Jim Murphy’s campaign for the Leadership of Scottish Labour began today with the sophist ritual humiliation that has become the hallmark of the age of mindless politics.
This began with Murphy’s old mentor, Tony Blair, who ‘took responsibility’ for so much, so often and with so total an absence of any negative consequence that he devalued responsible politics, probably for good.
Along with this came the sackcloth-and-ashes apology, eventually mocked in that fabulous You Tube production of Nick Clegg weakly and repetitively saying ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry’.
We’ve had all that. We yawn until the performance is over and wait for life to pick up. It’s never sincere and in this case it has a very different purpose – to separate Mr Murphy, who had no responsibility for it [except for not having committed to Holyrood much earlier], from the blind drift of Labour towards the periphery of politics in Scotland. At least Jim Murphy, however belatedly, saw the danger and got on the crates in his Irn Bru tour of streetwise engagement.
But surely, while there may be a theoretical benefit in starting with an apology [to clear the ground for a fresh start] – in terms of energy, it’s a downer.
An apology is, by definition, retrospective when Labour must start moving forwards at warp speed. You can’t attack off the back of an apology. It’s no launch pad. At best it lets you hold your ground for a later launch. But this was supposed to be the launch and it simply lost time Labour does not have.
The other thing Jim Murphy has to guard against when he in speaking formally and essentially without motivation, is a flat monotone voice. The ‘apology’ theme of his launch today gave him no prompt for energy, conviction, or purpose – and it droned on. This really is death dealing.
On the streets, when he has to get and hold attention, mobilise it, deflect attack to his advantage, Murphy’s mind is in top gear and his voice attuned to that. He needs adrenaline. This is not, of course, to say that he ought universally to be in ‘street mode’ but that he must always engage spirit and intellectual commitment with his words and in his delivery of them.
It’s now six months to the General Election on 7th May 2015.
In that time, Murphy first has to fight a campaign to win the leadership, which will complete on 13th December. While he will try to use this also to start the job of cranking Labour up – because this is in a competitive campaign, he will have to face the criticisms from his opposing candidates and from those who support them. So he will get no free home runs in this and will take some ‘friendly fire’ hits in full public view. Nicola Sturgeon, by contrast, is having an unchallenged pre-coronation queenly progress.
This six month period also includes the two dread dead months of the year – December and January – with the endless, shapeless downtime of the first, the lost weeks between Christmas and Hogmanay; and in the pits of the year that is January.
This effectively leaves Murphy, if he wins, with three months to do the job of stemming as much of an ebb tide as possible.
The SNP will take seats from Labour in the General Election. Murphy cannot be judged by that – it is now inevitable. But he may be measured by how much his impact can reduce the number of the losses. His is a fire fighting job in this first instance – and what he retrieves will be the foundation for the fightback for which he will have one more year – the 2016 Scottish Election.
At this point Scottish Labour has to forget about the wider Labour family and get on with creating a Labour that speaks directly to Scotland. If it does this successfully, it will be to the advantage of the Labour party at large. Conversely, if testosterone gets in the way and Labour HQ insists of putting the patronising fingerprints of ownership on the Scottish campaign from time to time, they can only impede what progress can be made.
This is in effect a battle for the survival of Labour as an effective force in Scottish and in United Kingdom politics. Labour HQ – and Ed Miliband, whatever it costs them to do so – must leave Scottish Labour to Murphy. He will have to be free to ask for and get exactly – and only – what he wants and what he knows will help.
All of this is based on the scenario of a Murphy win.
He has to win. He is the only one of the three candidates with any hope of lifting Labour out of the bog. The winning candidate must win two out of three votes: of the MSPs and MPs; of the party membership; and of the Trades Unions.
Sarah Boyack, an interesting minor player in the Donald Dewar regime, never developed as it once looked she might; and is, effectively a non-event. She will not win any of the three votes.
Neil Findlay is, immediately obviously, a man of genuine substance. He is rooted in the trades union faction and will get most of his support from it – some unions, including the major Unison, have already declared for him. Unite will do the same. In the wider public view this may not help him. A difficulty is that the aura is one of the grim, hold-fast, fixer trades unionism of the worst of old Labour. The unions also need regeneration.
But Findlay is likely to win the Unions’ vote and will certainly be an agent of the serious debate that is needed as Labour confronts its regeneration.
A second difficulty is that Findlay has no public profile and may have neither the capacity nor the interest to develop one. A Leader has to be known since a Leader leads not only a party but a country.
We hold to the view that Murphy is not the man for the necessary redesign of the nature and party structures of Labour is Scotland – but that tricky rebuilding could not be realised in time for the 2015 General Election nor, really, for the 2016 Scottish Election.
So the immediate job for Scottish Labour is to use what useful elements of the current structure let them establish independence from the intervention of party HQ – and the unions – and start changing the mood. The present challenge is all about mood music – which is where apology was a wrong first note; and a wasted opportunity for the start of a crescendo from the man who can do mood music.
Social justice is a sine qua non – but social justice has to be paid for – which means responsible fiscal policy. In the end, social justice without social responsibility simply entrenches a society built on classist and political tribal division – a negative and, to use Murphy’s phrase, a ‘self-harming’ situation we seem to find hard to leave behind.
The hard yards
Labour has to find the discipline to stop damaging itself in fractionalising internal scrapping and get behind a winner.
If Scottish Labour can get through the General Election with stout damage limitation and emerge in good heart for the main struggle – for Scotland, in 2016, Murphy will have done a sterling job.
From then on the challenge is different.
One man cannot lift Labour, as no one person lifted the SNP and the Yes campaign. The front-end inspiration and drive from its Leader has to carry on to 2016 and long beyond it – but the party has got to get to work to deliver the mobilisation of its body politic..
The SNP got its message and its hope for change into the bloodstream, systemically, in what has to be a landmark triumph of organisation. Labour today simply does not have the organisational ability – the genius – to pull off anything like this broad and deep social infiltration. But in its own way, whatever that proves to be, Scottish Labour must excite and mobilise arterially, not externally.
The SNP had – and used – seven years to achieve what it has done. Scottish Labour has eighteen months. It matters to robust democracy and not just to Labour, that they get there.