Having finally confirmed that he will stand in the General Election, but refused to confirm that he will serve a full term, Jim Murphy has made an enormous tactical error. He can expect to be pressed on the issue again and again as we approach election day, and his opponents (especially the SNP candidate) will surely now zero-in on what is definitely a major chink in his already weakened armour.
Mr Murphy’s current approach (a blend of obfuscation and misdirection) is simply not tenable. At some point in the next 8 weeks he will, surely, have to concede one or other of the following points: either he intends to serve as an MP for one year before quitting Westminster, thus triggering a by-election and sending the people of East Renfrewshire back to the polls; or he will serve a full Westminster term, meaning that for four years he intends to be an MP, an MSP (perhaps for an entirely different constituency or region), the leader of Labour in Scotland and Scotland’s First Minister.
Whichever way you cut it, the people of East Renfrewshire deserve better than an MP who is not fully committed to representing them. I contacted the Electoral Commission to inquire as to the legality of standing for election with no intention of seeing out a term – they confirmed that there is no specific rule blocking such a scenario but, telling, stated that ‘the question of whether it would be acceptable or not is for electors to judge.’ Could any candidate really justify a position where they are asking constituents to trust and vote for them whilst simultaneously planning to walk away from them twelve months later (to say nothing of the time taken to actually campaign in the 2016 Holyrood election)?
On that basis, it would seem more likely that Mr Murphy intends to serve as both an MP and MSP, whilst also functioning as the head of Labour in Scotland and, in the unlikely event that Labour win control of Holyrood, the First Minister of the nation. Even a politician with Murhpy’s incredible energy would surely concede that it would be impossible to carry out all of these roles at once. Once again, the people of East Renfrewshire will find themselves short-changed.
The obvious question is this: how did Mr Murphy allow himself to be backed into such an obvious and avoidable corner? The assumption will be that his vanity simply would not allow him to walk away from a constituency which he famously wrestled from the Tories in 1997. In a way this would be the best possible defence, because the alternative demonstrates a startling lack of political (and tactical) awareness from a man seeking the highest office in Scotland.
Of course, all of this assumes that Mr Murphy actually holds his seat, but there is now a very real – and, for the Labour party, catastrophic – possibility of him actually losing to the SNP’s Kirsten Oswald in May. The most recent Ashcroft polls show Murphy holding onto the seat by the finest of margins, but there is still a long way to go. Yes, the campaign could see him win some of the Labour voters back, but it is equally possibly that the SNP could increase their share (especially if Green voters can be convinced to back the SNP on this occasion). Losing East Renfrewshire along with the rest of Glasgow could plunge Scottish Labour into the sort of chaos that would make the last few months look like the best of times; in such circumstances there would be serious questions about Murphy’s ability to continue in his position. His best hope of survival under these circumstances could well be the lack of a genuine challenge from elsewhere, itself a terrible indictment of the state of the party as a whole.
The great irony is that a decision not to stand in the General Election would have been the far more prudent move: while there might have been a concern about a loss of profile, in reality the leader of Labour in Scotland is unlikely to struggle for a media platform; although some may have worried about him being labelled a ‘feartie’, not standing in 2015 would have given Murphy complete freedom to campaign for Holyrood in 2016, providing ample opportunity to undo any reputational damage done by the failure to defend his Westminster seat; finally, for a man still tainted (perhaps forever) by his association with the Tories during the Better Together campaign, this would have provided the opportunity to proclaim loud and clear that he is focused unequivocally on Scotland and the delivery of Home Rule. Even in the case of a genuine political massacre in May, he might even have succeeded in making the case that he is focused on turning things around the following a year and, somehow, managed to cling on.
In deciding to stand in May, Jim Murphy has dug himself into a hole which, it would seem, he is entirely unable to escape from.