Christmas crackers

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 22 December 2014 in Editor's note

Jim Murphy says he will transform the party with what he spells out as his ‘Clause Four’ moment but you can’t turn round years of decay by simply putting a kilt on it

In this festive season of goodwill, it would be traditional to reflect on the year gone by and offer messages of hope for the future... so let me try.

It’s been in some ways a torrid year. A referendum year that engaged and excited but ended with a result that saw Scotland still craving more. A year in which politics rose up the agenda and saw poverty, inequality and social justice placed firmly at the heart of a desire for change.

It saw the SNP lose the vote for independence, be bounced into a commission that could only disappoint and for its much-lauded leader to stand down. But despite this, its membership became swollen by restless natives looking for a home for their new-found thirst for politics, its coffers were funded full to overflowing, and there was the appointment of a new leader, already a lady in-waiting, whose unprecedented popularity packed halls and stadia with ebullient fans buoyed by news of polls predicting an SNP landslide in the General Election. And ironically, that could place the party that lost a referendum in prime position to dictate terms at Westminster next year.

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour was on the winning side in the referendum.

But in time-honoured fashion for a party that takes shadow boxing to an art form, victory crumbled into an apparent defeat. The winners looked like losers and overtaken by a momentum for Yes and a Vow that needed to be delivered despite its obvious traps, Labour was a party that quickly understood the bitter price of a success when it was won by standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories.

And then Johann Lamont, a woman who had been wearing careworn like a shroud, stepped down as party leader, lobbing a couple of grenades as she went. And for a party that still needs to prove its Scottish credentials if it has any hope of besting the SNP, to be exposed as one that was little more than a branch office of its London HQ was a devastating blow in the wake of a vote, paradoxically, on independence.

And so the party ended an old year in the same way it had begun, with a new leader and warm words about how it must reclaim its place on the centre-left of Scottish politics. And for this we should be truly thankful. 

There’s no doubt that, in Jim Murphy, the party has picked its best bet – indeed for many, its only bet – for leader. That after years of moribund leadership, no succession management and platitudes about listening, reconnecting and reviewing, that this time, maybe, the Labour Party in Scotland could truly place Scottish before its name.

Murphy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. His incessant bonhomie can be wearing and appear faux. It is difficult to pin him down on what he believes other than in bending with the breeze [although there are benefits in not being an ideologue]. His football analogies are a turn-off.

Scotland is still looking at two parties that loosely call themselves social democrats

He is very much one of the boys and it will be interesting to note his appeal among women given Salmond’s Marmite effect in that respect. 

But Murphy has many positives and the party needs a leader that might last longer than the last three. He won a Glasgow seat in a Tory-stronghold against all odds. He has 17 years of Westminster experience, which is a tough school, and he has valuable Cabinet experience, having worked for Blair from 1997 through. All that must count for much.

He has given the Scottish Labour Party a chance. And while Neil Findlay did, for many, sound more like a proper Scottish Labour leader should sound in this post-referendum time when inequality has come to the fore, in the end, Murphy’s political longevity, his ability to capture the news agenda, and ‘the best shot’ mentality won him the prize,

But there was also a paradox in a Labour Party desperate to get back on the front foot voting for a leader that represented much of what the electorate had turned against during the referendum. 

Murphy is a career politician. He has done nothing else. He has walked the well-worn Labour path from student politics, the NUS, to party apparatchik to parliamentarian. And so has his deputy. 

He stands to the right of the party at a time when people in Scotland are attracted to the SNP which is seen to be taking a lurch to the left. He has been a keen advocate of the renewal of Trident, will forever be associated with Iraq, and was never a passionate devolutionist. 

He has also, by his own admission, become a bit of a new-born Scot as he travelled the length and breadth of the country during the referendum making his plea for the Union from his Irn Bru crates and wearing a Teflon shirt. It did, he says, open his eyes.

There’s also the small matter of him still being an MP at Westminster.

With just five months to go before the General Election in May, it’s a tall order for Murphy. He has to reunite a Scottish party while creating autonomy from its UK counterpart; he has to try and win back Labour supporters who had lost faith; he has to attract the disaffected who had never voted but became engaged by a debate in which they had nothing to lose; and he has to fight the SNP from a Westminster foothold when Westminster is part of the problem. 

There also remains a policy vacuum. His predecessor did little to distinguish Labour’s approach from the SNP. She raised more questions than answers, established commissions not reports, and her legacy can be summed up in an ill-conceived keynote that coined the ‘something for nothing’ phrase which became something of a party own goal.

Scotland is still looking at two parties that loosely call themselves social democrats. One has a popular and tested appeal and the other appears to have lost it. Murphy says he will transform the party with what he spells out as his ‘Clause Four’ moment but you can’t turn round years of decay by simply putting a kilt on it. And his five-point plan which promises to bring the party ‘closer to the centre of Scottish life’ does little more than that. 

The issues that really mattered during the referendum, like Trident or where Scottish Labour fell foul of its UK overlord on things like the bedroom tax, are reserved anyway and so his big vision on Scottish autonomy changes none of that.

Murphy was probably the best candidate if Labour is to have any chance but whether his leadership election proves to have been turkeys voting for Christmas remains to be seen. 

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