Jim Murphy’s election: a death sentence for Scottish Labour?

Jim Murphy is the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party. That he was even a candidate for the job, writes Pete Cannell, shows how little the Labour Party understood what was happening in Scotland during the referendum campaign.

Photo: Steve Punter, Flickr

Photo: Steve Punter, Flickr

The final months of the referendum campaign were a festival of democratic participation. The objective was independence, but what drove people into activism in their tens of thousands was anger at how Westminster politics has been: austerity, cuts, fees for education, repeated wars, expenses scandals, support for Israel.  When we said there were more pandas than Tory MPs in Scotland it was aimed at the Cameron government, but it also highlighted a widespread view of a democratic deficit and anger at a Labour Party that had treated its supporters and its electoral heartland with contempt.

Scottish Labour’s decline was heralded at the 2011 Holyrood elections when long-time seats in west and central Scotland went over to the SNP. Post-referendum, Unite polled 5000 Scottish members and found that 78% wanted an MSP based at Holyrood to be Labour leader. The poll found that 54% of those who voted Labour in the last general election did not expect to do so again.

Now we have Murphy, arch Blairite and advocate of austerity. As NUS president in the 90s he opposed free education; he let out his London address at the same time as claiming for the rent; he’s an ex-chair of Labour Friends of Israel and a strong backer of the Iraq war; a member of the ultra right Henry Jackson Society and arguably with Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling the Labour politician most identified with the negativity of the No campaign.

In November Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey warned that electing Murphy would be a political death sentence for the Labour Party in Scotland. People expected that Murphy would do badly in the trade union section of the Electoral College, but while Neil Findlay beat him, he still registered 40% of the vote.  Murphy’s support lies with the union leaderships – there is much more dissatisfaction among the mid-ranking officials and the rank and file.  The statement on the Unite website immediately after the vote was announced registered pride in their support for Neil Findlay and noted that

“Arguably, Jim Murphy recognised this appetite for real change during the hustings, because as the campaign progressed his arguments became bolder on issues like taxation and a living wage.

“Jim now needs to turn words into action if he wants to start the process of re-building Scottish Labour.”

There seems little prospect of this happening.  Murphy’s victory is meant to ensure that there is no gap between the Scottish Party and Milliband’s determination to adhere to austerity.

The new Scottish newspaper, The National, noted on the 12 December that “Trade Unionists could leave Scottish party if Jim Murphy is elected leader”.  It’s too early to know the scale of this but it will happen. Deborah Waters, a founding member of Labour for Independence, has added her name to the supporters of the Scottish Left Project.

Predictions that the SNP will sweep the board in May 2015 may be exaggerated. Labour’s ability to present themselves as an alternative to the Tories at Westminster may still pull more people than are currently prepared to think about voting for them. But with Murphy’s election the only question is the pace of decline, not whether Labour continues to decline.

The question of a left political alternative becomes all the more important. With the double onslaught of Westminster cuts and intensifying council cuts, time is of the essence. The referendum has left a legacy of political confidence and a new layer of activists. However, this political confidence is up against the continuing lack of confidence in our ability to win class battles. If we can imbue the fight against austerity with the spirit of the referendum then anything becomes possible.


For an alternative view, see Jim Murphy’s election: a view from inside the Labour Party

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