Jim Murphy is incredibly relaxed. There are a few ways of telling that. There’s the way he’s sitting, comfortably relaxed on a chair in his office. There’s the way he talks, candidly and openly. In reality though it’s probably the exercise – Jim tells me he was playing football earlier. I’m told he’s quite good.
So who is Jim Murphy? He’s certainly ambitious, but you know that already. Judging by the number of photos in his Westminster office he’s a family man. Judging by the JFK pictures he has the same keen interest in US politics so many of us in the party share. Judging by the can of Irn Bru on the table, he’s proud of his Scottish identity, or a fan of unique tasting soft drinks.
His spacious office overlooks Parliament Square, and Big Ben is framed in one of the huge windows. It’s probably the best office I’ve visited on the parliamentary estate – someone obviously gets on well with the whips. Looking down on the rest of Westminster you get the impression that all of this could be his, perhaps, one day.
Today though, we’re here to talk about the Scottish Party review, which he has co-chaired with MSP Sarah Boyack. Over the summer they met over 1,000 members in what sounds like a half post-mortem half catharsis process. It has left Murphy is no doubt about the extent to which Scottish Labour must change:
“We got absolutely gubbed at the election,” he tells me. “The worst share of the vote for over seventy years. We became a one in eight party…we got one in four of the votes cast, but only 50% of people voted.” Yet he’s not a believer in magic bullets for political parties, at least when it comes to structures. “Structures don’t win you an election – they hinder the chances of you losing an election, but they don’t win you an election,” he says, almost casually. What Murphy is more interested in that structures is culture, “which I think is tougher actually…you can’t compel that.”
Whilst on TV Murphy can come across as firm and rigid, in person he speaks off the cuff. It doesn’t feel accidental though. You get the sense that there’s little that thoughtful, considered Jim Murphy does without considering the implications.
The Scottish Tory Party are going through their own growing pains (or shrinking pains, to be more accurate) at present, with leadership candidate Murdo Fraser promising to abolish the party if he wins the Scottish leadership. Or as Murphy scathingly puts it “The Tory Party in Scotland has thrown itself off a cliff.” I ask him if he’d be in favour of abolishing the Scottish Labour Party – “That’s up to the voters”, he replies, with a grin.
What about the leadership of Scottish Labour. He’s certainly one of the “big beasts” linked with the Scottish Labour leadership. Is he interested? Not at the moment he’s not. He says “it would have been pretty cheeky” to stand for leader having co-chaired the recent Scottish party review, and that he never intended to stand. He does however tell me that he plans to support MSP Ken Macintosh (whose Holyrood constituency mirrors his own), for the Scottish leadership this time around. How does he think the leadership election will go? “It’s a tough politics the Scottish Labour Party,” he says, but it’s important for the candidates to emphasise what we’ve got in common. What he wants is, “a good clean fight, maybe less of fight…good clean contest instead of a good clean fight…a party that gets one in eight votes can’t tear itself apart.”
There’s still a chance that Murphy may stand for the leadership north of the border, although don’t hold your breath, he says that he’d consider it “maybe in twenty years time”. Perhaps he has other ambitions first? We don’t discuss those, but twenty years is a long time in politics.
Back in the present though, the big challenge for Labour in Scotland is the state of the SNP. Their voters are energised to vote in Holyrood elections, whereas Labour voters aren’t as enthused. So how does Murphy suggest engaging with them?
“Some people say it should be Socialism vs Nationalism. I think it should be Patriotism vs Nationalism. We can have patriotism and they can have nationalism. The Labour Party has been queasy about symbols of nation state and flags…the only flag that some people join the Labour Party to wave is the red flag.”
So some tough words for some in the party? Sure. But speaking to Murphy it’s hard to get past the notion that Murphy is a pragmatist. He wants to be where the voters are, and he’s desperate to get back into government. As we wrap up the interview he apologies to me for having to reschedule the interview time. I tell him that I understand – he must be busy. “My diary is full,” he confides, “but I’m not busy.” This is a man who is very serious about getting back into government, in Westminster and in Holyrood.