Jim Murphy announced his candidacy this morning to become Scottish Labour’s next leader. The latest, and probably last, contestant to enter the fray, Murphy is already positioning himself as applying for the post of First Minister rather than the leader of a party that is in danger of becoming minority sect in the febrile and fast evolving world of Scottish politics.
The election will be defined by the press as a battle between the left, in the shape of Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack, and the right, represented by Murphy, a Blairite who served in both the Blair and Brown governments.
This will be dangerous territory for Labour because the SNP and those that put their faith in the Yes camp will try to define the contest as being between the old and the new.
The old being Labour punching it out between factions and arguments from the 1990s and the new being the SNP who have increased its membership to 60,000 since the referendum, have elected a new and effective leader, and currently hold the copywrite on the ‘vision thing’ in Scotland.
Scottish Labour represents the past and, as Alex Massie calls it, the “lumpen swamp” which spawned the Labour networks which ran local government, universities, quangos, the law and health boards for decades under the Tories before winning power in Westminster and finally setting up the Scottish Parliament.
The problem for Scottish Labour is that it designed the Parliament in its own image and didn’t keep up while the electorate moved on. The nationalist movement, in the meantime, harnessed technology as a channel for the unease felt by many that the political system was failing to represent them, amidst economic crisis and austerity.
To be fair most Western political parties are facing the same dilemma but how Scottish Labour answers the question will decide its future for a generation.
Murphy will make a major speech on Saturday and will unveil a number of backers including senior MSPs and Shadow Ministers. Findlay will have the support of the unions including Unite who say his ‘democratic socialist credentials are without question’ but, with only a third of the Electoral College, it is unlikely to be enough. Boyack is popular and has experience but lacks Murphy’s profile and may well have an eye on her position in the Shadow Cabinet and the Lothian Regional list.
Some within Labour’s ranks will say that Murphy is a divisive figure in Scotland who will fail to ameliorate the 30% of Labour voters who were drawn to Yes in the referendum. But, as his 100 meetings in 100 towns campaign showed, he is at his best when fighting for Labour. It’s no accident that he campaigned on his own eschewing the trappings of the Better Together campaign and its association with the Tories and Lib Dems.
He will be pigeon-holed as having voted for the war in Iraq and being a Blairite but that is to forget that Blair, and his policies, were popular in Scotland and Labour, despite having lost at Holyrood in 2007 and 2011, have continued to win and increase their share of the vote at Westminster, in local Government and in by-elections.
Just as Blair did in 1994 he will present a choice to Scottish Labour – do you want an internal debate or do you want to win elections.
Whether a politician, who has served at Westminster for 17 years can reinvent Scottish Labour remains to be seen but one thing is for sure politics in Scotland is about to get interesting.