Jim Murphy’s abrupt decision to resign as leader of Scottish Labour plunges the party into its second internal election alongside the contest to succeed Ed Miliband as UK leader, and presents the party with a significant challenge at a critical time in its history.
Scottish Labour will need to find its sixth leader in eight years from a small and largely inexperienced pool of potential candidates at Holyrood after losing 39 of its 40 Westminster MPs in the catastrophic defeat at the general election.
Moments after narrowly surviving a vote of confidence by the party’s executive by 17 votes to 14 on Saturday, Murphy announced he would formally stand down in a month. He feared the deep internal divisions following Scottish Labour’s catastrophic defeat in the general election would continue to dog his leadership, he said.
But as he announced his resignation, Murphy threw down a deliberate challenge to the union movement and the Scottish party, opening up a new battle between new Labour modernisers and the traditional left.
He launched a scathing attack on Unite leader Len McCluskey, who helped orchestrate an escalating campaign against him last week. And in a further sideswipe, he accused his party’s executive of ignoring party democracy before urging them to reform Scottish Labour’s voting and policy making rules.
Accusing McCluskey of “destructive behaviour” motivated by a political grudge, Murphy said the Unite leader’s claim that Labour had lost the election because of Scottish Labour’s disastrous performance was a “grotesque insult” to the party’s membership and activists.
“We have to draw the poison out of some of the personalities,” Murphy said. “Sometimes people see it as a badge of honour to have Mr McCluskey’s support. I kind of see it as a kiss of death to be supported by that type of politics.”
Attacking the executive’s decision to accept a confidence motion given his election as Scottish leader last December with 56% of the vote, Murphy added: “The executive shouldn’t take the opportunity to overturn a decision arrived at five months ago by thousands of Labour party members and thousands of trade unionists.”
A party source said Murphy would not stand for re-election. “This is no Farage thing going on. He’s going. It’s done; gone absolutely.”
Pat Rafferty, Scottish regional organiser for Unite, McCluskey’s union, said he welcomed Murphy’s resignation: “Jim has done the decent thing. Scottish Labour needs to recover, re-engage and reform. It can now begin that process.”
But in a deliberate challenge to the unions, Murphy said his last act would be to submit a report to the next executive meeting urging a sweeping overhaul of the Scottish party’s constitution and policy-making structures.
It would specifically urge the scrapping of the current electoral college system of electing leaders, where trade unions are allowed a third of the vote, parliamentarians a third and party members a third. In contrast, the UK party insists on one-member-one-vote elections.
“In some ways, the Scottish Labour party is the least modernised part of the labour movement and that can no longer continue,” Murphy said. “It will be for the party executive to decide whether it accepts the reforms proposed, but a party in such urgent need of reform blocks those changes at its peril.”
After Scottish Labour was decimated at the election, Murphy insisted he would stay on despite losing his own seat of East Renfrewshire.
He said he would seek election to the Scottish parliament in May 2016 but that immediately raised a substantial new obstacle which could cause further conflict within the Scottish party.
In order to guarantee election to Holyrood, Murphy would need to ensure he was lead candidate for Scottish Labour on a regional list. The party would need to force out existing MSPs elected first on the list in 2011 or ask them to not seek re-election.
His fiercest critics on Labour’s left then mounted a concerted campaign last week to force him out, which saw two MSPs resign from the Holyrood party’s front bench, and direct attacks on his leadership from critics in Unite, Unison and Aslef, as well as his closest rival for the leadership, Neil Findlay.
He took over as party leader last December, with 56% of the overall vote, winning heavily among ordinary members and Labour parliamentarians. Findlay won 35% of the vote thanks to winning a large portion of the union vote after being backed by Unite and Unison leaders.
This article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Saturday 16th May 2015 16.39 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010