So the other shoe in the shape of Jim Murphy has dropped. Along with Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack, the lineup looks a lot more credible than the dithering silence at the start of the week but this game is over before the kick-off whistle blows. Given her 15-year service and various posts held, Sarah is clearly the stronger of the two MSP contenders but this ‘contest’ is likely to be a demonstration of Westminster realpolitik played out against the primitive simplicity of miners’ welfare committee conventions that have served Scottish Labour so well for so long. Murphy’s campaign will make any MSP’s efforts look like 1939 Poland, sliced down by Blitzkrieg in short order.
Compared to Murphy and despite many positives, both Sarah and Neil are babes in the woods. They have spent their political life either in ineffectual government or as dazed opposition in Holyrood where a competent (but not brilliant) Salmond-led SNP have run rings around them so thoroughly that both Labour ex-First ministers are berating their and their colleagues performance. Having only been elected three years ago, Findlay could claim to dissociate himself from Labour’s Holyrood performance but doing so simply underscores his lack of readiness to be elected leader.
It is significant that none of the contenders hail from Labour heartlands and that both MSPs were elected on the Lothians list. And while Murphy hails from Glasgow it is by a tortuous road that includes South Africa and a Tory ‘safe’ seat. Dig deeper and you find a man so enamoured of politics that it distracted him so badly that in nine years he never completed his degree. His serial matriculation however did allow him to rise through and then run the NUS so fiercely that he was condemned by a House of Commons Early Day Motion introduced by Ken Livingstone and signed by 17 other Labour MPs for “intolerant and dictatorial behaviour”
For Murphy is that queer fish on the Labour benches—a self-made intellectual well honed in political arts who owes his place to neither union nor entrenched CLP mafia, driven by crusading personal ambition and not too distracted by awkward baggage like idealism. It is a political study in itself to see how—against all odds and largely dismissed as unwinnable by Scottish Labour at the time—he overturned Allan Stewart’s 11,688 (biggest in Scotland) majority in 1992 with a 14% swing in the legendary 1997 wipeout of Tory MPs.
This (and subsequent bolstering of his majority) was achieved through hard work applying his Blarite principles to appeal to ambitions of douce middle class denizens of Neilston and Newton Mearns. To call him a ‘Red Tory’ would be unjust. But to think that he spent any time on the minimum wage or decrying Trident would insult his acumen. Since then, his ability to be what his audience wants to vote for has been astonishingly good. His ability to lambast the SNP within weeks of sounding the most emollient peacemaker was good; his consensual performance at 2013’s Festival of Politics was virtuoso.
Competent politicians can sound sincere; good politicians have a range of tones from intimately personal to braggadocio rostrum-thumping; Murphy is one of the few who can combine both.
And, though the professional posture can slip—as when he lost the rag at Pete Wishart in the voting lobby during the bedroom tax vote in April this year—the poise is seldom less than perfect. This was reinforced during his rather effective ‘Irn Bru Crate’ pre-referendum tour this summer when a Yes supporter caught him with an egg in Kirkcaldy. Not only did he neither cower nor run but he used it and a gullible press to highlight how irresponsible, how brutal, how uncaring about human dignity the Yes campaign had become. Of all the politicians in Scotland, few are as instinctive, as flexible, as unflappable as Murphy.
So, whether there are any more MSP contenders does not matter one whit; even a Westminster colleague shows an interest, that won’t matter—Murphy is used to running his own campaign against odds and adjusting to what is required. He will have calculated his profile and growing reputation (in the media as much as the party) and judged it sufficient, especially against any MSP who has focussed almost entirely on party insiders to get where they are.
While the next month may quack like a contest, with Murphy portraying sincerity and reasonableness in any debates, much else will be going on below Joe Public’s radar. Given Jim’s ability to adjust to circumstances, no prediction can be wholly accurate but expect his Damascene conversion to Old Labour values (especially on the CLP stump), furious lobbying of the relatively few kingmakers in party, union and city hall and a fair few twisting of arms and calling in of favours (particularly among MPS) to leave as little to chance and the traditional buggins turn as feasible.
When he wins the leadership, expect a brisker, more plausible campaign across the Central Belt (he will leave those outside Labour core vote areas to fend for themselves) and a turnaround of support from the present dismal 26%, thereby stemming the present likeihood of circa 20 seats being lost to more like 10. Scottish Labour and its loyal core will be thereby relieved and hurry to secure Jim a seat in Holyrood for 2016. Suddenly Scottish Labour will be crisper, more its formidable old self and—to the faithful—all will seem well.
But, it will be the swansong of Old Labour here, rooted in our ex-industrial communities and woven into the social fabric by its social clubs. Having survived the ditching of Clause 4, 13 years of Blairism and the loss of half their council hegemony, its nemesis will be the smart leader, chosen in its hour of need, able to calculate the political price of everything to the last decimal point, but who, as London’s man in Scotland, knows the value of nothing.