Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Jim Murphy and Saving Scottish Labour

The victories of Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale in the Scottish Labour leadership elections have invited much comment. Some of it warm and friendly, but a great deal not. Indeed, soon after Saturday's results were announced obituaries (like this) have been pouring in from the left. True, many who are so minded wish Scottish Labour little other than ill and can't wait for the party north of the border to shuffle off this mortal coil, but wanting something and having it happen are not the same. As readers know, Jim wasn't my choice, but that doesn't mean I think Scottish Labour is doomed, doomed, doomed.

Looking at Jim's schematics, matters seem far from peachy. Here's a politician who, despite hailing from a working class background, has never had a proper job. His trajectory took him from student politics straight into a parliamentary seat, a period of straight down the line Blair loyalism and then the shadow cabinet, until his hawkish stance over Syria saw him demoted and packed off to international development. While we're talking war, Jim is well known for his support for Trident renewal, and has proven to be one of the PLP's biggest cheerleaders in courting the military. Can a man readily identifiable with war, with Britain's unpopular (in Scotland at least) nuclear weapons system, and comes with Blairist baggage be the right fit for an electorate ostensibly to Labour's left? Put like that, no. But critics, and this perhaps includes my previous piece on Scottish Labour too, are guilty of empiricism (albeit not of the stupid kind). The default assumption is Jim's leadership would merely serve Blairite warm ups that have sat under the counter since 2005. Cuts plus public sector "choice" plus scrapping fee-less university tuition plus more military adventurism are, however, off the menu. This is Jim Murphy with Scottish characteristics. And does he have deep fried political Mars Bars for you.

During the leadership campaign, Jim made it very clear that Scottish Labour needs to be the master of its own destiny. These are spelled out in his proposed restructure of the party. A unionist party Labour remains, nevertheless in a series of adroit moves it will claim policy and financial autonomy for itself and put distance between it and Westminster. Underlining this is Jim's intention to give up London and take out residence in Holyrood (whether a safe enough seat can be found remains the only potential flaw in the plan). Embedding the link between Scottishness and Labourism and rededicating Labour to democratic socialism are also smart opening gambits. Yet in the real world, these count for nothing unless backed up by a policy agenda consistent with them. Again, Jim has started off well here - come hell or high water he's committed to restoring the 50p income tax rate for earners in receipt of £150,000+ a year. This is no departure from Labour elsewhere, but it puts the SNP's supposed leftism on the spot. Even if they do match it, an explanation of why they have not made use of Holyrood's existing tax powers might cause them some uncomfortable moments. In another move the SNP will find difficult to counter and answer, Jim has pledged devolving some social security measures down to local government. This mirrors Ed Miliband's own talk of localised devolution and dispersal of powers away from Westminster. The SNP on the other hand are less keen on anything that removes power from Holyrood and places it elsewhere.

Also, of the other divide in the Labour Party between committee room-based resolutionary socialism and practical, up-to-your-armpits-in-doorsteps activism, Jim is something of an inspiration among the latter. Opponents and supporters alike speak glowingly of his 100 towns in 100 days tour of Scotland with his Irn Bru crate, but this is very typical of his attitude to politics generally. The man has a Stakhanovite work ethic that would put most of Britain's would-be Bolshevists to shame. His East Renfrewshire seat is relatively affluent and semi-rural, and was the Tories' safest seat in Scotland in 1997. Since then his relentless campaigning has seen the building of a 10,000 majority that increased in 2010 while Labour seats elsewhere saw vote shares tumble. What Jim will be doing is looking to reinvigorate Scottish Labour as a party of activists where everyone can pitch in - the esteemed comrades who've sat in dwindling CLP meetings and done little or nothing to stymie the loss of members and votes are about to get a very rude awakening. Yet as an experienced campaigner, Jim knows that enthusiasm does not inflate volunteers magically. He and the leadership team have to come up with the policy goodies with the capacity to inspire and put Labour on its way back to government.

Another advantage Jim has is that the much reduced Scottish Labour Party is more or less united. The unions will be disappointed that Neil Findlay didn't have a better showing, but provided the party remains on the path it's set out on there won't be any disaffiliations or the like. Even Unite's apparatus will overlook its running battle with Jim provided the policy agenda remains attractive and to the left. Among the members, a clear majority gives the new leader legitimacy enough to ensure whatever lefty grumbles there are remain just that. And crucially, the near unanimity among the MPs, MSPs and MEPs for Jim and Kezia secures those quarters against damaging rebellions for the time being. Compare this with the dormant faults threading their way through the SNP. On the one hand, Alex Salmond is determined to re-enter Westminster as a weird kind of leader-in-exile, thereby securing for himself an independent power bloc vis Nicola Sturgeon in Holyrood. And Sturgeon herself has the coming nightmare of party management to contend with. How can it integrate 70,000 new members, especially when many of whom are well to the left of the SNP leadership and local government cadres? Playing a leading role in a coalition around a referendum uniting the radical left with a significant chunk of Scottish capital is one thing, but trying to bridge that contradiction, nay antagonism, in a political party will be nigh-on impossible. Anti-Westminster populism and the impending general election can keep it together for the time being, but when the policy generation process starts in advance of the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, that's when Jim and Kezia will start sharing out the popcorn.

That's the future. The immediate task is to mitigate next year's projected damage. Jim is nothing if not pragmatic and hard-nosed. He knows the problems, he knows the polls, he knows the awful state the party is in, and has seen the height of the tsunami bearing down on Scottish Labour. The sky will not fall in under his leadership - that has already happened. The task is to shore up the defences and stop as much Westminster beachfront property from getting washed away as possible. Given the start he has had, already there is a hint of hope that this might just be possible.


Anonymous said...

So he knocks on a lot of doors, it is what you are saying when you have knocked that ultimately counts. And judging by his track record my advice to Scotland is if you seem him heading up the path hide behind the sofa. or preferably tell him to fuck off.

Phil said...

As if that's all campaigning is. Still, whatever one thinks of Jim Murphy, he would never do as something as awful as this