Triangulator extraordinary and plenipotentiary

Tony Blair spin doctor Private Eye cover at Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Tony Blair spin doctor Private Eye cover at Victoria & Albert Museum, London by Karen Bryan, on Flickr.
Alea jacta est. Labour’s Scottish Branch Office has chosen Jim Murphy to lead it, and he in turn has chosen his strategy: Triangulation.

It’s already abundantly clear that Murphy intends to steal the SNP’s clothes (or at least the most popular garments), in exactly the same way that Tony Blair used triangulation (or the Third Way) to marginalise and confuse the Tories in the late 1990s. Murphy’s claim in his victory speech that “the prize is a fairer country” is clearly based on the Sunday Herald’s main reasons for supporting a Yes: “the prize is a better country”. Indeed, ever since his election he seems to have focused on saying everything the Labour-SNP swing voters would want to hear.

As I argued recently, Labour’s problems in Scotland to a large extent have been caused by insisting on triangulating only against the Tories, making it ridiculously easy for the SNP to outmanoeuvre them in Scotland.

Jim Murphy seems to have decided to focus solely on the SNP, which makes him much more dangerous for the SNP, but will UK Labour put up with it? Has Murphy really been given free rein to beat the SNP, even if it means having dramatically different policies north and south of the border? Or will he like Wendy Alexander before him be forced into a humiliating climbdown at some point?

I fully expect Jim Murphy to sound almost like a Nationalist from now on — all his previous views will be youthful errors of judgment or something like that. He’ll promise just about anything that would be popular with voters — he knows that there’s no way he’ll get an absolutely majority in 2016, so even if Labour wins, he can blame his coalition partner for any divergences from his promises.

Where Jim Murphy will necessarily be weak will be with regard to reserved policy areas. If for instance UK Labour continues to be in favour of austerity, he can’t be against it while promising to toe the UK line at Westminster. If he decides to go against the UK line, will he force Labour’s Scottish MPs to follow him or Ed Miliband? And if he doesn’t, the SNP will quickly exploit that there are triangulation-free zones that can be used to differentiate themselves from Labour.

I don’t think many people expected Jim Murphy to change his political views so comprehensively. In the short term it’ll make things much harder for the SNP — he won’t simply repeat London’s anti-Tory slogans mindlessly. However, the history of Tony Blair’s premiership has demonstrated that eventually voters will see through triangulated policies, so in the longer term voters will realise that Jim Murphy never wears his own clothes, but always the opponent’s.

The Murphy/Dugdale era

Iain Gray, Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown
Iain Gray, Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown by Scottish Labour, on Flickr.
It’s just been announced that Jim Murphy has been elected leader of Labour’s Scottish Branch Office with a vote share of 22.36% (MPs/MSPs) + 20.14% (party members) + 13.26% (affiliates), and Kezia Dugdale has been elected depute leader.

The Guardian has some interesting information from his victory speech:

  1. he doesn’t intend to lose a single Labour seat to the SNP in next May’s general election
  2. he’s not trying to convince yes voters that they were wrong
  3. he will make clear where he intends to stand for Holyrood in the new year
  4. Kezia Dugdale will take on first minister’s questions in the Scottish parliament in the interim

Let’s have a quick look at these four points:

Firstly, holding on to all of Labour’s Scottish seats sounds about as likely as the SNP losing all of theirs. It’s certainly possible the SNP won’t do nearly as well as predicted by current polls, and I would have thought a realistic goal for Labour would have been to remain Scotland’s largest party in terms of Westminster seats, but he seems to be setting himself up for failure here.

Secondly, if you don’t convince the (ex-)Labour Yes voters that they were wrong to vote in favour of independence, why on Earth would they vote Labour again? Surely voting Labour only makes sense if you swallow the Unionist bait hook, line and sinker? I’m not at all sure that a argument along the lines of “let’s just agree to disagree on independence, but you must admit Labour’s commitment to continued austerity, as well as our track record on conducting illegal wars, is admirable” will go down at all well with many Scottish voters.

Thirdly, it’s interesting Murphy only intends to comment on where he’ll stand for Holyrood, not when. Surely the most interesting question is whether he can convince somebody to vacate their seat soon (potentially costing them £58.000), or whether he’ll have to remain in Westminster for ages. It sounds like there’ll be a lot of arm-twisting going on around Labour’s Christmas tree this Yuletide. It will also be interesting to see whether he’ll stand for his Westminster seat in May if he doesn’t find a Holyrood seat in time, or whether he’ll state soon that his constituency party needs to find a new candidate now. Also, what will be his role in Westminster for now? Will he be leading the Scottish MPs, or will he basically be a general without an army?

Fourthly, it will be interesting to see how well Kezia Dugdale can present Jim Murphy’s policies at Holyrood. When Nicola Sturgeon did the same for Alex Salmond, at least he was already a household name with well-known views, but Murphy will somehow need to backpedal frantically away from his New Labour past in absentia, which will be fun to watch.

To conclude, it will be fascinating to observe whether the Scottish Branch Office will tread water or collapse during the Murphy/Dugdale era. Murphy is certainly a very capable politician, but also one of the least liked MPs in Scotland — many people here in East Renfrewshire seem to develop an acute rash whenever they see him. Perhaps he’ll manage to ditch all his former views and present himself in a way that will appeal to Scottish Labour voters. Perhaps he’ll present himself as the unifying figure for all right-of-centre Unionist voters, whether Labour, Tory or LibDem, but losing Labour’s traditional supporters in the process. Or perhaps he’ll simply be a failure, presiding over such a catastrophic loss in the next two elections that his leadership will be extremely short-lived. We live in interesting times.