Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Leading Labour

Like him or loathe him (and I know plenty on the latter side of that) Jim Murphy has done a fairly good decent job as Secretary of State for Scotland - from a political perspective at least.

No really. A number of commentators and academics had concerns about the informal nature of intergovernmental affairs between Westminster and Holyrood under the Lab-LD coalition. Decisions were taken on an "I know so and so from conference" basis, and toes were not stepped on when an issue was contentious (civil partnerships is probably the best example). With Labour in government at both levels, it was easy to see why they wished to avoid conflict - and the easiest way to do so was to avoid formal negotiations.

However, with the election of the SNP in 2007, the potential was there for more explosive relations. Indeed, most media outlets had the SNP pointedly fighting with Westminster over everything before they'd even set foot in Bute House. This proved unfounded. The SNP were keen to get intergovernmental relations back into the formal sphere, and tried to rebuild the Joint-Ministerial Council and British-Irish Council... albeit with some resistance from Westminster (and limited success).

Nevertheless, appointing Jim Murphy as Secretary of State for Scotland - and making the position full-time again - has been a successful move for the UK Government for several reasons. At a perception-only level, it has made it appear that Scotland is on the agenda and represented at Cabinet. More than that though, the position has acted as a buffer between the two governments - and more particularly, between the First Minister and the Prime Minister. Any time Alex Salmond has called for a meeting between governments, Gordon Brown has said "speak to Jim, he's responsible for Scotland". And that has worked - it has kept the First Minister as an unequal to the PM, on the same level as Jim Murphy. Crucially, it has allowed Gordon Brown to avoid entangling himself in every Scottish issue of the day.

But perhaps the best outcome for Labour in Scotland is that it has allowed a Scottish MP to regain some control over Labour's message in Scotland. Rather than leaving the leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament (LOLISP) to appear as a leader, Jim Murphy has, to all intents and purposes, assumed a leadership role - challenging the FM to debates, speaking at conferences alongside Iain Gray and generally getting quoted as the Labour spokesperson in Scotland. And, to a great degree, he has done so relatively successfully - keeping Alex Salmond at arms length from Westminster and acting as Salmond's equal.

Question is though, what happens after May? I mean, even though I expect Jim Murphy to survive a tough election (both the Tories and the SNP will be after him hard after finishing ahead of Labour there in the European election) Labour may not. In fact, I'd go as far to say I think the game is up - and we'll have a Tory Government with a majority of around 60 after the election. Which means a Tory Secretary of State for Scotland... and Jim Murphy out of his high profile role.

Granted, if that happens then Labour have bigger problems to deal with than losing Murphy as a spokesperson. But the real point is this - how will Iain Gray cope? If Labour are out of government at Westminster AND Holyrood, Iain Gray - being the higher elected official in Scottish Labour - will be the de facto Leader of Labour in Scotland.

What would that mean for Labour? And Labour MPs? What would their role be under a Tory Government and a leader who wouldn't sit in the same parliament? Would Jim Murphy continue to do the job as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland? Or would Iain Gray have to up his game?

I guess we wait...


Anonymous,  27 October 2009 at 08:43  

Interesting point. It might be that, with rivals out the way, he will stake a claim for being A Man Of Substance. But as both he and the Westminister MPs will be out of office, it'll be anyone's game. There will no doubt be a disproportionate amount of Scottish Labour MPs in the next parliament, some of whom might well be keen to stake a claim themselves. Watch out for whispers about Iain Gray's performances against Salmond...

Andrew BOD 27 October 2009 at 11:14  

Add to that the Tory desire for English votes for English policy, possibly through an English Grand Committee then the role of Scottish Labour MPs diminishes even further. Say then that Calman's recommendations are realised. These same MPs will become part-time MPs!

Perhaps Murphy and some of his colleagues will seek election in Holyrood in 2011. Perhaps Murphy will replace Gray for real.

Aye We Can ! 28 October 2009 at 00:43  

interesting points. From Labour's point of view Murphy is a class operator. If he survives in Eastwood in May Id expect him to emerge as a key figure in labour UK ranks - i think he is just marking time in Scotland. Assuming a labour defeat at westminster and a big clear out in high places, staging a coup against Ian Gray will be small beer in terms of Murphy long term ambitions - right age and well positioned for Labour's rebuilding. post near inevitable meltdown in May....Foreign Secretary, Even a future UK leader

Anonymous,  28 October 2009 at 11:19  

I just don't see Murphy as any kind of leader. He is only able to shine in contrast to Iain Gray. He is inarticulate, muddle headed and a walking diplomatic disaster. On a radio phone in and on the Scotsman web-in, he was beaten solidly by ordinary callers. In my humble opinion he's a nowhere man. In a debate with Salmond he would be toast within minutes.

The trouble is that the English parties have to find someone who is good enough to take on Salmond, but prepared to take the very very junior role of Scottish Secretary. It's not easy. Remember even Jim didn't want the job.

Brilliant piece Malc. Really enjoyed it.

Colin 28 October 2009 at 11:21  

I reckon Labour are unlikely to have a new Scottish UK leader any time soon.

Still, Jim Murphy is pretty much the sharpest tool in their box. If he does lose East Ren next year - which I doubt, as the anti-Jim vote will be split - and ends up entering Holyrood in 2011 to replace Gray, I think the Nats will come to regret it.

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