Mad Murph: Last Days on Futility Road

After some weeks of working on manuscripts and application forms while I procrastinated about doing another blog, I’m finally moved to write this evening, after politics has escalated over the last few days.

This is politics in the broadest sense: Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has finally yielded and agreed to go despite winning a vote of confidence from his party – he’s just waiting to put his own spin on the direction Scottish Labour’s recovery should take before he leaves. Appropriately enough, given Murphy’s inability to stop using footballing metaphors, someone equally unassailable – Sepp Blatter – having won his own ‘vote of confidence’ at the weekend, has also just an hour ago announced that he was standing down. I queried the announcement on FaceBook, asking what the reasoning behind such a decision could be, unless perhaps the sponsors Coca Cola and MacDonalds had exerted pressure on him to go – simple, replied a friend of mine: I bribed him to go.

Football, as they say, is a funny old game. As much as Murphy’s tireless football metaphors defined his leadership of Scottish Labour, so the allegations of corruption became synonymous with Sepp Blatter’s leadership of FIFA. It therefore seemed appropriate that Blatter’s departure (I’m goin’ – just no’ straight away) mirrored Murphy’s, ironically after both won their respective ‘votes of confidence.

In the run-up to the General Election last month, Murphy painted a dystopian future, invoking that old chestnut of the volatile oil resource and an accompanying apocalypse, under the rising spectre of an SNP bloc being elected to Westminster…a doomed fantasy which was ultimately less-convincing than George Miller’s current futuristic cinema outing, as far as the electorate was concerned. He campaigned on a series of scare stories that were not only reminiscent of those deployed by his identical backroom crew of MacDougall and McTernan during the Better Together fiasco last year, but also in direct opposition to public opinion on those very issues. Full fiscal autonomy was not a turn-off to the electorate (47% supporting it with only 33% opposed and 19% Don’t Knows), 60% supporting the football offensive behaviour act and 70% supporting the alcohol ban at football matches. 80.4% of Scots want another Referendum, with 58.6% wanting it in the next ten years, so presenting a second referendum as a bogeyman was likely to be similarly unsuccessful in terms of making inroads into the rising SNP powerbase.

And, hardest of all, Jim Murphy was up against Nicola Sturgeon. Never mind her well-recorded popularity in Scotland -during the last week of campaigning, Murphy’s popularity ratingwas at -35 next to Nicola’s +56 – TNS’s poll of 1,200 people in England gave her +33, the highest rating they have EVER recorded for a party leader.

Murphy had a mountain of trust to recover in around 5 months before last month’s Westminster routing, and although – as Andrew Tickell noted – he was probably the wrong man to work that particular miracle over that time frame, prospects seem little easier in the run-up to May 2016’s Holyrood election, with the likelihood of Sturgeon still being in post, and more limited funds than Scottish Labour has been used to in almost a century, to support their forthcoming campaign. Not only from the reduced party membership in Scotland: SNP’s Trade Union Group membership at over 15,000 now exceeds the total claimed membership of Labour in Scotland, and the unions are finally making noises about withdrawing their unconditional support for a party that has not looked remotely like protecting working people whilst in government since the 1970s. UNITE is the Labour Party’s biggest funder, with £1 million, UNISON the second, donating half that amount. There are now moves within UNITE to devolve its structure, and thus make separate (devolved) decisions over whom it supports politically, which could have repercussions for Labour’s campaign for Holyrood, given moves within Scottish members of the union to distance themselves from Jim Murphy and Scottish Labour. The motion is coming up to UNITE’s conference in July, proposing the concept of ‘Home Rule for Scotland’s Unions’, and in the absence of Scottish Labour looking like returning to its roots enough to appease union activists, it will be interesting to see what support this idea has without Murphy’s presence to effectively goad it along. Labour is no longer the party of working people in Scotland (although we can debate how long that might have actually been true for, or otherwise), and it is by default that the SNP have quietly picked up that discarded mantle, as part and parcel of becoming the party of Scotland. The SNP appears to have worked the trick of becoming the party of everyone in Scotland – primarily through the combination of the Referendum and the wondrously catastrophic mismanagement of the result by the Union parties, which revealed a more common cause than had been suspected, uniting us (50.2% of the electorate is no mean feat) as never before.

Once again you have to feel for whomsoever Jim’s replacement will be. Does Ken Macintosh really want to stand for the Scottish Labour leadership against deputy leader Kezia Dugdale right now, bearing in mind his constituency as an Eastwood MSP overlaps significantly with Jim Murphy’s ultimately fatal East Renfrewshire Westminster constituency? A second sipper from that bitter Eastwood chalice, if he is not careful…but it is hard to see how anyone would be keen to be piloting another turbocharged Pursuit Special down Scottish Labour’s futility road to yet another polling station again any time soon.

Murphy has espoused the need to guide the reassessment of the party prior to the conference at which he will resign – an offer which seems to be being resisted in some sectors of the Scottish Labour executive – but if they have the same mantra of ‘we have listened, we have learned, we have changed’ as they always had in their many leaders over the last few years, then one feels that it is fairly certain that they will have done nothing of the sort. I think it was Paul Kavanagh that noted: “It’s time the party stopped confusing a ‘period of reflection’ with looking at itself in the mirror and thinking it is gorgeous.”

Anything short of a break from Labour’s Brewer’s Green headquarters in London will not be enough to satisfy their former electorate in Scotland, especially as the party of the south summons its energies for yet another determined jump to the right again, almost as though it wanted to spite its former Scottish members. There is a mockingly hollow quality to the self-styled ‘party of devolution’ title that the Labour party once claimed for itself these days – but Labour has to devolve its Scottish branch if it wants to have any chance of becoming credible in Scotland again.

Scottish politics needs an opposition – but whether Labour can make itself fit for that role (the Scottish Conservatives voteshare dropping last month, despite what is generally agreed to be a good campaign by Ruth Davidson) by next May remains to be seen.


“But the evidence is mounting: for Scottish Labour, Murphy is the wrong man, with the wrong message, at the wrong time.” (Lallands Peat Worrier, Andrew Tickell)

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