly] a Westminster election, I ask him if he thinks he wasted valuable time by simply not becoming leader then. At least he would have ensured implementation of his own recommendations which Lamont failed to do.

“Yeah, we didn’t implement the review and we all have to take our share of responsibility for that but we are going to try and make sure that we do it now. But it’s not about Johann, or me, it’s not about any individual, it’s about all of us. I should have been more hands on afterwards but we elected a new leadership team and we all bear responsibility.

"I know you won’t be interested in it, nor write about it, but Celtic are playing Inter Milan tonight and you win as a team, you lose as a team. It doesn’t really matter who had a good game and who had a bad game, the result stays the same.

“I’m not blaming any individual. It was a mistake and as a team, we got it wrong and as a team, we’ll get it right. 

“I think what was lacking was energy. Collectively, there was a lack of energy. My approach to it is to genuinely be passionate, have high energy, high impact, try and set the terms of the political debate without doing what the nationalists do, which is an undeserved perpetual lap of honour. 

“You look at some of the issues and the agenda right now on things like the women’s prison in Inverclyde, on fracking and on the education and inequality stuff and you see that we announce a policy and while they can’t bring themselves to match it exactly, they [the SNP] get very close to trying, so there is a sense that we are setting the terms of the political debate.

"It’s good that the Scottish Government is then going with what we have said. That’s a sign of a successful opposition, persuading the Government to change its course. 

“So high energy, setting the terms of the political debate and standing for something – because I think before the perception of us as a team was that people knew what we were against but not what we were for – and combined, we are going into this election with a kind of laser light certainty of what we are for.”

So can Scots now complete the sentence that they couldn’t in 2011? 

“Well, it’s about continuing that conversation with the public and convincing the public about what we stand for, which is the type of things I was talking about last night [to the David Hume Institute] which is about constructing a society where we don’t tolerate poverty and hardship and where we make an argument for social justice that isn’t just based on altruism but also based on our nation’s self-interest. 

“The argument of altruism, which is just about doing the socially just, fair, thing, will get you so far, but to make it a national cause which attracts the same degree of passion that we had around the referendum requires an additional argument.

"So it can’t just be about altruism, it has to also be about understanding that it is a competitive economic disadvantage for us, this degree of inequality and disadvantage. 

“When the working-age population has the pressures we have in Scotland combined with the growth in the pensioner population and so on, every wasted talent isn’t just a personal tragedy to them but it’s a knock to our economic competitiveness.

"So the argument is about a combination of altruism and self-interest and while I’m driven by the altruism, I accept that’s not everyone’s gig so if we are trying to bring the country together around a genuine intolerance of poverty and disadvantage then I think it’s a combination of those things. 

“So what do we [Scottish Labour] stand for? My politics will always stand for the right of working-class parents to have the chance of having middle-class kids and while I know an awful lot of dinner-party guests, the kind of people who spend their time debating these things, say, ‘oh, that’s not the Labour Party’s thing’, I say, of course it is.

"Everyone getting on in life is the Labour Party’s thing.”

"No, of course you don’t need to be poor [to be against poverty]. Empathy is important but authenticity I think in politics is really crucial”

Isn’t that everyone’s thing?

“Sometimes people try and patronise me, people that are comfortably middle-class, and I’m happy with them to try and do that but for them to then lecture the Labour Party that we shouldn’t be in favour of aspiration or for people to have what they have – the right to own a home, the right to get on in life – I’m not happy with that.

"If it’s good enough for the people who are making those criticisms, it’s good enough for everyone else.”

Who are these middle-class critics, these chattering classes at dinner parties that he speaks of? Isn’t everyone for aspiration of a kind and if the referendum taught us anything it is that Scotland does broadly share a desire for the common weal?

“I think there’s a patronising upper middle-class minority who will lecture the Labour Party from time to time, saying, ‘no, that’s not what you should be about’ but I’m dead set on believing that it’s what the Labour Party, at its very best, has always been about – about aspiration.”

“No one that I know well, who I grew up with, would make an observation of, ‘my gosh, I wish I didn’t have a chance to own my own home’ or ‘I wish I didn’t have a chance to do things.’ So, what does the Scottish Labour party stand for? We stand for a society where your life shouldn’t be determined by your family tree.”

There seems to be a defensiveness about class from Murphy that I’ve not sensed from him before. He’s never been anything but open about his own background. He grew up in a council estate in Glasgow, he says his first bed was a drawer in his granny’s house before his parents upped sticks ‘for a better life’ in South Africa where he lived for six years.

He makes no bones about his distaste for the inequality of the apartheid system and says he returned to Scotland at 18 to avoid conscription into the country’s army. He enrolled at Strathclyde University where he became politically active and was elected President of the National Union of Students.

'I think there’s a patronising upper middle-class minority who will lecture the Labour Party from time to time'

He did not finish his degree and at 29 became Scotland’s youngest MP.

He has been a parliamentary private secretary, a whip and a junior minister for employment and Europe and despite early flirtations with the extreme left, he was, and is, a keen New Labour supporter and a loyal Blairite – although chameleon-like, he made an easy transition to Brown. His relationship with Ed Miliband has, according to some, been less personally successful.

He is a keen Celtic fan is a board member of Labour Friends of Israel.

He is a vegetarian and teetotal but a voracious consumer of Scotland’s other national drink. According to those who have observed his career, he is more of a doer than a thinker.

When I asked him in 2010 what he thought of loyalty, he said it was ‘underrated’. He may have many faces but I have never detected any particular insecurity about his backstory or a simmering class warfare going on. I suggest to him that something is different about him.

Did the referendum change him?

“What has changed? What did I learn from the referendum or more, what did I have reinforced by the referendum?

"First of all, I had reinforced the sense of passion there is in our country, the sense that almost everyone has at least one opinion and sometimes, when I was out doing those street meetings, some people had more than one opinion, sometimes often contradictory. That’s absolutely fine.

"I learned that we are a country that can believe in great causes and that there were two equally valid great causes whether you were on the Yes or the No side of the argument.

"I learned that it’s time to try and bring the country together around another big cause and for me, that’s about the abolition of poverty. 

“And I learned something different about politics. Genuinely, I learned something different about politics. First of all, you need an energy in your politics, a passion in your politics and secondly and that politicians should try and live outside their comfort zone. 

“Going out and having genuinely unscripted, unstructured, spontaneous street meetings was an incredible experience and I’m genuinely not damning anyone else for what they did but that wasn’t happening anywhere else. Other people did meetings but it was often to the converted. Mine were to whoever happened to be wandering by, so there was an authenticity and a kind of spontaneity, unscriptedunspun politics to it and I think there’s a real strength in that.

“I’ve spent all these years in the House of Commons and you go through the New Labour period of a kind of message discipline and people lived their life inside that message discipline bubble and then you’ve got social media era, where people live too much of their life inside their social media bubble and to go out on the road like that was neither of those things. It was great.

"I learned that it’s time to try and bring the country together around another big cause and for me, that’s about the abolition of poverty." 

“So yeah, it changed me, the referendum did change me. Just to get out of the bubble. In my real life, I don’t live in a bubble, I don’t obsess about politics. In my real life, very few of my friends are in politics and when I go out with them, they just don’t talk about politics, they don’t. My friends take a passing interest in politics.

"The people I go to the football with, half of them probably don’t even watch the news so I live parts of my life outside of a political bubble and the referendum and those hundred days, I could see that there’s a big beautiful country out there, full of passionate ideas. 

“I think Scottish politics runs the risk of what happens in Westminster politics, which is that politics become about what happens in a building and I think politicians in Scotland are as prone in their own way to be as self-interested and as disconnected as their counterparts a few hundred miles south.”

I suggest to Murphy that being a Westminster politician perhaps led to some disengagement with Scottish politics and that by coming up from Westminster and going on his referendum journey helped him re-engage with that. He responds defensively.

“I live in Glasgow.”

But he is a Westminster politician.

“No, I’m a Scottish politician.”

His job of work is based in Westminster.

“No, you are going to provoke this into an argument in your magazine.”

I’m not but he is a Scottish politician based in Westminster.

“I’m not a Westminster politician and I’ve not come up from Westminster. I have come across from Glasgow today and I am not a Westminster politician, I am a Scottish politician.”

Well, he’s employed to represent a group of people from Glasgow in Westminster.

“No, I’m not. I just want to get this accurate. I’m not employed to represent a group of people in Westminster. That’s Tam Dalyell’s old argument about how he’s Westminster’s representative in Linlithgow – he’s Linlithgow’s representative in Westminster.”

I sigh and explain that I’m not trying to make a political point here, nor do I understand his sensitivities, just trying to explore what changed him as a Scottish MP who works in Westminster as he toured Scotland during the referendum. He says he’s trying to prevent me stumbling into an inaccurate argument. We move on.

I ask him if it’s too late to change people’s minds before the election. I remind him he told me in 2011 that if his changes weren’t implemented the two of us would be sitting back down after the next election having the same conversation about why Labour had lost.

“I should’ve brought that interview with me,” he laughs. “No, it’s not. No, it’s definitely not. I know we’ve got a huge amount of work to do and I’m not in any way saying that all these opinion polls have got it wrong, of course I’m not, but we’re doing something that politicians rarely do and we’re saying, ‘yeah, the opinion polls are pretty crap for us’ when normally, politicians say things like ‘we’re going to try harder and we’re going to work harder and we’re confident’.

"So we’re saying something different, we’re saying, ‘yeah, these polls are pretty crap and if things don’t turn round then David Cameron gets a great chance to hold on to the keys to Downing Street’. These aren’t the normal things politicians say. But is it too late? No, absolutely not. A minute to ten on polling day is too late but it’s not too late now.

“I’m not a Westminster politician and I’ve not come up from Westminster. I have come across from Glasgow today and I am not a Westminster politician, I am a Scottish politician.”

“The approach I’ll take, and what you’ll see between now and the election in 2016, is the Labour Party uniquely putting its flag in the ground. Our passion and my mission will be about fighting inequality.”

Murphy then lists the Mansion Tax, the bankers bonus and the 50p tax rate on high earners. These, he says, are uniquely Labour solutions to Scotland’s ills. He says politicians, including Labour, could sometimes be accused of not being able to identify how things could be paid for, not this time.

We go onto have a long discussion about how much money raising the top rate of tax to 50p would actually raise to pay for some of the inequalities he wants to tackle. He says an additional £250m. I go through my calculations and tell him his sums don’t add up. He repeatedly tells me they’re not his figures they belong to ICAS (Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland).

We knock that around for some time before I give up and he refers me back to ICAS. I did. The figures still don’t add up.

I ask him whether it’s not an indictment of Labour politicians that they have represented seats in Glasgow, in particular, for generations, and deep inequality still exists?

We did loads but it’s never enough…

“Some of the things we’ve done in Glasgow I’m really proud of. The housing stock transfer, writing off the billions of pounds of debt, that needed a Labour government. And again, the folk who make the biggest criticism of the Labour Party in Glasgow are often not Glaswegians and are often not the people who live in these houses or have ever lived in these houses or have possibly never visited these schemes or possibly don’t know anyone who is living in these housing schemes. 

I suggest he is being unnecessarily sensitive. Who are these critics? I’m saying it and his analysis wouldn’t apply to me.

“I don’t know anything about your background, your background is none of my business but being lectured from a comfortable pedestal by people who have never lived that life, I’m pretty intolerant of.”

The point is, you don’t need to be poor to be against poverty.

“No, you don’t have to be, no, of course you don’t. Beveridge wasn’t poor, Attlee wasn’t poor, and many of the members of that 1945 Labour cabinet weren’t poor.

"No, of course you don’t need to be poor. Empathy is important but authenticity I think in politics is really crucial these days and the thing about Glasgow is that in that one decision, for that one day, the writing off of that housing stock debt was probably one of the biggest decisions on domestic policy the British Labour government took and it will last for decades. 

“I look at Nitshill, places where I’ve lived and the housing has had fantastic improvements, driven by a Labour government. Still, today, things are happening because of that decision. So tax credits and the minimum wage, all those things were great, but never enough. 

“If I get elected in 2016 and however long I do the job as First Minister and look back, will I look back with satisfaction? Of course not. There’s no politician who gets to the end of their time in office and says I wish I had done less. So, no, I’ll never be satisfied. You never reach a horizon, it keeps moving. It’s the same with dealing with poverty but you should every day try to make a difference.

"So my thing is that these folks [the SNP] have been in power for what, seven or eight years, where’s the redistribution? Where’s the determination to do anything other than to describe the problem and blame someone else for it. So the Tories will blame the poor and the SNP will blame Westminster.

“The message at my party conference this week will be that if you want someone to describe the problem, vote for the SNP, if you want someone to make the problem worse, vote for the Tories, if you want someone who is each and every day going to try and deal with the problem, then vote for the Scottish Labour Party. That’s our message. That’s what we stand for.”

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