As captain of the Parliamentary Football Club, a footballing analogy seems appropriate for the challenge facing him: Scottish Labour are in the relegation zone with only a few months left to salvage their season; Murphy is the new manager who must hope his arrival can spark an immediate upturn in results.
So is he the right man for the job?
He will take heart from his more comfortable than some expected victory in the leadership electoral college: taking 55% of the vote to his nearest rival Neil Findlay’s 35%, with Sarah Boyack a distant third on 10%. Murphy was helped in this regard by a stronger than expected showing in the trade union and affiliated societies section of the ballot, taking 13% out of a possible 33%, behind Findlay on 17%. Comfortable wins amongst Parliamentarians and party members saw him safely over the line without the need to count second preferences.
This will help Murphy as it indicates he has a clear mandate from across the Scottish Labour movement and should prevent any major left-right fissures within the party. Having effective leadership over his party is an essential first step if he is to have realistic hopes of one day leading Scotland.
Murphy has indicated that he will seek to cement his authority through a ‘Clause 4 moment’ of reform to the Labour constitution which would stress that Labour runs its own affairs in Scotland. This will be voted on by party members in spring and would be a convenient rebuttal to the charge that Scottish Labour is merely a ‘branch office’ of the UK party.
Murphy may also benefit in his task of turning round the fortunes of Scottish Labour from the higher public profile he enjoys compared to other recent leaders of the party in Scotland. His two immediate predecessors in particular – Johann Lamont and Iain Gray – had scarcely pricked the public consciousness prior to their ascent to the job of leader of the opposition in Scotland. In this regard, both started with one hand tied behind their backs in their fight against then-SNP leader Alex Salmond, already well-established as a household name.
Whether Jim Murphy is a household name may be a matter for discussion, but he is certainly the best known figure to take the reins of Labour in Scotland in quite some time. He is the first Scottish Labour leader since Donald Dewar to have served in the UK Cabinet, having served (as Dewar did) for two years as Secretary of State for Scotland.
His standing was further enhanced during the referendum campaign with his ‘100 days, 100 towns’ tour of Scottish high streets atop two Irn-Bru crates, in support of the Union. Cynics suggest that even as he embarked on this tour, he already had one eye on the Scottish Labour leadership. Whether one subscribes to this view or not, the image of Murphy battling on over the heckles (and eggs) of Yes supporters did his reputation as someone willing to roll his sleeves up and take the fight to his opponents no harm.
But Murphy’s existing public profile is not all good news for him. There is no doubt he carries a certain amount of baggage in the eyes of many Scottish voters, not least those who were ardent Yes supporters in the referendum. On top of that, his reputation as a ‘Blairite’, support for the Iraq war and the introduction of student tuition fees will all be used against him by opponents at regular intervals. He says he is “big enough and ugly enough” to deal with such criticism. He will need to be.
The other immediate handicap for Murphy is that he is not a Member of the Scottish Parliament and will not have the opportunity for regular jousts with his principal political opponent, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. For the time being, that job will fall to Scottish Labour’s new deputy leader, Kezia Dugdale. But Murphy has a big decision to make on whether to seek an early opportunity to win a seat at Holyrood, or whether to wait for the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.
There may be an opportunity for Murphy to turn this hindrance to his advantage. If he gives up his Westminster seat in May next year, and opts not to stand for Holyrood until May 2016, Murphy will have a ‘gap year’ in which to seek to reconnect with Labour’s grassroots and closely oversee planning for the Scottish elections. He may even dust down his Irn-Bru crates and take to the streets again to offset the lack of a Parliamentary platform.
Whichever route he chooses, Murphy has an enormous challenge on his hands. Another poll over the weekend gave the SNP a 20-point lead over Labour in Westminster voting intention in Scotland, which on a uniform swing would see Labour lose the vast majority of its 41 Scottish seats.
Murphy’s ultimate goal is to become First Minister of Scotland. But his first job is to ensure that the SNP do not deny Ed Miliband the keys to Number 10.
Photo credit: Scottish Labour