Thursday, 18 December 2014

Murphy’s push on party rebuilding should not stop at the Tweed

Jim Murphy is the new leader of Labour in Scotland. It is hard to see this as other than good news; irrespective of political leanings, he is an experienced, Cabinet-level politician, with the kind of clout and vision that the Scottish party urgently needs. The SNP is sneering as best it can, but it is nervous laughter.

Murphy has, of course, a huge challenge on his hands: to turn around disastrous polling and an inward-looking party; left to its own devices through its hegemonic days under Blair and Brown and the early days of devolution; and later, seemingly taken by surprise by the rise of the SNP.

It was certainly high time that Scottish Labour took a long, hard look in the mirror, rather than give in to the temptation of huffily declaring that it was treated as a “branch office”, as its last leader, Johann Lamont, did. And it has: it has realised both that it needs a radical change and that it does not need to dance to the Nats’ own tune of “
only MSPs allowed”.

It has realised that, far from attracting support, trying to compete with the SNP to see who can be the most insular is a game Labour can only lose.

Reaching out to all the party’s talents, in contrast, is a position of strength. The truth is that there is valuable experience and support that Labour colleagues in Westminster or elsewhere can provide, as Murphy has just shown.

As a first step, what refreshingly positive was Monday’s announcement that Murphy would immediately start to reform and rebuild Scottish Labour; that party reform would be at the centre of his plans.

Almost since its inception, Uncut has repeatedly written on the importance of party reform for Labour, including in our manifesto of 2013. While cautious about the party’s commitment to full implementation, we applauded Ed Miliband’s adoption of funding and voting reform this year.

But there were nevertheless two frustrating things about the result: one was that it took so long to happen. The “Refounding Labour” initiative of 2011-12 turned out to be an utterly damp squib, which refounded precious little. It was only the 2013 Falkirk selection fiasco which pushed Miliband into radical action; what is certainly planned to be the biggest-ever shake-up of the party’s relationship with trade unions.

And a second frustration was that, when it did happen, reform still left many areas untouched. The effective subcontracting out of large parts of the parliamentary selection process to the major unions. The patchwork quilt of special cases and quotas which mars that same process. Failure to discipline MPs or even London mayors, no matter how badly they behaved. The party’s nurturing of identity politics, including its disastrously cosy relationship with the biraderi, the clan leaders in Britain’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.
But these are just examples: Murphy’s reforms may well deal with different issues. Some of these areas he may not be empowered to address; others he may not even want to. But the overall fact that sweeping reforms of the party are his first priority point up a wider truth: the Labour party is long overdue for reform across the board.

For are not Scottish Labour’s problems simply Labour’s problems, writ large?

The evidence says yes. If the party organisation nationally were not in urgent need of renovation too, why would seats recently considered safe in Labour’s northern heartlands, such as Heywood and Middleton, be at risk from UKIP, the national equivalent of the populist SNP?

If discipline were not an issue nationally, why would an NEC member be able to campaign for a non-Labour candidate with impunity?

If our relationship with unions were healthy nationally, why would Falkirk have triggered a national solution – the wholesale rewriting of Labour’s relationship with its affiliated unions – and not a local, Scottish one?

If there is no far-left entryism in Labour nationally, why do we tolerate a parliamentary candidate who is an avowed supporter of Joseph Stalin, one of the last century’s greatest butchers? Or MPs who consort with hate preachers?

The reality is this. Between 1997 and March of this year, the party experienced essentially no real reform. Seventeen years. While Scotland may have been the least well-tended garden, there were weeds everywhere.

No, the surprise is not that both Miliband and Murphy have both opted for serious party reform, but that the party has held together, with string and safety-pins, for so long.

Miliband may have been dragged kicking and screaming to the party reform agenda when he saw no alternative, having hoped that incrementalism would suffice. It did not and, despite a creditable start, he still needs to finish the job.

But Murphy has seized the bull by the horns. Like Clause Four in 1994 or independence of the Bank of England in 1997, he has made a dramatic opening salvo; he means to make his stamp on the Scottish party.

He needs to: the future of the party in Scotland, and quite conceivably the union itself, depends on it. After that, we should turn our eyes south.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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