“Labour should help kids become middle class”

Jim Murphy, Labour’s combative defence spokesman, talks to Rafael Behr about the threat from Iran, w

Jim Murphy has been studying Margaret Thatcher. On a hefty oak table in the shadow defence secretary's office, splayed open mid-browse, is a copy of the former prime minister's autobiography. When asked about it, he performs a defensive mime, as if caught indulging some guilty pleasure: "Look, there's also a book about space travel on those shelves and that doesn't mean I want to be an astronaut."

The corner room, with a panoramic view on the Palace of Westminster, does indeed contain the paraphernalia of diverse tastes. There are football trophies (Murphy is contemplating writing a book on the game's role in international politics). There is an acoustic guitar in the corner (he is teaching himself to play - without success, he says). A vintage Soviet propaganda poster leans unhung against the wall.

But Murphy's homework on the Iron Lady is more than historical contemplation. It expresses an interest in how politicians shape nations. Alongside fierce attacks on Thatcher's "social Darwinism" and "soullessness", he allows himself the flicker of a compliment: "She took the mood of the moment and harnessed it with the strength of her personality."

Murphy spent the first half of the Thatcher decade in South Africa, where his parents had emigrated from Glasgow in search of work. He returned to Scotland in 1985. It was a short enough stint to avoid diluting his Glaswegian accent, although he was once fluent in Afrikaans. His first job in the UK was going door to door offering to wash cars. He then studied politics and law at the University of Strathclyde. The presidency of the National Union of Students Scotland was the first rung of the ladder that took him into parliament, as the MP for East Renfrewshire, in 1997, and the cabinet, as secretary of state for Scotland, in 2008. He has come a long way for someone whose parents could not afford a taxi home from the hospital when he was born.

“I'm middle class now," Murphy says, as if it is a confession. "I don't have a problem with that. It's a success. I've said before, one of the Labour Party's jobs is to help working-class parents have middle-class kids. That's a big part of my politics."

Centre court

But class, I note, hasn't been part of the mainstream political conversation for a while in Britain. Murphy agrees: "I think for the last 25 years or so, maybe more, there's been a real reticence to talk about class in a careful, non-knee-jerk, stupid kind of way. Thatcher for her own reasons, then New Labour, for fear of seeming like class warriors, talked about a classless society." Does that mean Labour should talk about it more now? "Class is a big part of our country. It has been, it still is. It shapes so many people's lives. Labour shouldn't ignore its existence."

Coming from the man usually perceived as the shadow cabinet's leading Blairite, that sounds like a critique of the thrice-victorious former prime minister's creed. New Labour, Murphy insists, had "many successes", including the "big boost to the middle class". But austerity changes the political and social landscape. Murphy echoes Ed Miliband when he talks about anticipating and shaping those changes, not simply following them. "Your job in politics isn't to say: 'Where's the centre? Let me park myself in the centre of the centre.' That's the caricature of New Labour, I don't think its true."

But Miliband is aiming at something much more dramatic than political repositioning, with his language about "predatory capitalism" and his recognition, albeit nuanced, of the moral impetus behind the anti-capitalist protest camp currently occupying St Paul's churchyard. Does Murphy agree that it represents something significant?

“I think they reflect something in our society but they don't represent something. There's a difference. They're not the spokespeople of a generation. The spokespeople of what's happening in our country are the mums and dads who are trying to do two jobs." Murphy fleshes out the point with a story of a recent conversation in an all-night supermarket with a woman working a night shift before getting home in time to give her kids breakfast.
“That kind of midnight mum I think represents what's happening - the unease in our country. The folk in their tents reflect something and they've got get-up-and-go and the free time to go and protest . . . I've got a tent, I like camping. I've never done it in church." Murphy checks what feels like a sarcastic impulse coming on and gathers his thoughts. "Ed's right about values. Politics has to have a sense of right and wrong."

These "Midnight mums" Murphy would have Labour speak for are, I guess, probably not, in a trade union. They might not be happy, after a night shift, to find they need emergency childcare because their kids' teachers are on strike.

“I'm guessing she doesn't have a pension and her husband isn't a teacher," he agrees. Isn't that a problem for Labour, in terms of whose interests they are seen to represent?

“Unions exist for a reason - to look after their members . . . You can't get to a world where trade unions don't have the right to strike. Now that's a different question to whether they are right to strike." Are public-sector unions right to strike over pensions on 30 November? Is there a danger that private-sector workers on low incomes will look at the deal the government has offered and think it isn't so bad? What is Labour's view? "We don't pick and back individual disputes."

I try asking the question a few different ways and get variations of the same answer, which Murphy concedes risks making him sound "like a speak-your-weight machine". The difficulty in taking on the pensions issue is, I suspect, part of a larger dilemma for Labour: how far does the party go towards accepting that spending constraints would have meant painful sacrifices, regardless of who had won the election?

Murphy rephrases the question: "How do you achieve in the future, with a smaller state and less money, that which we only partially achieved in the past with more money and a bigger state? To me that's the biggest question that Labour's got to answer over the next year or so." That suggests he thinks voters are persuaded by the Tory attack that Labour doesn't have the stamina for cutting. "Yeah. Well, one of our challenges is to identify the cuts we'd make and the cuts we'd support. I haven't opposed all of the government's cuts in defence."

Oh yes, defence - the brief Murphy thinks about when not studying Thatcher, pondering book proposals and learning the guitar. If there is money to be saved in defence, why not start with scrapping Trident? Labour's policy, Murphy reminds me, is to retain a "credible nuclear deterrent". But not necessarily the very expensive submarine-based version? "You can't have a nuclear deterrent without something being expensive," he ripostes, adding that the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons makes people readier to see taxpayers' money spent on British nuclear weapons. "[Iranian President] Ahmedinejad is probably a more persuasive character on it than I am."

Does Tehran pose a serious threat? "I don't know, it's clouded in secrecy." Can he imagine Labour ever supporting military action to disrupt an Iranian nuclear programme? "No," he replies, thoughtfully at first before repeating with emphasis, "No. No."

Scotland the grave

Murphy's second job for Ed Miliband is heading a review of the party's decline in Scotland. Labour was thrashed by the SNP in the Scottish elections in May. That result does not mean supporters of the Union should be afraid of a referendum on independence: "The SNP has a mandate and should get on and do it." But Murphy rejects the idea of forcing Alex Salmond's hand with a vote triggered in Westminster. "The referendum has got to be made in Scotland."

That doesn't indicate complacency about the state of Scottish Labour, which, says Murphy, has become a "one-in-eight" party - meaning only 25 per cent of people backed the party on a 50 per cent turnout. "So how bad is it? It's seven-out-of-eight bad. In politics you've got to be able to complete the sentence, 'I'm voting for your party because . . .' and it should have a positive ending. It can't be to stop something. Their positive thing was 'vote SNP because you love Scotland'."

Murphy has a thesis about challenging "their nationalism with our patriotism" - making the case for the Union based on love of Scotland and belief that it is better off with England. "We contested their nationalism with 'the Tories are back, vote for us'. It didn't work. You look at Scotland and see that we wasted months in opposition. We didn't do the proper thinking, we didn't reorganise the party and we took opinion-poll leads for granted."
That sounds like a warning to Labour about the next general election. Is it? "I'd rather be ahead than behind. I'd rather be more ahead than we are."

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

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of the Fourth Reich