The Nosferatu of New Labour: Jim Murphy and the politics of privilege that won’t stay dead
The news of the alleged intervention by Jim Murphy in scuppering the endorsement by her local Eastwood constituency of Rhea Wolfson to stand for Labour’s National Executive Committee not only gave a Scottish dimension to Labour’s ongoing antisemitism row but perhaps gave a reminder that Murphy and more importantly the politics he represents may have faded into the background but still exerts a rather insidious influence.
Like the many headed Hydra, Murphy despite losing what may have appeared his most visible feature as MP or Scottish Labour leader stumbles on in the wilderness with less prominent but perhaps no less malevolent faces. Or a Blairite Worzel Gummidge, his MP head, Party leader head, Cabinet head all lying discarded and rotten while his ‘anti-Corbyn head’ and ‘hypocritical right wing interference head’ are sufficient to maintain life.
You might think that the concept of a politically established, middle-aged white, male non-Jew blocking a young female who was the only Jewish candidate for Labour’s NEC by accusing the left-wing Momentum group that supported her of antisemitism seems a bit illogical and not very progressive. And you’d be right. Illogical and non-progressive are two of the words that most accurately summarise the politics symbolised by Murphy: the politics that primarily serve the interests of the establishment.
It is this kind of faceless, passion-free politics that have had a particularly pervasive effect of Scottish Labour. A party that was already so resolutely male and middle class they elected a man called Gray as their leader. Then got even more bland.
Despite now being led by an openly gay female Scottish Labour still remains bland, lacking in diversity and seen by the majority of the electorate as relatively right wing. Labour are indignant when the SNP are seen as the anti-austerity party, a party of the left and of redistribution, and highlight that they are the party that founded the welfare state but they offer nothing in their current policies that would convince anyone they are fit to protect that legacy.
Jim Murphy is both a symbol of and symptom of everything that’s wrong with the Labour Party and UK politics in general the 21st century. A single minded careerist who has never had any meaningful previous life experience outside of politics. The cadaverous poster boy for unprincipled self-interest.
Murphy has become an even easier target for scorn following his role as figurehead of Labour’s unprecedented electoral humiliation in Scotland. A defeat which he seems unwilling or incapable of understanding. The failings of the Labour Party are far, far bigger than Jim Murphy, but the seeds of this failure in part stem from the cultivation of Murphy and his right wing, soundbite, silk-tie and grey suit ilk over the previous quarter of a century.
I personally first encountered Jim Murphy when he was on his way to becoming president of National Union of Students in Scotland and then nationally in the early 90s. He spent 9 long years at the University of Strathclyde and never graduated. I’m not sure how much time he actually spent at that University or furthering his education as he seemed to perpetually be doing the rounds at other educational establishments like some New Labour spirit of governments yet to come by doing whatever he could do promote the kind of joyless ‘safe’ politics that rarely curried much favour with student bodies awash with immediate post-Thatcher zeal in anticipation of a glowing new dawn which never came. If you can’t be impassioned, principled and full of political idealism at 21, you’ll probably never be. Even back then Jim Murphy had all the youthful zeal and idealism of a septuagenarian Rotary Club secretary drawing up the agenda for that night’s meeting.
What student politics did get was a Jim Murphy who served the interests of the Labour party at the expense of his own NUS members. In 1996 Murphy’s name was first uttered in the House of Commons when he was the subject of an unprecedented ‘Early Day Motion’ which condemned his presidency of the NUS for “intolerant and dictatorial behaviour”. He had engaged in a furious campaign of persecution against NUS officials who supported NUS policy of free education at a time when (as today) Labour Party policy was against this. Murphy was rewarded for his service when left the NUS for a job in the Labour Party, was selected for the apparently unwinnable constituency of Eastwood in the 1997 general election and, as the Tories were wiped out in Scotland, he won the seat in the leafy suburbs south of Glasgow and the rest as they say is history. Much like Jim’s lamentable career now seems to be.
The lack of any extra-parliamentary experience of the likes of Murphy has had a particular impact on the Labour benches. The Conservatives side is still full of bankers and businessmen doing the bidding of their class, ensuring that the interests of the millionaires and oligarchs that they represent, socialise and invest with are served. For Labour there are precious few MPs standing up for those at the other end of the social spectrum and if they aren’t doing that what exactly is it they are doing? Ultimately, unapologetically serving the interests of capitalism too, but with a velvet glove rather than an iron fist.
Murphy, perhaps more than any other Labour figure is most keenly furthering capitalism in all its most brazenly neo-liberal form with his membership of the Henry Jackson Society. Henry Jackson was a military hawk and ‘anti-communist’ McCarthyite senator. The society named after him, founded in the U.S but exported to London in the build-up to the Iraq war, is the main bastion of Neo-Conservatism on these islands. The third stated principle of this organisation is that it “supports the maintenance of a strong military, by the United States, the countries of the European Union and other democratic powers, armed with expeditionary capabilities with a global reach, that can protect our homelands from strategic threats”. Most of the other members are the kind of drooling, militarist Tories who still get aroused by visions of Thatcher ordering the Belgrano to be sunk. If it’s free market aims weren’t obvious enough from the above, it’s 7th principle states “two cheers for capitalism”. No that’s not a joke, but the fact that a prominent Labour politician signed up for that is. A sad, sick joke but a joke nonetheless.
My point here is not simply to criticise Jim Murphy and score cheap points at his high profile failures, easy as that is. It’s to highlight that although he may apparently have melted into the background, the politics he represents are no less pervasive. Corbyn’s election may have left the right wing Labour project that Murphy exemplifies cowed and confused but like all previously powerful animals who are cowed and confused they tend to be dangerous and can lash out.
There will be many in Scotland who would shrug and write Labour off as irrelevant, put their faith in the SNP to deliver independence within most of our lifetimes on the back of the civic nationalist, anti-establishment nature of the popular vote in the last two elections. Personally I don’t think that’s possible without the involvement of a labour and trade union movement that remains tied to the Labour Party. Jim Murphy remains an impediment to progress. If he keeps coming back from the undead like a Nosferatu of New Labour we have to keep delivering another political stake through his heart.