The Combined Unionist Candidate

media-ed-milliband-the-sun-newspaperRobin McAlpine on the heir to Blair….

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.



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19 replies

  1. Bang on I think. The media and party machine is very obviously working through the gears on Mission Murphy, but in reality it’s same old same. It ought to be better but not much worse will probably be the best anyone can expect from New Labour. No imagination and no courage is bad enough but watching them shambling zombie like into a drab dull and sterile future is actually an insult. We deserve at least some effort.

  2. how much better for what labour represented in Scotland if independence was now in place….who shall fight that corner now?

  3. I don’t think it really matters who wins. Most folk now realise that there is no such thing as the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party, no matter how much the BBC pretends there is.
    The ‘winner’ can promise whatever they like, but unless London says Yes, it is only hot air.
    The referendum debate has opened the eyes of previously disengaged people to the realities of Scottish politics, and that genie isn’t going back in its bottle.

  4. Spot on. Labour made the fatal mistake of backing the No campaign and ignoring the fact that a substantial component of their voters supported Yes. They thought that loyalty to the labour party would override the silly wee constitutional question, that people were more interested in schools and hospitals. Well, they underestimated the Scottish people, who realised that constitutional questions are actually the most important things of all, because it is from there that all else follows.

    What’s done can’t be undone, and even then, Labour have failed to realise what they have done. They are truly a zombie party. Dead, but not yet aware of that fact.

    PS I think that’s the first time I’ve seen “amn’t” in print.

  5. Scottish labour are caught between a rock and a hard place. UK labour are too busy chasing the tories who are in turn chasing UKIP. They have no real authority to pursue and reconnect with the left leaning core. They can’t offer any real meaningful powers. Their UK party is committed to nabbing around 4 billion from the scottish budget while offering Scotland a new tier of income tax as a reward. They must know they cannot sell that to the Scottish electorate. The UK party has pledged to pursue Cameron’s austerity policies and to go further and be nastier than the tories. There is nothing remotely leftwing about new labour now.
    All they have left are the soundbites. The soundbites are old labour, the reality is conservative.

    Murphy being Blairs creature, is viewed as the “Strong Man” of Scottish politics. He will be welcomed by a certain type of Labour MP/MSP who view Westminster as were the real power lies. He will be welcomed by the usual suspects in the MSM, who will take comfort from such a strong unionist being in power. Business as usual – all aboard the gravy train to nowhere town. The 500lb gorilla in the room, sitting in the corner winking at them, is that they and “Better-together” did such a hatchet job on Scotland and its reputation within the union, that their old refrain of “Only a labour vote keeps the Tory out” rings hollow now. Not just because of Darling going to a tory party conference and getting a standing ovation. Or lamonts “something for nothing culture” or any of the other divisive or ridiculous statements by many in the party and their numerous “spin” doctors on twitter. It’s because UK labour pays the piper and picks the tune. It is fantastically swivel eyed in its dishonesty, while claiming to stand with the common man. They are all to a man unreconstructed blairites. Increasingly neo-conservative in their views and quite frankly, far too easily led by the likes of farage and cameron.

    Scottish labour will lose because they are in reality a branch of a English party in Scotland. It was this view point that did the Scottish tories so much damage in the end. It’ll do the same to labour.

  6. Never underestimate the turd polishing skills of the MSM.

  7. Oh yeah and remember the BBC is pretty sympathetic with Israel.

  8. “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.”

    The appetite to abandon core principles seems never to be satisfied with British Labour.

    Maybe you have to accept the role of real opposition to prove to voters there is a different way? Part of the problem of Westminster politics is that no one seems to be offering real opposition, let alone a fundamentally different approach.

    How are the parties going to tackle what seem to be the widespread blights of unregulated market capitalism, e.g. low pay, long term youth unemployment and pensioner poverty? Maybe a 12 month freeze on fuel bills will tackle this.

  9. Doesn’t really matter if Jim Murphy ( Skeletor ) or Johann Lamont or Wendy Alexander is head of the Red Tories ( Scottish branch office ) They’re just moving the coffins around the crypt.

  10. Love the photograph of Gromit with that Sun headline, a picture paints a thousand words as they say, the SNP should send that photo to every household in the country just before the general election next year.

    • They could put a copy of that photo on every street corner in Liverpool and other places in England, and people will still vote Labour. Mind you, all the big three parties know they have areas where they can rely on getting their candidates returned to Westminster, so they won’t do anything that might jeopardise their cartel.

  11. At lest we will discover how many members Labour actually has in Scotland when the ballot papers go out. Fewer than the 13,000 when Lamont was elected methinks.
    Interesting question is whether we will see another slump when Murphy takes first prize.

    • I dont think we will discover how many real members they have because they will probably aggregate the votes from all three electoral colleges, so you wont be able to distinguish how many of the voters are actual grassroots members, trade unionists who are not members (but who participated in the vote) or public reps. Its anyones guess but I think a figure of less than 10,000 is defintely accurate and probably closer to 5,000.

      BTW I detest Murphy as much as anyone and think Robin has accurately portrayed his politics but it would be a mistake to underestimate the enemy: he’s a slippery opportunist who will do whatever it takes to try to get to be FM. That means he could easily tone down his right-wing views or engage in populist politics. Pro-indy people have to be careful not to underestimate the Labour Party: its in a state of disarry but its still intact, it won’t just blow over by itself, it needs pushed. I hope that does’nt sound too pessimistic, Im just afraid of people being swept along in the euphoria of the post-referendum mobilisation, thinking that the things we want to happen will happen, just cos we all want them to happen!

      • ” the Labour Party: is in a state of disarray but its still intact, it won’t just blow over by itself, it needs pushed.”

        What it needs is a stake plunged through its heart like Dracula.

  12. Scottish Labour support is now reduced to its core of working class tories. They are at one with the Victorian values that Murphy, Brown and all their other MP’s and MSP’s believe in. We will have great difficulty shifting these supporters because Labour is their true home. In the run up to the GE, when we hear the refrain ‘vote Labour to keep the tories out’ we need to be pressing that ‘Labour ARE the tories – the working class tories’. In doing so we will just be telling it as it is – the evidence is all there and obvious. By that approach we may just eat away at the periphery of their core by shaming some people who are having doubts about the company they are keeping. The appointment of Murphy would facilitate this.

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