By Thomas Connolly
Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy’s conversion to consensus politics appears to be stuck in first gear after just a week in charge.
The performance of his deputy, Kezia Dugdale MSP, in trying to pin responsiblity for the woes of the oil sector on the SNP at First Minister’s Questions last week, suggested that Labour cannot shake itself out of the position of “opposition for opposition’s sake” at Holyrood.
Now it has emerged that – while the other four main party leaders in Scotland agreed to write a joint letter of protest against a threat to the key air search and rescue centre at Kinloss, Moray – Murphy declined to participate.
The news came less that a week after Murphy claimed that he would be taking a “less antagonistic approach” to dealings with the SNP Government, in a belated recognition that the voting public intensely dislikes the emnity between the parties.
Ironically, according to the Sunday Herald, the Labour MP was refusing to get involved in a protest letter instigated first by one of his own party colleagues, Dave Stewart MSP.
He called on all parties to write to Prime Minister David Cameron, urging him stop the Ministry of Defence closing the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) at Kinloss.
The Kinloss centre co-ordinates RAF, Royal Navy and Coastguard search and rescue helicopters, as well as the RAF mountain rescue service, and the MoD said this month it would close, with the work transferring to the National Maritime Operations Centre at Fareham, on England’s south coast. Around 27 RAF posts and 10 civilian posts would be affected by the move.
The letter to Cameron was taken up by Nicola Sturgeon MSP, as well as the Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson MSP, Green Party’s Patrick Harvie MSP and Liberal Democrats’ Willie Rennie MSP.
Murphy told a BBC political programme last week that there is “lots that we can work together on”, interpreted by many observers as a signal that under his leadership Labour would take a less antagonistic approach to the SNP at Holyrood over some policy areas.
He insisted his leadership would not be about “seeking differences” with other parties.
The new Murphy Doctrine hasn’t lasted long. On Thursday, Dugdale’s attack took the form of a bizarre demand that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should have done more to prepare for the recent oil price crash, despite oil and gas policy remaining with Westminster.
Her contribution witnessed the “same old same old” approach from Labour. Kezia Dugdale may be a better public speaker that Johann Lamont, whose hands used to shake as she got up to read out the familiar anti-Salmond diatribe penned by her henchman Paul Sinclair. However, it is at this point, their similarity commences, as the line of attack was identical to the failed tactics of the previous Lamont and Gray leaderships.
Dugdale argued that the Scottish Government should have been better prepared for the sudden drop in oil prices to around $60 per barrel. Labour has barely contained its satisfaction at the price fall, despite its claimed threat to 35,000 Scottish jobs, as it sees the situation as an opportunity to undermine the case for Scottish independence.
Labour seized on a claim by one oil industry figure – the hitherto little-known Robin Allan, chairman of the independent explorers’ association Brindex – that the industry was “close to collapse” . The claim was dismissed later as “too dramatic” by others in the industry, including Sir Ian Wood, whose intervention on the side of Better Together during the referendum campaign sparked controversy.
At UK and international level, it is generally acknowledged that the sudden oil price fall is part of a tactical attempt by the OPEC Gulf States to make US shale gas less attractive, as well as to punish rival producers Russia and Iran. While the low price may last for months, it is expected widely that Saudi Arabia and others will force prices back up at a later stage.
There is no doubt that the North Sea sector faces an extremely uncertain situation as a result, because the higher cost of exploitation could lead to the delay or even cancellation of new projects.
Murphy spent Saturday promoting his book about famous football matches on Radio Scotland, participating for two hours in the sports programme Off the Ball with presenters Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan.
The question is whether his claim that Labour will be more thoughtful in opposition stands true. The party has struggled with the concept since losing power in 2007, and being trounced in 2011.
Its opposition to the minimum pricing of alcohol was Labour’s Parliamentary low point since 2007. Most doctors, public health specialist and policy makers agree that alcohol abuse is one of Scotland’s greatest social problems, and that mimum pricing of alcohol is a proven retort.
Scottish Labour’s bizarre position against the SNP’s plan to introduce minimum pricing earned scorn within the health sector, and appears to have been undermined by a leaked policy paper which suggests that a Miliband UK government intends to adopt the same pricing approach to tackling alcohol abuse.