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Politics Amp Policy
Murphy faces tough challenge in Scotland
From the Financial Times of Mon, 22 Dec 2014 14:51:34 GMT

Less than a quarter of Scottish voters back the Labour party, according to the first poll published since it elected a new leader in Scotland.

Jim Murphy has a self-imposed target for May’s general election of retaining the 40 Westminster constituencies that his party holds in the country. The latest Survation poll for the Daily Record shows the scale of his task: at the last UK general election in 2010, 42 per cent of Scottish voters backed Labour. Just 24 per cent plan to do so in May. Support for the Scottish National party is at 48 per cent.

With expectations of a hung parliament growing, keeping its Scottish seats could be vital to any hopes of Labour leading the UK government.

Polling expert John Curtice wrote on the What Scotland Thinks blog that the latest numbers suggested the SNP “would sweep the board with 54 of Scotland’s 59 seats, while Labour would have just four”.

“It’s going to be tough, to put it mildly,” says Mark Diffley, director at polling company Ipsos Mori Scotland.

Mr Murphy’s supporters say, nonetheless, that his comfortable election as leader this month was the start of Scottish Labour’s rebirth. Easily the best-known of three leadership candidates, the Westminster MP and former UK secretary of state for Scotland is energetic, assured and far more media-savvy than his predecessor Johann Lamont.

Ahead of Scotland’s independence referendum, he undertook a “100 streets in 100 days” tour, during which he argued for staying in the UK from atop a couple of Irn Bru crates. Critics mocked him for briefly suspending the tour after an independence supporter threw eggs at him.

A partly South Africa-raised vegetarian teetotaller who has been involved in politics since his student days and who is widely seen as a “Blairite” on Labour’s right, some colleagues doubt Mr Murphy’s ability to connect with the party’s traditional working-class supporters.

Recent Survation polling found negative trust ratings for the new leader — 14 per cent said his leadership made them more likely to vote Labour, 18 per cent said it made it less likely and 57 per cent said it made no difference.

But Mr Murphy has direct experience of poverty from childhood days on a Glasgow housing estate and his love of football gives him common ground with many working class voters. Talking to the BBC recently he said he was in favour of trying out a relaxation of the ban on alcohol at Scottish football matches.

“He understands very well the issues that communities on the west coast of Scotland are facing,” says David Clegg, politics editor for the Glasgow-based Daily Record newspaper.

He also has an impressive electoral record, including turning his formerly Conservative Renfrewshire seat into a Labour stronghold and running the 2010 campaign that led to Labour expanding its vote in Scotland while it struggled elsewhere.

Mr Murphy’s prospects may also be helped by his emphatic assertion of the Scottish party’s autonomy and national identity.

When she stepped down in October, Ms Lamont accused London colleagues of treating Scottish Labour like a “branch office”. Now Mr Murphy declares he will not consult UK leader Ed Miliband on policies that are devolved to Scotland. And he plans to rewrite the Scottish party’s constitution to emphasise its autonomy and roots in a distinct Scottish political identity.

Mr Diffley says previous patterns of support in Scotland also offer Labour some comfort.

The party’s 2010 margin of victory was less than 20 percentage points in only 11 Scottish constituencies. It was less than 10 points in only three constituencies — and in none of those was the SNP the closest runner-up.

“Even if Labour don’t match the SNP in the popular vote, they may hold on to a lot of seats because of the very safe seats they have,” Mr Diffley says.

Over the past decade, many voters have backed the SNP in elections for the Scottish parliament while supporting Labour in Westminster. While polls suggest that pattern has now changed, Mr Murphy is stressing that Labour defeat would open the way for continued rule by the widely unpopular Conservatives.

“Any seat the SNP take off of the Labour party makes it more likely that David Cameron can hold on in power,” Mr Murphy said in the days after his election.

Yet Labour can no longer bank on the anti-Tory vote given the sense among former supporters that there is now little to distinguish between the big UK parties.

In a signal of the extent of Labour’s problems, polls suggest Mr Miliband is even less popular in Scotland than David Cameron, the Conservative UK prime minister.

YouGov’s latest survey found only 13 per cent of Scottish voters trusted Mr Miliband to make the right decisions, compared with 17 per cent for Mr Cameron. Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader and Scotland’s new first minister, was trusted by 43 per cent.

Prof Curtice says: “It’s Miliband who is Labour’s candidate for prime minister and that’s the problem.”

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