Jim Murphy’s ‘Clause Four’ Moment and ‘Putting Scotland First’
Sunday Mail, January 11th 2015
Jim Murphy has to do some simple things right now – as well as some difficult ones. He has to get noticed, cause a noise and get up certain people’s noses.
Murphy faces some significant challenges. He has a short time span in which to make an impact on, and make a difference to, Labour’s electoral prospects for the May 7th UK general election – and how it is seen by the electorate.
Both are tough asks. Who was the last Scottish Labour leader who made his or her mark on Scotland? A whole host of figures have passed through the last decade – leaving barely a mark on the public consciousness.
Murphy knows all this, and that he desperately needs to kick against the state of Scottish politics post-referendum: an insurgent, popular SNP – and a Labour Party which is struggling to come to terms with how to oppose it.
This is the rationale of Murphy’s actions this week. Yesterday he presented a redrafted version of Scottish Labour’s constitution to the party executive which will be put to members at a one-day conference in March. The party has declared that it will aim to ‘put Scotland first’, while not ‘giving up solidarity with people across the UK’.
Earlier in the week Murphy promised 1,000 more nurses than the SNP. That’s right. Not a 1,000 more nurses, but a 1,000 more than any number that the SNP promise. That’s a seriously open-ended pledge.
Not only that, but Murphy linked this to Ed Miliband’s mansion tax on homes valued at over £2 million plus which are mostly based in London and the South East. Just in case this connection was missed, Scottish Labour tweeted from their official account that ‘95% will be levied in the South East of the UK.’
Murphy’s actions are high risk. The new ‘Clause Four’ moment attempts to revisit New Labour’s greatest success – when Blair established his moderate credentials by rewriting the party constitution twenty years ago. But that was a very different time. Then Labour was on the up. Now they are in retreat and scrambling to regain the political initiative.
The new intent have even been called by Labour ‘Murphy’s Law’. Yet, there is an admission in Murphy’s statements that not only has he and his party to prove their Scottish credentials, but by feeling they have to say they ‘put Scotland first’ they are conceding that at some point they did not do this.
The announcement on nurses met criticism from London Labour MPs such as Diane Abbott, David Lammy and Tessa Jowell. All of them, not without relevance, are positioning themselves for the next London Mayoral Labour candidature, and concerned about how Labour comes over with what are seen as ‘middle class voters’. This despite the fact that in the rest of the country £2 million plus homes would count as the super-rich.
This showed that very few members of the Westminster political class understand the Barnett formula: the 30 year plus calculation used to determine Scottish, as well as Welsh and Northern Irish public spending levels. The Barnett formula is about how English expenditure relates to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The mansion tax isn’t expenditure, but revenue which leads to expenditure. Murphy seemed to not grasp this.
London Labour politicians have literally become city nationalists – defending their respective political constituencies. Territorial politics are beginning to matter as much, if not on some occasions more, than class and ideology.
Murphy has left a mark this week. He has created ripples across Britain. He has irritated some people. He has grabbed the headlines and exposed schisms. But he has to do a lot more.
So far he has enacted not a politics of strategy and substance, but one that is reactive and about the politics of the personal. His core appeal up to now seems to be ‘I am a big beast, trust me, I will stand up for Scotland and won’t be pushed around by Westminster’.
This is implicit in Murphy’s statement that ‘Scottish Labour is now under new leadership’. Aided by his new chief of staff John McTernan who is a former Blair adviser, the key ingredients in Labour’s offer will be leadership mixed with a populist, hard-edged appeal.
This puts a lot of weight upon Murphy’s shoulders. He is in effect offering a personal compact with voters – above and beyond everything else, including where real power sits in both party and country. This is the kind of presidential politics more suited to Westminster or the US than Scotland, but also a holding operation, and the most he can do in a short time.
Murphy knows he can craft some of his own personal appeal and agenda, but that changing the party and its appeal is a much longer project. All of this begs the question which Labour has avoided throughout devolution: can a party which has only a partial and limited autonomy really dare to put Scotland’s interests first? We are about to find out in the coming election.