Jim Murphy is not often lost for words. The shadow defence secretary is seen as one of the ablest communicators on the Labour front bench but his fluid Glasgow patter runs dry as he tries to express the anger among voters that he thinks will shape politics in years to come. It is not, says Murphy, the kind of ideological sloganeering rage that might be diverted down the usual leftwing channels.
“These are people who are angry who will never go on a demonstration. They’re not going to march behind a banner or wave a placard. They’re quiet people who work bloody hard and see their lives stagnating or getting worse. It’s a modest, understated, British, non-revolutionary kind of . . . nnnrgh.” The words run out, leaving only a fist-clenching, teeth-grinding, strained guttural moan – think exasperated Scottish Chewbacca – to express the cry of impotent fury rising up from squeezed Britain.
The established parties, he says, are illequipped to deal with this feeling. There are parts of the country where Labour is losing contact with the electorate. “Parts of the party are stagnating,” says Murphy. We are talking in his parliamentary office with its lofty view of Big Ben but his mind is on the voters he meets on the doorstep, who are ever more alienated from this rarefied world. Their disengagement, he says, is expressing itself with new force. “People say, ‘I don’t vote and let me tell you why. It’s not because I don’t care. Here’s my long list of reasons.’ It’s a kind of chest-thumping, contorted civic pride: militant apathy.”
This challenge is uppermost in many Westminster minds after the Eastleigh byelection, where the UK Independence Party came a close second to the Liberal Democrats, rubbing Labour and Tory noses in public contempt. Ukip’s rise has provoked a noisy public debate among Conservatives about the best strategy for dealing with populist insurgency; Labour’s response has until now been muted. Murphy is the most senior figure to concede that his party is failing to engage with millions of voters.
“If you don’t knock on people’s doors between now and polling day you deserve what you get,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Where were you when I was struggling, when my husband lost his job, when my hours were cut, when I needed you? . . .’
“It’s not an Eastleigh problem, it’s a wider problem. It’s Lazy Labour.”
There are parts of the party, Murphy warns, that drift along with “a sense of entitlement to win”. It is a complacency that goes without scrutiny in party structures and in constituencies where Labour is historically unchallenged; it is not particular to any wing or ideology. “New Labour, Old Labour, left or right – you pay your money, you make your choice. There’s honesty and sincerity about all of them. It’s Lazy Labour we don’t talk about.”
Murphy is quick to praise diligent activists and MPs across the country. His point is that economic crisis and the collapse of trust in so many establishment institutions in recent years have changed the terms of political combat, leaving no seat, no matter how safe it looks, inoculated from the disruptive forces being unleashed.
That raises a question of whether Labour’s machine is equal to the task of turning Ed Miliband’s unifying “one-nation” vision into a winning formula. Murphy plainly has his doubts. He warns against the temptations of “segmentation” – of picking off interest groups and slices of amenable voters without crafting a clear message for the whole country.
“You’ve got to have a one-nation electoral strategy alongside your one-nation values. You don’t get to one-nation politics [by] segmenting the voters. You could get an electoral jigsaw and somehow force all the pieces together so it would give you a picture of a Labour victory – [but] that’s a pretty small view of the world.”
He has a particular rebuke for those in the party who see victory falling into place as target seats tumble when the Lib Dem vote collapses. “For a lot of people it’s fun to kick the Liberals, but if you want a big one-nation mandate it’s pretty fruitless just to do that. Winning 2010 Tory voters is much harder but much more important. We could scrape over the finishing line with Labour voters plus some ex-Liberals, but given the scale of the problems we’d have to deal with, we don’t want to just scrape over the finish line. We want a decent mandate.”
There is, Murphy adds, a longer-term danger for Labour in failing to reach out to parts of southern England. The party risks irrelevance in some areas, equivalent to the cultural expunging of Conservatism from Scotland and some northern English cities.
“I don’t want it to become countercultural for people to vote Labour, the way it has become countercultural for people to vote Tory in Scotland. There are youngsters who weren’t born when Mrs Thatcher was around who still would never vote Tory because of Thatcher . . . That’s not a journey we can afford to take in the south.”
It was Tony Blair who famously overcame Labour’s electoral “southern discomfort” in the mid-1990s. Talk of a recurrence of the syndrome risks reinforcing the suspicion on the left that Murphy is one of what Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, and others have called “Blairite zombies”: acolytes of the former prime minister obstructing the party’s path to socialist virtue.
“It’s no bad thing to have led the party to three remarkable victories,” Murphy says of Blair. “New Labour is part of our heritage . . . But I’m not a Blairite and I’m not a zombie – so I can’t be both.”