Before the results were announced in the race for the leadership of Scottish Labour, Blairite and frontrunner Jim Murphy MP declared that the party had so much work to do before May’s general election that it would be a case of “Christmas is cancelled” for the party.
Despite this threat to the festive season, win he has. Murphy has taken 56 per cent of the vote whilst union-backed left-winger Neil Findlay took 35 and centrist also-ran Sarah Boyack nine. (Earlier reports suggested Murphy got 55 per cent, which would obviously have been a gift to journalists.)
He won convincingly amongst members and elected representatives, with only the trades union third of the electoral college backing his principal rival.
This is an important moment for Scottish Labour. Given a straight-up choice to fight or flee (with due respect to Ms Boyack), they have chosen to fight.
Findlay represented intellectual capitulation to the myth that the SNP have built their success upon – the foundations of which have been laid by successive Scottish Labour politicians for decades – that Scotland is a socialist, alien land entirely foreign to England. A proper examination of his shortcomings is happily unnecessary, but the contrast offered by Murphy is stark.
First, Murphy offers the serious prospect of a harmonious and mutually respectful relationship between Labour’s Parliamentary core and its Scottish wing. Previously the national party has been accused of treating Scotland as a mere provincial hill station of some sort, what former leader Johann Lamont described as a “branch office”.
On the face of it, Murphy doesn’t seem the best choice in this regard. He’s an MP! He leads from London! But deeper consideration belies this shallow assessment.
For starters, Murphy will be resigning from Parliament to take up a seat in Holyrood – surely a significant gesture from a man well-equipped for ministerial office at the national level.
More importantly still, Murphy actually stands a chance of commanding the respect of Labour’s Scottish caucus in the House of Commons. Since Lamont the leader of Scottish Labour has technically been in charge of the Westminster delegation, but since most of Labour’s first-rate Scottish talent sits in Westminster this has until now been very much a theoretical situation.
Findlay, an unlikely regional list MSP who clambered into the Scottish Parliament over the cooling bodies of four Labour constituency MSPs in his Lothians region who were unseated by the Nationalists, seemed more likely to have ended up in Lamont’s position: petulantly demanding the respect of ‘his’ MPs but doing little to earn it.
Murphy, on the other hand, has worked with them for years and more importantly is unlikely to make picking fights with Westminster his go-to tactic, as is the wont for lesser politicians throughout the devolved territories. If he can engineer some instances to demonstrate him wielding his Scottish bloc to influence the national leadership for the better – and do so without demonising said leadership – he could do much to lessen the apparent alienation between Parliament and the Scots.
He is also likely to make better use of devolution, and be more willing to accept the difficulties that fiscal responsibility will bring to undermine the current tendency to treat a spend-only Scottish Parliament as the Santa’s workshop of social welfare, a bottomless well of state munificence plugged only by Westminster wickedness.
This will be good for Scotland and for Britain, but will ill-suit populist spendthrifts like Findlay and Sturgeon.
In electoral terms, Murphy is a proven political street-fighter who isn’t afraid of tackling the SNP head on, and so could well help to stem the looming prospect of serious losses to the Nationalists in 2015 (how his own seat of East Renfrewshire, where he has a huge personal vote, fares without him is another matter).
In the long run, he has an important to decision to make about the sort of electoral coalition he hopes to build.
For the moment, the SNP have secured unprecedented political dominance by fusing an influx of energetic, left-wing separatists onto a solid core of unionist, centre-right but determinedly anti-Labour voters. Findlay’s instinct was to try to win back the radical left, but Murphy’s principles – not least his determined support for an independent British nuclear deterrent – preclude this strategy.
For the moment, Murphy is striking a conciliatory tone, promising to make proper use of talent from every wing of the party and urging left-wing Labour voters not to abandon the party over the constitutional question. But simply trying to hold the old, disintegrating coalition together is not enough, and nor is treating Scotland as an unalloyed mass of council houses and steel mills – if it were, John McTernan points out, it would have seceded.
Like Blair, and the Tories at our election winning best, Murphy needs to build a coalition of the prosperous and the aspirational – and even the rural – whilst reassuring those in genuine need that Scotland will work for them. He should abandon the fantasist hard left, for their price is promises he cannot keep.
Indeed he should wish the Nationalists well of them, for if Radical Independence sets the SNP tone it can only spook the second half of the SNP coalition – and Murphy has a proven record of winning over Tories even in our safest of seats.