December 15, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
Stop most people on the street and ask them to name a single leader of the Scottish Labour Party and you would have trouble getting a single right answer. But in a few months time I would hope many will know Jim Murphy’s name, because never before has the job of being leader of the Labour Party of Scotland been more important to the future of the British Parliamentary election system and to the future of the a Labour Party itself.
Jim Murphy was elected yesterday as the new leader of every Labour politician in Scotland. That means every MP, MSP and MEP as well as candidates for seats. He got 54% of the vote, with Union-backed Neil Findlay being beaten into a far distant second on 34%.
It was a decisive choice by the party, and one of no little significance, because Findlay would have taken the party in a very different direction to Murphy. Findlay would have taken on the SNP from the left, and would have run into quite a few issues with the Westminster headquarters of the party as the policies he would have wanted to champion would have been very different from theirs, something which the SNP would have delighted in pointing out. Murphy is a different kettle of fish, and someone who on paper seems easy to attack, but in reality could cause the SNP a real electoral problem.
Scotland is approaching being a one party state. Latest polls give the SNP 47% of the vote, which could mean they take 34 of Labour’s 41 seats at Westminster in May. This dominance would then be extended at the Scottish Assembly election in 2016, where without a functioning Scottish Labour alternative the SNP could end up dominating the Assembly to such an extent that they could push through just about anything.
It is that ‘anything’ that should trouble Westminster watchers in May. Should the SNP gain the 40 or seats that they quite possibly could, they would be in a position to decide who forms the government. Whilst I doubt they would go into coalition with Labour, I can imagine them entering into a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement where they support Labour on any votes of confidence and getting any finance bills through, in return for a few policies of their own. What would those policies be? Nicola Sturgeon has already suggested an end to Trident (essentially unilateral nuclear disarmament as we have no where else to keep it) and an end to austerity (essentially accepting being indebted to the world barring some sort of economic miracle). That would be tough enough to accept, but I think the SNP would also push for a second Scottish Referendum, attached maybe to then achieving a set amount of the vote in the 2016 Scottish Assembly election. The key thing to understand is that in those negotiations to form a government with Labour, the SNP will be thinking about Scotland, and only Scotland, and having such sectional interests being catered to at the heart of government may not in the best interests of our democracy.
Which is where Jim Murphy comes in. Had Neil Findlay won, it would have opened up the rest of Scotland to the SNP. The electorate, who are becoming aware that Scottish politics is essentially now a choice between the SNP and Labour in terms of who can win a seat, would see a very left wing Labour Party, and an SNP with a similar agenda. It is easy to forget, if you don’t understand election systems, that the Conservatives may not have many seats, but they did get 16% of votes at the 2010 election in Scotland. I imagine a lot of those votes are up for grabs. They would never vote for Findlay, but they would vote for Murphy. Murphy has plenty of left-leaning policies (he has already committed to bringing back the 50% tax bracket for the highest earners), but he is also far more of a pragmatist than Findlay.
Murphy would be easier for the SNP to attack on his personal voting record, which includes the Iraq War amongst other Blairite follies. But this is a battle hardened man who was a stalwart of the “NO” campaign during the referendum. During his 100 towns in 100 days tour he was pelted with eggs and accused of being a Paedophile, amongst other things, but stood strong despite that. It is this tough skin that will help Murphy weather the barrage that will doubtless be thrown at him by the SNP and stand up to any attempt by Labour in London to control what he says and does.
But it is the fact that Jim Murphy can appeal to so many voters that means this is a decision that could effectively save the Scottish Labour Party at a time they are most in need. Whether it will save them, time will tell.