Scottish Labour’s aversion to winning

Next year, the SNP could hold the balance of power in Westminster. The reliable cohort of Scottish seats which Ed Miliband, the insecure head of UK Labour banks on to enter Downing Street, could suddenly vanish. Can Jim Murphy save them?

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Jim Murphy, a Scottish superstar?
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Tom Gallagher
On 29 October 2014 10:52

Fifteen years after the arrival of Scottish devolution , the Labour Party in Scotland  is in poor shape. Complacency and a loss of nerve meant it became a victim and not a beneficiary of this transfer of power from London.

Johann Lamont is the sixth party leader in the last 14 years. She resigned last Friday complaining about being overlooked and conspired against by London. But most of Scottish Labour’s problems were internal just as many of the problems which the ruling  Nationalists complain about stem from their own ethnically-based grievances and their refusal to govern in a consensual manner.       

During the recent oppressive and bad-tempered referendum campaign in Scotland, the Labour MP Jim Murphy successfully bated the pro-independence side centred on the Scottish National party (SNP).

A 5,000 mile speaking tour which saw him give 100 speeches across Scotland, standing on an ‘Iron Bru’ crate sparked militant opposition in a growing number of places.

Systematic attempts were made to drown him out in SNP strongholds like Dundee and former Labour ones like Motherwell.  These revealed an intolerance to dissenting viewpoints  that sit uneasily with SNP claims that Scotland is a mature and tolerant democratic society.

After losing the independence referendum on 18 September, the SNP continued to verbally attack Murphy.  He had been on the scene within minutes of a police helicopter falling onto a Glasgow city centre pub on 29 November 2013, a macabre incident which left ten dead.

But this month  he was conspicuously excluded from the commendations which were announced for those who played a rescue role.

He has some qualities which were once regarded as the stock-in-trade for politicians but which many now lack, thus sparking a crisis of representation.

He talks in everyday terms, enjoys campaigning, and also debating with his rivals, and is an assiduous constituency MP.  He shares in full measure the obsession of many Scots with football. Not surprisingly, plenty of Labour MPs and members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) hope he will get to lead Scottish Labour and knock it into shape.

Labour holds no less than 41 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. But a new direction is needed to prevent an inevitable loss of these seats turning into a complete rout.

One consequence of that could be that from next May, the SNP holds the balance of power in a hung Westminster parliament. The reliable cohort of Scottish seats which Ed Miliband, the insecure head of UK Labour banks on to enter Downing Street, could suddenly vanish.

The outgoing Scottish leader Johann Lamont complained about Miliband’s team treating her as an appendage.

But she failed to bring much-needed professionalism to the Scottish party. Up against the formidable media machine of the SNP, it still lacks its own  communications department. 

Murphy has not made a final decision about whether to run but he is already assembling a campaign team. If successful, he could be elected to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood in a by-election on the day that next year’s UK general election is held.

Since 1997, he has been the MP for East Renfrewshire, located on the outskirts of Glasgow and one of Scotland’s most middle-class areas. Labour usually has no chance in such seats on either sides of the Anglo-Scottish border.  It is a tribute to Murphy’s local appeal that it is now one of its safest Scottish seats .

But in large segments of the party, ideological conformity counts far more than voter appeal. Neil Findlay, only an MSP at Holyrood since 2011 and elected on the party list system which means he doesn’t represent any seat, has called for an uncompromising radical left programme.

It quickly  won him the approval of the media pundit and Labour intellectual Owen Jones who believes, ‘Findlay offers the possibility of a charismatic, inspiring alternative’. Some watching the splenetic and sometimes highly entertaining Findlay at Holyrood may conclude that he is more in in the vein of John Prescott than Aneurin Bevan.

Labour remains an easy target for the SNP as long as it remains fixated with outbidding it on the left. The SNP has used the funding stream it obtains from Westminster to roll out populist gimmicks meant to reward voters whom it courts.

It used to be middle-class Scots in the un-proletarian seats which it usually picked up before its 2011 landslide; now it is "downscale" voters as shown by the amnesty recently announced for defaulters of the poll tax.

Having insisted that only his party could save the National Health service from privatisation before 18 September, Salmond was rolling out huge amounts of private sector investment as soon as it was over. There were no cries of betrayal. Indeed, lower-income voters caught up in the cult-like excitement of non-stop campaigning for thirty months boosted the SNP’s size nearly threefold.

The SNP‘s appeal rests not on its spurious progressive character but in its ability to legitimise an ethnic appeal. Huge numbers of Scots who never previously felt that their needs and aspirations were different from people elsewhere in Britain now feel that they do and the sense of separation is often expressed in abrasive terms.

Murphy took on the Nationalists on their own parochial and chauvinist terrain and mobilised a lot of previously fearful pro-Union voters across Scotland. He is the best chance Labour has for containing the independence wave, saving most though not all of its west of Scotland seats and encouraging people on the centre-right to back the party tactically.

But will he prove to be the Scottish equivalent of Denis Healey? He was a popular, respected and highly competent Labour figure of the 1970s who was sidelined by Tony Benn and the far-Left because he was felt to be a ‘traitor’ to socialism. Healey was also pro-Israeli in his sympathies just as Murphy happens to be.

The anti-Israeli European left was still only at its embryo stage in the 1970s. But today Scotland is one of its strongholds. The trade-unions have 30 percent of the votes for the Scottish Labour contest and several white-collar leaders have made it clear that they are far more preoccupied with Israel than with effectively representing their  members.

Owen Jones has assailed Murphy  as an ‘arch-Blairite, staunchly pro-war Westminster machine politician’. In Scotland, his ethnic origins and the expenses he claims at Westminster have been laid against him, these paling before the largesse which SNP ministers regularly enjoy at the tax payers expense.

Many people wish that the Labour vacancy was at the UK level with a successor being chosen for the hapless Ed Miliband. But no broadly popular and effective alternative is in sight. However, there is such a figure on the Scottish front, where if the SNP triumphs in crucial battles, island unity could once again be in dire peril.     

It was Abba Eban, a former Israeli foreign minister who once said of Yasir Arafat that ‘he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity’.

This could yet prove to be the fate of Labour’s important Scottish wing if it rejects the only politician currently able to bring it back from the wilderness.

Tom Gallagher’s book Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration via Monetary Union is published in hardback and paperback by Manchester University Press on October, 30

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