Ian Murray
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Ian Murray: "That stupid Control Immigration mug blew our policies out of the water"

The former shadow Scotland secretary wants robust economic policies from Labour. 

“The shadow cabinet elections are dead,” Ian Murray told me. I’d been in his office five minutes, but the former shadow Scotland secretary isn’t one to mince his words. He told me the plan, still officially to be decided by the Labour’s decision-making body, stemmed from a genuine desire to reunite Jeremy Corbyn with his dissident colleagues. “Not only has Jeremy not grasped the olive branch to the parliamentary Labour party, he has set it alight.”

Corbyn reshuffled his shadow cabinet after winning re-election in September, but Murray, the only Scottish Labour MP left, hasn’t heard from him. “The last conversation I had with Jeremy was when I resigned in June,” he said. “He is not making any attempt to persuade me that I am doing the wrong thing.”

Perhaps Murray would be too much of an omen of what is to come. When the newly-elected member for Edinburgh South first arrived in Westminster in 2010, he was accompanied by 40 of his Scottish Labour colleagues. Five years later, he was on his own. “It was devastating to see,” Murray recalled of that bloody election night. “You watch it like a slow motion car crash. 

“You don’t know the impact of close colleagues losing their seats until you look back on it. I spent most of election night trying to find someone to help me write a few words because we knew it was going to be difficult.”

Murray has spent most of his parliamentary career on the shadow front benches, and says he would consider any offer to return, but nevertheless appears to be enjoying his newfound freedom as a backbencher. When we met, he had just returned from speaking in a debate on Syria, and also has strong views on the looming Brexit negotiations. 

In Scotland, where the majority of the population opted to stay in the EU, the immigration debate is more muted. But Murray describes his constituency as “a microcosm of the effects of Brexit”, and he should know. Murray grew up in a working-class family on a housing estate, and lost his father aged nine. As a teenager, he was a student at the prestigious University of Edinburgh, and by his early twenties a businessman. 

“Edinburgh University can only survive with scientists at the top of their game,” he said. “On the other hand people in Burdiehouse [one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Scotland] see immigration as being a huge problem. They use it as the prism for other problems - a lack of affordable housing, a massive rise in insecurity in work, a significant problem of progression in the workplace, worries about GP practices.

“What do you do with all that? Does it become an issue of immigration?”

In Murray’s view, the answer is no – but that’s beside the point. “Whether the public are right or wrong [on immigration], it is a total dereliction of duty for politicians not to listen to what people are saying to them,” he declared. 

“People come into my surgery and say all the time, ‘They are skipping the housing queue.’ Well, the system doesn’t work that way, but there is a problem with lack of affordable housing. 

“You need to find a way of bridging the gap between listening to what people are saying to you, challenging these assumptions but also responding positively.”

So how do you make that challenge? “Explaining that the chances are if they are knocked down by a bus they are going to be treated by someone they would deem to be an immigrant,” Murray said. “The chances are that any relative who has a contact with health or social care is probably going to be surrounded by migrant workers.”

He is sceptical of the argument adopted by Rachel Reeves and Labour backbenchers that immigration has pushed down wages. 

“The employers who are depressing wages are doing something wrong,” he said. “Our policy in 2015 was blown out the water by whoever was stupid enough to put on a mug ‘Control Immigration’.

“But, actually, the policies behind that mug were about making sure migrant workers were not exploited. 

“The mug should have said ‘Stop Employers Exploiting Migrant Labour' or something. The mug was a disgrace. But the policies behind it were pro-immigration, but not pro-immigration as usual.”

In the short term, though, changing Labour’s mugs is a lot easier than influencing the Brexit negotiations. If the Conservative government did call a snap election, the polls suggest Labour could end up even further from power. It is no surprise, then, that some on the left are floating the idea of a progressive alliance which could include the Scottish National Party. 

Murray, though, is scathing about the idea. “We have got a progressive alliance at the moment,” he said. “We have a Tory government with a majority of 12 and everyone else apart from the Democratic Unionist Party is against them. We’re still not winning anything.”

In Scotland, the Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith beat Corbyn by 18 points, according to a YouGov exit poll of members. Murray believes this was because Scottish members have experienced “the worst possible” electoral scenarios. He argues the economy was what sank Labour in 2010, and that only clear policy positions will pave the way back to power. As he put it, remembering that fatal night in 2015: “A political party has no right to survive.” Labour's leadership might do well to listen to him. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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