Jim Murphy is that rare breed, a genuinely working-class, modern British politician. We meet on the eve of Labour conference in a café in an upmarket shopping centre in his native Glasgow and he begins by talking about his childhood. Labour’s 44-year-old shadow defence secretary was born on a Glasgow housing estate and spent his early years ‘sleeping in a drawer’, he says, in a one-bedroom house containing four generations of his family.
But there’s no self-pity or faux-nostalgia in his reminiscing. What defines Murphy and his politics is not his family’s poverty, but their determination. When his father lost his job, he simply got on a bus and travelled around the UK until he found another one. ‘We ended up in the city the furthest away from Glasgow — Plymouth,’ says Murphy, ‘because that’s where my father found work. We lived in a caravan in Plymouth.’
It is perhaps this background that allows Murphy to talk more frankly about Britain’s deep social problems than most politicians in his position or party. He readily admits that the sense of get up and go that his family displayed has ‘undoubtedly diminished’ among their modern equivalents. He fears that ‘the inherited family poverty of attitude is now cascading into a third generation’ and rails against what he dismissively labels as the ‘chat that says “I’m as well off on benefits, I don’t need to get out of bed, and the world owes me a living”.’ It is the kind of robust analysis that makes many on the Labour right wonder if Murphy is their last best hope.
But the ‘Glasgow to Plymouth’ chapter is not the full story of Murphy’s childhood. In 1980, when he was aged 12, his family emigrated to South Africa. His politics have, he claims, been forged by ‘growing up poor in Glasgow and growing up white in South Africa’.
‘We were picked up at the airport the day we arrived in Cape Town by what they would call a coloured driver,’ he says. ‘We’d say it was a black guy but coloured in terms of South African terminology. We’d just arrived and we were chatting and my dad said “why don’t your kids and my kids get together and we’ll go and play football?”’
The next day the two families headed to the seaside. But they didn’t find the luscious sands that the Murphys had expected. ‘It was a sloping beach with big stones and cobbles,’ he says. ‘So we said, “what’s this about?” — you couldn’t play football on the pebble beach.’ But it turned out to be the only beach in Cape Town that people of colour could go at the time. ‘The driver must’ve thought we were a bit weird but then decided to go along with it anyway,’ Murphy remarks ruefully.
What prompted Murphy to leave South Africa was the threat of being conscripted into the apartheid-era army. ‘Immoral internal oppression wasn’t for me,’ he says. ‘I was in school assembly one day and… at the end of it they said: all the young men between this age and that age please stay behind. I thought, that’s not for me, I’ll just leave. But eventually the system catches up with you… and the best thing to do is to leave.’
After Murphy’s return to Britain, his life began to conform more to the usual career path of a modern Labour politician. He became president of the Scottish branch of the National Union of Students before being elected in the Blair landslide of 1997.
But despite having been in parliament 14 years — longer than Cameron, Clegg or either Miliband — Murphy’s career has only recently begun to take off. The defeat of David Miliband, whose leadership campaign Murphy managed, and the departure of so many Blairites from politics have left him as one of the standard-bearers of the Labour right.
Throughout our exchanges, Murphy takes great care to be loyal to Ed Miliband. He knows that now, just a few days from Miliband’s first proper conference as leader, would be the worst time for an injudicious comment. But it is apparent that he has worries about the party’s direction. He admits that it still fails his test of being able to produce a positive reason, in one sentence, to vote for it. ‘We’re still working on that,’ he concedes. He also acknowledges that ‘we would rather be further ahead in the polls than we are, of course we would’.
In the Cabinet battles before the last election, Murphy was a fierce opponent of Gordon Brown’s investment versus cuts mantra, and he is still fighting to push the party towards fiscal realism. In language that you can’t easily imagine coming from Ed Balls, he states that ‘the job for all of us now in the shadow cabinet is to work through our portfolios on just where we could make the savings, where would we make the cuts’. Murphy will try to give his colleagues a nudge in this direction in the coming days by setting out ones he has identified in the defence budget.
Another worry of Murphy’s is that Labour is not engaging with the coalition’s public service reform agenda. He warns: ‘You can’t say vote for us and we’ll put it back to where it was.’
When Labour was in office, Murphy was Scottish Secretary, clashing frequently with Alex Salmond’s Nationalist administration. He’s critical, now, of David Cameron’s approach to the whole question of the Union: ‘He’s got to engage a bit more in Scotland. He’s got to travel a few hundred miles north as well. He’s the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and he shouldn’t behave like a foreign visiting dignitary when he goes to Scotland, which is what the temptation is. He comes up and he stands in front of a British flag and a Scottish flag as if he is visiting Slovenia.’ Murphy is getting heated now: ‘Scotland is not bloody Slovenia.’
Murphy also served as Europe Minister so I ask him if the eurozone can survive the seemingly inevitable Greek default. Without hesitation, he responds: ‘not in its current form’. When I push him, he explains that the eurozone will have to be ‘a smaller group behaving in a different way’, before remembering that he should be telling me to direct these questions to Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor.
Just before Murphy leaves to pick up his children from school, I try to gauge how ambitious he is by asking if he thinks a Scot could be Prime Minister? He says yes, but suggests his faith is a greater barrier. ‘Can you be a Catholic and prime minister?’ It is evidently a matter to which he has given some thought.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 24, 2011