Unite’s reaction to Jim Murphy’s candidacy tells us all we need to know about why it’s important

by Rob Marchant

On Saturday, after some days of deliberation, Jim Murphy announced his candidacy for the Scottish leadership.

Within hours, Unite had put out a statement:

“Unite’s representative members will soon decide who to nominate on behalf of our union. On the basis of this speech, it is extremely difficult for them to find much to find hope that Jim Murphy is offering the genuine, positive change in Scottish Labour they seek.”

Notice first how Unite members are being given a completely free choice of candidate, and that its leadership is not trying to influence them at all. In fact, this effect of denying a level playing-field to leadership candidates in the union vote – that is, trying to distort the One Member, One Vote (OMOV) process – was one of the main reasons for the Collins reforms.

By Monday they had announced the results of a poll claiming that “working people” (i.e. Unite members: the union sees no irony in considering the two identical) wanted an MSP in the role and not an MP. Oh, wait a minute, which of the declared candidates is not an MSP…?

Why go to such lengths to trash the front-running candidate?

Because, apart from being probably the Shadow Cabinet’s most outspoken centrist, Murphy is widely known as being “his own man”, as Damian McBride describes him. There is little that would put Unite’s nose out of joint more than someone who didn’t play Scottish Labour according to the usual rules.

Scottish Labour, lest we forget, was the political Wild West land through the New Labour years, which survived virtually untouched under the protective gaze of Gordon Brown.

However, McBride’s sympathetic account of the trials of managing the Scottish party also gives away probably the greatest weakness of the Brown administration: its preference for managing genteel decline, rather than attack underlying problems at their root. Its preference for comfortable fiefdoms, where you did as you were told, over a healthy party full of competing ideas; a thousand flowers blooming. Scottish Labour was Brownism writ large.

And Unite has been a big part of that story. For a start, there is no better example of what is wrong with Scottish Labour than the Falkirk debacle. Unite’s approach was breath-taking; the denials unconvincing; the big questions still unanswered.

The one-horse town dominated by the Grangemouth oil refinery and, by extension, the local union muscle; who were, as it happens, in the middle of a major (and botched) dispute, where loyalty was expected.

The local union rep who held three crucial roles simultaneously: convener at the refinery, Chair of Unite in Scotland, and, most conveniently, chair of the local CLP organising the Falkirk selection. The Westminster parliamentary office, where Unite’s favoured candidate and personal friend of Len McCluskey worked, and which, according to Labour’s official report, bizarrely became a centre for queries about Scottish membership forms.

Who could possibly look at Falkirk and think this was not a perfect example of politics gone wrong?

Not always the most decisive of leaders, even Miliband was forced to act decisively in the face of what he perceived, probably rightly, to be an existential threat to him and his party. And, from what we know about his character, it seems unthinkable that Murphy would not look to tackle this culture of stitch-ups and reinvigorate the ailing Scottish party.

Conversely, if Scottish Labour is ever to turn around its comprehensive defeat by the SNP, the last thing it needs is yet another leader like Johann Lamont, blaming the national party for all its ills and whining, in a Salmondian tone, how it is treated as a “branch office”.*

In fact, it is not at all far-fetched to conclude that the very future of the Union may well depend on Labour finding a heavyweight leader, prepared to take on the Scottish Labour “establishment” and win. It is not just Scottish Labour that needs Murphy; the national party and, in truth, the majority of British people who support the Union need him there. The Tories and the Lib Dems self-evidently cannot beat the SNP. If that were not enough, polls suggest that Labour is staring a Scottish wipeout in the face, which would destroy its chances of winning the Westminster general election as well.

So, despite the fact that he may be Labour’s last hope for both Union and general election, we can see why Unite is doing everything it can to scupper Murphy’s campaign.

It is not as if McCluskey has shown unswerving loyalty to Labour in recent months anyway; he has already threatened disaffiliation if Labour loses. And in Scotland, during the referendum campaign, he kept Unite neutral and even flirted with Alex Salmond, quite probably because he perceives that Scottish Labour may be slowly slipping out of his grasp and sees an opportunity for an alternative.

All in all, McCluskey is not stupid: he knows that, if Murphy wins, the game’s up for him in Scotland.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

*The irony is that this is not remotely true: in a party perennially strapped for resources, Scotland has always had more staff than any other part of Britain; its own press office; its own internal structure. Scottish Labour has always been coddled, and more than ever under New Labour.

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12 Responses to “Unite’s reaction to Jim Murphy’s candidacy tells us all we need to know about why it’s important”

  1. John P Reid says:

    Was this a suprise, what Unite and
    Mckluskey say after the election, is anyone’s guess, they’ll be blaming everyone ele, and calling for Blairites to be expelled

  2. Tafia says:

    A purely click-bait pointless article that fails to address the problems with the Scottish vote in any way, shap ore form. It even refers to Murphy as a centrist – My arse.

    The problem with Scottish Labour ois London. They aren’t interested in it, aren’t interested in what it thinks. It is no longer relevant. When Labour learn that they stand a chance. You have lied to the people of Scotland once to often and know you must reap the whirlwind.

    What I wrote on here on another article but equally as relevant:-


    An arrogant article that clearly demonstrates exactly why Scottish Labour is in meltdown – it is because of views at Westminster similar to David Talbot’s and a total refusal to accept that things have changed nd Scotland’s Labour voters do not have the same beliefs or desires as England’s. Whether Westminster Labour likes it or not, Scottish politics has changed forever. The Yes camp want independence, most of the No camp want Devo-Max by March as they perceive they were promised. Hardly anyone wants it to remain the same. The overwhelming majority of Scotland wants a minimum of virtual autonoimy and they want it now and don’t see why they should have to wait any longer. The voters of Scotland are far more politically aware than those of the rest of the UK and no longer vote on tribal habit.

    Jim Murphy is an unapologetic arch-Blairite. His views are unacceptable to the majority of Labour voters in Scotland. Even the Scottish Tories have had to move leftwards to survive and are far more centrist than their Westminster counterparts ( even left of Jim Murphy some would say).

    Scottish Labour’s membership has fallen to less than 6,000 and is still declining – more than halved since the last leadership election, is almost certainly now less than less than the Scottish Green Party, being rapidly closed on by the SSP (who are already bigger in Glasgow) and far less than one tenth of the SNPs current membership. At the same time, Labour holds around 450 elected positions on Councils, as MSPs, MPs, and MEPs. In other words, there is one member in an elected position, for less than every 12 members not in an elected position. Given that many of those will not be able to, or want to stand for an elected position – this suggests that Labour has an incredibly small talent pool to draw on and a collapsing activist base.

    Labour has lost its roots in Scotland, particularly after the poison that was the “Better Together” campaign, and can no longer support itself. Furthermore, the unions affiliated to Labour appear to be losing members in large numbers – again as a result of Labours support for Better Together – largely because the members were denied a vote as to what their union’s policy should be. Whoever takes over the leadership, has a near impossible task to revive what is clearly a dying party – and Murphy will actually accelerate that demise unless he shifts significantly to the left on a personal level. Scottish Labour no longer represents the wishes of the working class vote who regard Miliband’s version to the right of them – so Murphy better have some sort of Damascene conversion because Blairism is certainly not their cup of tea and they are not going to follow it.

    The two biggest unions in Scotland – Unite & Unison will not support him because of the damage Better Together has done to their membership levels. The party grass roots will not support him.

    The only people that want him there are the SNP who see him as a major plus.

    There is no way Murphy will milk a million pounds in expenses at Holyrood either. He will be on lower pay, and less and more transparent and rigouresly policed expenses – that’s if he can find an MSP to step aside for him – the three that were asked have all stuck two fingers up to him.

    In addition he will find that there is no compliant tame ‘nick robinson’ press in Scotland – they are aggressive all of the time and treat politicians the way they should be treated – with deep suspicion and never giving them an inch amd never allowing them to get their message across unchallenged. The biggest Labour supporting newspaper – The Record (what the Daily Mirror is called in Scotland) – doesn’t support him and neither do the rest of the press.

    Until Westminster accepts and embraces that Scottish Labour couldn’t give a toss about London Labour or London Labour’s policies then the decline will continue and deservedly so.

    People have seen through the thin veneer of modern pointless Labour. It has become a middle class party obsessed with middle class values and middle England – it has made itself pointless outside of that pond and it must be what it wants or it wouldn’t have done it.

    On the other hand, you could equally assume Murphy has been sent to Scotland to fail and be forced out of politics. He is a rallying point for Blairites and similar and as such a threat to Miliband’s crew. Scotland is now Labour’s ‘Eastern Front’ – and Murphy may have been sent there to suffer a lingering slow death in the cold and end any threat he is to Miliband. Hilariously, he is almost certainly going to lose his Westminster seat so if he can’t find someone to step aside for him at Holyrood (and the three Labour NSPs asked have all refused), then he won’t even have a Holyrood seat or a voice there until 2016 at the earliest. Like I said – the Eastern Front, sent to die in the cold fighting the barbarian hordes.

    In the words of a Scottish Labour MP a couple of days ago regarding Murphy “We’re f***ed.” (as quoted in the Herald*)

    * http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/scottish-politics/murphys-routes-for-early-move-to-holyrood-ruled-out.25756363

  3. paul barker says:

    The article seems to completely miss what Lamont was complaining about. The General Secretary of The Scottish Party was sacked, by The London office, for being “too close to The Scottish Leadership.” How Independent does that sound ?
    The Leadership Election is a straight fight between The Parliamentary Wing & The Unions, that should help Labours position dont you think ?
    McCluskey is a Communist, a Party with some self-respect would show him & Unite the door, unfortunately Labour needs Unites money so …..

  4. steve says:

    The quickest route to independence for Scotland will be provided by a Murphy win.

    If I had a vote, he’d certainly get it.

  5. uglyfatbloke says:

    If Murphy wins the game’s up for McCluskey….perhaps, but if Murphy wins the ‘branch office’ mentality will continue and the game will be up for a lot more than just McCluskey.

  6. swatantra says:

    Unite’s war on progress must stop because its tearing the Party apart.

  7. Rob Marchant says:

    @uglyfatbloke: Think you’ve completely missed the point. Which is, the whole “branch office” thing is a myth (see footnote above). Always have been massively more resources poured into Scotland. There is no rational response to people who, like Salmond, moan about Scotland not getting enough special treatment. There will never be enough special treatment. It is a game of lose-lose, if you choose to play it.

  8. Mike Homfray says:

    The game will be up for Labour – not McCluskey. Murphy is the sort of person who appeals only to Tories, and will be roundly rejected by those currently looking towards the SNP

    As a Labour supporter I would not consider voting Labour if he was the leader, and Murphy will lose at least 20 seats in Scotland if they are daft enough to elect him

  9. Tafia says:

    @uglyfatbloke: Think you’ve completely missed the point. Which is, the whole “branch office” thing is a myth (see footnote above).

    No you’re missing the point. That’s how they feel and any attempt by anyone outside of Scotland to tell then otherwise will make things worse.

    Personally, I think you’ve misinterpretaed what they meant. I think you’ll find the resentment is they were being told what to do by London Labour – and they no longer look to London Labour for direction and view it as nothing more than imperialist. They aren’t interested in London Labour anymore. They couldn’t care less about the UK as it currently is and aren’t interested in the union and want at the very least Devo-Max by the end of March as they perceive they were promised.

  10. John Reid says:

    Mike,on the other article,you’re telling someone to vote Tory if he didn’t like Laobur policies,yet,here you’re saying you wouldn’t vote labour yourself,so if you don’t like A candidate for labour,why do you think anyone should care if you say you’re, not going to vote for him if he wins

    What do you know of labour losing votes if Murphy wins, the times you weren’t a member of the labour party 2001,2005 we won elections,and as for Mackluskey, his dream is to give Lapbur policies he wants which so far,look like us not doing well at the election, and shouldn’t he be concentrating on representing his union members,Mcluskey has already given the ultimatum,he’s withdrawing money if we lose,maybe he thinks a different approach after the election would see us dump his policies, well, labour required 30% of its funding’s from Union in 1997′ so it would be the end of Mckluskey influencing politics, and I thinks that’s what was originally implied.

  11. Tafia says:

    Looks like Murphy is not happy at being sent to Scotland and views it as a massive demotion. Seems my speculation that one of the reasons was to place him in exile to destroy him may well be true.

  12. Robert says:

    Murphy is seen as being Progress to the right and totally New labour Blair rite.

    Says it all really do we need more of these people in power, well we will see soon.

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