Jim Murphy: security is at the heart of the new centre ground

The Shadow Defence Secretary has a theory about the changing complexion of British politics

I have interviewed shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy for this week's magazine. He talks about a range of subjects: Labour's difficulty talking about class; the protest camp at St Paul's Cathedral; the epic problems facing the party in Scotland; the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

As ever there wasn't room to print everything he said and there was one extended passage that I thought deserved more attention than the constraints of the page allowed. We talked about the legacy of Thatcherism and the way she effectively changed the parameters of political debate in Britain. Did she identify a shift in the "centre ground" of politics or did she redefine it by force of will? There is a lot of discussion at the top of the Labour party at the moment about the prospect of a change in the political landscape equivalent to the one that happened between the late Seventies and mid-Eighties. The theory goes that the financial crisis that started in 2007-8 and continues today will force a social upheaval and a dramatic reappraisal of government's role in the economy. The orthodoxy of the Thatcher and Blair years, in this view, is obsolete. Ed Miliband's contention is that the Tories, wedded as they are to that Thatcherite orthodoxy, are intellectually unable to grasp the scale of this change and under-equipped to respond to it. Labour, he thinks, has the opportunity to harness the national mood.

I discussed this with Jim Murphy. He had an interesting take on the "new centre" which he characterised as follows:

This new centre is populated by ideas and policies from both the centre-left and the centre-right. People wanting a government to intervene in a way that would be more consistent with an ethos of the centre left on industrial policy, on bank bonuses, on those sorts of things - an instinct that would have its heritage in the centre left of politics. But then things like crime, immigration, welfare which instinctively some people - not me, the ill-informed orthodoxy - would have that on the centre-right.

Security is the biggest part of this new centre - financial security, job security, home security determination to have answers from centre left - and then there's personal security - community security, immigration, welfare, cohesion. Some people say traditionally that sense of security comes from the centre-right.

I'm not sure that Miliband would phrase it in that way, but there is a lot of overlap. The Labour leader has accepted a lot of language traditionally associated with the centre-right (and, it must be said, New Labour) of "toughness" on crime and the need for a welfare system that makes demands of recipients to take more responsibility for finding work. But he has also reached across to more radical left impulses in his criticism of "predatory" capitalism.

There will always be people in the Labour party - and elsewhere - who see this attempt to find a position that appeals across the political spectrum as cynical "triangulation" and craven capitulation to fear that the country's instincts are ultimately conservative. I'm not so sure. It is too early to say that Miliband has arrived at a settled new political philosophy for Labour - at least not one that can be easily distilled into a clear message and used as the basis for a campaign. But it is noteworthy that Murphy, who co-managed David Miliband's campaign and is generally held up as the shadow cabinet's leading Blairite, and Ed, who famously promised to "turn the page" on New Labour, are converging on the same political terrain.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.