YouGov-Cambridge Forum 2015: Rt Hon Jim Murphy on ‘Seven lessons from the GE/Scottish Referendum'

Milan DinicResearch Manager
Dr Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
December 21, 2015, 12:16 PM UTC

The opening keynote for this year's 'YouGov-Cambridge Forum' was delivered by Right Honourable Jim Murphy, a former Cabinet Minister in the UK Government, who has held multiple Ministerial portfolios and was a Member of Parliament from 1997-2015. He served in both Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s governments in senior roles, and has chaired a myriad of public and government bodies.

There is a simple explanation for why Labour “lost the country” at the last election, according to Rt Hon Jim Murphy. “The aggregate view of the British public comes down to two issues: one is what they feel about the top of the ticket, and [the other] what they feel about the economy. We had vulnerabilities on both of those, which came to fruition on election night and we paid the price.”

As Murphy further contended in his keynote address to this year’s YouGov-Cambridge Forum, there are also seven big lessons that can be drawn from this chapter in British politics:

Lesson 1: We are in an age of permanent campaigning

“We live in an age of permanent campaign…We are still in the midst of an independence referendum in Scotland. It didn’t just last for 18 months…it has been running ever since the SNP formed the Scottish government in 2007…The question [of independence] will remain alive until the SNP are defeated or until they manage to engineer a second referendum.”

Murphy also said the SNP “came last in a two-horse referendum race” and spent the period after the referendum parading as the winner. “That is because the SNP had a plan for the day after the referendum. The Tories also had their strategy. The Labour party appeared to have no tactics and strategy. The reason why... is because we didn’t. We couldn’t give the appearance of something we just did not have.”

He went on to criticise David Cameron’s immediate reaction to the referendum outcome: “David Cameron seized a moment and was out early next morning after the referendum to make an announcement on English votes for English laws. Instead of traveling to Scotland to bind the country to stay part of the United Kingdom, David Cameron acted in self-interest and did the opposite. So, what was his aim, apart from ameliorating certain elements inside the Conservative party? He created a sense of grievance in Scotland and engendered a sense of English nationalism south of the border. In that, Cameron succeeded well beyond his wildest ambitions.”

As a result, Murphy warned, Cameron only strengthened public support for the SNP’s perpetual campaign. “The SNP saw his actions as further proof of bad faith in Westminster and used it really very successfully to bind together 45% of the 'Yes' voters in the referendum to their flag in the general election. If you bind 45% of the votes in a four party contest you are guaranteed to win.”

Turning to the question of Europe, Murphy added: “My senses are that a vote to remain in the EU will not bring a resolution. The issue will come back and back again. The real point is: will the question be allowed to be asked again (?), and in Scotland that seems unclear.”

Lesson 2: We live in a time where politics of religiosity is beating the politics of reason

“We are living in a period which I would describe as post-truth politics,” Murphy stated. “I saw it first-hand in public meetings. When I was there I saw a belief system born of faith and often free of fact. The collapsing global oil price should have, and still possibly can, burst the pro-independence bubble. Scotland now raises more money on tax from gambling than it does on tax form oil.”

“Post-truth” politics also had a bearing on the election of Labour’s new leader, with Murphy contending: “it didn’t seem to matter a few months ago that Corbynomics wasn’t fully possible.” Indeed, the former Scottish Labour leader made the case that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters “saw him as a cause and not as a candidate.”

With the EU referendum, said Murphy, “we have to come to terms with politics in which wishful thinking can morph into popular orthodoxy. So I would contend as a second lesson that the era of impeccably researched documents winning the day on their own is gone and gone for good.”

Lesson 3: You can’t wait for the public to come to you – you must go to them

“Successful campaigns need politics of engagement. That’s not new but it’s more relevant now.” “In Scotland the debate and the exchange of information went on everywhere – at work, at home, in pubs…That sort of organic campaigning was common place in Scotland”, and in this kind of modern, multichannel environment, “you cannot expect the public to come to you”. The energy from nationalism can be unswerving. “But I learned the truth of the saying of the 1960s radicals: ‘Democracy is often in the street.’ And it was.”

Lesson 4: Every single penny from the campaign funds to go on Facebook

Murphy firmly believes that social media is irreversibly changing politics. “We live in a post-deferential society. In Scotland, where people believe that organisations such as the BBC have been captured by the establishment elite, social media has become increasingly important beyond the established profession of mainstream journalism.

“Social media is increasingly the broadcaster of choice. The fact is that in campaigns which are in many ways emotion-fuelled, insurgencies in peer-to-peer social media is increasingly the broadcaster of choice. It was huge in Scotland.”

However, he believed his party was slow on picking this up. “In the general election the Scottish Labour party spoke to more voters face to face than the SNP. The SNP acknowledged that but it did not have effect.”

“If I had my time again as the leader of the Scottish Labour party I would spend every penny of our money on Facebook. In the referendum and UK general election in Scotland, Facebook was more important than the aggregate influence of every newspaper in the country. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that by the next general elections in Scotland, Facebook will be more important than the BBC. And this is another lesson for the European referendum.”

Lesson 5: Make solid arguments challenging populist rhetoric

“Populism unchallenged has an appetite that can never be satisfied”, Murphy warned, and must be stood up to.

“The Scottish Labour Party demise began by losing an argument it didn’t bother to win a quarter of a century ago. As affinity for Scottish Labour diminished, we continued to borrow people’s votes while losing their affection. For some in the Labour ranks, this did not seem to matter. We should have made a case against nationalist shibboleths – about oil, about defence, security, about our place in the world much earlier and more often. Instead we said ‘we know you don’t love us any more, we know you quite fancy the SNP but if we vote for them the Tories will win.’”

Murphy argued that it was wrong to split the difference with people “who you know to be probably well-intentioned but irreconcilably wrong. You need to make an argument. Treat the public as informed adults. Know what you believe in and tell your truth.”

Lesson 6: Arguments are not enough. People respond to passion – make the case with emotion

Solid arguments are not enough, believes Murphy. “We need passion as well as facts. True passionate politics is rare. Modern politicians, often at home in the world of Powerpoint and presentations, are often disoriented when faced with the need to move hearts as well as minds.”

“The election…was one of the most sanitised and stage managed campaigns of modern times where real people were kept behind the ropes. I happen to believe it was one of the most selfish elections in modern times and it was the most isolationist elections I’ve ever been involved in, and I’ve been involved in them since 1987. What was missing in the ‘no’ campaign in the Scottish referendum was emotion. We needed to present voters with an alternative form of patriotic optimism.

“We need to realise that ahead of the referendum on EU. We need to emphasise the fact that Europe is not merely a trade area but also responsible for one of the great moral triumphs of our time – the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in Southern and Eastern Europe.”

Lesson 7: Convince early and convince often

Murphy pinpointed the importance of convincing the public in early stages of the debate. “Speed kills. The [lesson for the] EU referendum, based on the experiences from the Scottish referendum, is that you have to convince early and you have to convince often. I have met very few people during the Scotland’s referendum campaign who switched sides in the final hours. In the social media, post-truth politics world, once people are gone – they are gone for good and are not coming back.”

Addendum: What will be the future of Labour as an electoral force?



Murphy ended his speech by reflecting on Labour and what it needs to do to make progress in the 2020 general election.

“The path to middle England runs right through the heart of central Scotland. Scotland, I believe, still has to be front and centre in Labour’s 2020 UK election campaign. Until Labour looks like it’s able to take back the SNP in Scotland, then any future Tory leader will again be able to deploy Cameron’s strategy of hurting Labour with the SNP.”

He concluded by stating that the Labour party “is down but there is no need for it to be out forever. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s surely that UK politics is full of surprises and we have to expect the unexpected.”

(See the full programme: YouGov-Cambridge Forum 2015)

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