It doesn’t seem to me that quite enough has been made of the three choices which lie before the Scottish Labour Party. Almost all the media coverage of this issue seems to fall into the ‘high school disco’ category of probing political inquiry – who has the best personality, who is the prettiest, who has the most friends? Jim Murphy is the dashing captain of the football team whom journos and establishment commentators swoon for and who has all the in-crowd backing him. Neil Findlay is the brooding malcontent who has the support of the outsiders and the angry kids. And Sarah Boyack (who comes off worst of all, being presented as an afterthought in much of the coverage) is presented like the earnest coordinator of the lunchtime library volunteers committee. The newspapers seldom talk about her friends.
This isn’t good enough. What we’re dealing with is not a personality contest but what may prove to be a crucial crossroads in Scottish politics. If these choices don’t mean anything different from each other beyond the different personalities, what is it that they all mean? If they are real choices, real alternative directions, what are they? What will be different under each?
You’ll struggle to identify much difference from their various launch speeches and campaign strategies. If what you want is a political party which is ready to apologise for not winning the last two Scottish elections, that wants to ‘listen to the people’ and ‘reflect their aspirations’, that can ‘reconnect’, will offer more devolution but certainly not too much, become a winning force again and all in the name of ‘progressive policies that help hard-working families’ and so on, then you really are spoiled for choice. Then again, that’s pretty well all Labour has been right across the UK since the Iraq war – a listening, apologising, reconnecting machine for hard-working families.
So if we set aside altogether personalities and personal attributes and the strange, stuttering vocabulary of modern political PR, what’s left? Not policies – we’ve barely seen a specific policy proposal from any of them. But political positioning.
Here we have a simple left-right-centre split. Since Jim Murphy seems very likely to win, let’s start there. It is widely believed that he was sacked from the job he really loved (Defence) by Ed Milliband partly because he was campaign head for the other Milliband’s leadership campaign but largely because he is too right wing even for Ed Milliband. As someone put it to me recently, if you removed their names and only looked at their external political affiliation, you’d find it quite hard to tell apart Jim Murphy and Liam Fox. It can’t be said enough; on policy generally and on geopolitics in particular, Jim Murphy is remarkably right wing. He’s an arch-Atlantacist, evangelist for nuclear weapons and aggressive military stances and a very strong advocate of the Israeli government. He’s not much better on social issues where he has always been wholly signed up to the Blairite agenda.
So what would it mean if he won? Murphy is certainly known for his flexibility and some I have talked to believe that he’ll just become whatever he needs to become to be First Minister of Scotland – it’s almost certainly his last chance of a really top job in politics. So his positioning might change, but it certainly seems reasonable to expect that the ‘something for nothing society’ positioning of Johann Lamont may continue to reflect the tone of a Murphy leadership. Certainly, since the only real opposition to this within the Labour movement came from the trade unions and since they seem unlikely to give him much support, it may feel quite easy to go down that line. So we may well be looking at a programme of more selectivity with the hope that it saves enough money to throw at a few proxies for inequality (to listen to Labour you’d think that ‘more money for colleges’ is in itself the primary cure for poverty in Scotland). I certainly wouldn’t bank against a public service reform programme, possibly some form of academy system for schools and so on. What seems most clear is that he is no advocate of anything that might be mistaken for devo-max.
And to soothe those divisive wounds? It is probably worth noting that Murphy is seen by some as deeply unpopular in ‘the party’. I’m not sure quite how true this is – the people still clinging on to their membership of the party are not really known for being from the left of the political spectrum. So when an unnamed Westminster source tells the Herald that Murphy would lead to an implosion, I suspect they mean in the movement rather than in the party. It’s the trade unions that would go ballistic. In fact, I wonder how long the Scottish sections of the trade unions could cling on to a Murphy administration. And since I don’t think he has much chance of really reversing the fortunes before 2016 I suspect he’ll also preside over two catastrophic election results which won’t help. And while MSPs will thole him, I’m not sure they’ll ever love him.
Jumping to the other end of the spectrum, Neil Findlay is seen by others as equally likely to cause an implosion in the party – but this time in the actual party, and this time the fault-lines are much more down the middle. While Murphy might not be popular in certain parts and while he may be to the right of the Milliband political line, he’s not so far away from it that he would be unable to work with the London party. It is much less obvious that Findlay can. He flirts with an anti-austerity rhetoric and talks about redistribution and old-left tropes. He is anti-Trident (in theory – he seems to want to keep it until both the US and Russia spontaneously decide they’re going to disarm). And he’s certainly not in the slightest Blairite. How that can work in the context of pro-austerity, pro-Trident, still-pretty-Blairite London Labour is hard to see. There is certainly no way that constant conflict with Westminster can be off-set simply by having the support of some of the trade unions. If he tempers his criticism and Nicola Sturgeon takes the SNP to the left and uses the position to criticise the fundamental approach of Westminster, militarism and austerity, Findlay will find himself in a dreadful position.
But would it mean a substantively different policy agenda? That is not obvious to me. When it comes to the question of mitigating the impacts of austerity (a major plank of the politics of devolution over the coming three or four years), there is a limit to what the Scottish Parliament can do and much of that is pretty radical (in the context of Westminster). It certainly requires some very substantial development work to create those policy programmes. I just amn’t at all persuaded that Findlay has access to the capacity to do it. I also am not at all sure that there is enough support among either the MSP or MP groups to go along with what would be potential experimental and very possibly at odds with London – yes, Findlay is an MSP but he’s only been there for three years and much of his support base is not in the Parliament. In the end it might be more realistic to expect Findlay to move in the direction of more of an old-style municipal Labour Party mode with the rhetoric much more ‘workerist’ but the day-to-day business still largely guided by civil servants and officials.
The brightest and most thoughtful of the three is probably Sarah Boyack.
As one of the last standing members of the devolution era centre-left policy-orientated strand of the party she ought to be in a better position to develop a policy agenda than either of the other two and is probably better connected in policy circles than either. But it’s not a clear message. In fact it risks coming across as a cleverer version of the Jack McConnell era, managing systems intelligently and effectively with an eye to social and environmental outcomes. She is probably more willing to try out some new policy approaches as well. It’s just that I doubt a return to a more low-key approach to policy delivery is sufficient to reverse the crisis in which Labour finds itself. Sad to say, in Labour circles it simply isn’t going to compete with the Big Man narrative. They seem intent on finding someone who will save them by shouting loudly (or in Murphy’s case, whispering intently). Boyack would need to win by thinking her way through it and I don’t think Labour wants that.
What Boyack won’t do is split the party. Then again, that’s for the same reason – probably no-one is going to hate her pitch but no-one is going to love it. In the confrontational environs of Scottish Labour that probably isn’t anywhere near enough.
So that is roughly what I think the choices look like; a Newish Labour ‘something for nothing’ future under Murphy plunging a final dagger in the heart of trade union relations, the noise of municipal socialism under Findlay which will create fissures with London so great it is hard to see how it can work or a continuity position which will leave no-one overly interested one way or the other. Given where Labour starts, this might well best be seen as the choice between two kinds of implosion or a bit more of the same.
But – and this is a big but – I strongly doubt that the impact on Scotland will be anything like as differentiable whichever the choice. My guess is that a Murphy administration will discover it can’t sell neo-Blairism to the electorate in Scotland and will quickly tack towards the status quo. A Findlay administration will find it can’t sell radicalism to London, can’t afford a perpetual internal war and won’t find the appetite for the fight among his own benches and will do much the same. And a Boyack administration will more-or-less start from a status quo position which it would seek to improve but would hardly look significantly different.
What it seems to me is interesting about this contest is that Labour can choose one of three messages about the future, one of three costumes, left, right or centre, but that the pressures of realpolitik means it can only really choose one policy future, a variation on where we are now. And I just don’t think any of these choices is going to help them in any substantial way. There is really only one option I think would give them a chance of any form of rebirth in the foreseeable future and that would be a split from the London party and a whole new approach. And that’s the one choice which is most certainly off the agenda.
And so they’ll get Murphy, the establishment candidate (as we can tell by the wall-to-wall mainstream media endorsement, the involvement of the Better Together team and all the rest). In fact, I suspect he is the combined unionist candidate, the one the establishment thinks has the best chance of putting independence back in a box and locking it forever. But they’re overrating him – not least because Murphy does not score well with the public, however much lobby correspondents love him. Oh, and because all the activists, energy, ideas and excitement are on the other side. Which I think will cement the reality about what Scottish Labour is going forward; an establishment-endorsed mechanism for redirecting Scottish votes in a way that does not threaten the hegemony of City of London politics. So not a fresh start at all then.