7 January 2015

Jim Murphy: strategist or opportunist?

Peter Mandelson was often characterised a Machiavellian operator. He was the Prince of Darkness: sinister, scheming, in speech gyroscopic, eyebrows demonic, intent cynical and manipulative. One of the great Florentine's best known axioms is that it is better for the prince to be feared than loved. But the overwhelming mistrust attaching to Blair's sleek New Labour accomplice - and Mandelson's seeming pleasure in being mistrusted as a pantomime villain - reveals the former spinner as a poor student of Machiavelli. Richard III he ain't. 

The Machiavellian prince must always conspire to appear "merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright" - even, or perhaps especially - if he's rotted through by connivance, malevolence and low animal cunning. Unlike the former MP for Hartlepool, the talented Machiavel will always "seem a saint, when most they play the devil." The trick is to prosper as a scheming bastard, while conspiring not to appear like one.

In this respect, Labour's new Scottish leader Jim Murphy seems a far more calculated adherent of the school. Despite a career littered with backstabbing, scheming and steel-toed internal partisanship - and a leadership position secured by lodging whispering knives in the back of his inept predecessor - Murphy's public persona is one of heavy - even exhausting - good fellowship; lugubrious, patient, wholesome. 

That isn't to say that he entirely pulls off the performance. Many folk regard him with profound mistrust in the light of the referendum campaign, his reputation for ideological slipperiness and the marches and countermarches of his party career - mistrust which blew up this week in an internal party stooshie. Murphy has a health policy for 2016. He's already earmarked the Barnet consequentials (and then some) of increased Labour health spending, if the party regains office in 2015. Bully for him. 

But it is the embroidery which matters here. For Jim felt it was expedient explicitly to conjure up the image of stripping southern English mansions to fund a new phalanx of doughty Scottish nurses. This was on any account a gratuitous annotation, and one with obvious political consequences. The right wing press have gone ballistic, feeding the beast of English disgruntlement and the victimology of a put-upon wealthy England being taken for a ride by pick-pocketing Scotch footpads - with Mr Murphy as the unrepentant robbing bastard in chief. "Labour, the party which doesn't care about getting a good deal for England" - and other self-serving humbug.

Poor Ed presumably surveyed these front pages over his morning egg - mouth agape like a clobbered monkfish - with Murphy's colleagues from the capital took to the airwaves to denounce the new Scottish leader's attempt to "buy Scottish votes with money expropriated from London." And for the cynic, keeping one eye on the Machiavellian antics of Labour's new comptroller, an ungenerous suspicion begins to buzz in the back of the mind. Is this a confected row, connived at, plausibly deniable, but quite intentionally generated? 

In truth, the odd bust up wouldn't be a terrible idea for a branch manager determined to be seen to be a plucky, independent start-up, but would you really pick a subject so potentially inflammatory, predictably generating hostile and damaging headlines for Ed Miliband in the rightwing papers? Even if you calculated that you were weakest at the northern frontier, would you really shove your south eastern colleagues under a bus and pass the Tories and UKIP a hardy stick with which to beat your comrades? Would you insist on making your stand on a topic, doomed to promote a narrative already enervating your party's chances in England?

The Machiavellian might consider it, careful, mind you, to don the mantle of calm guilelessness. It may of course, not be strategy at all, but sheer opportunism. A loose phrase thoughtlessly dropped in echo of the "pooling and sharing" rhetoric which dominated Murphy's referendum campaign - but an opportunity to score points against his colleagues when the entirely predictable counterblasts blow in. 

Whether it is an egg, or a quietly inflammatory aside in announcing a policy, Mr Murphy does appear to have a considerable talent for casting himself as a victim, patiently enduring the slings and arrows, putting folk firmly but respectful in their place, more in sorrow than in anger. Johann Lamont was a disaster, evoking sympathy. Given this week's antics, Jim Murphy will have to be careful that he doesn't share in Mandelson's fate.

Machiavellian doubleness is difficult to maintain. The supposed spontaneity spoils. The projected authenticity tarnishes. Reputations eventually crack, as the discrepancies between the self represented and your busy mischief becomes too striking. To "seem a saint" and "play the devil" is beyond the acting chops of most political operators. Such is the gulf between the artless persona Jim cultivates, and the suspicions he provokes, he'll need all of Sir Larry's talents to reconcile the two.


  1. I don't think there's any doubt at all that it's just opportunism at work here. Looking at Murphy's career, I think you see a chancer flying by the seat of his pants, and the egg incident was a perfect example of that. He's bitten off more than he can chew now though. The luck will run out and he'll get found out pretty swiftly.

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  3. This episode is just one set piece to camera, which we will no doubt be subjected to ad nauseam.
    Prior to Xmas, Abbot appeared on Neil's political show, singing the Murphs praises. Abbots faux indignation looks good to Londoners, as she sets out her mayoral campaign. It's just a load of tired old b```rocks, which I hope enough can see through.

  4. I think you credit "John Murphy" with far too much intelligence. Given the backlash from the SE England media and voters on an issue that already was contentious, it looks to me that it was a case of the little finger on the left hand not telling the right hand what it was going to say.

    No matter how much "John" tries to claim the north British branch of UK Labour is separate from UK Labour, you cannot run a UK-wide general election campaign with differing policies in different areas of the UK.

    While the truth is likely that this is the UK-wide policy of using the mansion tax to increase health care funding as stated by Milipede previously, "John" has stupidly managed to twist it into a policy that takes money from those poor rich people in London and give it to those "junkie slackers" in Scotland who already benefit from absolutely free healthcare. The fact that this ignores the complexities of the Barnet formula and that health spending is the responsibility of the Scottish government I.e. Until at least 2016 the SNP, just reinforces the view that this was a badly misjudged pledge by the uni dropout "John" Murphy and not some clever, complex Machiavellian plot.

  5. Labour will gladly lose the GE if it helps to keep hold of Scottish assets.
    Folk really need to stop thinking of Labour and the Tories as two different parties. When you realise that there is only The Westminster Party, a lot of actions taken by their members start to make much more sense.

  6. Looking at it from the perspective of what Jim Murphy needs to do for the general election, I suspect there may be an element of strategy behind it. Not that the episode itself is strategic but it's an episode that assists in the bigger strategy of addressing the appeal of the SNP. What I think the mansion tax/nurses proposal helps with is three things:

    (1) challenges the idea that the SNP is now the only progressive party, the party of social democracy in Scotland, the party committed to the NHS etc.

    (2) emphasises the distinction between, and distinctiveness of, Labour in Scotland in relation to the UK party. And it asserts his own leadership role and his willingness to make distinctive policy for Scotland, even if that's against the wishes and interests of the party in England. That's a bold move that none of his predecessors have made.

    (3) emphasises something that the SNP cannot match - Labour can bring benefits to Scotland using policies that largely impact on the South of England because Scotland is part of the UK and because Scottish Labour is part of the UK Labour Party.

    These are three important but complex ideas that Murphy needs to communicate and convince people of in a very short time if he is to minimise the damage done by the SNP. I suspect because of that the actions with be brash, crass and opportunistic but I suspect there's a focus behind them.

  7. White Labour man speak with forked tongue.

  8. His Westminster hopes for Labour leadership after this week are mince & tatties

    His kingdom is now Scotland, an only job is slaying the SNP

  9. Open goal with no reply for Nicola every week. FMQs onslaught about Jims Oil fund was brutal

  10. The fact that Murphy has appointed John McTernan erstwhile spin doctor for former Oz premier Julia Gillard as Labour branch office in Scotland's new spin doctor should be a clear message to the independence movement on what to expect from Murphy during his tenure as "leader".