Jim Murphy cannot take all of the credit for the rise of the SNP in the polls: even before he declared his candidacy, the SNP were looking set to take the majority of the Scottish seats.
But under his leadership, the likelihood of Scottish Labour remaining a significant force in politics at Westminster has continued to fall, to the point where there is an even chance that Jim Murphy may not even be Renfrewshire East’s MP after 7th May: Electoral Calculus currently predicts Murphy’s margin of victory as 1.1%, in a seat which was 20 points ahead of the Tory challenger in 2010, when SNP was in fourth place behind the LibDems.
This is a shattering upset for the man who wanted to be Scotland’s First Minister. In October 2014, Jim Murphy – the third candidate in the Labour leadership race and the only not an MSP – told the Scottish Daily Record:
“I want to unite the Labour Party but, more importantly, I want to bring the country back together after the referendum.
“I am not going to shout at or about the SNP, I am going to talk to and listen to Scotland and I am very clear that the job I am applying for is to be the First Minister of Scotland.”
He expanded further:
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I had one per cent of doubt. I am going to go for this in a big, big way.
“The Labour Party is going to change and people will notice the difference.”
Well, the Labour Party in Scotland has changed and people have noticed the difference: and far from “not shouting at or about the SNP“, Jim Murphy has set out on Scottish Labour’s general election campaign with the SNP as his opponents: so hard are Scottish Labour fighting the SNP, it’s easy to assume they’ve forgotten that outside their particular struggle to retain their seats, for the rest of us, the real enemy is the Conservatives. (Jim Murphy can, however, at least spell socialism.)
Example: On Employment Tribunals
A recent article on Labour Hame illustrated this, noting that Labour had committed to repealing fees for industrial tribunals (since 2013, dismissed employees are required to pay between £1,000 and £1,350 to take their employer to a tribunal, which we can all agree was a wicked bit of Tory/LibDem legislation, intended to deny employees access to justice) – then noting that the SNP had made no reference to industrial tribunal fees in their manifesto, and concluding from this that when Labour brought legislation to repeal industrial tribunal fees, the SNP would vote with the Tories to retain the fees: or, if employment law had been devolved to Scotland, would keep tribunal fees in Scotland even while Labour repealed the fees in England and Wales.
Official SNP press releases prior to 18th September 2014 were very much against the tribunal fees. (“Large fee for tribunal could be barrier to justice”, July 2013: “Employment specialist’s tribunal comments welcomed – The SNP has today welcomed comments from a leading employment lawyer who said an independent Scotland can “ditch” controversial employment tribunal fees”, June 2014: “UK gov needs to “think again” on tribunal fees”, August 2014.)
In January this year, the Law Society of Scotland called on the Scottish Government to review the system of tribunal fees if employment law were to be devolved to Scotland following the Smith Commission. Stuart Naismith, convener of the Law Society’s Access to Justice Committee, said:
“The effect of introducing fees, ostensibly to help meet the costs of running the tribunal system, has been catastrophic for claimants.
“We believe the system is disproportionately unfair, resulting in a huge drop in the number of claims being presented, with the consequence that it is preventing legitimate cases being heard by a tribunal.
“We wrote to the both the UK Government Minister, Christopher Grayling MP and the then Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill MSP in July  calling for an urgent review of fees.
“Following publication of the Smith Commission’s report, it seems likely employment tribunals will be devolved to Scotland and we would therefore urge the Scottish Government to look afresh at the issue.”
The Scottish Government’s response to this in the Herald was lukewarm:
With the Smith Commission only having published its recommendations last month, it is still early days in the overall process for devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament. We will need to see the detailed legislative proposals from the UK Government before understanding how any new powers on employment tribunals could work in Scotland.”
If employment law is devolved to Scotland, the SNP should be made to stand by their pre-referendum promises: if employment law is reserved to Westminster, the situation is clearer: Labour has promised to repeal the fees, and SNP MPs will then have the choice of voting with Labour to repeal the fees or with the Tories and LibDems to keep the fees.
Nothing seems more likely under those circumstances that at Westminster, SNP MPs will walk through the lobby with Labour MPs to repeal tribunal fees. Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly and publicly promised that the SNP will support Labour, and will never vote with the Tories: the Tories are looking at a five-year future in which even if they are the largest single party, they cannot form a government because they do not have the support of the third party in Parliament.
Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, admitted on a visit to Glasgow earlier this week that the SNP is “an enigma”: he acknowledged
the criticism levelled at the party that, while its language is progressive, in practice in local authorities and at Holyrood they have not acted as such.
But this example of campaigning on tribunal fees is illustrative because it demonstrates how Scottish Labour are campaigning: not with regard to the interests of the people of Scotland, but with regard to their own party interests. It is in the interests of every worker that tribunal fees are repealed. It is therefore in the interests of every worker that given a minority Labour government with SNP support, the SNP vote with Labour when Labour repeals tribunal fees.
Is this likely?
At Holyrood, who knows? The SNP’s response to the Law Society of Scotland was lukewarm.
At Westminster, when the SNP’s choices are voting with Labour or voting with the Tories, I think we can have reasonable surety that, if the SNP sometimes refrain from supporting Labour, they will strongly avoid being seen to support the Tories.
Len McCluskey justly noted:
“Whenever working-class people get disillusioned with Labour, historically, they tend to absent themselves from politics, and they do that because they don’t see an alternative. But what has happened over a number of years in Scotland is that the Scottish Nationalists have started to pose themselves as a social-democratic alternative to Labour, and that’s very much come to fruition.”
After 7th May 2015
I don’t believe that Labour will lose all of their MPs in Scotland. I think the incumbency factor and the tradition of voting Labour will both come into play when people actually come to cast their vote. But given the polling reports, Jim Murphy would be able to present even a 50% loss of Scottish Labour seats as a thundering victory: while Nicola Sturgeon has said that as the most MPs the SNP have ever had at Westminster is 11, every MP gained beyond that is record-breaking.
If, as appears likely, Labour can only form a government with the confirmed support of the SNP, locking the Conservatives out of government even if they are the largest single party, the Conservative Party and their media support have already been trying to claim this would be “unconstitutional”. David Cameron has postponed the return of Parliament til 18th May, giving 11 days between the election and the Queen’s Speech for parties to form a government.
The Parliamentary rules are clear: in the event of a hung Parliament, David Cameron has the first chance. If he can put together a coalition of Tory, UKIP, LibDem, and DUP MPs, he needs to be able to outvote Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens.
(The LibDems have pledged not to enter a coalition with UKIP, but we all know what a pre-election pledge from the LibDems is worth.)
If David Cameron can’t muster the numbers to form a working majority with those four parties, he cannot form a government because he cannot get his Queen’s Speech passed. He must resign, and Ed Miliband, as leader of the largest single Opposition party, is then offered the chance to form a government.
As Adam Ramsay pointed out on 6th April, declaring this a coup in the making
this is not how the Tory press will interpret the election. If they can possibly get away with it, they will find any way they can to declare Cameron the winner, even if it’s going to be almost impossible for him to command a parliamentary majority. In doing so, they will seek to make it impossible for Miliband to govern. This circumstance would in effect be a coup by newspaper proprietors against the people of the country. Because our constitution is written not in statute, but headlines, this is perfectly possible.
Without a proper constitution, and without Westminster meeting for 11 days, it’s not just the parliamentary maths that matters, though it does. There will also be, in the immediate hours after the election, an important question around the ‘mood of the nation’. And that will be defined, at least to some extent, by the front pages of the newspapers.
It seems they are going to do this in two ways. The first is that they get to set the goalposts and define what it means to ‘win’. The second is what’s on display at the moment across the press — an attempt to delegitimise any partnership between Labour and the SNP.
Scottish Labour is playing the Tory game. Jim Murphy has repeatedly claimed, and run a Scottish Labour campaign, asserting that the Parliamentary rules are that the largest single party gets to form the government – a claim which the Tories will also assert if they are the largest single party.
Jim Murphy acknowledged the latest Ipsos Mori poll was “a blow” to the Scottish Labour party, but claimed that David Cameron would be the “big winner” if the SNP took all 59 Scottish seats:
“If this poll is repeated on election day, David Cameron will be uncorking his champagne, because he might cling onto power; not because Scotland’s gone out and voted Tory, but because Scotland has voted against the Labour party and made sure David Cameron has the biggest party.”
Now, a fair objection by Jim Murphy against this polling data is that voters may change their minds and that he will go on campaigning. Another point which I daresay he wouldn’t care to be made is that Labour and the LibDems are likely, Ipsos-Mori themselves say, to benefit from anti-SNP tactical voting.
But when Jim Murphy argues that if Labour is not the largest single party in the Commons, that means David Cameron gets to form the government, he is straightforwardly making the Tory case for why they should retain power against a Labour government with SNP support.
Theresa May, interviewed in the Daily Mail, called a minority Labour government with SNP support “the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication of Edward VIII”.
Joe Twyman, a YouGov pollster, asks – assuming that the Conservatives have the same or greater number of MPs as Labour – “would David Cameron simply hand over the keys to Downing Street?” He goes on to say:
After all, constitutionally speaking it is the Conservatives who gets the ‘first go’ at forming a government as the incumbents. With many more votes and twenty more seats in this imagined scenario, the Tories could claim the plurality of public opinion to be on their side and therefore refuse to just relinquish power to another minority party that similarly lacks the stability of a coalition.
Along with public opinion, a Conservative minority government might even claim to be acting ‘in the national interest’ by maintaining the unity and defence of the realm through neutralising both the separatist desires of the SNP and their wish to abandon Trident.
Polly Toynbee calls this what it is: insurrection.
Imagine the Tories, spurred on by their raucous press, trying to mobilise popular opinion against the legal constitutional result: that’s insurrection. They wrote the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and they must abide by it. If Cameron can’t command a Commons majority he hands over power, if Miliband has a left-of-centre Commons majority with SNP support. To proclaim Scotland’s representatives illegitimate is preposterous and dangerous. To claim public opinion is an appeal to the mob. Parties that lost the popular vote have ruled before, thanks to our unjust non-proportional system that the Tories cleave to.
That Tory insurrection against the will of the Scottish people is what Jim Murphy is supporting in his campaign with his constant reiterations that David Cameron will get to form a government if he leads the largest single party in the Commons.
Jim Murphy has never worked outside politics in his life: he went directly from the NUS to the House of Commons without even finishing his degree. He’s publicly cast his career on becoming First Minister of Scotland. If he loses his seat in a landslide against Scottish Labour on 7th May, he won’t be an MP and he seems unlikely to be kept on as leader of Scottish Labour – who will step down in 2016 to let Jim Murphy stand as a constituency MSP? Will anyone in Scottish Labour think dropping Jim Murphy in at the top of the West Scotland list for 2016 is a good idea after his dismal performance in 2015?
For most of us who oppose what the Tories and LibDems have been doing to our country since May 2010, 7th May is the day we finally tell them goodbye and see a Labour government again – a Labour government ruling with SNP support, two parties working together with benefit to both and to the people of the UK.
To Jim Murphy, barring an electoral miracle on behalf of Scottish Labour, 7th May 2015 is the end of the only career he’s ever had: even if he remains an MP, he’ll be a backbencher at Westminster, unwanted in a Labour cabinet governing with SNP support. The only thing that might salvage his career with Scottish Labour is if his dismal predictions of Tory government if the SNP win turned out to be correct: then he might get the credit for being a sharp-eyed prophet of doom, rather than a man flailing to save himself and not caring who he drags down with him.
To Jim Murphy it may seem that if Scottish Labour are to lose seats in a landslide in this election, if he himself is at risk of losing his constituency, why should he concern himself with what happens afterwards? His career in politics, the only career he has ever had, will be gone: why should Murphy care if, in the twilight after Jim Murphy’s sun has set, David Cameron picks up his torch and waves it to illuminate the Tory argument that they should get to rule, regardless of how the people voted?
It is rather ironic if after a two-thirds majority of Scottish Labour MPs supported Jim Murphy for leader, every single one of the MPs who picked Murphy as their first-place candidate, from Douglas Alexander to Jim Sheridan, were to lose their seats.
Every time Jim Murphy says “the biggest party forms the government”, I hear him saying “Après moi, le déluge.“