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by Mandy Rhodes
01 February 2010
Interview: Jim Murphy

Interview: Jim Murphy

It is almost 18 months since Jim Murphy became the first full-time Secretary of State for Scotland with a seat at the Westminster Cabinet and a direct route to the Prime Minister.

He came in like a whirlwind and the question of whether he was Scotland’s man in the Cabinet or the Cabinet’s man in Scotland was soon answered by his bullish approach to the fledgling SNP Government at Holyrood.

He made no secret of the fact that Alex Salmond was not a priority when he revealed that the First Minister was the fourth person he phoned to tell of his appointment only after he had spoken to his wife, his mother and Iain Gray, leader of the Labour MSPs.

He raised sceptical eyebrows by proclaiming his post was not party political, and then caused controversy by his implicit criticism of the SNP’s love affair with the Nordic countries when, on the back of the collapse of the Icelandic economy, he dubbed Norway, Ireland and Iceland, ‘the arc of insolvency’.

He announced he would set up his own panel of economic advisers for Scotland, seen as a blatent attempt to rival the Scottish Government’s own council of economic advisers. He was seen to overshadow international visits like the one to China already organised by the FM and took credit for the decision to stop detaining the children of asylum seekers at Dungavel despite this being a long-running SNP campaign.

Meanwhile he remained uncharacteristically silent or subdued on the big issues in Scotland, like the freeing of Megrahi, minimum pricing on alcohol and the constitutional question.

Indeed anything that could involve a forensic, intellectual analysis of issues. And only last week, the Scotland Office issued a report claiming a multi-million-pound devolution dividend for Scotland which will all be good ammunition for English constituencies who already view Scotland as getting more than its fair share of the public purse. Murphy has been prolific but has also walked a tightrope of loyalty between Westminster and Scotland, which has had many question whether his job is to stand up for Scotland or simply diss the Nats.

For despite his whispering, couthy, facade he does little to hide his irritation with the Nationalists and their separatist agenda and says that the Westminster election campaign for which he is responsible for the Scottish arm, will be fought on a simple choice: Tories or Labour. The SNP don’t even figure as far as he is concerned although he does then enter into a fairly long rant about patriotism versus nationalism.

Murphy would like to be seen as consensual but he is as tribal and partisan as the best of them. He adopts a chummy, sometimes daft-laddie approach to negotiations and interviews but don’t be fooled, he is a shrewd operator who has survived the rough and tumble of Westminster politics by sheer tenacity and working out when and who to nod in agreement with. Murphy puzzles Labour insiders. He is a bit of an enigma. No one is very sure what he stands for. There is no one big issue that you identify him with and even on the constitutional hot potato, he doesn’t appear to have a particularly strong emotional attachment either way other than it would be wrong to be independent.

There does appear to be a lack of political depth and the clue could be that he is the true professional politician, attracted by a career more than a conviction. When he took the Eastwood seat from the Tories in 1997, it was as much a surprise to him as everyone else and while he says he ‘won the seat by accident’, it’s no accident that you stand so the sentiment is disingenuous. He candidly admits to not feeling as if he belonged.

“I didn’t try to get elected when I did and if anything, I was too young and didn’t enjoy it for three years. It was only when we got a decent swing to Labour in my constituency that I started to enjoy it…it’s an incredible privilege but I didn’t enjoy it initially and at 29, didn’t feel I belonged there. I have never felt part of the establishment and it took me 1,000 days to find my feet. I was never someone that was born to rule.” Murphy grew up in a council estate in Glasgow before his parents upped sticks ‘for a better life’ in South Africa where he lived for six years. He says he was appalled at the inequality of the apartheid system and 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.

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.

Despite early flirtations with the extreme left, he was and is a keen New Labour supporter and a loyal Blairite although chameleon-like, made an easy transition to Brown. He asked the PM for the Secretary of State for Scotland job and with few alternatives available, was given the post with bells on; full time and a permanent seat at the Cabinet. He is a keen Celtic fan and chairman of the all-party football group. He is also 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 and slavishly one of the true New Labour party faithful.

When I ask him what he thinks of loyalty, he says it is ‘underrated’.

We meet on the day that the Institute of Government, a body funded by Labour’s largest donor, Lord Sainsbury, published a report, based on the evidence of Whitehall’s 60 top mandarins, that claims Brown’s Government has ‘no single coherent strategy’ and is driven by ‘barmy policies’ with ‘no leadership’. Murphy claims not to have read the newspapers. I give him a summary of the findings.

“Well, those 60 civil servants have 60 votes and they can cast them elsewhere. If 60 people said that then they can vote Tory.

Anyway, they represent a tiny percentage of one seat.

“Look, in terms of the economy, none of us have lived through anything like this before.

Looking at where we are compared with last year and while nothing is fixed yet, we are certainly through the worst of the recession but regardless of the questions, David Cameron is not the answer.

“I accept that people are skunnered. Skunnered with bankers and their bonuses and skunnered with politicians and their expenses and they are worried about changes in the country, they are anxious about globalisation and worried about immigration and a sense of ‘my gosh, a lot of the old certainties are gone’. So there is a general feeling of skunnerism. The demise of deference is a process that started some time ago but the fact that that pedestal has been totally destroyed now has contributed to that sense of being skunnered and grumpy and wanting change.

“When we won in 1997, from ‘96 on there was a determination for change but also a vitriol and determination to get rid of the Tories coupled with a real passion for Blair and Brown. There is no real enthusiasm for Cameron and there isn’t, in my view, a real thirst for getting rid of Labour. It’s just about change. I don’t think there is a thirst for a change of government but I think there is a thirst for change and it is for Labour and the Labour Government to offer that change.” Given the most recent attempt at a coup to topple Brown, hasn’t the leader become the problem? How can you offer a new message when the brand is toxic?

“No. I think what has happened is that for 24 or 36 hours Gordon was weakened by it and then he was strengthened because it was a coup of two. So unexpectedly, it became a striking endorsement of Gordon. We are all anxious and nobody in the Labour Party wants a Conservative Government and we are ten points adrift and it’s right to be anxious but to get rid of the captain of the team in such a way would not solve our problems. We have to work bloody hard to close the gap but we will work bloody hard to close that gap and I am confident that we can and I have said to others who are not confident, to go and do something else. If you don’t believe in the Labour Party and don’t believe that we are strong enough and capable enough then go and do something else because no one forces you to be a politician. Stop the whingeing and get out of the way if you are not up for the fight because people in this country need a Labour Government. I’m not getting on a soapbox but there is no one that will look after vulnerable people after we get out of this recession other than a Labour Government.

There is no great social reform [that has] ever happened in this country for the better without a Labour Government whether it’s [the] Equal Pay Act of the 70s, the civil rights for disabled people, whether it’s the Race Relations Act, reducing child poverty, whether it’s equal rights for gays and lesbians, no social reform for the better has ever happened under any other government… none…none and that is the history of our party since the Second World War and it is not going to change now.

“There is a real respect for Gordon Brown; his intellect and his substance and everything he has done for the economy. Politics and politicians do not arouse enthusiasm at the moment - as a tribe, as a profession - we just don’t but what Gordon has that no other politicians have at the moment amongst the public is a sense of respect that he is a clever guy, that he has done a great job and brilliant things in the face of this international financial crisis.

“Admittedly, he can be rubbish on tape and not good on telly. Sometimes he is rubbish on telly and that is the truth and I have said it before and in a world where the premium is on a seven-second clip or a soundbite, Gordon and his intellect do not fit into seven seconds and I just hope when it comes to the election, people want substance sometimes not with the greatest PR in the world, rather than some airbrushed guy from posters.

“I think Blair was a more instinctive politician and Brown is a more intellectual politician and I happen to believe that the age of intellectualism is not dead and it is sad if we were electing someone to go to the pub with.

“I am not saying David Cameron is a stupid man, far from it, but in a contest of intellect, in a contest of substance and of PR then Gordon wins two out of three. The nearer we get to the election it can’t just be about the packaging; it has to be about the content.” With much debate about the death of New Labour and the old messages being tired for this new age, what does Labour stand for now and what is the message for the election?

“It is that we got through this recession and we will now shape our industry and economy for what is coming next. The ‘96 and ‘97 message is redundant because when you think about what we were dealing with then it was about terrorism in Northern Ireland, long-term unemployment, winter bed blockages in the NHS, poverty wages without a minimum wage, devolution, all these big things. The idea that 12 years on we would be dealing with [some]thing called Al Qaeda and the Taliban, climate change and wind turbines in the North Sea and quality of life issues not just about getting paid more but spending time with your kids, wasn’t even there. So getting through the recession and reshaping a new industrial revolution is what Labour is there for now and it is a pretty straightforward message.

“We will have to keep spending, we will spend less but we will keep spending and for them [the Tories] they are ideologically driven on the economy and they will make cuts and in the medium term we will pay a heavy price for that because that lack of investment will affect us over a decade.

“We may well come to our views based on our own experiences and mine are based on what is morally right and wrong and yes, the Labour Party has changed because we were sick of losing. The Tories have tried different ways to change and none of which have been successful but have they really changed? Last year David Cameron tried to portray himself as a changed leader but look at the DNA of the Tory party and it is from central casting.

They are blue tooth and claw and can’t wait to get their hands on power to reduce the power of the state and get their hands on government so they can make it smaller. They are ideologically driven and arguably, the most right-wing group of candidates since Thatcher’s second term in office. I think they have got more modern in appearance and more radical but they are socially moderate and economically driven.

“It doesn’t depress me it angers me…the thought of a Tory government makes me angry but it makes me want to work harder because a Tory government is a real danger for Scotland, which is why a recent poll showed that among Tory voters in Scotland, 14 per cent of them thought it would be bad for Scotland so it’s bad news for anyone that wants government on their side, anyone that is poor or facing difficulties. I am not saying we get it right all the time but our instincts are right and theirs are all wrong.” So what about the elephant in the room – the SNP? Where do they figure in his campaign strategy?

“I’m on to my second cup of tea and I haven’t mentioned the SNP directly. I’m not saying that an SNP vote is a wasted vote because that’s an insult because everyone must use their vote but the public need to know there is only a choice of two outcomes; us or the Tories.

“Anyone who wants to vote and is an SNP supporter needs to tell me how the SNP, Angus Robertson or whoever, is ever going to deliver a UK Government. It is just not possible even if you suspend reality there are no circumstances in which the SNP could win this election so while a vote is never irrelevant, a party can be. The message couldn’t be clearer - back Labour, don’t help the Tories.”

And can Scotland be confident that it will get its voice heard in the campaign?

“There’s no shortage of Scottish voices! My job as the Secretary of State for Scotland when the election campaign starts it is to make sure that we stay in touch with Scotland. But then we have a Scottish Prime Minister, the big issue is the economy and we have Alistair and the co-ordinator of the election campaign is a Scot and Douglas [Alexander] and I are neighbouring MPs. Sometimes the question is where are the English voices?”

He laughs but it is probably a question being asked elsewhere. After 12 years in Government, does he recognise that mistakes have been made?

“I make mistakes every day whether it’s as a cabinet minister, as a politician, as a father, a husband or as a punter. The only people that don’t make mistakes are people that don’t do anything and I would rather try and get most things right with the occasional mistake than do nothing.

“In terms of personal lessons then I took too simplistic a view of Iraq. I don’t want my vote back…the first demonstration I ever organised in politics was a protest in George Square after the Halabja killing in March 1988 so I don’t want my vote back because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power but after what happened in Iraq you have to be more careful and more multidimensional about your assessment on international relations.

“Domestically as a party, we didn’t do enough about the bottom three per cent quickly enough and we were too reticent about reforming the welfare state.

“The problem is the bottom three per cent have just become dislodged. There are a quarter of a million more people in work than [there] were before we came into power, a quarter of a million people, families, who are better off than they were but that bottom three per cent who are not in work, who don’t vote, who are passing on that lifestyle to their kids… I don’t know, I don’t know the answers but part of it is changing the welfare state, it’s about making them go and do things in return for their benefit and offering much more of a carrot but with a bit of a stick behind it. These are things still to be done.

“But look, you are inviting me to look back and I am much more interested in looking forward and this is not about a closure of a chapter of political history. I am much more interested in how we continue what we are doing now but do it better. I am not interested in obituaries or a retro of the last 12 to13 years because we are not finished yet and anyone that thinks the Labour Party is finished and can’t win is totally underrating us. You only write obituaries about people that have passed away and the Labour Party is alive and kicking. Yes, we are the underdogs but we have always been the underdog throughout our history so the last decade has been a luxury of favouritism status and we have fought every election as the underdogs.

This one is no different.”

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