Scottish Labour and Unite: Murphy and the Blairites are the “kiss of death”, not McCluskey!

May 18, 2015 at 8:03 am (democracy, elections, labour party, posted by JD, reformism, scotland, unions, Unite the union)

By Dale Street

When Jim Murphy announced last Saturday that he was standing down as Scottish Labour Party leader, he took it as an opportunity to lambast Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey for his supposedly “destructive behaviour” towards the Labour Party.

Murphy claimed that he had been “at the centre of a campaign by the London leadership of Unite the Union, (who) blame myself or the Scottish Labour Party for the defeat of the UK Labour Party in the general election.”

He continued:

“Sometimes people see it as a badge of honour to have Mr. McCluskey’s support. I see it as a kiss of death to be supported by that type of politics. … We cannot have our leaders selected or deselected by the grudges and grievances of one prominent man.”

“The leader of the Scottish Labour Party doesn’t serve at the grace of Len McCluskey, and the next leader of the UK Labour Party should not be picked by Len McCluskey.”

Len McCluskey has twice been elected Unite’s General Secretary, in 2010 and again in 2013.

If McCluskey really is guilty of “destructive behaviour” and his politics the “kiss of death”, then the Unite members who have twice elected him their General Secretary must be either: really thick not to have seen through him; or willing accomplices of his destructive behaviour.  

Either way, Murphy’s criticisms of McCluskey amount to a gross insult of the majority of Unite members who have backed McCluskey in two successive union elections.

And that, in itself, tells you a lot about Murphy’s own politics and view of the world: He’s right, and the rest of the world (including the Scottish Labour Party, its affiliated unions, and the Scottish electorate) is wrong.

Murphy’s claim that support from McCluskey amounts to a “kiss of death” is incoherent in another respect.

In mid-2013 Ed Miliband announced the Collins Review, involving a fundamental change in the relationship between affiliated trade unions and the Labour Party, one which will lead to unions having much less of a say in the Labour Party’s decision-making processes.

McCluskey backed the Collins Review from the outset. Although many Unite activists opposed it, and were correct to do so, McCluskey argued for support for the Collins Review in Unite and in the broader trade union movement.

But Murphy, and those who share his politics, did not denounce McCluskey’s support for the Collins Review as “the kiss of death” and more evidence of his “destructive behaviour”. On the contrary, they welcomed his support.

Murphy’s claim that who Unite decides to back in Labour Party elections is the product of “the grudges and grievances of one prominent man” is another claim that does not stand up to scrutiny.

When Unite decides who to back in Labour Party leadership contests, it does so on the basis of which candidate best represents the union’s policies, as summed up in the Unite Political Strategy and in resolutions adopted at the union’s biennial policy conferences.

When Unite backed Neil Findlay and Katy Clark in last year’s Scottish Labour Party (deputy) leadership contest, it did so because their election platform embodied Unite’s policies. Jim Murphy’s election platform certainly didn’t. Nor did Kezia Dugsdale’s.

This is about as far away from making decisions on the basis of “the grudges and grievances of one prominent man” as you can get.

Murphy was equally wrong in claiming that in the week between the general election and last weekend’s meeting of the Scottish Labour Party Executive Committee he had been “at the centre of a campaign by the London leadership of Unite the Union.”

He had certainly been at the centre of a campaign calling on him to resign. But the driving force behind that campaign were ordinary members of the Scottish Labour Party who rightly Murphy’s position as untenable after the debacle of 7th May.

The campaigning was initiated, organised and conducted by ordinary Labour Party members – only a minority of whom were Unite members. And even those who were Unite members were acting at their own initiative, not under the instructions of “the London leadership of Unite the Union”.

Murphy was particularly angered by what he described as McCluskey having “blamed myself or the Scottish Labour Party for the defeat of the UK Labour Party in the general election.”

But McCluskey’s actual argument was straightforward.

The leadership and politics of Jim Murphy, following on from the Labour-Tory-Lib-Dem ‘Better Together’ alliance, had allowed the SNP to pick up the votes of many traditional Labour voters.

The growth in support for the SNP had then allowed the Tories in England to win votes through an appeal to English nationalism, by presenting themselves as the people who would stick up for the English against the SNP.

And that argument is backed up by facts.

Anyone who canvassed in Scotland during the election campaign will have experienced longstanding Labour voters saying that they were switching to the SNP because of – although certainly not solely because of – ‘Better Together’ and the politics embodied by Murphy.

That was the sentiment which the SNP opportunistically played to in their election material (which would have been tried and tested on multiple focus groups before being published and circulated):

“Labour used to stand up to the Tories. Not any more. Labour and the Tories campaigned together in the referendum. And they voted together at Westminster for deeper spending cuts. The only way to lock out the Tories and force Labour back to its roots is to vote SNP.”

The surge in SNP support was then exploited by the Tories in England. We know this for a fact because the Tories subsequently boasted of the success of that strategy to the pro-Tory press:

“Under the plan set out by Crosby the Conservatives would attempt to squeeze UKIP and Lib-Dem votes by playing on fears of the SNP while highlighting David Cameron’s leadership and fears of economic ‘chaos’ under Labour. All the messages had been extensively tested on focus groups in key marginals.”

Even if it could have been better phrased, McCluskey was right to make the connection between Murphy, the SNP surge at Labour’s expense in Scotland, and Labour’s eventual defeat at a UK level.

Murphy thinks that it is the “kiss of death” to be backed by McCluskey? But it was Murphy’s siezure of the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party last year which proved to be the “kiss of death” for its election prospects on 7th May – and possibly even longer.

11 Comments

  1. Mike Killingworth said,

    Labour’s problem isn’t personalities – it’s the shortage of voters who identify as left of centre.

    • treborc said,

      You do not think the reason for that is that labour went to the right never mind center right. And now we have people who are standing who are all Spads, four are Progress drones, and one followed Blair to the hilt and all five are Oxbridge,, no wonder Scotland showed the door to Murphy and why he is so bitter.

      Murphy must have thought this was going to be easy.

      • Mike Killingworth said,

        No, I think political parties are responsive organisms. The irony is that multi-racialism has probably weakened the economic aspect of other-directedness more than any overtly right-wing policy.

  2. Dale Street said,

    After surviving a no-confidence vote by 17 votes to 14 at last Saturday’s meeting of the Labour Party Scottish Labour Party (SLP) Executive Committee, SLP leader Jim Murphy tendered his resignation.

    Murphy’s election as SLP leader last December was the product of a carefully orchestrated plot by a bevy of Blairite MSPs and Scottish Labour MPs. The plot to oust the then SLP leader Johann Lamont and install Murphy began last July.

    Murphy was given the lead role in the ‘Better Together’ campaign, in order to raise his profile. With Murphy basking in the limelight of his street campaigning, the Blairites triggered Lamont’s resignation, reportedly by circulating a statement of ‘no confidence’ in her.

    With Lamont gone, Murphy was presented as the ‘big hitter’ on the basis of his role in ‘Better Together’. That was also the basis on which he secured his election: what the SLP supposedly needed was a ‘big hitter’ rather than decent politics.

    The left – in the Labour Party and in the affiliated unions – warned that his election as SLP leader would be a disaster for the SLP. And so, unfortunately, it proved to be, with the SLP losing 40 of its 41 seats on 7th May.

    It is true that the scale of that defeat cannot be attributed to just one person.

    It is equally true that the scale of that defeat can be attributed to the politics embodied in that one person. Those politics had been sapping the life out of the SLP for years before he took up office, resulting in an ongoing decline in electoral support.

    On 7th May that ongoing decline became a total collapse.

    Given his typical Blairite arrogance, Murphy was – and is – someone who believed that he was right and the rest of the world was wrong. He refused to take responsibility for the SLP’s defeat and instead attributed it to weaknesses within the SLP which he had not had time to remedy.

    He said that he needed more time “to finish the job” – the same expression used by Cameron in the general election campaign, and one almost as grim in its implications.

    In the days following Murphy’s declaration that he was staying on as SLP leader, a campaign amongst rank-and-file Labour Party members quickly got off the ground. At two days notice over a hundred members attended a teatime meeting in Glasgow convened by the Campaign for Socialism.

    This was a rank-and-file revolt by Labour Party members, not a manoeuvre instigated by Len McCluskey in London, as claimed by Murphy in announcing his resignation.

    Murphy’s own politics doubtless precluded him from understanding that the Labour Party membership was not a passive body whose role in life was to be manipulated by Murphy and bossed around by his sidekick John McTernan, but one capable of asserting its will against a failed leadership.

    According to an unnamed SLP spokesperson quoted in last Sunday’s “Observer”, Murphy’s resignation is “not a Farage”, i.e. Murphy is not handing in his resignation only for it to be refused by the SLP Executive Committee (more akin to the withdrawal of the Tsar’s abdication by popular demand in Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible” than to the Farage scenario).

    Even so, there is no room for complacency, and no reason to exclude the possibility of backroom manoeuvring by people who believe that presentation is more important than politics (even though their presentational skills have proven to be even worse than their politics).

    Murphy could have resigned on the spot on Saturday. He could have said that his resignation would come into effect at the next meeting of the SLP Executive Committee. He didn’t. He made a point of saying that the next meeting of the SLP EC could refuse to accept his resignation.

    The SLP EC currently has a majority so out of touch with reality that they voted on Saturday against the ‘no confidence’ motion. If they have so much confidence in Murphy, why should they accept his resignation at the next meeting?

    (The 17 who backed Murphy included Murphy himself – no surprise there – and a Labour peer unconstitutionally drafted in (by whom?) to take up one of the two seats on the EC reserved for Westminster MPs. The vacancy arose because the SLP has only one MP left in Westminster.)

    Murphy made a point of saying on Saturday that he now had more support than when he was first elected as SLP leader (using abstruse arithmetical calculations to reach that conclusion) and that his opponents were a “small minority” in the party. He also set up Len McCluskey as the big bogeyman.

    The following scenario is therefore not outwith the bounds of possibility:

    – Big Jim Murphy offers his resignation for the good of the party, even though only a troublesome minority under the control of Len McCluskey opposes him. In the following weeks the silent majority in the CLPs rallies behind him.

    – When the SLP EC next meets, it decides that it would be in breach of the wishes of the majority of the party membership to accept Murphy’s resignation. Murphy then remains in the post on the back of supposed popular acclamation.

    It is better to be safe than (very) sorry. CLPs should keep up the pressure on the SLP EC by passing motions which welcome Murphy’s resignation as an opportunity to move on from the disaster of 7th May and to concentrate on defining the politics needed to win next year’s Holyrood elections.

    And when Murphy goes, he should take McTernan and all his bag-carriers, flunkies, wasters, spin doctors, hangers-on and has-beens with him.

    True, their gross incompetence means that they are unlikely to find useful employment anywhere else. But that’s no reason for the SLP to provide a home and a pay-packet for them.

    • treborc said,

      Well said….

      • Steven Johnston said,

        Can’t wait to see the leadership you endorse get shot down in 2020…you going to name any names?

  3. Juan P. Lewis said,

    “But it was Murphy’s siezure of the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party last year which proved to be the “kiss of death” for its election prospects on 7th May – and possibly even longer.”

    Bollocks to that, Jim. Labour had already lost the 500K swing voters in 2011; but it kept its 500/700K core. The SNP would’ve taken those votes even if Lenin stood as leader. The SNP is riding on the anti-politics/identitarian wave, and a change of leader alone won’t do much for the Labour Party.

    You could even argue that Murphy was the only face Labour had that people could recognise and then any other non-entity would’ve dealt an even worse result. Or maybe, Murphy was the only candidate worth sacrificing, while you let better ones live another day (e.g. Ian Murray).

    I wish the electorate was more to the left and not so easily moved by identitarian politics and vague ideas of anti-austerity by a party that has been to the right of the Tories in many of its policies. But that’s not what we have at the moment and stabbing each other on the back (too left wing, too right wing) won’t change that a bit.

    • Joe Baxter said,

      You’re not necessarily right about Labour retaining its core vote, I’d like to see the evidence for that. Certainly it would appear for instance that the vote that returned Labour’s only MP, in Edinburgh South, involved a great deal of tactical switching by Tory and Lib Dem voters and where Labour’s core vote was to be found in the working class housing estates to the south-east of the constituency it appeared to switch to the SNP in large numbers. As for putting your hopes for Labour’s recovery in the hands of Ian Murray, good luck with that one.
      A major problem now for socialists and TU activists in Scotland is that while Labour remains the party of the unions it isn’t clear if the unions will want/be able to retain their links to Labour, particularly given the surge in trade unionists who are declaring their allegiance to the SNP. Additionally if the overwhelming dominance of the SNP is no flash in the pan will that, combined with the rise in SNP TU activists, lead to calls for the TUs to attempt some kind of formal relationship with the SNP? This wouldn’t be easy given the bureaucratic structures of the unions but at the very least we can expect a serious campaign by those SNP trade union activists to convince levy paying TU members to cease to pay the levy or maybe have the funds redirected elsewhere.

      • Juan P. Lewis said,

        Hi Joe,

        You’re right. I said the core because Labour has been getting about those numbers while the rest have been switching yellow/red but now are just yellow. But you’re probably right and actually the problem is even worse than what I’m implying. My point is that the idea that choosing Murphy was what killed Slab doesn’t hold water. I’m not putting my hope on Murphy, but let’s not delude ourselves and think that if left-wing candidates had been in charge of Blairites, somehow Labour would’ve been safer.

  4. Dale Street said,

    Juan P. Lewis: Fair enough to home in on that concluding paragraph in the article about Murphy/McCluskey. But the second article, about Murphy’s resignation, which is included as comment 2 above, does make the point:

    “It is true that the scale of that defeat cannot be attributed to just one person. It is equally true that the scale of that defeat can be attributed to the politics embodied in that one person. Those politics had been sapping the life out of the SLP for years before he took up office, resulting in an ongoing decline in electoral support. On 7th May that ongoing decline became a total collapse.”

    It is a fact that on the doorstep people singled out Murphy, his past political record, and his role in ‘Better Together’ as reasons for not voting Labour. Not unreasonably, they equated Murphy and his politics with the Scottish Labour Party – because the Scottish Labour Party had chosen to elect him as its leader.

    One additional point about Murphy’s departure: He has said that he will re-write the rules for (deputy) leadership contests in the Scottish Labour Party, probably introducing One Member One Vote (OMOV).

    But OMOV is exactly what will be introduced into the Labour Party nationally in 2020 under the Collins Review.

    If Murphy gets in there first with his own version of the Collins Review, will McCluskey congratulate him, given that – errrrrrrrr – McCluskey supported the Collins Review from day one?

  5. Juan P. Lewis said,

    “It is a fact that on the doorstep people singled out Murphy, his past political record, and his role in ‘Better Together’ as reasons for not voting Labour”

    Probably true. But I would bet that people who said that had decided not to vote Labour in advance. If Labour had chosen Mandela to lead in Scotland, I don’t think it would’ve made much of a difference.

    My point is that since the results were announced I’ve seen all factions claiming that if the party was a bit less like their internal opponents, somehow millions would come back to Labour. I’m not sure that’s the case, both from left and right…

    Labour might reinvent itself and return to power, but the truth is that I have no clue how that could happen at the moment… a I’d say that nor do most people. Maybe it’d be a question of trying and seeing what works, rather than coming with magical solutions.

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