The Longest Suicide Vote Ever Given?, or, is Scottish Labour now all Right, with no Left left?

…and its Big Jim Murphy as the new Scottish Labour leader, with 55% of first round votes, and (like the South Kintyre council by-election for the SNP last week) there was no need to redistribute the second choice votes, as a majority had already been won.

And he has a battle on his hands: his party is outnumbered 10 to 1 for membership compared with the SNP (I am pretty sure that there is a way to calculate the individual voting membership from the percentage figures given for leader and deputy leader as two simultaneous equations, but I cannot quite remember how to do that, beyond the principle…); the latest poll from YouGov in The Sun hints at judgement having been passed by the Scottish electorate on the Smith Commission recommendations as inadequate (after discounting the 12% who did not express an opinion, 58% say Smith doesn’t go far enough, 26% says it gets the balance right, 16% say that it goes too far); and – just to top it all – there is also a (further) rise in support for the SNP in Westminster voting intentions.

I know I made the point previously that all this rise in support has been through a time when Scottish Labour was leaderless, ergo during a form of unexpected honeymoon period for the new-look Scottish Government…but it has also been noted that Murphy has been continually feted by the media, often to the exclusion of the other candidates – particularly the BBC – as the already anointed leader ever since he announced he was standing at the end of October…which was when that cataclysmic IPSOS-MORI poll gave 52% of Westminster voting intentions to the SNP. As a comparison for how things have changed during this Scottish Labour leader ‘period of uncertainty’, it is worth noting that the same week as the IPSOS-MORI poll, YouGov gave Westminster voting intentions as 43% SNP to 27% Labour – this week they say 47% SNP, 27% Labour. So…you can argue whether or not Jim has already been treated as de facto leader since he announced his candidacy, as far as everyone else (i.e. the electorate) is concerned, so now there will not be a discernible difference in how people regard his party – or whether it is only now that we start the clocks, to start to measure his impact on opinion.

What was always going to be most interesting about the leadership vote was less the predictability of the outcome, and more the breakdown of this three part electoral college vote – to get an idea of whether Scottish Labour’s ‘soul’ was still intact (if clearly badly damaged). Well, the accurate headline predictions were correct in terms of Sarah Boyack kind of making up the numbers (for all that she was an experienced cabinet minister), Neil Findlay winning the trade union vote (by 52% to Murphy’s 40%, with subsequent rumblings about disaffiliations by trade unions resulting since the declaration) and Jim Murphy winning the parliamentarians’ vote (67% to Findlay’s 20%). I confess that I would be really interested to see the individual votes of those parliamentarians – allegedly they will be declared, at some stage – to see what the split was amongst MSPs, as that might give an indication of just how welcomed the new leader fresh up from the Big Smoke is among their ranks.

But the key thing for us small band of ‘Scottish Labour Soul Spotters’ was always going to be the members’ vote. Between Murphy and Findlay, the split amongst them was 60% to 33%. So, a third of the remaining party membership voted a very different way to one that could be described as consistent with the Labour Party’s recent political trajectory (despite Findlay’s deference to Gordon Brown). How do we interpret this level of support for Jim? Have so many traditional left wing Scottish Labour members left the party since Iraq that there is hardly any Left left, and the remaining party is virtually all Blair’s children of the Right? Or is it that the vote was instead for a perceived ‘candidate of strength’?

Murphy will not bring people back – either the left wing members or voters deserting since Iraq – but viewed dimly from distant Westminster he probably seems like ‘the right man’. Because he will be anti-SNP, spouting the right wing Labour message that they understand – a ‘safe pair of hands’ to show the Scots why they were fools to follow ‘Yes’ – and none of this trade union candidate nonsense like Johann (or Ed himself) was…which right now (if polls such as the one quoted above are anything to go by) looks to be about as toxic a message as you could try to sell in Scotland.

So, is the election of Jim Murphy as Scottish Labour leader the longest suicide vote ever given (if I can paraphrase the famously unkind description of the Labour manifesto under Michael Foot)? Murphy has to oppose the SNP, argue that ‘The Vow’ has been delivered (despite all evidence to the contrary), and send his Deputy in to fight for him every week at FMQs. I have no doubt that he will be combative (‘Male and Pale’ he may be, but he sure ain’t ‘Stale’) in order to convey that image of a strong leader, when given the opportunity – but he is probably going to be relying primarily on smooth set pieces from Jackie Bird, much like Alistair Darling did, in the absence of actually being able to go head-to-head in person with his direct opponent.

People have argued that a pro-Trident, pro-Iraq War Scottish Labour leader is exactly what Nicola Sturgeon could want to go up against, and that from the SNP perspective Murphy is a gift of an opposition leader. However, Nicola (arguably, like Salmond – although you won’t hear a ‘No’ voter admitting it) has an integrity and commitment to principles and social change which Murphy significantly lacks, so they will not be competing on the same battlefield. BBC Scotland will present him as the hero of the No Campaign (now that Gordon’s deliverance of ‘The Vow’ is starting to look a little shaky, they want to draw a little less attention to him), gloss over policy flips and inconsistencies, and soundbite him to the max: they have had all the practice they could want at this over the last couple of years, and have just been waiting for someone to rinse and repeat with, once Johann departed in her famed bean-spilling strop. In that sense, for most of us, it will be back to the pre-September uphill struggle against the mainstream media (albeit this time we will have The National, so let us see if that makes a difference) – remember how journalists used to report with a straight face that Johann was tearing strips off Alex at FMQs every week?
Derek Bateman (http://www.newsnetscotland.scot/index.php/scottish-politics/9874-welcome-to-the-fray-mr-murphy) makes the point about the easy ride from the mainstream media that Murphy will get – that everything will be framed to sell the Labour narrative (as during the Referendum campaign) of reconciliation and learning from mistakes, and – yes – Smith is the Vow of DevoMax and (near)Federalism and Home Rule incarnate delivered. Murphy is also a reassuring voice in the ear of the Unionist left, telling them that their world still exists and never mind those nasty ‘Yes’ people, in a way that Better Together did not attempt to be. Bateman’s perspective is that the baseline message from the members’ vote is not that there is no Left left – but that their primary desire right now is for someone to resist and repel the ‘Yes’ movement and (hopefully) destroy the SNP, both of whom have totally dismissed – even exposed – their paradigm of the kindly Union as utter nonsense.

If that is true – that Scottish Labour has not simply become an exclusively post-Blair branch office, and that their hatred of the SNP and ‘Yes’ overcomes their political preferences for social change – then they have voted for the most tribal candidate possible – whilst he makes all the appropriate noises of platitudes of ‘reuniting a nation’.

Although, so far, it looks like that nation appears to be increasingly uniting in a rather different alignment to the Labour Party’s.

 

“We can laugh at [Murphy’s] overnight discovery of Scottish politics and his duplicity over tuition fees and his endless recycling of old policy positions but because he can flip-flop shamelessly, he is also a chameleon – last week displaying the red, white and blue and this week, the blue and white. He can be whatever Labour voters want him to be.” (Derek Bateman, 13/12/2014)

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