Scottish Labour leadership candidate Jim Murphy speaks to the media yesterday. Photograph: Getty.
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Jim Murphy rejects "Blairite" label but cautions against shift to the left

"The folk who say you can only do this from the left aren't following the lessons of recent Scottish electoral history," says the Scottish Labour leadership frontrunner. 

The label attached most often to Jim Murphy is "Blairite". And the frontrunner to become the new leader of Scottish Labour was one of the former PM's most loyal defenders. But interviewed today on The World At One, he was unsurprisingly keen to shed this reputation. "There's only one Blairite, really, and it's Tony Blair. All those labels are in the past," he said. On the Iraq war, he delivered the same line used by David Miliband during the 2010 Labour leadership election: "If we'd known then what we now know, none of us would have voted for it." He added: "The approach I'm going to try and take is, I don't care whether you're left-wing, or right-wing, or New Labour, or Old Labour, it's losing Labour I want to get rid of."

There are some within Labour who argue that Murphy is doomed unless he moves Scottish Labour sharply to the left. Katy Clark, the MP North Ayrshire and Arran (one of those interviewed for my report on the party in this week's magazine), told me: "There needs to be a shift to the left. The very clear message, not just at the referendum, but during the referendum even more so, was that people want to see political change, they want to see social change.

"Repeatedly people would say to me that they found Westminster politics very right-wing, they found the Tories very right-wing, they found Ukip even more right-wing, but, frankly, many people that historically would have looked to Labour, who voted Labour in recent elections, said very clearly that they didn’t think that Labour’s traditions were good enough and they wanted what we would call a more left-wing agenda, they wouldn’t necessarily put it in that way, but they wanted a move to the left from Labour. Scottish Labour needs to rise to that challenge."

But Murphy cautioned against such an interpretation. "I think the folk who say you can only do this from the left aren't following the lessons of recent Scottish electoral history," he said. "One of the reasons that the SNP won is because they promised a bigger council tax freeze than any of the other political parties. The nature of nationalism, is that the SNP are both to the left of Labour and to the right of Labour depending on what the voters want to here. I want to come up with a sensible Labour answer to Scotland's problems and that is about doing things differently here. This isn't a blueprint of taking whatever they do in London and trying to apply it in Scotland."

Rival leadership candidate Neil Findlay, the left-wing shadow health secretary, will be relieved that Murphy has left him with political space to occupy. He is on course to win the endorsement of Unite, whose Scottish Secretary Pat Rafferty said yesterday: "Neil Findlay’s declaration that he will stand for leader of the Scottish Labour Party should be welcomed – his democratic socialist credentials are without question and he has a proven track record of representing the interests of working people." 

While Murphy is still likely to win comfortably, one SNP source told me that the party was relishing the prospect of the trade unions, and Unite in particular (whose recent animus with Murphy dates from the Falkirk affair), opening fire on him. "Unless Ed can do a deal with them, the unions will cause problems for Jim," a Labour figure warned. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes. Though, Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Much of the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do many in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.