9 May 2015

Jim Murphy: Labour's rubber chicken fix

Poor Jim. A victim of circumstances. Talented. Did his best. A plucky, energetic campaign. Formidable politician. Couldn't hold back the tide. A long crisis in Scottish Labour. Not his fault.

As the UK Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and even sorry old UKIP are sitting around telling sad stories of the death of kings, Jim Murphy hopes to hold on, unsalaried, seatless, representing nowhere, as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Murphy's friends and sympathisers in the party and in the media are busily attempting to erect a firewall around the unseated leader, insulating him from any responsibility for Thursday's calamity. 

Jim wasn't erratic, implausible, unfocussed -- he was vigorous, impressive, but stymied by Labour's structural deficiencies. Give him time, the logic runs, a second shot at it, and his undoubted talents will reshape the people's party into a fighting force once again. That's the story, anyway.

But wouldn't this all be rather more plausible if Mr Murphy -- and his crack squad of Better Together spinners -- hadn't run such a dreadful, purely tactical, unstrategic, incoherent gattling gun campaign? Jim Murphy may be forgiven for failing to work miracles -- but will his party colleagues really forgive him his many missteps and misjudgments in what was -- let's remember -- a thoroughly devolved Scottish Labour campaign. 
Let's consider the evidence against him. Late in April, he told the Sunday Times that his party had "fallen asleep" after the referendum. It is worth remembering that Murphy won the internal leadership contest in the middle of December last year. His appointment was met with a splendid and sympathetic press ("a formidable campaigner: he has turned his once Tory seat into a seat for life") 

But little in Murphy's subsequent choices suggested that he thought that Scottish Labour had anything more than a crisis of leadership. From the get go, the relentless focus of the Scottish Labour campaign was on his own character. He was the key spokesman for the party throughout the campaign, despite consistently ambivalent personal ratings. Like his chief of staff, complacent Murphy seemed think that all Scottish Labour needed was "a striker", and he was only too happy to pull on the boots.

Ponder this question. In the critical early days of his leadership, when the party needed to nourish its roots, jury rig its organisation, and forge ahead with a judicious focus on the critical issues -- what were Murphy's priorities? How did he forge on to reclaim the territory Labour had lost? Ah, yes. The football. Football kits. Football matches. Liquor at football. Running along the Clyde in a football shirt. To what end? Headline grabbing sideshows, the fundamentals, sidelined.

But if Murphy knew full well that the Labour Party were under the cosh in the wake of the referendum, and expecting a little local difficulties across the country, why the devil did he tell the media in December that his party wouldn't lose a single seat? If Jim fully apprehended the weakness of his organisation, why was he boasting to Buzzfeed as recently as January that his main opponents were flat footed, off pace easily outwitted? 

A measure of bullshit peddling is to be forgiven -- morale must be sustained, after all -- but these are unforced errors that reeked of hubris rather than the plucky confidence of the underdog. To risk a Bourbon strategy, evoking the very worst of a party who seems to have learned nothing and forgiven nothing since 2007, was bananas.

And then there was the referendum. Unseated Labour MP, Ian Davidson, put the central incoherence clearly on election night. Murphy chose to begin this campaign by emphasising a gentle, wooing appeal to those who voted Yes in September.  Having appointed a slate of SNP hating ultras to his private office, he disavowed a unionist approach, pledging to focus on issues of social justice and what a Labour government in London might achieve.

But cheek by jowl with polling day, democratic socialist, un-unionist Jim was launching scary poster campaigns, which were only likely to appeal to frit Tory unionists, who wanted to keep the Nats out.  This desperate last gambit only helped to entrench the referendum fight as a dividing line in this election, to Labour's obvious disadvantage. A Scottish Labour Party cannot survive on the votes of Alex Massie and Chris Deerin alone. This much should have been self evident. But Jim decided otherwise, in yet another change of tack.

He thought he had secured a wicked debating point over Nicola Sturgeon on the costs of fiscal autonomy. This is a complex issue. The merits and demerits and depth of the SNP thinking on this are for another day. But as a matter of political strategy? It looked good on paper. It appealed to the most embedded of Labour prejudices against the Nats -- "The SNP are committed to more austerity than Labour. Telt ye. Tartan Tories, etc" -- but it was wonky, technical, and relied on convincing folk that something which we know appeals to Scots at a low information level -- more powers -- would really have their shirt. Yet Murphy kept plugging away at this unpromising line for weeks. Another good call.

This was an erratic, negative campaign by trial and error, which obscured elements of Labour's more compelling policy platform by focussing on a succession of hopeless canards. You can see Jim, sitting down with Blair McDougall in front of a plain piece of paper, brainstorming, listing ideas, trying each strategy in turn, and scoring them off when they don't work, without any eye to their internal or systematic coherence or anxiety that the public may have been paying attention, and have noticed the contradictions.

Murphy is clearly a formidable political operator within the now stricken Scottish Labour party. But if the 2011 campaign is anything to go by, he is old guard, deeply implicated in the party's current malaise, and a rubber chicken when it comes to broader strategy. He reposed faith in the judgement of the wrong people and, left to his own devices, pursued the wrong priorities, pushing his comrades and allies to ruin. This is not the legacy of a man who just got unlucky, whatever Jim's remaining adherents might insist.

Like his political mentor Tony Blair, Jim Murphy was "the future once", in David Cameron's barbed phrase. And now, the lost leader, the man of straw, is trying to bounce his colleagues into permitting him to stay, saved only by the logic that there is no viable alternative in Ian Murray or in his Holyrood colleagues. They must be fuming.

Murphy may have had only five months to screw up the Scottish Labour Party, but he's made a grand fist of it. It always looked like a tough campaign, but I can't believe that the party's near wipe-out yesterday was inevitable. No busy SNP activist I met during the campaign ever thought it was inevitable. And make no mistake, accept no spin: Murphy's hands are dipped in the blood.


  1. Good analysis, I would add that Labour's fundamental problem was one of trust and Murphy and chums chose to focus on his "largest party" shtick which voters could smell was dishonest.

  2. Sociopath comes to mind ..... http://www.wikihow.com/Spot-a-Sociopath .... Alba Gu Bràth

  3. Smurpfy is like these stage set Western towns in the old movies. Pulling back you can see there is no substance to the facade and there is only a half built roof. That is what all his photo opportunism was about; grab the page in the Daily Record and drop in a meaningless soundbite.

    Murphy have no values, no principles and no conscience. That may be a short definition of a sociopath but it really is a definition of what Labour has become.

    Unsaveable, Unsellable and Unemployable.

  4. There was also the spectral figure of Milliband in the background - not sure why Scots disliked him so much but he certainly added to the pain - however, have to agree Andrew, yes Murphy must take the blame for the near total wipe out.

    Like others I wanted Alan Johnson to run for the Labour leadership, but there you go (and there we went). The Tories had a fine leader in Ruth, and they increased their vote, be it noted. I expect they and Labour will do well at the Holyrood election, though everything I thought would happen in this election was wrong so wtf do I know.

    Tides come and go. There is a lovely Kingsley Amis story in My Enemy's Enemy in which a Tory officer stares in disbelief at an army paper with news of the Labour '45 victory. Hmn yes I had that feeling on Friday , but that is democracy - it means both victory and failure.

    Other tides, other times. But a great victory this tide for the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon.

    1. The Tory vote is the lowest recorded in post War history - 14.9% compared to 15.6% back in 2001.

    2. As I said, they increased their vote - up about 20,000 on last Westminster election. A percentage share of 1.8% downwards - bigger turnout - but another sign that the ScottishTories are not going to disappear.

      SNP: 1,454,436 votes gets you 56 MPs

      Labour: 707,147 votes gets you 1 MP

      Tory: 434,097 votes gets you 1 MP

      LibDems: 219,675 gets you 1 MP

      As I also said, this is a great victory for the SNP - but for half the Scots who voted it is not a cause for celebration. We are a divided nation.

    3. I'd just add that 3,881,129 votes can also get you a lot less than 56 MPs. It can be very lonely being a UKIP MP, all alone with your 3.8 million supporters.

      But that's the strange, cruel beauty of "first past the post." Losers lose big.

    4. Have lost the link tychy but someone has done a chart of a PR Westminster - think it was 80 UKip MPs, over 30 SNP.

    5. I think you're thinking of this http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2015-32601281
      But I think it's nonsensical to feed FPTP vote percentages into a different system – the whole point of PR is that you can vote for who you really like rather than who you think will win. Or at least a mix of both. The percentages of votes cast for each party would almost certainly change under PR.

  5. The analogy of the stage set Western sums it up perfectly. All the fake rallies, stage managed "chaos" at said fake rallies by "bad SNP" just turned people off. Most people were smart enough to see through them and just thought the man a complete idiot, and his party the same by association. They had no interest in the electorate, turning them off by decrying any voices of dissent from SLAB views by telling them they were basically stupid for daring to have independent thoughts instead of putting anything positive forward for people to think about. I think it will be a long time before there is any sign of a Labour come back, and certainly not before they learn to actually listen to the people and what the voting public want to see happen in government.

  6. Jim,Gord,daily record believed each others bullshit

    even worse ,snp have decent majorities

  7. Jim Murphy is a psychopath - I mean this in the biological rather than dramatic sense. You can tell from his unflinching smile at that guy shouting in his face at the orchestrated Izzard kerfuffle. Also his reaction to spotting a camera on him here: https://twitter.com/DaftLimmy/status/585523082812600321

    Psychopaths can be useful in politics. You probably want one on your team. But not as the front man. They can only offer tactics. Scotland was looking for bigger picture this time.

  8. All excellent points. However...

    Scottish Labour have had 7 leaders in the last 15 years. Dropping yet another one would look like terminal desperation.

    That might just be enough to save Murphy's job. If Murphy does go, they'd better find someone with nerves of steel who can stay in charge for the long run. I'm not sure such a person exists.

  9. Ian Murray has been very quiet.

    He ran a non-Murph campaign in Edinburgh South, concentrating on his own achievements and hard work in the constituency.

  10. There Is No Alternative.
    Now,where have I heard that before?

  11. Ian Murray was saved by students at the Uni from south of the border and Tories
    I beg to differ that Jim Murphy only had months he was head of the 2011 root and branch review of Scottish labour
    It was comon knowledge that he *Murphy* was going to be next leader pre referendum why he raised his profile
    He is despised by union members

  12. A colleague resident in Edinburgh South told me Murray survived because
    a) By all account he's a pretty hard working MP, and
    b) He won the minds of Hearts fans after some crucial support he gave to the club as it slid into administration a couple of years back.

    I've no idea whether that assessment is accurate, but if that's a widely held belief it certainly couldn't have done Mr Murray any harm last Thursday.

  13. Murphy is a vainglorious egotist. In his own mind he no doubt believed he could somehow use the sainted Tony's tropes to persuade errant voters to "come home to Labour". So much is summed up in that egregious phrase - arrogance, entitlement, self-delusion, cynicism, complacency, and indeed the whole paternalistic attitude aimed at inducing passivity in the populace - the very hallmark of Labour's municipal socialism for decades: "Dinna fash yersels - we'll look after you," with the muttered but now widely grasped aside "...after we've looked after ourselves."

    Not only is the Blair brand a busted flush, Jim simply didn't have the looks or charm to pull it off. Murphy is a dismal smudge of anti-charisma whose shallowness was exposed with every soundbite and shout of the campaign, every snipe and sneer at an opposition at the very top of its game. As mentioned above, Murphy led the supposed reboot of Labour in Scotland back in 2011, and through the latter stages of the referendum campaign was clearly manoeuvring to replace his own preferred choice from only three years previously - admittedly from a reduced gene pool - in order to revive his own moribund career. His election in December gave vent to wildly misconceived hubris: It was only a sympathy bounce in the polls... Salmond's gone and Sturgeon will never cope with a big beast like Jim... When the referendum recedes and the reality kicks in they'll all come flocking back... Once the election really gets going it's all about Labour vs Tory, and folk know what side their bread's buttered.

    All of the above are more or less direct quotes I read on websites and social media before and after Jim's ascension. Apart from all the other myriad misconceptions, many Labour supporters believed Jim's own hype about his being the heroic egg-stained saviour of the Union.

    In many ways Murphy was the perfect choice last December; the vanity of the man and his party seemed to know no bounds. I suspect Jim has led his desperate, deluded comrades into a committee room where hangs the Portrait of Dorian Gray.