Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Will Murphy Cure Labour's Hangover?

As far as any claims to fame I might have go I have to confess that this one is quite unusual, but here goes. Despite him being famously teetotal and our only having been together in the same room once, newly-crowned Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy is partly responsible for the worst hangover I've ever had in my life.

Let me explain. The occasion was the 1997 General Election and the location was Perth. The Conservatives had started the day defending ten seats in Scotland, while the SNP was defending the then Perth and Kinross seat which Roseanna Cunningham had taken from them in a by-election two years previously.

Remembering a story from the 1992 election about a journalist who had planned to open a bottle of champagne for each Scottish Tory losing their seat (all, sadly, remained intact), myself and my good friend Russell decided to replicate the stunt, albeit on a much tighter budget. We therefore obtained 10 bottles of cheap and nasty fizzy wine on 'sale or return' and a bottle of actual champagne, which we planned to open when Roseanna held P&K.

At the beginning of the SNP party in the function suite of the Salutation Hotel we thought we'd be opening about 5 or 6 at most. Then Jim Murphy won Eastwood for Labour and our group went through the following roller-coaster of emotions in the space of about 15 seconds: 'Great! It's a total wipe-out! Aw naw, Jim Murphy's an MP! Oh Jeez - we're going to have to drink all that bloody wine...' The rest, as they say, is history.

It's fair to say that Murphy was something of an accidental MP. However, there's no doubt that once elected, he worked the seat assiduously and in as much as any constituency can be described as secure for Labour any more, has turned it into one of their safest in the country. It's provided him with the base from which to climb the greasy pole of government in Westminster – something which he did successfully, at least until he made the mistake of backing the wrong Milliband brother.

Over that time he's cultivated a reputation as being a 'man of the people' (he likes football, apparently) and as something of a campaigning superstar. Yet whatever his other talents, this portrayal of Murphy in the Scottish press as some kind of political genius is something I’ve long puzzled over, probably because I remember him from his days as a hack in the NUS, busily selling the interests of students down the river while trying to secure that seat in parliament for himself.

Of course, you could cite the very fact he managed to get away with it as evidence of a genius of a sort. Nevertheless, given his propensity throughout his time in public life to assert ‘that which is not’ and to continually misrepresent his opponents with any number of straw man arguments, I spent a good number of years trying to work out if he was serially dishonest, or simply lacking in his ability to understand what was really going on around him.

I remember barking him into an uncharacteristic silence during a debate at Stirling University shortly after he was elected in 1997. Subjecting his audience to an extended harangue and banging on about 'priorities', he described Scotland’s universities as bastions of middle class privilege, to which access could only be widened if young people without financial means were prepared to go heavily into debt to pay their own way.

There was, we were told, no money to pay for grants in future and that the £150m which scrapping the grant had saved would be better spent elsewhere. At this point, I interjected that just a week earlier the MoD had agreed to spend £150m on upgrading Trident nuclear warheads. Just what, I wondered, did this tell us about Mr Murphy’s priorities?

With wisdom worthy of Confucius, the bold Jim pronounced that that money had already been spent so wasn’t there any more. Indeed so, I acknowledged, but didn’t this show that the money had indeed been there, could have been used to maintain the grant had his government so wished and that it was simply untrue for him to try and assert otherwise? To this, the answer came that it had already happened and that people needed to ‘move on’ – a plea we’ve heard many times since whenever his party has been caught in a lie.

In the end, I stopped puzzling over the nature of Mr Murphy’s dubious political attributes and settled instead on him possessing a feral, mendacious cunning and a neck of brass; his inexplicable rise to the patronage of a Scottish Labour Party desperately short of talent, and to the support of a Scottish press corps with a curious willing to puff him up in public to a level of credibility well beyond that which his talents could tolerably sustain by themselves.

All of which makes him an opponent, perhaps not to be feared but certainly not to be underestimated, not least because of his uncanny ability to almost always make himself appear to be the injured party. However, perhaps the most interesting thought about all of this is what his transfer back to domestic Scottish politics says about the diminished state, not just of what he envisaged for his own career, but that of Scottish Labour politicians at Westminster more generally.

Increased Labour success in England has meant that the high watermark of Scottish representation in Shadow Cabinets of the 1980s and 1990s is long gone. It's not just that Murphy himself has no future in Westminster, it's that increasingly, under devolution, there's no future for Scottish MPs there, at least not if they aspire to a serious role in government.

Murphy won't like the conclusion any more than I liked that post-97 election hangover, but if the focus of the ambitious Scots in Labour is shifting from London to Edinburgh, that in and of itself probably represents another small step along the road to independence.

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