What awaits Jim Murphy and Labour in Scotland?

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Commentary by G.A.Ponsonby

So, if Jim Murphy is the favourite to lead the Labour Party in Scotland.  He’s a shoe-in if the media is to be believed.

That may be so, but has Jim got what it takes to bring the warring factions together, or is his reputation as a big-hitter more a product of a fawning Scottish media taken in by the illusion it helped cultivate?

There’s no doubt that the Labour party in Scotland is in need of a saviour.  I wryly suggested recently that Gordon Brown was the only one capable of addressing the haemorrhaging of support.  Murphy, I opined, had too much to lose.

I hadn’t reckoned on Brown’s self-importance.  The saviour of the world reduced to leading a branch party?  No thanks.  So Murphy found himself being eyed by a desperate party and a pliant media.

Meltdown

It’s an oft overused word ‘meltdown’, but yesterday’s Ipsos Mori poll for STV – which found Labour would return a miniscule four Scottish MPs if the UK general election was to be held right now – suggests that the party is indeed in that critical situation north of the border.

But what did they expect?  For two years the party has been joined at the hip with the Conservatives within the Better Together campaign.  When Osborne threatened to destabilise the Scottish economy if Scots voted Yes, Labour cheered him on.

When banks and big business joined in the Scot-bashing, threatening to move or hike prices, Labour stood alongside them.  Remember the infamous photo of a smiling Johann Lamont stood outside ASDA the day after the supermarket chain issued its own price threat?

Labour turned itself into an anti-Scottish, pro-Big Business lobbying group.  Senior Scottish Labour figures were publicly denouncing Labour supporters as extremist nationalists for having the temerity to support independence.

Indeed Jim Murphy himself began touring city centres and town squares openly hectoring anyone who dared challenge him. His loudspeaker diatribes earned him an egg stained shirt and instant synthetic martyrdom.

So what can we expect of Murphy and can he really save the party from itself?  My belief is that Murphy will be a disaster.

Media

Murphy is a product of the media.  When he was thrust into the spotlight in October 2008, succeeding Des Browne as Secretary of State for Scotland, the East Renfrewshire MP quickly realised that the Scottish media, who were still trying to come to terms with the SNP’s shock 2007 Holyrood win, had no appetite for scrutinising senior Labour MPs.  He could act with impunity.

Murphy’s arrival at the Scotland Office coincided with the running costs increasing by 27% in 2007-2008, with staff levels having risen by over 9.5% on the previous year.  It was a reversal from previous years where running costs had been trimmed.

Murphy cultivated a high public profile.  In 2010 Newsnet Scotland uncovered an internal Scotland Office memo which said:

“The Secretary of State is still working hard to raise and maintain his public profile and has been doing well in the media so far.  He continues to look for opportunities to promote his own position and the role of the UK Government in Scotland.”

Murphy’s use of public cash might have been viewed by some as a possible violation of the ministerial code which states: “Ministers must not use government resources for party political purposes”.  But he escaped scrutiny.

He managed to avoid a string of potentially damaging headlines when Secretary of State for Scotland, including:

  • A Wikileaks document showing Murphy was included in confidential communications on October 13 2008 which revealed a secret letter had been sent by the Labour government to the Libyans advising them on options for compassionate release of Al Megrahi.
  • More Wikileaks revealed Murphy “played a leadership role” organising opposition parties, including the Scottish Tories, in a Unionist campaign against an independence referendum in 2009.
  • Expenses documents made available in 2012 revealed that the East Renfrewshire Labour MP had claimed over £1 million since 2001/2.  So great were Murphy’s expenses in 2007/8 that he was forced to pay back £3499 of the bathroom costs.

Murphy is and was essentially a nat-basher and the Scottish media helped him in his quest by turning a blind eye to his shortcomings and oversights.

But bashing the SNP may be more difficult for Labour, given that Salmond is due to step down as leader.  The SNP with Nicola Sturgeon at the helm will be an altogether different beast.  Moreover, as Lamont discovered, an opposition leader has to offer more substance that a personalised hatred for the First Minister.

This is where Murphy could be found out. His right-wing credentials will makes policy forming for Scotland more difficult.  Will he embrace universal benefits or adopt Lamont’s “something for nothing” orphan?  What about tuition fees, will he advocate their return?  And then there’s the council tax, so often a thorn in Labour’s side.

There’s also welfare, Trident (whose renewal he supports), and an EU referendum (which he has backed previously) and a host of other issues.

The big one of course is devolution itself.  What is Murphy’s view on “The Vow” or Brown’s Home Rule “federalism”?  Will he publicly back the STUC’s demand for an extra powers package that goes “significantly further than the sum total of the proposals of the three pro-devolution parties.”  If he doesn’t, he risks alienating the Scottish trade-unions in the run-up to the UK general election in 2015.

Finally, Murphy’s return coincides with the re-energising of the Scottish electorate.  People are tuning in to politics like never before and they will be in no mood for empty platitudes.  The Scottish media is not as singularly anti-nat as it was when he was Secretary of State, and the BBC is under scrutiny like never before.  He’ll face a much tougher time than when he was SoS.

Sections of the media are already bigging Jim up.  Just as they did with Wendy Alexander.  And we know how that one went.