From 41, to just one. Ian Murray, went from having the smallest Labour majority in Scotland to the only Labour majority in Scotland, from being a junior business minister to the shadow secretary of state for Scotland. But he hasn’t been celebrating.
“There has been no celebration – it’s been devastating for the party. But the most devastating part is it’s been devastating for our local communities as well,” he tells me in Portcullis House.
Many have interpreted the election result as vindication for the SNP’s anti-austerity message, suggesting that Labour could have limited the damage north of Union Bridge had it only positioned itself further on the left. Not Murray. “That’s complete rubbish – total and utter rubbish. It’s trying to find a simple answer to an incredibly complicated question. Scotland is not anymore left than the rest of the country.”
The contention is borne out by research showing nothing exceptional about Scotland’s political views. Compared to England, Scots are 9 per cent less likely to want to leave the EU, just 7 per cent more likely to favour increasing spending on health, education and social benefits and 3 per cent less likely to think students should pay some tuition fees. Murray stresses that it remains too early to have completed the analysis of Labour’s Scottish catastrophe, but of one thing he is certain: moving further to the left is fool’s gold.
“The big issues that the left, if I can use those old-fashioned and clunky terms, wanted us to deal with were all in our manifesto – zero hour contracts, poverty pay, looking after the poorest students, investment in public services, allowing public bodies to run our railways. All of those big issues are incredibly left-wing issues.
“Owen Jones is slightly oversimplifying an incredible problem,” Murray says, warning that “a false analysis creates a false symptom which then creates a false treatment.”
“Whether you were on the left of the party like Katy Clark it didn’t matter – everybody lost with an equal amount.” While the average swing in the seats Labour lost to the SNP was 27.3 per cent, Clark suffered a swing against her of 23.3 per cent. And Ian Davidson, another figure on the party left and former secretary of the Trade Union Group of Labour MPs, actually had a swing against him of 35.3 per cent.
For all the SNP’s rhetoric about being on Labour’s left, Murray notes that the IFS actually showed that the SNP’s manifesto advocated deeper austerity than Labour. “To just say that someone stood on a rhetorical ticket of anti-austerity, when actually they didn’t, and so therefore what we need to do is turn back to the Labour Party of the 1970s isn’t going to resolve the problem.”
So Murray is adamant that the general election in Scotland was not about left or right. “It’s very difficult to argue against an emotional response to anything – it really is,” he says. “We had the perfect storm of the referendum, constitutional politics and essentially nationalism in England against nationalism in Scotland. The Labour Party was always going to lose.”
While Murray recognises how the SNP capitalised on the opportunity that the referendum gave them, he says the roots of Labour’s defeat go back much further, all the way to the devolution settlement in 1998. “We have not really responded properly to devolution – the centre of political debate in Scotland is at Holyrood and we have not quite realised that.”
He suggests that Labour was anaemic in responding to the defeat in the Scottish Parliament in 2007, after eight years of coalition with the Lib Dems. “When we lost the election in 2007 we didn’t really sit down and say ‘what’s our plan for Scotland for the next 20 years’? There was a general erosion [of Labour support] and then the referendum came along and was the catalyst for that divergence.”
“Since 2007 there has been a successful fudging of who has responsibility for anything. The SNP government have been very successful at saying that all of the problems of Scotland aren’t our fault, and anything that’s great about Scotland is all our doing. None of that is true but we have not been able to be an effective opposition and deal with that.
“The Scottish National Party exists for two things. One is independence for Scotland, and the second is to undermine and destroy the Labour movement. The only way they can get one is to do the other. So part of their strategy is to steal our clothes and steal our policies which they’ve done quite successfully.
“The real challenge for the Labour Party in Scotland is to really scrutinise this government and put the government’s record in front of the Scottish people and say – hold on a minute, their rhetoric doesn’t match their actions, never has done and never will do.”
In confronting this task, Scottish Labour “should ignore polls and the current environment in Scotland and start with a blank sheet of paper,” Murray says. “The Scottish Labour Party’s been needing to reform itself fundamentally for a long time and has been putting that stuff off.” He praises the reforms enacted by outgoing Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, including changing the election for leader to one member one vote and reopening the selection process for the Regional Lists at the Scottish Parliament election next year. “It’s very difficult for new leaders or leaders currently in situ to do something as radical as he’s done.
“Structural change in the Labour Party is not going to bring people back to vote for us, but it’s going to mean that we can work better with a fresh start and a new fresh leadership.”
But the problem is that there isn’t much time: the next Scottish Parliamentary elections are next year. “I don’t think we should talk about how to outflank the SNP on the left or on the right or in the centre – we should try and respond to what the problems of Scotland are with the powers that we’ve got,” he says. “At some point we’re going to have to go back to talking about real issues again – and that’s not the constitution, because nobody really cares about it.”
To Murray, the challenge of Labour in Scotland is intertwined with, not distinct from, the problems the UK Labour Party face. “There’s a real challenge – there’s a crisis of social democracy across Europe,” he says. “We just need to reflect that the Labour Party has a set of values that we all agree with, otherwise we wouldn’t be in the party and how do we develop a policy platform that responds to that? Competence is part of it, credibility is part of it.”
He accepts that another referendum is likely within 15 years, though Murray does not believe that Scotland will plump for independence. “I think we’ll have another referendum but I don’t think it will [lead to Scotland leaving] because ultimately – and I’ll continue arguing this even if it is electorally difficult – its in Scotland’s best interests to remain part of the UK.”
Indeed, Murray reckons that 2015 could be looked back upon as the high-water mark for the SNP. Next April the 2012 Scotland Act will be implemented in full, increasing the proportion of taxes raised in Scotland to 16 per cent; by 2018 that could rise to 40 per cent. “The politics of grievance is therefore diluted because they can’t just blame somebody else for something. So if tax credits are cut they would have the power to be able to put a supplement in – but they would have to pay for that.”
Not that a fall in SNP support will necessarily translate into more support for Labour. Murray predicts that the Scottish Conservatives could enjoy a renewal under Ruth Davidson. “The more powers that Scotland has over tax the more the right-wing are likely to thrive.”
Still, as Murray jokes, there is one thing he doesn’t have to worry about. There isn’t much competition for his job as Shadow Scotland Secretary.