LABOUR’S revival in Scotland is “critical” to it regaining power at Westminster in 2024, Ian Murray has admitted, as he stressed the party would need to win at least 10 if not nearer 20 Scottish seats in its largest ever landslide victory to put Keir Starmer into Downing St.
And in an exclusive interview with The Herald, the Shadow Scottish Secretary made clear a Labour victory at the General Election in four years’ time, based on a pledge to reject a second Scottish independence referendum, would override any “ridiculous” claim by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP to have a mandate for one if they won the Holyrood poll three years earlier in 2021.
Also in the interview, Mr Murray explained:
*Jeremy Corbyn was a “disaster” for Labour in Scotland as evidenced by its performance in the 2019 election;
*he had offered to “wipe the slate clean” with Richard Leonard, the Corbynite Scottish Labour leader, to help improve the party’s fortunes in Scotland;
*his party had a “credibility gap” with the public on the economy, which it had to close;
*Labour had to crack on to formulate ahead of the next election a convincing policy of “radical federalism” for the UK, which would involve taking powers from Holyrood and giving them to local communities in Scotland;
*Boris Johnson’s Government was the “worst in history”;
*the Prime Minister’s poor communication on coronavirus meant it was being exploited by the First Minister and the Nationalists so that any failings were being blamed entirely on Westminster and
*under Sir Keir’s leadership the Tories were in the “fight of their lives”.
Once again, the Edinburgh MP finds himself as Labour’s only Scottish representative in the House of Commons; 10 years and four General Elections ago there were 41 Labour MPs north of the border.
During Mr Corbyn’s five years as leader Mr Murray was frozen out, so much so that when, following December’s poor poll result and the 43-year-old was again the party’s last man standing in Scotland, instead of the leader welcoming him back to the front bench, he chose a fellow septuagenarian from England, Tony Lloyd, to fill the role.
“After 2017 when we returned seven Scottish MPs, I said very clearly to Jeremy Corbyn there was a pathway to Downing St if he chose to take it and if he decided not to, then the public would ultimately have the final say on his leadership of the Labour Party and it wouldn’t be something he would find particularly pleasing.
“An 80-seat Conservative majority and what we have been seeing most recently from this Government shows the public decided to choose a pretty incompetent Prime Minister and Tory Government with a huge majority over what we were offering.”
Asked if Mr Corbyn had been a disaster for Scotland, Mr Murray replied: “Of course he was; because we ended up in the situation of losing all our seats but one.
“We went from making progress in 2017 to probably being in our worst position than we have ever been in terms both electorally and current polling. The only conclusion you can come to is the public have had their say and their conclusion is not particularly appealing.
“If you look at all the analysis since the election the public in Scotland thought we were confused on the EU and on independence and those were two big issues on which the people voted and those confusions came from the top.”
Mr Murray insisted experiencing the Corbyn “regime,” as he called it, was “hugely frustrating” as he believed it neither presented a credible Opposition nor a credible Government-in-waiting.
However, he admitted, despite some very low moments, he never contemplated throwing in the towel, mainly due to the support he received, so loyally, from his Edinburgh constituents; as his fellow Labour candidates all fell away at the 2019 election, he picked up an 11,000-plus majority.
“I never, ever, felt at any point that I wasn’t doing a job for my constituents and that is what makes you hang in there because that is what politics is all about.
“They are the ones who kept me going in 2015 and 2019 when we lost everybody else and, therefore, you think there’s a job to be done and that’s the job you want to see through.”
Having failed to win the party’s deputy leadership, Mr Murray is, nonetheless, now back on the Labour frontbench as Shadow Scottish Secretary, yet looks up and realises his party is facing a mountain of Himalayan proportions to climb if it has any chance of returning to power.
After suffering its worst General Election result since 1935, losing 60 seats, including six in Scotland, and now having just 202 MPs, Labour has clearly done the numbers on what reaching the mountain-top would mean.
The Scot pointed out Labour in 2024 would need its biggest ever landslide to end 14 years in the political wilderness.
Underlining how the electoral mathematics showed his party needed to revive its fortunes in Scotland in a massive way, Mr Murray declared: “Scotland is critically important because until you start winning seats back in Scotland you can’t win.”
He pointed out that if Labour again returned only a single Scottish MP in 2024, it would need a record 13 per cent swing to gain the necessary 124 extra seats. Labour’s biggest win to date under Tony Blair in 1997 saw a 10% swing.
Mr Murray noted how if Labour gained as many as 16 Scottish seats, quite a jump from its 2019 starting point, it would still require a record victory with a swing between 10 and 11%.
Asked if, therefore, a double-digit number of Scottish seats was vital for the party to stand any chance of regaining power, the Labour frontbencher did not hesitate in his reply: “Yes, for two reasons,
“One is the SNP win our seats in Scotland and, therefore, we need to win Scottish seats for the mathematics of it.
“But the higher number of seats the SNP get in Scotland, the more of a threat that is in England, which damages our chances south of the Border as well, which was so ably exploited by Sturgeon and Salmond in 2015,” said the Edinburgh South MP.
But it was also ably exploited by the Tories. They put up posters across England, showing Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s top pocket. Conservative sources said at the time fuelling fears of a Lab-SNP alliance had worked a treat. Such was its success, Tory HQ used it again in 2017, this time with Mr Corbyn in Ms Sturgeon’s top pocket.
So, a task for Sir Keir in the run-up to the 2024 poll, given his party needs its biggest ever landslide to get him into Downing St, will be to kill off stone dead any idea of a Lab-SNP deal.
“What Keir Starmer has been saying quite clearly is that the Labour Party is going to go into this period of reform and renewal up to 2024 standing on its own two feet and try and form the next Government; and that’s where we need to be. That means winning all over the country,” insisted Mr Murray.
In recent years the constitutional question has dominated Scottish politics with Labour being eased out as the SNP overwhelmingly secured the pro-independence vote and the Conservatives the pro-Union one.
Mr Murray stressed his party had always been pro-Union but pointed out Mr Corbyn’s “confused message” on whether a future Labour Government would facilitate a second referendum had seriously hampered the party’s fortunes in Scotland.
But when asked about what a Labour Government under Sir Keir would do faced with demands for indyref2, the Shadow Secretary of State talked of “hypotheticals,” questioned what was meant by an SNP mandate, votes or seats, and stressed how the party leadership had to lay out its prospectus for a “devolution revolution” to defeat the “extreme proposition” set out by the Nationalists to take Scotland out of the UK.
“We would be going into the 2024 election with no to independence, no to a second independence referendum, and, hopefully, a fully constituted and concluded constitutional convention for a radical federalism.”
When it was suggested that if the SNP won an overall majority in next year’s Holyrood poll, it would insist it had a mandate to demand a second referendum, Mr Murray stressed how this would become a “ridiculous” proposition in 2024, three years after the Holyrood elections, if Labour took power.
“By that hypothetical, Keir Starmer would take the Labour manifesto into government and then rip up everything he has talked about on radical federalism to give somebody a referendum he disagrees with on the basis of a mandate that could be less than 50%,” argued the Shadow Scottish Secretary.
He added: “You can’t say one half of the equation has a mandate and not the other. The mandate for Keir Starmer, if he becomes PM in 2024, would be to deliver on the manifesto commitment of the radical federalism that he wants to try and achieve.”
Indeed, this policy of radical federalism, an enhancement of the devolution settlement as Labour would promote it, will clearly be one of the big ideas for the Starmer prospectus for Government. And yet while Labour has for the last 10 years been speaking of a constitutional shake-up to build on the devolved settlement, nothing so far has materialised.
Mr Murray believes this must change and quickly.
“This is about what is in the whole interests of the country, it’s about moving power down to local communities, it’s about re-engaging with local communities, which say that politics is disengaged with them; that’s what it is about. You could make the same argument about the status quo and the same argument for independence.”
Of course, an attempt at a move to a more federal system was attempted by Labour in the Blair years with regional assemblies in England but failed to take off due to a lack of popular enthusiasm.
The Shadow Secretary of State insisted now was a different time; devolution had moved on with popular expansions like the London Assembly as well as the metro mayors of Bristol, Manchester and Merseyside.
A constitutional convention is being flagged, which will look at enhanced devolution as well as turning the House of Lords into an elected second chamber with a specific task of representing the nations and regions.
“I’m pushing for Keir to start this process as soon as possible because it has already been delayed too long. This was part of the process in 2015 and it never came to fruition. It’s been Scottish Labour policy since 2017. We need to be putting meat on the bones of this and to get the public involved in how this is shaped,” insisted the Scot.
“We want to establish the convention and do the work while we are in Opposition as a proposition of what we do when we go into Government as a new settlement for the UK. That’s a tall order in the timescale we have available but it’s something we should strive towards.”
UKwide “radical federalism” would, in the Scottish context, mean moving powers out of Holyrood into local communities.
“Subsidiarity has to be at the core of this. This is not just about putting powers on a train from London to Edinburgh, this is about getting powers out of Holyrood and down(to local communities); that’s where we need to be,” insisted Mr Murray.
Of course, given Scotland’s pivotal role in the way ahead for Labour, Sir Keir’s first biggest electoral test as the leader of the UK party will be north of the border at the 2021 Holyrood election.
Mr Murray insisted there was now a “huge focus” to try and get the Scottish Labour Party back on an upward trajectory.
“Everyone in the Shadow Cabinet is now abreast of the critical importance of Scotland and how we need to make sure we are back on the park. They absolutely get it. I’m not sure they got it before.”
Mr Murray insisted the days of the Scottish party being labelled a “regional office” of the London HQ were over and, to all intents and purposes, it was now fully autonomous.
Yet, Richard Leonard was a staunch Corbynite and remains firmly on the left of the party. His relationship with Mr Murray has not, party sources have suggested, been the happiest in British politics.
“I have always said all the way through this that Richard being the elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party has had an opportunity to analyse the December 12 elections and look at a way of changing course.
“I have always said, and said it to Richard directly, this is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean.”
Asked if Mr Leonard was prepared to do so, Mr Murray suggested this was a question for the Scottish Labour Party leader but that, with a new UK leader and the Tory leadership floundering, there was a real opportunity for the party to get “back on the park”.
Noting the proximity of the 2021 poll, he said: “It’s a very good opportunity for Richard and I to wipe the slate clean and to start again. The next election is just around the corner.”
But as the parties set their uncertain paths towards 2024, how would Labour seek to establish clear red water from the Tories, who are now pledging to spend hundreds of billions of pounds and banish any return to austerity.
“The bottom line here is the change of emphasis. The Labour Party wants to be credible on the economy, it wants to talk about wealth creation as well as redistribution.”
When it was suggested this sounded remarkably like the party was taking a leaf out of New Labour’s playbook, Mr Murray bristled and insisted: “It’s not about taking a leaf out of anyone’s book, it’s trying to find an economic model that is accurate for the day; that’s where we need to be.
“So, times move all the time. The way you have just said in your question about the way the Conservative economic policy appears to be shifting means it is incredibly important for us to be at the forefront of that and talking about the future.”
Mr Murray mentioned investment in public services, frontline workers, short term contracts, zero hours contracts, social care funding and how the economy would interact with the education system, technology, Artificial Intelligence, the workplace and climate change.
“What we need to do as a party is to be formulating an economic policy that is a) credible, b) talks about wealth creation as well as wealth distribution but also deals with some of those big issues and that’s where we need to be. The biggest buzzword in all of that is credibility; it has to be about credibility.
“If we are talking about the future, these are the kind of things that will mean we will make a much much better fist of that credibility argument, including that credibility gap. That’s where we need to be, so it’s got to be about plausibility of a policy programme and credibility in terms of economic policy.”
As the pandemic continues its grip on the country, Mr Murray was asked if he was scared that Boris Johnson was, in the way he was handling the crisis, driving Scots into the arms of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.
“If you wanted the worst government in history, then we are living through it,” declared the Shadow Scottish Secretary.
“Everyone has known for a long time that Boris Johnson…even the people closest to him have said he is unfit to be Prime Minister. At the moment, we are trying very hard to support the Government because that’s the right thing to do during this pandemic but are they making a mess of it? Well, they are certainly making a mess of the communication.”
He went on: “The bottom line here is this is exactly the kind of thing the SNP thrive off on the basis they have got the mixed messages coming out of Downing St, that have absolutely nothing to do with Scotland, but they can rely on those to create division and then they have a better, more polished communicator in Nicola Sturgeon giving messages in Scotland that means people blame the UK Government for everything.
“People look at Boris Johnson and think this is a disaster.”
And yet the Labour frontbencher argued all the while the position that Scotland was in, in terms of the virus, was worse than the rest of the UK.
He mentioned the higher R-infection rate, the Nike “cover-up” in the way the pandemic started in Scotland, the nation had the fifth highest death rate in Europe, one of the worst testing rates in the world, as bad a problem with protective equipment as the rest of the UK and the epicentre had been in care homes because of Government policy.
“Yes, of course, people are looking at Boris Johnson and thinking this is a disaster but we should get on to asking the Scottish Government the key questions about their performance in this epidemic and in terms of Scotland; it has been a disaster under any measure.”
As Westminster prepares to return this week, Mr Murray highlighted what he saw as a growing contrast between the performance of his leader and that of the PM.
“What you have got is competence versus incompetence, authority versus weakness. You have someone who is articulate versus someone who is well-known for bluff and bluster.”
Asked if the Tories should be frightened of Sir Keir, the Scot replied: “They should be at the moment. If you look at what has happened at PMQs and where the activity is in the country; the PM is being found wanting.
“If I was a Conservative right now, I would be looking across that chamber at Keir Starmer’s performance at PMQs and say we’re in for the fight of our lives.”