Ian Swanson: uphill struggle to halt SNP bandwagon

New Labour leader Jim Murphy. Pic: John Devlin

New Labour leader Jim Murphy. Pic: John Devlin

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NEW Labour leader Jim Murphy clearly means business. After securing the post with an impressive 55 per cent of the votes in the first round, he has wasted no time in appointing a new shadow cabinet – and setting up office at Holyrood despite not being an MSP.

Mr Murphy has a regular visitor’s pass for the Scottish Parliament and plans to base himself in Labour’s offices in the building.

He will, of course, have to leave deputy leader Kezia Dugdale to deal with parliamentary business and the task of taking on Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions.

But Mr Murphy is sending a clear signal that Holyrood is now his focus.

After unveiling his shadow team near the parliament’s ponds he had lunch with colleagues in the canteen and was welcomed politely by a string of SNP MSPs who stopped to shake hands and congratulate him on his new job.

But it may prove a little discomfiting for Ms Sturgeon to keep bumping into the man who wants her job around the parliament when he is not even an MSP.

His constituents in Eastwood might also have something to say about their MP’s decision only to attend the House of Commons for key votes. But the move reflects his determination to avoid any possible claim that Scottish Labour is being run from Westminster.

Following his predecessor’s damaging claim that Scotland was treated as a “branch office”, Mr Murphy has insisted that from now on, all decisions on Scottish Labour will be taken here in Scotland without having to refer to the UK leadership.

But similar things have been said before. In the wake of the devastating losses in the 2011 Holyrood election, Mr Murphy himself conducted a review of the party along with Lothian MSP Sarah Boyack, leading to changes which were supposed to strengthen its Scottish identity and control. It seems it did not have the desired effect.

And exactly how far does Mr Murphy’s party independence pledge go? Will oversight of the selection process for Scottish Westminster candidates no longer rest with the UK national executive committee, who have recently had to decide whether or not to order all-female shortlists in the seats being vacated by Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown?

Despite the current mood for maximum devolution, there must be a case for any UK party to retain some central control or co-ordination.

Nevertheless, Mr Murphy seems ready to embrace the desire for change and willing to accommodate all sides.

Not long ago, the new leader was one of those resisting full control of income tax being devolved to Holyrood, but he has changed his mind on that.

And in appointing his new team he has included his two rivals for the leadership and others who might be seen as not his natural supporters.

The revamped shadow cabinet is a combination of experience – with figures like East Lothian MSP Iain Gray at education and the seasoned Hugh Henry at justice – and new talent, with Jenny Marra taking on health.

Mr Murphy is well aware he faces an uphill struggle to get Labour back into a position where it can realistically hope to win power at Holyrood in 2016.

And before that there is the even more urgent task of preventing the SNP from taking a swathe of Labour seat at Westminster next May. Polls currently show the party trailing the Nationalists by 20 per cent.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com