Welcome to the fray Mr Murphy

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By Derek Bateman

Be lucky is the most common piece of advice in politics. (Richard Nixon preferred: Never pass up a chance to go to the men’s room). And being lucky in your opponent is the best advice of all. Think of Tony Blair’s adversaries…John Major, William Hague, Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith. When the cast changes to Brown versus Cameron, the game changes too.

So with Salmond confronting McConnell, Gray and Lamont. How lucky is that? Well, from today Nicola’ Sturgeon’s luck turned. In Jim Murphy she has a full-size problem with the capacity to disconcert and derail, if not handled carefully.

If either Findlay or Boyack had won the Labour race, there would have been smiles of satisfaction at SNP HQ, just as Blair and Brown laughed when another of their opponents elected Charles Kennedy as leader. It means they are no threat.

Of course there was in Neil Findlay the making of a different kind of Holyrood-grown, authentic Left leader whose under-developed rhetorical ability would leave the way open for other figures to take their place and build up a wider Labour identity.

But in the cold reality of the daily struggle, Murphy is the most formidable slugger a depleted and discombobulated party can do.

I spoke to a lifelong Labour member and Glasgow activist the other day who confirmed casting a vote for Murphy, not, I gathered, out of love or deep admiration but because of the choices available. Boyack wasn’t strong enough, Findlay was an unknown quantity and Murphy was the best chance of taking on the Nationalists.

And this is where Yessers have to wise up. This isn’t about policy or personalities for the Unionist Left. It is about fear and loathing of the Yes movement that is changing the ground under their feet and redrawing the landscape they have known all their life.

I spoke to a man caught in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake who said it wasn’t the physical danger of falling debris that gripped him with terror – it was the unimaginable horror of being unable to take the earth for granted.  To feel the one thing you are programmed to know as the foundation of solidity and balance reject your footfall was to lose your grip on reality. The ground is an article of faith. Remove it and we are lost.

That is the Unionist experience. First, they had never taken seriously the possibility of their own country not being British. It shook them to the core. Second, when it was all over, it wasn’t over. It still goes on and their opponents are stronger by the day, like a rising tide. They are having their beliefs torn up in front of them – that secretly we all feel part of the British state; that, whatever the faults, it is a benign influence; it looks after the poor; Labour will ameliorate the Tory excesses. There is no alternative.

It is why Better Together successfully played the hate card by demonising Salmond – the most popular leader ever. They encapsulated all their fears and worries about a changing Scotland in him.

In all the people I’ve met in Yes across the country, I have come across no one who was a thug. Morningside dames, working men and mothers – whole halls filled with everyday Scots. But to rationalise the Yes threat, Unionists have been forced to turn us in their imagination into hissing, hate-fuelled nutters who will stop at nothing.

Frightened people need a champion. He doesn’t need to be a White Knight, just a ruthless impaler. Murphy is imbued with the dark arts and sly skills of the operator to whom truth and principle are just two more tools in the Acme Politician’s Success Kit.

We can laugh at his 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.

Dismissing him as a Westminster creature loses its edge when we remember that’s where Salmond is going (and did previously). Crucially, the media take Murphy seriously and he commands them as Better Together did as if they are powerless to resist him. He provides easy copy, partly because he is at one level, divisive. Almost nobody admits to actually liking him but they do think he’s effective, a view emphasised by the 100 towns tour –an event that never was in that there weren’t 100,  but no matter, it’s a headline.

The idea was laughable but it gave the scared Unionists a weapon to brandish. Here was someone fighting back and ‘proving’ that Yes was just a front for a mob.

The objective for Labour isn’t victory, it is respectability next May. A game showing by Kezia Dugdale whom Sturgeon will have to try not to crush, a regular media showing by Murphy where he sounds plausible, and a Unionist push that Smith equals Devo Max, and enough Labour voters can be delivered to save seats, especially so if the SNP continues to  allow supporters to talk up the scale of  impending success.

Murphy’s elevation may be a good thing because it guarantees the SNP will be complacency-free. From now on, Sturgeon’s progress among the cheering throng will need a constant detachment of agents scanning the faces to detect ambush.