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11 October 2016

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. 

By Julia Rampen

“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. 

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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.