If the SNP think they will have an easy fight against Jim Murphy they are as deluded as I was

Luke Akehurst

I have one thing in common with Neil Findlay – being on the receiving end of a Jim Murphy election victory. My first encounter with Jim was rather a bruising one. I was 19 and running for a slot on the block of five ordinary seats on the National Committee of Labour Students (NOLS) in 1992. In those days democratic socialists (defined as anyone was not a revolutionary entryist) held an open caucus called “New Directions” the night before the main conference to agree which candidates to back against the Trotskyist Socialist Organiser grouping (now known as the Alliance for Workers Liberty). An “open caucus” meant any non-Trotskyist member of Labour Students could turn up and vote, not just conference delegates. I thought I had been very well organised to persuade a minibus full of my mates from Bristol to travel up to London to vote for me, and knew I had the backing of NUS high-ups including the then President and his successor Stephen Twigg and Lorna Fitzsimons. Jim turned up with two full coach loads of students from Strathclyde University and various Glasgow Further Education colleges and steamrollered my nascent student political ambitions. The winning candidate he backed against me was a mature student from Hull University called Tom Watson. I look forward to the Murphy/Watson alliance one day being renewed, they are nearer to each other politically than they realise and combined would easily sweep Labour to landslide victories. Just as long as next time they are not allied against me.

As I left the meeting the winning candidate for NOLS Chair, also backed by Jim, Paul Hewitt, took me to one side and said “don’t bear grudges about this, the kaleidoscope will shake and next year you could be on the same slate as people you have just been beaten by”.

That’s advice I have taken with me ever since. Anyone in the Labour Party is someone who you might need political help from so permanent fallings out don’t make clever politics.

The other lesson I took from that evening was respect for Jim Murphy’s organising skills and the charismatic leadership that meant large numbers of people were prepared to follow his political lead. On the way home me and another Bristol delegate called Ian Moss made a resolution to try to build an alliance with Jim and his NUS West of Scotland powerbase and never be on the wrong side of him again. We backed him for NUS President in 1994 – when he ran as the more leftwing of two candidates for the internal selection within NOLS – and I have usually found myself on the same side as him ever since – with the notable exception of the 2010 leadership election where I backed Ed Miliband and he didn’t. Sadly he also picked up some enemies in NUS – mainly embittered far left anti-Labour candidates who he saw off in election after election and who consequently hate Jim’s tribal affinity with the Labour Party.

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I’m entirely unsurprised by Jim ending up as Labour’s Leader in Scotland – he has been building his support in the Scottish Labour Party for about 25 years with an attention to detail and energy that leaves most people standing.

I have a number of reactions to the scale of his victory and the conduct of the campaign:

  1. The Falkirk selection row continues to poison the well of Labour politics. That a selection in a single constituency led to a yearlong review of the union link and the kind of bitterness expressed during the leadership campaign is absurd. We are all now facing a huge threat from the SNP and so we should be focused on fighting them not score-settling over past disputes. My sense is that both sides in the Falkirk dispute behaved badly, but that it is rubbish politics not to move on from it.
  2. The overall result was pretty much what any objective observer who has studied the Scottish Labour Party would have guessed it would be. A very high profile and charismatic senior politician who had just been the hero of the No campaign running against a more junior politician with very little name recognition and an affiliation with the Hard Left was a contest that was only ever going to have one outcome.
  3. The Findlay campaign seemed to believe their own hype and actually think they were near to winning. Mid-campaign I was being told that they were heading for 80% of the vote in the affiliates section, had huge phone banks running that were out-organising Jim in the CLP section, and were getting defectors from MPs and MSPs that had nominated Jim. This all turned out to be wishful thinking.
  4. Jim’s 60% performance in the CLP members’ section was in line with the 63% 2011 vote obtained by his ally Ken Macintosh and a second candidate with similar politics, Tom Harris. Scottish party members are basically sensible – Scotland largely avoided both the swing to the Bennite hard left in the 1980s and the SDP reaction to it, instead producing moderate politicians like John Smith, George Robertson, Donald Dewar, Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown, and slightly to their left Robin Cook, who all helped keep Labour alive in the 1980s.
  5. In the MPs and MSPs section Jim’s 67% vastly exceeded the 48% obtained by Macintosh and Harris because there are clearly some MPs and MSPs who were happy to vote for the Johann Lamont but not for Neil Findlay.
  6. In the affiliates section Jim got a respectable 40%, up from the 34.5% obtained by Macintosh and Harris, presumably because his name recognition trumped the recommendations from the unions themselves in many cases. This shows the limits of the unions influence among their members – they will be listened to when they make a credible centre-of-the-party recommendation in a nuanced contest (e.g. Ed Miliband in 2010, Lamont in 2011) but if they try to push a candidate who is too far to the left against a well-known and respected moderate they won’t be able to deliver as much.
  7. There are only two explanations for the personalised attacks that some of Findlay’s supporters – not I think Neil himself – made on Jim during the campaign. The charitable one is that they really did believe they could win and this kind of attack would make the difference, in which case they are bad at maths, have no political judgement, and have learned nothing from the way negative campaigning backfired in a number of parliamentary selections earlier in this parliament. The less charitable explanation is that they knew Jim would win but are so sectarian and so blinded by their dislike of him that they were happy to provide ammunition to the SNP in a General Election where the SNP vs Labour fight may determine the UK’s future.
  8. Some of the online reaction from leftwing activists – many of them English Labour people commenting from the sidelines  –  to Jim’s victory has been vile: churlish, rude, uncomradely and politically stupid. The result was a democratic one and should be respected. Jim is the Last Best Hope of Scottish Labour to survive and thence of UK Labour to win the General Election and stop the Tory attack on our NHS and other public services. Reacting to his win as though he was a cartoon demon (one activist posted a picture of him as the Emperor from Star Wars) is childish, exaggerates internal differences which in truth are far less significant, and just feeds the SNP’s lie machine. The kind of abuse I’ve read about Jim is the kind of disgusting sectarian hate that I thought we had moved on from in the Labour Party after the 1980s.
  9. Much of the attack on Jim seems to be about the three issues where I agree with him: his vote for the Iraq War, his membership of Labour Friends of Israel (he was the subject of at least one cartoon and one comment piece which had antisemitic undertones) and his support for the renewal of Trident. I.e. on nuclear deterrence as a multilateralist he is in the same place as Attlee, Wilson, Callaghan, Blair, Brown, Ed Miliband and Nye Bevan. On Israel where he is a supporter of a balanced approach with a two state solution and against boycotts he is in the same place as every Labour PM too, perhaps to the left of the very Zionist Wilson and Nye Bevan, and a tiny slither to the right of Ed Miliband in that he abstained on the recent Palestinian statehood vote as he wants that to be the end point of negotiations not the start of them. On Iraq he was in the same position as all except three Labour frontbenchers. If any of these are now things that make you persona non grata in the Labour Party we have really lost the plot. That they would be deployed as arguments against voting for someone running for a role that has absolutely no remit regarding foreign or defence policy is desperate.
  10. Perhaps the reason for the attacks on Jim being so focused on his foreign policy record is that he hadn’t had much opportunity to speak about domestic policy until this campaign because since 2002 he has been continuously a whip (forbidden to speak on any policy matter at all) or apart from a stint at DWP a minister or shadow covering Europe, Scottish constitutional matters, defence then international development. So people just made up whatever nonsense caricature they thought would damage him most – using “Blairite” as a code for neo-liberal lover of finance-capital, austerity-fan, privatiser and outsourcer etc. Then when Jim actually said what he stood for it turned out it was actually rather radical: tackling inequality, promoting the Living Wage, opposition to tuition fees,  more cash for elderly social care, full devolution of income tax powers so the top rate can be higher in Scotland. But hey, why let someone’s actual views get in the way of a good bit of character assassination?

We ought to actually be grateful that this guy has had the guts to take on what must be one of the most difficult jobs in politics. Here we have a working class Celtic fan who is the antithesis of the detached ivory tower political class the voters are rebelling against. A man who has taken on and smashed the Tories, turning their best seat in Scotland into a Labour stronghold through sheer campaigning effort. A man who stopped the SNP running away with the referendum by taking to the streets and speaking to ordinary people up and down the country. I believe him when he says his objective is to stop the SNP taking a single Labour seat. I just pray everyone in the Labour Party will now get behind him and help him do it. If the SNP think they will have an easy fight against Jim they are as deluded as I was when I headed up to London to my first NOLS Conference.

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