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Murphy's law

Murphy's law

Scottish Labour has found itself in an absurd position and all of its own making.

How, and if, it can dig itself out of the dark hole of electoral obscurity at Westminster before it replicates the same at Holyrood in 2016 feels like a Herculean task which requires fresh thinking and radical reinvention.

Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour’s leader, is right that the party needs to change. That is not new. Not least to him. And for some of us witnessing the slow and seemingly inevitable death of a party whose politics seemed embedded in Scots at birth, it has felt both painful and acutely frustrating.

But change it must or it won’t survive. Whether Murphy is the man to do it requires some thought.

At the time of going to press [an important caveat] the not-so-lucky Jim was still leader, despite presiding over a derisory campaign which resulted in sending only one Scottish Labour MP to the House of Commons. That is untenable.

Last week, Labour – under Murphy’s leadership – polled the lowest number of votes in Scotland in a general election since 1931 – 707,147 – less than half that of the SNP.

It was unprecedented and shocking. It lost 39 of the 40 seats it held. At every single general election between 1959 and 2010 in Scotland, Labour took most seats. It consistently dominated, with a run of 38 seats, 43, 46, 44, 40, 41, 44, 41, 50, 49, 56, 56, 41, 41. And then last week, one.

Big names – Margaret Curran, Douglas Alexander and Murphy himself – were all ousted in an SNP surge that dramatically washed over Scotland leaving just three MPs from other parties marooned like hapless castaways bobbing about in a sea of nationalist hegemony.

And as party leaders Miliband, Clegg and Farage fell like Ed’s stones, Murphy stayed on with the one get-out clause – that he’d only been in the job for five months. In business, the answer to that would be: tough. But in politics, so far, he’s brass-necking it.

But let’s make no bones about this; Murphy is not some newcomer to Scottish Labour.

He has been at its heart and soul for at least the 18 years since he was first elected to the House of Commons in 1997. He has held positions of high state; been a UK government minister, Secretary of State for Scotland and been instrumental in a root-and-branch review of the party after the Scottish Parliament defeat in 2011.

He has had, uniquely, the opportunity to examine forensically how the party works. He is a wheeler and dealer so the idea that he had no influence on the party’s direction of travel in Scotland before his appointment as leader is inconceivable.

Murphy appeared to go through something of a Damascene conversion during the independence referendum when he realised his political future might be in Holyrood rather than Westminster.

He had fallen out of favour under Ed Miliband’s lead, he had suffered a perceived demotion from defence to international development in the shadow cabinet, and for many of us observing the referendum campaign, he manoeuvred himself into a position of looking like he was in charge. ‘What is he up to’ was the quizzical refrain among the commentariat. Johann Lamont seemed sidelined. And so she was.

"This election result wasn’t a blip but a manifestation of the change that has been happening in Scotland for a decade"

It seemed inevitable – although the departure spectacular and unexpected – that Lamont would go. And as serendipity would have it, Murphy was waiting in the wings.

There was a leadership contest. The result bizarre. The fact that he was from Westminster, was a Blairite, pro-Trident and a face that people would put to the Iraq War – all the things that at least 45 per cent of Scots appeared to reject at the referendum in the belief that we should do politics differently – went out the door and Labour picked a leader that seemed to run counter-intuitively to the prevailing mood.

Murphy did bring energy and drive to Labour’s campaign but his short-term problems were vast and now seem insurmountable. 

Last week he said the party was overwhelmed by history and circumstance. He says it was hit by the perfect storm of Yes supporters voting with the SNP, of the consequence of two nationalisms colliding, and of his own party lacking clarity of message.

However, this election result wasn’t a blip but a manifestation of the change that has been happening in Scotland for a decade. Scots have lost trust in Labour and they have an alternative in the SNP – it is simply a party that gets the new Scotland and I don’t think Murphy does.

Clothing yourself in the Saltire or arguing the toss about whether you are a Scottish MP based in Westminster or a Westminster MP based in Scotland – although a fairly superfluous point now – is not taking cognisance of how Scottish politics has changed, how nationalism is now defined and what the SNP has become.

And so what should be a defining moment for the Scottish Labour Party could prove to be yet another ‘watershed’ one in the party’s history where everyone says they see the need for change but do little to enact it. Murphy may not be known as a huge thinker but he is an experienced player.

And he has a team that has also been around the block – McDougall, McTernan and Dalgety.

None of them wet behind the ears. But all of them of a mind about the SNP – it stinks.

And that matters because the SNP or more specifically, Nicola Sturgeon – because I do not believe the party would be in this position if Salmond were still leader – has become a lightning rod for change and for representing a more modern Scotland.

Labour, in contrast, seems stale and still rooted in Westminster and worse, it views the SNP with an outdated and tribal hatred which isn’t lost on the people that have become engaged in politics because of the SNP.

I think Scottish Labour needs to pause. It needs to be brave enough to perhaps accept it lets the next election go. A new vision, a new direction – not necessarily a move to the left or the right – and a new leader don’t just happen overnight and whether Murphy stays or goes, he is not the future.

And if he needs more convincing then perhaps it is worth contemplating why SNP supporters are queuing up to sign a petition begging Labour to make him stay. And they’re not bluffing.

See Liam Kirkaldy's general election sketch: How politics broke its promise

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