Why Jim Murphy is the wrong answer

There’s a reason why folk say that a week is a long time in politics. That’s because it is.

Ten days ago, Labour had a leader and a deputy leader in Scotland. Now it doesn’t. Last Friday, Johann Lamont departed the scene letting off a political stink bomb in the process. The honesty and hurt was visceral. There’s a post I’ll finish drafting now I’ve got rid of the virus (sort of) and the broken laptop is now fixed (hopefully) about her leadership – because there are a few things Labour and others need to be reminded of. That Johann Lamont is essentially a decent person, a hardworking MSP, who only put herself forward for the leadership as a transition candidate anyway.  And was she allowed to do the job that the Labour party in Scotland elected her to do?

Which point was seized upon with rather too much glee by the two former First Ministers, returning to the scene of the crime in order to settle a few scores but also say things about the state of the party which they should have said and done something about a long time ago.

In truth, there’s been a lot of pent up Labour anguish since 2007 and it’s had very little outlet. Thus, Johann’s departure allowed a lot of it to spill out into the open. It’s needed. Just as what is not needed is what is going on now.

Which is the meeja in particular, and presumably also, unseen hands in the machine steering a course for Jim Murphy to assume the leadership mantle. Because Jim Murphy is the wrong answer, frankly.

Why?  Because already he has set out his store as being the man who not just wants to lead his party but to lead “Scottish Labour to victory”. Apparently, the job he is applying for is to become Scotland’s First Minister.  At which point, the Scottish electorate rolls its eyes and prepares to respond to yet another opinion poll telling – TELLING – the Labour party exactly what it thinks of this response by indicating how they are unlikely to ever want to vote Labour EVER AGAIN UNTIL THEY GET IT.

It’s the political equivalent of the Road Runner cartoon. Guess who’s Wile E Coyote?

I’ve written blogposts like this before. What Labour needs to do to change. What is Labour for (twice).  Why it needs to stop orbiting around the SNP. Why it needs a purpose.  And so has everyone else.

But still they don’t get it. The job I’m applying for is to be First Minister of Scotland? FFS. No, the job you are applying for is to lead your party so that it finds a way to represent the interests of the Scottish people. To address the issues they care about. To find a story that sings, that touches voters in all the right places, so that they believe you can be trusted to go for the country’s messages again. Then, and only then, will they be prepared to audition you for the job of First Minister.  In any event, you’ll need to find yourself a winnable seat in order to do that.

And here’s the thing. Despite Jim Murphy’s stall being set out as the front runner for this non-vacancy, not only does he not have a seat for that, there’s also the small matter of an electoral college to overcome.

David Miliband was the contender to beat once. Jim Murphy and Blair McDougall, who were in Miliband’s campaign team, are better able to relate what happened next.

But then no one was entirely convinced that Johann would become leader either. There’s a sort of inbuilt bias against the idea of a woman becoming leader of anything on her own merits. For there is always a man better placed, equipped and talented to do the job. As Sarah Boyack is finding out.

Apparently, all leaders need to be confident, assertive, strutting peacocks.  Yet, I – and I suspect others do too – like Sarah Boyack’s softer style.  As a Minister, she proved herself – time and again – as a consensus politician, a product of the new politics the Scottish Parliament was supposed to usher in. She, much more than Jim Murphy, occupies the centre ground in Labour, with an instinctive and deeply held belief in social democratic values. And given her role in the internal reform consultation and again on the devolution commission, I wouldn’t be discounting her chances with the membership part of the electoral college. She will be known – personally – by a lot of members.  And that counts. I’d hazard that many of those from the “co-operative” wing of the party might opt for her too.

Jim Murphy might have more MP and MSP nominations than his opponents but it’s a pretty predictable list. Neil Findlay’s is much more interesting in size and make up and while the media have dismissed the idea of Labour opting for a very left leaning leader, I’m not so sure. Folk are desperate. They’ve tried being all things to all people. It’s not worked. And at least with Neil, they’d get a lot of politics and ideas, as well as a rearguard action to stem the flow of members and supporters to the SNP from the “core vote”.

Neil Findlay is also likely to do very well out of the union part of the college.  Which begs the question, where will Jim Murphy’s support actually come from, aside from his cheerleaders in the male dominated political meeja pack?

Apparently, SNP folk are feart of Murphy and that’s why everyone is talking him down. But just because Alex Massie said this doesn’t make it true or right.

I don’t think Nicola Sturgeon has much to fear from facing Jim Murphy every week, partly because there will be little actual facing going on. A mano a mano contest between Murphy and Salmond might have been interesting in a gladiatorial sort of way but I’m fairly certain it won’t be Nicola Sturgeon’s style.

Then there’s the small matter of what Jim Murphy has ever actually done. He went from being a student politician to being a Labour one with no real job or real life experience in between. Any notable achievements while a Minister? I’m toiling. He was always fairly invisible as a Minister, and much more comfortable and articulate in opposition – which is a strength for where Labour is just now. But that also suggests he lacks ideas.  And a plan.  And the ability to lead to achieve things, rather than just be rent a quote kicking at the Tories and the SNP on the telly.

He doesn’t get on with Ed Miliband, which may not matter much, for his days are probably numbered. But if they aren’t and Ed does become Prime Minister, well Scotland might find itself out in the cold. Just as Jim has done personally. And that’s not a good thing, unless Jim Murphy is up for a bit of UDI type of internal politics. Now that would make things interesting.

Nor has he ever really conducted his politics in Scotland. And Scotland’s political culture is different these days. The reason Johann Lamont described the Westminster politicians who have interfered and briefed against her leadership as dinosaurs, is because they are. They lumber about the Scottish stage, treating it as their backyard, yet Labour supporters and voters generally have made clear their views on that. Labour can claim all it likes it won the referendum:  the truth is its failure to hold its core vote nearly resulted in a Yes vote. It’s safe to assume that Westminster Labour politicians making it all about them and talking in tongues didn’t help. And Murphy played a key role in all that.

Ultimately, Scottish voters have become very good at sniffing out ordure.  For all that Jim Murphy may take to the role of Scottish Labour leader on the stage of Scottish politics enthusiastically and commitedly, everyone knows he’s only put himself forward because with Ed Miliband in charge, his chances of securing Ministerial office in a UK Government are not good.  His career at Westminster is finished and Scotland amounts to sloppy seconds.

Scotland’s voters might not like that. They might actually respond better to the bluff honesty of deeply held left wing principles espoused by Neil Findlay or indeed, to the solid centrist social democratic views of Sarah Boyack – both of whom are conviction politicians in quite different ways.

Or maybe people have been waiting all this time for Scottish Labour to get with the Blair project and Jim Murphy will unite prosperous and poor in voting Labour again in Scotland.

Ultimately, Scottish Labour needs someone who can lead their own people by following the Scottish people,  A deft political trick which the SNP appears to have mastered and which Labour has forgotten even exists.


Autumn signals politics as usual

Apparently, the Liberal Democrats are still here. Holding their annual conference in Glasgow, this will be their 4th? 5th? day of deliberations.  What on earth have they found to talk about?  How have they managed to find enough delegates to keep it all going?  As images taken on Saturday showed, Women for Independence managed to muster far more women for its event in Perth on Saturday than found their way into the Lib Dem conference hall.

Nick Clegg has already spoken, but he is speaking again.  Oh goody.  This time, he’s talking about mental health provision in the health service, which is a fitting topic worthy of a wider airing.  But as it’s not relevant to a UK wide audience and pertinent only to English voters, you wonder why he couldn’t find a headline subject for his big conference set-piece that mattered to us all.

Perhaps they’ve given up on trying to win Scottish seats at next year’s UK election?  Or maybe they think they are in the bag and holding on to their largely marginal bolt-holes down south has to be the focus. Whatever, they’re proving their obsolescence in Scottish politics all by themselves.

Elsewhere, in the Scottish arena, the day is dominated by Scottish Labour’s call for the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill to go. The party claims that he has presided over a series of crises in Scottish policing, the latest resulting in a climb down over the routine arming of police on our streets.  The Scottish Government responds with a well thought out cry of rubbish, pointing to MacAskill’s wider track record: crime rates at a 20 year low and record numbers of police employed. Am I the only one to suspect they doth protest just a little too vociferously for the Justice Secretary’s comfort?

The Lib Dems and Tories look set to support Labour’s motion and depending on what the Greens and Independent (formerly SNP) MSPs do with their votes, this could be a tight one.  I’m not sure the left-leaning John Wilson, human rights-focused Jean Urquhart and former Secretary General of the Police Federation, John Finnie can be relied upon to vote for the Justice Secretary but I’m not sure they’ll want to hand the scalp of a Scottish Government minister to the opposition either.

Elsewhere, the franchise for the East coast rail line appears to have been awarded to – shock, horror – foreigners.  This has prompted Laboury types to call for re-nationalisation of the railways or at least, such contracts going to Scottish companies.  This is political chancery at its worst (or best, depending on your viewpoint) given that the ability to do either is somewhat constrained by the constitutional set-up which does not give us powers to fix things like this.  A settlement which Labour was campaigning to keep, only a few short weeks ago.  Natch.

Practically, it will make little difference to the staff in the short term, whose jobs will all transfer to the new franchise holder but that means little in the long term for conditions of employment.  We can expect the RMT to be busy.  Personally, if we cannae have some sort of public ownership of our railway provision (and I’m not sure the old large state model is appropriate in the 21st Century but there are other, not-for-profit alternatives available) then maybe an injection of European efficiency could be a good thing.  I’ve been on Dutch trains:  they’re a darn sight better than ours.

Tomorrow, we get the draft Scottish budget – the first to incorporate some of the new powers wished upon us by Unionists through the Calman Commission.  What difference will landfill tax make to our public purse?  I doubt it will do much to plug the gap created by the several billion being taken out of the block grant by UK austerity measures.  What will be interesting when the cuts that are a-coming, arrive is where the finger of blame will be pointed, not by the politicians, but by the voting public.

There’s a definite sense of being back to the business of politics as usual.  The round of party conferences, high winds, heavy rain and flooding, and the low-hanging, harvest moon dominating the sky all signal the arrival of autumn.  Yet, there’s an undercurrent too of something not ever being quite the same again.

The enthusiasm of Yes supporting folk for politics and in particular, politicking in the community shows no sign of abating; there’s an intriguing deputy leadership debate unfolding in the SNP; each day that passes, the Unionists’ vow seems to offer less of the wow folk were looking for.  The high and the low politics is definitely where all the interesting people are to be found.  The jam in the middle that is spread by Holyrood seems rather thin and unappetising for the moment.

Yet, here too, there are hints of change to come.  Nicola Sturgeon will be setting out her stall as First Minister either before or just after the festive break. Johann Lamont’s backroom team is getting a shake-up with a change of personnel but every time she protests she’s going nowhere suggests even she is beginning not to believe she has staying power.  Ruth Davidson will bask in the glow of approval from Mr and Mrs Cameron a while longer but that won’t necessarily win her party more votes in Scotland next year.

Underneath it all remain big, thorny political issues.  The STV Appeal this week will see a renewed focus on child poverty – expect the politicians to have plenty to add.  Maybe they could all just read this report, out today, about what consigning 1 in 4 of our children to poverty actually means to their life chances. Maybe, we could have a debate on this in Parliament?  Maybe, we could have debates too in every council chamber?  And maybe, we could have politicians uniting to find the solutions, to apply their collective will to put resources in – real resources – to addressing the causes and symptoms of lack and blight in children’s lives.  Or agree to devolve the powers to Scotland that give us a real chance – a fighting chance – of doing different from Westminster, for all our children’s sakes.   A girl can dream. Still.

Aye, we live in interesting political times.  Tumultuous even.  It’s just a shame that one of Scotland’s finest political journalists, Angus MacLeod, is no longer here, with his quizzically owl-ish stare, to help prise them apart, to find the story beneath, to document what was really going on, to unspin the narrative, to apply his trademark wry analysis and humour to it all.  A big shame indeed.




Tough on children. Tough on the cause of children.

A record number of children were born in Scotland in 2008, the highest in fact since the turn of the century.  Yet, the parents of those 60, 041 babes might just be regretting their decision to start a family in that year.  Just as the parents of the near million children born in the last sixteen years might be gulping a little right now.  But they won’t be nearly as worried as the parents under 21 of at least 5,000 babies born in the last couple of years.

Unwittingly, they have all provided meek austerity fodder for the aspirations of both Labour and Conservative parties in their quest for wins in marginal seats to propel them into government at Westminster next year.

Step forward children of Scotland, for you, who have no votes and little voice are about to pay a high price for the profligacy of us all.

I thought I had heard and seen the worst of what New Labour had to offer when, fresh into government in 1997, it decided to remove the lone parent premium from child benefit.  That doyen of fairness and social justice – who preaches pooling and sharing and solidarity and unity now that it suits him – Gordon Brown was the one who decided to effectively freeze child benefit for lone parents for years.

But just when I thought the lesson had been learned – or at least, one of the lessons Margaret Curran keeps on assuring us Labour will get round to learning one day – up pops Ed Balls to promise that everyone has to pay the price of austerity. Trying to show that he is not just Balls by name, the Shadow Chancellor decided it was time to get down on the kids.  If Labour wins the UK election next year it will cut child benefit in real terms for all families by keeping increases to 1 per cent in the first two years of the next Parliament.  This, he decreed, was evidence that Labour won’t “duck the difficult decisions” saving £400 million from family finances in order to cut the deficit. Apparently, Labour won’t spend money it can’t afford – so it will make sure families find it harder to afford essentials like food, school uniforms and shoes too.

When the government deficit is in the trillions, when even the Scottish block grant amounts to tens of billions, £400 million over two years is chickenfeed.  Chickenfeed that is in government spending, but the universality of the cap means it will disproportionately hurt those families on the lowest incomes more.  Yep, in favour of universality when it suits them, when there is squeezing and saving to be achieved.

Still, Balls proved himself to be the equivalent of George Osborne’s warm up act.

The measures he and indeed, Iain Duncan Smith announced today at Conservative party conference are so abhorrent in terms of their potential for harm to children that you wonder if they employed Cruella de Vil, Snow White’s Wicked Stepmother and Rumpelstiltskin to concoct them.

Osborne saw Balls on his 1% cap on child benefit and raised him – a two year freeze on all working age benefits, including child benefit and working and child tax credit.  “We are going to finish what we have started. What I offer is a serious plan for a grown-up country. An economic plan for hardworking people.”  Clearly, families in work, on poverty pay, with dependent children do not qualify as hardworking. And neither do young people.

Overall, the measures will save £3 billion on the welfare bill.  But never fear, those big companies who avoid paying their fair share of tax?  A clampdown.  Again.  Which will bring in millions or even, hundreds of millions.  So big business goes on making big profits, cocking a snook at the idea of paying its share, while families with children suffer an unprecedented squeeze.

The Tories also announced “an ambitious package to end the fate of 18 to 21 year olds languishing on unemployment benefits“.  Six months to get a job or else.  An apprenticeship, a training scheme or community work, for an allowance, not a wage.  The Prime Minister refused to, or failed to clarify, whether young adults with children would be excluded.  Which means they probably won’t.  No benefits, a paltry allowance, sanctions if you don’t.  Welcome to the Tories’ idea of a grown up country which punishes children for daring to be born.

Some children deserve to be punished more.  Any child which dares to be born to feckless parents who have “fallen into a damaging spiral” – substance misuse or debt or one of the other myriad symptoms of poverty – they will have the dignity of money removed from them and get vouchers instead.  They might as well hang a bell round their neck while they’re at it. On one level, they have a point. It is important to ensure that children’s basic needs are met.  But you don’t do that by further diminishing their parents’ capacity: you help to create control over their lives and their circumstances, investing in their assets, in their capacity, competence and confidence.

And listening to it and trying to digest it all, the question keeps returning – what have innocent children – thousands, hundreds of thousands of children – done to deserve this?  Why are they the ones to pay the price of austerity?  Where is the compassion for our most vulnerable, voiceless citizens?  Where is the acknowledgement that for our economy and society to thrive in the years to come we will need the next generation to have been invested in, to have been given the best possible start in life so that they might go on to have decent life chances.

Every child should enjoy equality of opportunity, no matter their circumstances. The opportunity of a warm, dry home.  Of a childhood free from the stress and strain of financial worries and debt.  Of nourishing meals as a given, not an occasion. Of rights given freely by those with responsibility for their well-being.  Of being valued, cherished, nurtured. Of growing up safe and secure.

Instead, Labour and Tories are engaged in a race to the bottom, to determine which party can be toughest on children and toughest on the cause of children.

And we are powerless to prevent it going ahead.