Ian Murray on surviving the General Election
The shadow Scottish secretary discusses Jeremy Corbyn and his frustration with the 'blatant lies' put out by the SNP
When I arrive at his constituency office, set in the heart of leafy Newington, Ian Murray – shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and MP for Edinburgh South – is bustling around trying to prepare for a family holiday. He will be leaving for Greece imminently – spending a few days in Athens before going on to Rhodes.
Ushering us from the light, airy office into a tiny windowless side room – more like a cupboard than anything else, with just enough space for an ancient photocopier, a filing cabinet, a broken lamp and two chairs – he insists that despite ongoing protests in the Greek capital, he intends to stay out of politics while he is away.
Given the events leading up to our interview, it would be understandable if he wanted a break. It has not been an easy time for Scottish Labour.
The General Election night was disastrous for the party. In fact, the result was so bad it redefined what disaster looked like: Ed Balls, Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander, Margaret Curran – some of the biggest names in the party all lost their seats.
In Scotland, Murray was the party’s sole survivor. Both the Scottish and UK wings of the party were thrown into fresh leadership contests, triggering another bout of introspection.
So how did Murray keep his seat? With the party conference approaching, he should probably start getting his explanation prepared for UK colleagues.
The answer is complicated. “If I knew that I would be an incredibly rich man,” he says.
His campaign must have been aided by the controversy surrounding Neil Hay, the SNP candidate, who had been using an anonymous social media account to engage in behaviour considered unbecoming for a prospective MP. Murray says the Lib Dem collapse also helped him, with their former supporters generally moving to Labour in Edinburgh South.
Beyond that, though, he simply points to the way he had engaged with the community since his election.
Murray says: “We entrenched ourselves in the community in 2010. I was elected at five in the morning and did my first surgery at nine.”
He has lived in Edinburgh all his life. Growing up in Wester Hailes – quite a different part of Edinburgh to the leafy streets surrounding his constituency office – with grandparents on both sides working as slaughtermen, Murray was raised in what he calls a “fairly average Scottish family”.
His father died in 1986, aged 39, leaving Murray’s mother with two boys to bring up – Murray was nine, his brother was 13 – at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s power.
“Obviously at the time, I didn’t know about the political side of all of that but looking back, in the mid-80s, being brought up on a council estate by a single mother, in the middle of all that stuff about there being ‘no such thing as society’ – that’s probably what my politics was grown out of.”
Murray tells a story about sitting in an English class, around 1990, when a teacher burst in and jubilantly announced that Thatcher was gone. It is easy to imagine politicians of a similar age across Scotland, and indeed much of England and Wales, would have had similar experiences.
In fact, it is a time that, more than any other in recent history, seems to have shaped UK political discourse. As Murray puts it: “When you were brought up to boo the TV every time Thatcher came on, it pretty much instils in you your political beliefs for you, doesn’t it?”
The SNP too seems to have been shaped by the same force – Nicola Sturgeon herself has told similar stories to Murray’s in the past. And while Labour previously benefited from anti-Conservative feeling post-Thatcher, the General Election saw the SNP harness it, while Labour has had titles like ‘red Tories’ thrown at it again and again.
Maybe it started during the referendum and the decision to share a platform with Conservatives within Better Together, but if anything, the attacks seem to have intensified since, with the SNP using Labour’s decision to abstain on the Welfare Bill as the most recent proof it is not working for Scotland.
Some claimed the bill could have been defeated if Labour had not abstained – a claim Murray clearly finds irritating.
“It’s been hugely frustrating, because it’s a lie. I can understand why opposition parties want to create a narrative, which the SNP are fantastic at doing, but that’s just a blatant lie. Another example, I was walking down the lobby with a very senior member of the SNP, in the same lobby, voting the same way on the same issue but he was tweeting that I was in a different lobby with the Tories. He was actually tweeting it as I was walking down the lobby with him. That kind of stuff, to me, is absolutely appalling and it is not doing the parliamentary process any favours.
“That highlights one thing – their entire strategy is to destroy the Labour Party, nothing else. The welfare vote is a good example. We can go into the minutiae of the tactics but actually, we all agree, the opposition are united in the fact that the welfare provision in this bill is wrong. But we took the view that the parts of the bill that weren’t wrong, which are pretty positive, such as apprenticeships and cutting council rents and helping vulnerable families, we didn’t want to vote against that.
"So there’s a political tactic there and we might have got it wrong from a political perspective and from a perception perspective, and I openly admit that, but to say we’d have won the vote is just a blatant lie, there’s no other way around it.”
And yet the claims to the contrary continue. In fact, since the SNP won its 56 seats there has been near constant bickering between the two parties – from disputes over seating to Murray’s irritation over what he sees as the SNP’s deliberate attempts to misrepresent votes to the public. Can he see relations calming down?
“I don’t know if it will. I’m not one for being colourful with language, but it’s not a misrepresentation at all, it’s a lie and they have to be called out on it. They were tweeting out on social media and it did come out from the top, because they misspelled ‘en masse’, where rather than ‘en masse’ they’ve put ‘on mass’. They had all tweeted out that the Labour Party have just voted en masse against giving 16 and 17-year-olds a vote in the EU referendum. We were in the lobby with them, so all of that stuff’s just a blatant lie.”
But regardless of Murray’s indignation, the SNP offered blanket opposition to the bill, and then gained political traction from the move. Meanwhile Murray claims there were parts of the bill Labour did not want to oppose and faced a backlash from the public as a result. Is it harder for Labour to win England and Scotland than it used to be? And, conversely, freed from having to appeal to such a wide audience, is the SNP more nimble than the Labour Party?
“Of course it can be more nimble, it can be completely oppositional, because they don’t have to deliver anything, and that’s the problem the Labour Party has. We are the only party of the whole UK. The Tories don’t need Scotland and the SNP doesn’t need England and therefore the only party who’s really there to truly try and represent the whole of the country is the Labour Party.
“It’s all a bit of parliamentary theatre that the SNP are exploiting. We need to be both a credible opposition and a government in waiting. They just have to be an opposition, they don’t even have to be credible.”
But doesn’t that bode quite badly for Scottish Labour?
Murray nods, “It’s difficult. It’s very, very difficult.”
So what sort of independence should the Scottish Labour Party be given? I suggest there is a danger that, if the UK Labour Party starts to work with the SNP on certain areas, then people in Scotland will stop seeing a reason to vote Labour because the party will still work with the SNP.
“Well, can I turn your question around? The SNP have to start working with the Labour Party. Everyone’s falling into this thing of ‘we need to work with the SNP’. There’s 232 of us, there’s only 56 of them. We’re the official opposition, and so we have to work together.”
But doesn’t that mean people can vote SNP and know that it doesn’t completely isolate them?
“Well, no, not at all… Now we’re back to the General Election debate again. The SNP guaranteed the people of Scotland that ‘if you vote SNP we’ll deliver a Labour government’, and it didn’t happen. Why didn’t it happen? They won most of the seats in Scotland and it stopped us being the largest party.”
I point out it was losing in England that stopped Labour being the largest party. Even winning every seat in Scotland wouldn’t have changed that.
Murray continues: “And why did we lose in England, that’s the question I’ll pose back to you.”
“You speak to Andrew Pakes in Milton Keynes, speak to the candidate in Southampton, speak to the guys in Plymouth, speak to the guys in Wales, anywhere you want in the country where there’s a marginal Labour seat, the biggest single issue that stopped Labour winning the General Election was the threat of Alex Salmond.
"Now the Tories themselves spent £25,000 in Milton Keynes South on five direct mails on the week of the election that was advertising a party that wasn’t even standing – it was David Cameron saying, ‘if you vote for Labour in Milton Keynes South, Alex Salmond will be in government’. So it wasn’t just about them taking seats in Scotland, it was a bogeyman of nationalism across the UK, and Cameron played a blinder with that. So the bottom line being, until the Scottish Labour Party can sort itself out in Scotland, the chances of a UK Labour Party ever getting back into power in Westminster is pretty slim.”
The question of how to achieve power is one obsessing Labour at the moment – both north and south of the border. As we meet, Murray is fresh from backing Yvette Cooper for the UK leadership, having put his support behind Kezia Dugdale in Scotland before Ken Macintosh had even entered the contest.
On Dugdale, he says: “I just think we need a fresh start, and I just think Kez gives us the opportunity to start with a blank sheet of paper.”
But, given she was deputy to Jim Murphy during his short-lived command of the party, is Dugdale still a blank piece of paper?
“Yeah, I think so. I think people like Kez, I think she’s got the ability for people at least to begin to listen again to what the party have to say. They might be more willing to work with the party again so it gives us a real opportunity to have a fresh start. That might or might not work, but I think we need a strong opposition in Scotland and a Labour government in waiting, and until we can even get anywhere close to that we’re in a pretty bad place. Nobody wants a one-party state, and nobody wants a one-party state with a government that is trying to be everything and do everything for anyone when there’s big issues out there.”
And how does Labour go about drawing in new activists, new grassroots members?
“Well, we are now. Even before the UK leadership election our membership in Edinburgh South was up 25 per cent, with the biggest Constituency Labour Party in the country. That increase of 25-30 per cent was common across every area in Scotland and throughout the UK for that matter, so we are drawing in new activists all the time.
"Our activist base is not only growing, but is incredibly active and although I don’t know the exact figures, but I think the SNP claim to have over 100,000 members, they weren’t as active on the ground during the General Election as we were with much, much fewer members. So we’ve a good membership base, it’s growing, it’s invigorated, it’s up for the fight, we’re doing lots of good stuff locally, and I think that can be our way back in.”
This, unavoidably, brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, the MP for Islington North who went from backbencher to bookies’ favourite in a matter of weeks, bringing a surge of interest in the party with him. The leadership contest is still in full swing as Murray and I speak. Is there not an argument that a Corbyn victory could draw in non-voters, or people who have left the Labour Party? Is there not a good argument that he could bring in people who feel disenfranchised?
Murray pauses. “Possibly. Maybe. He also might be able to bring people back into the party who we wanted rid of for a reason.”
Who, I ask, did you want rid of?
“There’s no doubt there is a militant element. There’s no doubt there’s an element in the party… everyone has been talking about this rally in Liverpool, where the chair of that rally had been suspended from the party for a whole host of issues. You wouldn’t want to be associated with a party, if those kinds of people are involved in it.
“So it is not as simple as all this. The representative of Jeremy Corbyn who came to my CLP, his first line was, ‘we need to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader because we need to be a party of protest’ and the immediate reaction of most people in that room was, ‘no, actually, we want to be a party of government’. And that is not necessarily mutually exclusive but I just don’t think being a party of protest is going to get us back into government.”
That was certainly the argument presented by Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. But then they were coming at the problem with a view to beating the Tories in England. For Murray, the concern must be beating the SNP. Would a more radical ‘party of protest’ not work here? I put it to Murray that the SNP has managed to combine being a party of protest while still being in government very successfully.
“That’s what they have got away with for too long. Let’s take a syringe into Scottish politics and suck out everything to do with the constitution. Going into the 2016 election the SNP would be in trouble.”
But will the constitution be ‘syringed’ out any time soon?
“Of course it won’t.”
It is tempting to wonder what good that then does. In fact, it could be argued that ignoring the constitutional debate was what got Labour into its current mess. So if the constitution will continue to dominate Scottish politics, how can Labour win?
“Well, therein lies the difficulty. If you look at it on a very crude and basic level, the SNP can guarantee 40-45 per cent of the electorate because of issues surrounding the constitution and people want another referendum.”
Will they offer one?
“Of course they have to offer another referendum in their manifesto – they can’t not – but they’ll significantly caveat it. But an election should always be about what kind of government you want and right now there is a kind of constitutional umbrella over all of it and it is really dangerous, because the poorest get it hardest and it is our public services that suffer. So we are going to go into the election on an incredibly positive platform on what we do on education and health and those kind of big issues, alongside holding the government – which has been in power longer than Tony Blair was – to account.”
Conference, along with the arrival of a new leader, should give the party a chance to focus. Will it also see the party pick over what happened in the General Election?
“In Scotland, yes, though in the UK, our vote actually went up. But it is not a simple process, because if you knock on someone’s door and ask, ‘why did you not vote Labour this time?’ they tend to trot out the propaganda they have had from the SNP. This ‘I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me’ line – I don’t know what that means.”
I suggest it probably refers to anger that Labour has moved to the right. This, clearly, is something Murray will not accept.
“Were we more to the right in 2015 than we were in 2010? Absolutely not. Were we more to the right in 2010 than we were in 2005? Absolutely not. We had a manifesto that was so positive in trying to deal with the big issues and the SNP copied it. So there is a narrative issue and a propaganda issue and an actuality issue, and I think we need to break through that, but we can’t do that while everything is being done through the prism of the constitution.”
In the course of the interview it becomes apparent that Murray strongly believes the party is being misrepresented as further right than it is – we are back to the ‘red Tory’ line. But from the ‘immigration control’ mugs, released before the election, to the party’s approach to welfare caps, it seems to have fallen into the trap of debating within a frame set by David Cameron.
I ask Murray if the party has been using Tory rhetoric. For example, before the election, Rachel Reeves said Labour was not the party of people out of work. That, to many people, suggested a shift to the right.
He does not agree, “Well, that is just a line. No one is the party of people that are out of work. The opposite of that would be the Labour Party saying, ‘we are the party of people who are out of work’. That’s ludicrous.”
Perhaps, but she didn’t have to say it either. The shadow work and pensions secretary had chosen to say, “We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work”.
I ask him again, surely, that suggests a move to the right?
“Well, she maybe didn’t have to say it – that’s a different argument altogether. But we have always been the party asking how we support people into work. How we can help disabled people who can work and want to work? How can we get a framework around assisted support? How do we make sure young people aren’t written off? All of that is incredibly challenging and difficult but it is absolutely the right thing to do.”
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