Gary Elliot: Why keeping Jim Murphy on as Scotland leader could be the boldest move from Labour in a decade

CommonSpace columnist Gary Elliot examines Labour's prospects in Scotland and how it can find space for a serious re-evaluation of strategy

AFTER one of the pre-General Election polls predicted the SNP gaining over 50 per cent of the vote I posed a question: could Jim Murphy could survive a defeat of that scale?

Now that that defeat has not only happened but that Jim Murphy actually lost his own seat, that question has well and truly moved from the hypothetical to the very real.

Despite the fact that Murphy's position would seem to be untenable, it's worth taking a bit of a step back and questioning whether his resignation really would be the right move at this point in time for the Labour Party.

Nobody with any sense of perspective would suggest that Labour's problems lie solely at the feet of Jim Murphy. In Scotland, Labour have long-standing, historic issues that need to be addressed.

Nobody with any sense of perspective would suggest that Labour's problems lie solely at the feet of Jim Murphy.

As has been pointed out, Labour has now had five leaders in eight years. Is simply changing the leader again going to affect the kind of deep-rooted radical change that the party requires? Obviously not.

In the short term, the Labour Party needs to clearly acknowledge a simple truth - it is going to lose next year's Holyrood Election. Once (or if) it acknowledges that, the nature of the choice that it faces takes on a difference hue.

If Labour did decide to choose a new leader at this point, it would absolve any responsibility from that new leader in relation to that election defeat. It would thereafter give the party breathing space to build up for subsequent elections.

It would also spare the new leader the temptation of making any outlandish claims in relation to what they might hope to achieve in the 2016 election.

Even given that, suppose Labour's vote share slipped by maybe 1-2 percentage points next year. Suppose that there was a perception that no progress had been made. Suppose Labour's voter base was so demoralised that its turnout contrived to drive the vote back. To what extent would the new leader have to be seen to carry the can for that, even if election victory had previously been written off?

If it is accepted that next year's Holyrood election is effectively a write-off, would it not be better for the person responsible to be Jim Murphy?

If it is accepted that new leadership is required, would it not be better to give that new leader a full term of untainted, principled opposition to the SNP in the run up to the subsequent Holyrood elections?

If it was agreed that Murphy should carry on, with the understanding that he resign after next year's Holyrood vote, could this give the party the breathing space that it needs?

Not only would that allow Murphy to carry the can for next year's impending defeat, it would also allow for an extended period of debate to take place in which serious strategic decisions could be made about the future direction of the Party in Scotland.

These could also take place with a greater knowledge and understanding of the nature of Labour leadership at a UK level. How should Labour in Scotland - the branch office -react if UK Labour's Blairites re-assert their strength in the wake of Miliband's defeat?

Would/should this act as a catalyst for Scottish Labour to formally secede and establish itself as an independent party? If it was agreed that Murphy should carry on, with the understanding that he resign after next year's Holyrood vote, could this give the party the breathing space that it needs in order to face up to the strategic decisions that it has to face?

Labour has some serious questions that it needs to address both at a Scottish and a UK level. Labour in Scotland could potentially wither further in the next few years - particularly when the financial loss that the party will bear from its election defeat is taken into account.

Is it vulnerable to being replaced from the left by a grouping centred around a Radical Independence Convention that can bring 3,000 people to a Glasgow conference? Is it vulnerable to a left Common Weal-type grouping? Is it conceivable that next year the Greens could replace it as the principle opposition in the Scottish Parliament?

Rather than wither completely, the Labour Party could easily stumble on, gaining enough seats through PR to have a presence in Holyrood but never really threatening to move beyond that.

Or, do such groupings represent an opportunity to bring new blood and new thinking under the historic Labour brand? This would require a radical new outlook and blue-sky-thinking as far as historic policy areas are concerned - the party's attitude towards independence included.

Or, rather than wither completely, the Labour Party could easily stumble on, like the Tories, with a bedrock support of around 25 per cent, gaining enough seats through PR to have a presence in Holyrood but never really threatening to move beyond that.

I'm sure those involved with Labour would want to avoid both scenarios. That can only be done with a level of radical thinking that the party has avoided since its 2007 defeat.

Would a leadership contest at this point in time help facilitate that or act as a distraction? Would an extended departure period for Jim Murphy help or hinder that process?

Only the Labour Party in Scotland can make those decisions. Retaining Murphy as a caretaker leader may not seem like a particularly radical course of action.

However, if it allows the broader Party to debate its strategic direction, if it allows a suitable leader to be elected after that debate has taken place and if it clears the ground for the Party's revitalisation after the 2016 Holyrood election, it may turn out to be the boldest action that the party has taken in a decade.

Picture courtesy of Labour Party