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by Mandy Rhodes
03 June 2024
Ian Murray: I helped defeat the Tory MP who failed my mum

Ian Murray photographed for Holyrood by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Ian Murray: I helped defeat the Tory MP who failed my mum

Wester Hailes is a vast council housing estate on the edge of Edinburgh built as a cure to fix the city’s social housing problems in the 1970s. With architecture based on housing complexes in North Africa, the mixture of high- and low-rise pebble-dashed flats was meant to resemble villages in the sky and foster a sense of community. Less than a decade later, it was dubbed Waster Hell. 

Perhaps the rot set in early with an estate served by few basic facilities and no decent bus service in or out, but it was also during the Thatcher years and, with unemployment soaring to levels not seen since the Great Depression, a third of Wester Hailes adults were recorded as economically inactive.

On top of the mass unemployment, the estate was becoming associated with high levels of crime, as well as rocketing levels of alcohol, solvent and illegal drug abuse. And with the introduction of cheap heroin flooding onto the drugs market, Wester Hailes also faced a new problem with the spread of Aids as injecting drug-users in the city, almost uniquely across the UK, shared needles.

At one point in the early 1990s more intravenous drugs users in Edinburgh were dying from Aids than from overdoses. Nowhere was that more the case than in Wester Hailes, where so-called ‘shooting galleries’ were widespread, with heroin addicts discarding dirty needles wherever they had been used, making many places, including children’s playgrounds, no-go areas.

And while the fabric of Wester Hailes began to degenerate, so too did its soul. Homes designed for warmer climes that had been built to replace crumbling tenements and temporary prefabs became riddled with damp. Residents endlessly scrubbed walls covered with black mould while wallpaper peeled off and the constant smell of damp pervaded. Plagued by maintenance issues and underinvestment, scores of buildings which had been intended to last a lifetime would later be earmarked for demolition but in the meantime just fell into disrepair and decay.

Combined, these various issues painted a picture of decay. Packs of dogs roamed the streets, empty houses were boarded up, graffiti was scrawled on buildings left abandoned, lifts stopped working, rubbish was strewn across the streets, and levels of crime increased. Mental health problems skyrocketed and with the general air of neglect came problems like agoraphobia, with residents just wanting to shut their doors and not come out. And as more and more aspiring families left Wester Hailes to escape the malaise, the reputational damage knocked the general self-confidence of those that were left behind, who suffered the stigma of coming from the newly dubbed Waster Hell. 

This is the Wester Hailes that I started working in in 1985 as a trainee journalist on the Wester Hailes Sentinel. A community suffering massive economic and social problems, poverty evident, if only in the queues to get the handouts of free cheese, beef and milk from the European Community’s so-called ‘food mountains’ that would be distributed through a network of community initiatives.

Crime was so high that the Sentinel, as the community-based newspaper, made an active decision not to report court cases so as not to feed into the general feeling of a community under attack.

This is also the Wester Hailes that Ian Murray, the Labour MP for Edinburgh South since 2010, and likely to be the country’s next Secertary of State for Scotland, grew up in.

It is fair to say Wester Hailes shaped us both. Without the experience of working on the local paper, witnessing such depth of inequity first-hand, working on campaigns and stories that had social justice at their heart, and in forging deep and long-lasting relationships with local activists and politicians who represented the area, I would not have become the journalist I am today. The same could be true for Murray, but what is remarkable is that his recollections of Wester Hailes vary so significantly from mine.

Murray delivers a speech as Anas Sarwar and Keir Starmer look on | Alamy

Murray was nine when I started working in Wester Hailes. His family moved there from the pre-war prefabs that were erected in Sighthill in the 1940s as a temporary answer to an acute housing shortage and had well outlived their original purpose.

For Murray, Wester Hailes was an idyllic playground. And for anyone that doesn’t know better, he describes an almost Enid Blyton-style childhood with him and his brother free to run around largely car-free streets. With family and friends all nearby, it is that sense of community and freedom that Murray remembers more than anything.

“I know what you are saying about Wester Hailes,” he tells me. “And as an adult, I obviously recognise the problems, but if somebody had said rate your childhood out of 10 in terms of happiness, I would have said 10. I loved school, loved what we did as a family together, I had great friends and I loved where we lived. It was great.

“My brother and I went to Dumbyrden Primary across the back from the house so we could walk to school without any parental assistance because it was just a ten-second walk. All our friends lived in Clovenstone or Hailesland or Dumbryden, and, in fact, one of my best mates who I have just actually recently re-met again after 35 years, he moved to Barberton just up the road from Wester Hailes when we were kids and he thought it was so posh. So, for me, it was really good. I mean, it was just a great environment with everything at hand. 

“True, I do remember there was a little gang of kids, slightly older kids, who were probably up to no good with something more serious, but we didn’t understand at that time. To us, these were the guys you just avoided – if you saw them come around the corner you darted off and hid but even that felt more like a game than something menacing. Oh, and we were pretty much told never to go to the high flats. You never really asked why, it was just a given and yes, probably they were a bit scary.

“Looking back now, as an adult, there were a couple of big things about Wester Hailes at that time. One was this was at the height of Thatcherism and Wester Hailes was probably the epitome of what she hated most about society and about people. The second thing is that it was a community. We lived in one flat, we had cousins in another flat at the top of the street, a great auntie, although we were never actually related, lived across the road. So there were seven or eight of us that all knew each other all within touching distance of each other. And that was similar for other families as well.

“And I was just thinking about this this morning actually, because Zola [his daughter] has just started to cycle her bike without the stabilisers for the first time, and I learnt to cycle in the car park at the bottom of Hailesland Gardens, we all did, the kids just played around there, you know, that’s what we remember, those memories, ordinary memories of just enjoying being a kid.”

When I jokingly suggest to him that he possibly has Pollyanna syndrome, Murray laughs, which suggests I might not be the first person to have mentioned this.

“Look, I know that because of where I came from I’m statistically more likely to be in prison than in parliament – although given some of the issues in Westminster recently, I’m not sure that particular stat stands up any more – but I think the really lucky part of my growing up was my brother, who is four years older, and I always had a cohort of about a dozen of us who were very close friends and all on a very similar path. I think we were probably one of the best cohorts that Wester Hailes Education Centre has ever had. Most of my friends are either teachers or running their own businesses or have technical qualifications. Scott, who was my best friend in primary school, is a consultant neurosurgeon in Cleveland Clinic in America.

“And yes, it’s true, that I guess two or three or people that I know from school died of overdoses, some ended up in jail, but overall, the group of friends I had are still the group of friends I have, and they have done well and the teachers at WHEC really inspired us.

“I’m still in touch with a lot of the teachers. There was Danny Costello who was involved in the football club, he was the deputy head, he was the one that persuaded me to go to uni. Stuart Sinclair was my modern studies teacher, Stuart Heggie was a PE teacher, Margaret Pagliarulo. All these teachers I still bump into on the streets in Edinburgh and occasionally share a drink with.

“The thing that I realise now, particularly when I go into high schools and speak to kids, is that your entire future is shaped by the horizons that you see in front of you. If you don’t know that pilot or technician or whatever exists for you, you just don’t aspire to do it. How do you lift people’s horizons? I always wanted to go to uni, but I’d no idea how or what I wanted to do.

“But I had people around me encouraging me to do that and while I didn’t really know what I wanted to do once I got there, and I started in maths and physics but ended up in social policy and law, I’m still not sure what I want to do, and I’m 47, but those teachers helped lift my horizons to see what was possible. 

“So, yes, I know that Wester Hailes was called one of the worst housing estates in Britain at that time and it is better now, but most people that moved there, like our family who moved from the prefabs, saw it as a real opportunity to better themselves. A new council house in this brand-new council estate, it was like the streets were paved in gold.

“And yes, I recognise the problems that you describe and the public policy failures and the neglect, but I mean in all honesty maybe I was sheltered from all of that stuff and I don’t know what my mum would say if you asked her about it. I mean, she was more concerned about the damp house than the rest of the environment, the damp in the house was absolutely terrible, and that’s where actually some of our politics comes from, because Malcolm Rifkind was the MP at the time. And mum went to see him and said ‘look, I’ve got two young kids, and something needs to be done’. I already had asthma, and my brother wasn’t too bad, but she knew that the dampness in the house was the cause and for a mum that then can’t do anything about it, that must feel terrible. Anyway, Rifkind promised to do something about it, and he didn’t. 

Personally, for me, it was mainly a campaign to get rid of Malcolm Rifkind because that’s where I got to square the circle – get my own back on his broken promise to my mum. And so retiring him in ‘97 was a great achievement.

“She became really anti-Tory after that because Malcolm didn’t help her. It’s fair to say we were always very anti-Tory as a family. We were brought up to boo at the telly when Thatcher came on. And I mean, this is the years of the miners’ strikes. This is post ‘79. This is me in my sort of post pre-teen stages. So you’re picking all that up from where you come from. But that was it for her, she was off after that, anti-Tory this, anti-Tory that. He made a promise, and he broke it.

“And maybe some of my approach politically now does come from that sort of approach to public service that Malcolm took in that instance, of being seen to not get things done. I thought that was wrong – don’t promise to do something and then not do it. I mean, it’s very difficult to connect all these things together, but you do get your influences and experiences from somewhere.”

It’s on that point that I mention to Murray that surely it was also around this time that something very seminal happened to him when his father died. Doesn’t he think that must have had a huge impact on him?

“That happened when I was nine, so 1985, and I know what you are getting at, and my wife [Mariam] is a psychoanalyst, so she keeps asking me about this, and I really don’t have much of a memory of my dad or much to say about it. And maybe that sounds a bit surprising, but the family was obviously devastated by it. He was only 39, but we just got on with it really. And I think I was protected from it a little bit by only being nine. I was sent back to school the following day to keep things normal, I didn’t go to the funeral, etc, so pretty much protected from it. I don’t really have much of a sad memory of childhood because of it, life just had to go on, if that makes sense. 

“We were playing snooker at home, mum was out at the bingo, and my dad was in his pyjamas. His bottoms fell down and I was only nine, so I started laughing, my brother was a little bit embarrassed and a bit concerned. But, you know, he also just thought it was him messing around.

“Then he never missed a ball for about 10 minutes, he just potted everything, and we were going: ‘This is a bit strange’. Then 10 minutes later, he was on the floor. He had a cerebral haemorrhage. Mum was called and rushed home. Eventually the ambulance came. Then at four o’clock in the morning mum returned and said, ‘Dad’s not coming home’. The following morning, I woke up, went into the lounge, and the whole family were sitting there, and his belongings were in a pink plastic bag with his glasses on top.

“My mum’s never, ever spoken about it, apart from her regret that she didn’t let us boys go to the funeral, which was a choice she made at the time, and I think she regrets that. She basically just got on with it, what else could she do?

“So, you are right, your dad dying is a big moment in life, but maybe it happened too soon, I was too young. What are your memories at nine? I mean, these are obviously big seminal moments in your life, but maybe it affected my brother more because he was 13? Maybe if I was 15 or 16, it would have had a bit more of an impact. I don’t think at nine you understand the finality.”

I ask him if he has discussed this with his brother. “No. And maybe that’s some of the psychoanalysis that needs to go on. My wife always says that we are a completely emotionless family together, not as individuals, but together.”

It’s interesting because I know, as one of Murray’s constituents, that one of his greatest attributes as a constituency MP is empathy. He is renowned for working hard for his constituents and as a result has managed to increase his majority from just over 300 in 2010, to 2,637 in 2015, when he was the only Scottish Labour MP returned to Westminster, to 15,514 in 2017, when he secured the largest majority of any Edinburgh seat for Labour, to just over 11,000 in 2019, when he had faced deselection when Unite the Union announced it would vote to trigger a contest but cancelled the plan when local members refused to back the call.

Murray exudes pragmatism. Politically he is a centrist. Personally, a realist. He says he approaches life with a “can-do attitude”, which he believes comes from his mother who just “had to get on with things”.

Indeed, “getting on with it” is a phrase he uses frequently throughout our interview and perhaps goes some way to explain his rose-tinted view of his childhood and the almost matter-of-fact approach to his father’s death. There’s a real sense of him feeling fortunate in life, a level-headedness, and a stability that he says Mariam will interpret as lacking in emotion but perhaps that has been a valuable asset during both his personal and political journey.

Murray was the only Scottish Labour MP to keep his seat in the 2015 general election, meaning even though he’d been tipped by many to one day become Shadow Scottish Secretary he suddenly became the automatic choice – although that fact almost passed even him by.

“Because I’d been the only person to win, my phone for 24 hours was just completely red hot. And there was this woman called Harriet from BBC Scotland who was phoning me up constantly to say, ‘Could you do Drive Time? Could you do the morning show? Could you do Good Morning Scotland?’ and ‘What about Sunday shows?’.

“Obviously because the election was on the Thursday, elected overnight on the Thursday night into Friday, and I just said, ‘look. It’s been a really tough election. I’ve done all the media I really want to do. I have nothing else to say and until things settle down, I’m not quite sure I want to do any more’, and she kept ringing and ringing.

“And then my phone rang again, and I just picked it up, I was in my flat at home, and I just said, ‘Ian Murray speaking’. And I just heard this, ‘It’s Harriet here’, and I didn’t hear anything else. I went, ‘Look Harriet, will you stop bothering me? It’s been a long week. You know, I am the only one that’s left. We’re all in a bit of shock here, and I’m sick of journalists phoning me and asking me if I’m joining the shadow cabinet. So, the answer is no comment’, and I put the phone down. And actually, the phone rang again, and it was Harriet Harman as the acting leader of the Labour Party offering me a place in the shadow cabinet.”

“I apologised profusely, and she promised never to mention it. Oh, and I also promised I would never tell the story…”

Murray was reappointed to the role by new leader Jeremy Corbyn in September 2015. Four months later, Corbyn made his first frontbench reshuffle and three shadow ministers resigned in protest and were criticised by John McDonnell, a Corbyn ally, as being part of a “narrow right-wing clique” aligned with the Blairite Progress group. Murray, a member of Progress, was interviewed on television that weekend and said McDonnell should “ramp down the rhetoric”.

On 26 June, two days after the EU referendum, Murray resigned from the shadow cabinet along with others citing a lack of confidence in Corbyn.

He tells me that the Corbyn years were “incredibly painful” and it is the only time he had considered walking away from the party he loves.

“They were awful years. I mean, political purity is fine if you don’t wish to be in power. The overwhelming vast majority of the public aren’t politically pure, they just want things done. They’ve got ideas, they’ve got values, which is quite right, and you should always be underpinned by those, but I just think there’s nothing beneficial in society for some of these political purists sitting on the opposition benches and getting nothing done.

“I mean, if you look at the politicians I’ve been closest to, Gordon Brown, Donald Anderson, these kind of characters, they got stuff done, and you could see a marked increase of prosperity from start to finish. Those people that want ideological purity, well, I remember the 2017 general election. I’d been returned with the biggest majority of the Labour Party’s history in Edinburgh, and one of our members brought me a lovely cake and we got prosecco from around the corner to celebrate a return in Edinburgh South, and one of the members who is now a Labour councillor said a few words and I did a little report back on the election. I asked if there were any questions and the first hand that goes up is this particular man who says, ‘you’re just a Tory in a Tory seat, what are you going to say about that?’

“And that was that, the cake went back unused and the prosecco went back unopened. The whole thing just descended into a disaster, a celebration that just went sour. That’s the effect of a purist approach.

“You know, it was not an ambition of mine to be an elected member and some of it just comes down to luck and being in the right place at the right time. The starting point though is that there are three conditions of being a member of my family: being a Hearts fan, supporting the Labour party, and anything that Scotland does, you support – it can be a bad combination of defeat and disappointment sometimes!

“So, I was always going to be Labour and at uni the Labour club was there, politics was a great interest, friends were all doing it, and there was this huge campaign to try and win the country in ‘97. And we just all got involved, pasting billboards and knocking on doors. But personally, for me, it was mainly a campaign to get rid of Malcolm Rifkind because that’s where I got to square the circle – get my own back on his broken promise to my mum. And so retiring him in ‘97 was a great achievement. And doing it again in 2001 was even better. 

“I was elected to the council in Edinburgh in 2003. And I mean the story of how that happened is on public record but, basically, I was the membership secretary of the North Pentland branch, which essentially took in Longstone, Broomhouse and somewhere else. I technically probably shouldn’t have been there because I lived as a student elsewhere in Edinburgh. But it was always traditional after AGMs to go and have a few pints. I went to the Sighthill Hotel, which was still in existence at the time, and after six pints of cider, Frank Russell said to me, do you fancy standing for election? And I stupidly said yes. I won the seat. The rest is history, really.”

That history involves a sex scandal that ultimately brought out the Labour MP for Edinburgh South, Nigel Griffiths, who was already facing defeat in the 2010 general election with such a small majority, when he was the subject of a tabloid sting in which he was photographed with a woman on a sofa in his parliamentary office. Griffiths later announced he would stand down at the election but gave the party time to select a new candidate.

For Murray it felt like an opportunity, but he had politicians like Donald Anderson, Angus Mackay and Douglas Alexander advising him against it because he would likely finish fourth – the Lib Dems were looking likely to regain the seat – and his political career would be finished.
“I basically felt it was too good an opportunity to miss and that, if anything, I was young enough to lose and for it not to matter,” he says.

He stood, he won, and he’s still there.

Murray and I meet the morning after Rishi Sunak has surprised us all by calling the election for 4 July. Murray has already been at a hastily arranged election campaign meeting in central London attended by the full shadow cabinet and is starting to pack boxes to head up to Scotland for the six-week campaign. I ask him whether this feels like 1992 or 1997.

“It feels like ‘97. But politics now is much different to then. I think the public are fed up. I think the situation has been, for the last 15 years, pretty poor for people, and certainly since the financial crash, it’s been a struggle for most people. I think everything’s just degraded. It seems to me like this has almost been a case of managed, or mismanaged, decline.  

“The discourse is also very different; it’s become very binary. You are either for something a hundred per cent or you’re not. You can agree on 99.9 per cent, but it’s still not good enough. It’s very, very binary. 

“I see politics in this election like a football match. At the moment, we’re scoring a lot of goals, but at some point, you’ve got to defend, and the political purists don’t want you to defend. They want you to be on the attack. Don’t worry about losing goals because you’ll score one more goal than your opposition. Well, that’s all good and well, but at some point, you’ve just got to take a step back and go, if you want to win this match, then let’s get a few goals ahead and then just defend some of the attacks that are coming to us.”

On being ideologically pure, I suggest there have been two big issues that have befuddled his party: Gaza and not calling for an immediate ceasefire, and gender identity reform. On the first, Murray says it has affected him and the whole party, but he believes, “in the cold light of day we were in the right place”.

“Keir ended up in this really unusual position of being the leader of the opposition, and a pretty small opposition party, in the United Kingdom, and the world seeing him as the prime minister elect. So, he was always of the view, that everyone wanted this to stop – nobody ever wanted it to start, but he also wanted to make sure that the position that he held was about getting it stopped, but also having the power – if he was lucky enough to be prime minister – to pick up the phone to Netanyahu and allies and have some positive influence. He didn’t want to lose the ability to do so, because he genuinely wants to do something about it. So he was keeping his own counsel on the basis that he may be in a position to do something about it, and he would rather have achieved something in power than blown his potential influence in opposition.
“I think it’s affected him; I think it’s affected the whole party, undoubtedly affected the whole party. 

“We always said, going right back to the 8 October, look, it’s easy to ask for a ceasefire, but actually what you need to try and do is to get to a position where you can deliver it. And if you look at the international community, it hasn’t delivered it for seven months and still continues to fail to deliver it. And some of the people who are most vociferous about this issue, and rightly so, and have no reason why they shouldn’t be, email me and say, we told you just calling for ceasefire motions in parliament would have no effect. Well, we’ve been saying that since day one.

“But it’s now been passed by parliament and nothing’s happened. Well, you know, that’s what we always said. It was always about trying to get it stopped, even on a temporary basis, to build what might be beyond that. People are angry and rightly so, as they feel, as we feel, powerless in the face of tragedy. They’re disappointed in the Labour Party, perhaps justified, perhaps not. But at some point, and we might be in power on 5 July, we might actually have some way of doing something about it.

“On your second point, well, the simple thing is I wouldn’t lift the Section 35 if I was the secretary of state. I didn’t oppose the secretary of state using it in the first place. What we did oppose was the fact that he waited, and he shouldn’t have had to use it. But in the end, he did. And the courts have determined that he was right to do so, and therefore we wouldn’t lift it. The ball is in the court of the Scottish Government to do something, if they wish to do so. I suspect, like all of these issues – and this is something that the Tories are guilty of as well – the SNP won’t do anything about it because it’s better to have the issue boiling in the background than it is to actually try and resolve it. 

“In terms of ‘what is a woman’, well, it’s a biological adult female. I always felt sorry for Keir when he got the ‘does a woman have a penis?’ question because he answered it as a lawyer, not as a politician. And actually, he was right. His answer was bang on. You know, people in law who are classified as women could have a penis.

“And that’s probably true technically, but that’s not the answer people were looking for. I think, to be honest, those kinds of questions have pretty much undermined the quality of the debate to a certain extent, because that’s not what the debate should have been about, and the other thing I keep reminding people is the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 was ours, the Equality Act was ours, the Disability Discrimination Act was ours. We’ve always done stuff to improve equality by bringing people with us and that will continue to be our approach if we are lucky enough to be elected to government.”  

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