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Terry Murden: Policy promises are not enough for Mr Murphy

Jim MurphyClearly, the populist approach ain’t working. Jim Murphy has promised more nurses, a halt to fracking, and lifting the ban on beer sales at football grounds. In normal times these might get voters flocking behind the new Scottish Labour leader.

But, as they say, these are not normal times. The latest poll in the Daily Record shows the gulf in voting intentions as wide as it has been these past few months. It seems Mr Murphy could promise to end poverty and eradicate all known diseases and he would still have doors slammed in his face.

So, what happened and what does he do about it?

The obvious conclusion is that voters will not be swayed by policy promises, and certainly not by those that appear to be drummed up while out jogging or watching football. Even being the “everyman”, the decent bloke next door, is doing nothing to lure voters off their SNP addiction.

What remains central to political debate is the constitution, although not in a White Paper, consultative process kind of way. It’s about how voters perceive themselves and their communities in relation to the state in all its guises.

In an era bursting with information voters have been empowered by technology and in particular by social media and its ability to give them a greater say over their lives. This raises even bigger questions about the role of political – and business –  leaders and why anyone should take them at their word. The first thing voters want is confidence and trust in those who purport to lead them. Sadly,  whether it is MPs’ fiddled expenses or HSBC tax dodging schemes, too often they let us down.

This is not say the SNP-led Scottish government is somehow above making errors, misjudgements or even leaving itself  to political scandal. It’s just that it has managed (by accident or design) to immunise itself from blame when things go wrong because its relatively limited powers mean the big decisions, and therefore the big mistakes, are in the hands of others. Naturally, when anything appears to be slipping out of its control the Scottish Government finds a way to blame Westminster.

While the devolution settlement gives the SNP this “default advantage”, the First Minister must also take some credit for developing a strategy around a “fairness and equality” agenda. After 100 days in office, Nicola Sturgeon has made her mark by merely creating a dialogue on the public’s simplest terms: a desire to be treated with respect, without being patronised and by presenting a broader philosophy about what she stands for and what kind of Scotland she wants to create. It is policy-lite and it has an appeal to those who are cynical about unpriced, knee-jerk promises.

For starters, no can argue against fairness. In Ms Sturgeon’s case she has built it into everything her government will aim to achieve. As such, it borrows from Labour’s meritocratic principles and from the Tories’ boast to represent those who are aspirational.

To that extent she has stolen both their clothes and she has done so without having to promise more nurses or beers all round while watching the match.

Mr Murphy has some hard thinking ahead, but he is fighting a General Election campaign that is coloured by the politics of the past two years. The aftermath of the referendum lingers over the country like a bad smell and a sense of injustice among Yes voters still wrankles. Put simply, the hardline 45ers believe they wuz robbed. As such they are determined to punish all the other parties for denying what they felt was their right.

It explains why Mr Murphy has even tried to “steal” the Yes word in what looked like a desperate attempt at trying to align Scottish Labour with support for Home Rule. His opponents didn’t fall for his prank and will add it to the list of charges facing Labour. It will take more than a bit of sneaky larceny for him to get off lightly.

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