What radical exception can break Jim Murphy’s rule?

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What should we expect from the civil war in Scottish Labour? Some veterans of Labour’s last civil war, still haunted by the machiavellian menace of Blairism, see Jim Murphy’s leadership bid as part of a long-term plan to revive the right-wing of the Labour party. If/when Labour lose in 2015, brother Ed will resign and brother David (whose campaign for the Labour leadership was coordinated by Murphy) will fly back from the US to take his place as heir to Blair. After a few years in the Scottish wilderness Murphy will return to London in the name of Progress and become, say, foreign secretary – the last of the Scottish Raj, carrying with him a new centrist Scottish majority to join David Miliband’s ‘progressive alliance’.

But for the time being, as Blair’s old spin-doctor John McTernan explains on Progress’ Lord Sainsbury-funded website, Murphy’s leadership in Scotland is just what Ed Miliband needs. Armed with new-found patriotism and the language of equality of opportunity, Dinosaur Jim is making the Right, Honourable choice to leave Westminster and turn Scotland’s median voter into the fulcrum of Labour’s new ‘Scottish bloc’. Jim Murphy is the shadow cabinet’s candidate for Scottish leader, and his acrimonious relationship with Ed Miliband doesn’t change the fact they offer a similar agenda with regards to Scotland: to return most of the Scottish seats in 2015 then take control of the Scottish Parliament from the SNP in 2016.

So far, so typical – for what else should Labour do but aim to win elections? Is that not the only way to rebuild the party’s fortunes? It is the clear objective of Jim Murphy’s faction to return to where the party was before the SNP took Scottish politics from its control – don’t worry about the crash, lets get back to the nineties and dance to the old D-Ream. Murphy is to use his profile and character to win support for Labour on the basis of static expectations, to assure the traditional middle- and working-classes that he can lead the country with a refound confidence and ability to articulate ‘Labour’s values’ and steady the politics of Scotland after the disruption of the last few years. For Murphy, the problem is not Labour’s approach, or the ambitions of the Scottish party. Nor is it the public, who will return to Labour in due course. All we need is a leader to deliver it to them – on a crate, if you will.

The evidence suggests this will be disastrous for Labour. It is no wonder that a fifth of people who voted Labour in 2011 intend to vote SNP in 2016 if Murphy becomes leader. Murphy will win back none of the ground Labour has lost. The big hemorrhage in the party’s support was between 1999 and 2003 – before the supposed rise of nationalism. That was the period when Labour remade itself, when Tony Blair thwarted people’s great expectations about the potential for a Labour government, and installed a timid and toothless Labour Executive that made Scottish domestic politics equivalent to household economics. There are reasons the people keep looking to the SNP. Many of these reasons were created by the New Labour project, which failed to rebalance power in the labour market or to change the distribution of wealth, taking the country into a war against the rules of democracy and international law, while talking about a country free from poverty and injustice, with better opportunities for everyone. Scottish Labour’s chambers echo with these phrases once again.

In any case, the public, the party and the press expect the Blairites to win. But even as the media holds the crown above Murphy’s head, the civil war rages within the party. The conflict has another side, less disciplined and proficient, more fraught and keen: an insurgency with potential to defeat the establishment, upturn devolution, and to use Scottish Labour’s post-referendum crisis to reforge the party out of tougher stuff, that can give Scottish Labour back its identity and purpose. Its momentum has already exceeded expectations: Neil Findlay’s leadership campaign and Katy Clark’s bid for deputy already have the backing of trade unions and the significant resources they bring. The question is whether their campaigns can embody a popular and distinctive force that Scottish people can envision voting for in 2015 and 2016.

It is encouraging that both candidates have put power ahead of personality. Announcing her candidacy Clark fired a round at Murphy’s egoistic campaign spin, declaring that the leadership campaign is “not about individuals” but “the vast majority of people [who] want a secure job, a decent home and access to good quality public services” which are “prevented for too many by wealth being held in the hands of a minority”. This language and these demands are not the standard Scottish Labour fare of education, health and provision of public services, but are priorities hitherto excluded from the politics of devolved Scotland. People want job security and better wages, but do not expect to receive them from Scottish Labour. Findlay and Clark need to create new expectations about what the party can deliver, with a set of demands (for work, services, wages and so on) to be presented to the people.

These campaigns have to create a programme for Labour that is distinctive from the politics that the party has represented since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999. Given that the public and the membership believe Scottish Labour has lost its way, they need to restate the purpose of the party, based not on making devolution work but on autonomous socialist strategies and a new commitment to addressing the basic issues of wages, work and wealth. This rebellion has to struggle against Murphy’s slick campaign with confidence in policies for full employment, and with a bold challenge to corporate control, as well as an explanation as to why such policies will enable Labour to stand up to the SNP in Holyrood. The campaigns must resist temptations to appeal to members with mild social policies, or to focus on their opposition to the SNP’s universal benefits, however correct that position may be. Nor should they tell stories about how Neil and Katy personally embody Labour’s tradition. Their merits are not personal but political: the power they demand is not government in itself, but for the common good of the people – whose support is the foundation for each and every successful rebellion. Machiavelli’s chief lesson to the Prince was not to stab your opponents in daylight, not to pursue your ends with mock concern for the people, but to win the confidence of those you serve and make the people the foundation of your rule.

Putting jobs, work and wages first is fundamental, and the language has to be at once radical and ordinary. The public talks more about the lack of work than politicians do these days. Exploitation is conventional but what parliamentarian makes an argument on the exploitative methods of employers? Fighting economic injustices, which is displaced from Scottish politics, needs to become Scottish Labour’s raison d’être. Policies need to confront power imbalances – starting with legislation in Scotland to rebalance workplaces through collective bargaining. Securing economic justice demands not just action in Scotland, but recognizing that as things stand Scottish Labour can and must wield force in Britain to make an impact. This was one of the truths Labour addressed in the referendum: change can only be made beyond Scotland.

Nobody expects the next Scottish Labour leaders to break new ground, but the public’s expectations could hardly be worse: they are no foundation for a radical party. Socialism itself is non-existent and unexpected. Most people don’t know what they need until they see it. Their radical campaigns must describe the society that the party would aspire to create under their leadership. Successful rebellions are dismissed and ridiculed until they are in reach of power. Civil wars are hard to win, but an alliance of determined members can build up demands and win authority on the basis of assured conviction, backed by trade unions and other organizations, as well as their collective effort. It is not expectations but exceptions that create political change, and an exceptional campaign could demonstrate the capacity of socialists to lead Scottish Labour.

Scottish Labour has, in Clark and Findlay, a leadership team capable of winning power in the party and in Scotland, not for the sake of parliamentary ends that have stifled the Labour party for generations, but to deliver a kind of Home Rule that will allow us to get out of the bind of devolution. These candidates could use their leadership to win power from interests that control and determine the conditions and aspirations of the Scottish people, as part of a wider insurgency in the Labour party across the British isles. Katy Clark, with a record of attacking banks, promoting good employment and exposing exploitation, represents the outward battle. On the home front, Neil Findlay can make economic justice the mainstay of Scottish Labour’s politics. Together they urgently need to win this civil war and retake the Scottish Labour party.

Cailean Gallagher (@CaileanG)

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One thought on “What radical exception can break Jim Murphy’s rule?

  1. So, the right has won Labour. Again. Still, onwards to next time, and the time after that, eh comrades? I’m sure if the crew shake their fists enough, the ship will stop sinking.

    Like

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