Labour campaigners in Scotland have hailed Jeremy Corbyn as a likely saviour of their demoralised party after more than 2,000 supporters packed out a series of campaign rallies in four Scottish cities.
With fresh polls suggesting Corbyn is the runaway favourite to win Labour’s leadership contest, the Islington North MP spoke to packed-out halls in a 36-hour tour of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow on Thursday and Friday, reflecting the surge in support for him across the UK.
“We think now is the time for Jeremy,” said Jim Malone, an organiser of the Fire Brigades Union who helped organise Corbyn’s Dundee University event on Thursday evening. Corbyn could be the “anchor” that Labour had lost and now sorely needed, Malone said, as the leadership candidate stood in front of a Dundee trade union banner with a clenched red fist newly painted on it.
There is widespread scepticism about his candidacy in senior echelons of the party’s Scottish wing – he knows very little of Scottish politics but Corbyn was “the gold standard” of sincerity and honesty, Malone said. “He’s an authentic politician, and we believe he’s unique in modern British politics. His campaign has certainly electrified the country. He’s given us hope over fear, but we believe he has also captured the soul again of the labour and trade union movement.”
The collapse in Labour’s support in Scotland – roughly a third of its traditional vote deserted it for the Scottish National party in May – is keenly felt in Dundee. Once a Labour stronghold, the city is now SNP dominated and recorded the biggest yes vote of any area in last September’s independence referendum.
After eight years of steady erosion of its support to the SNP’s election machine, Corbyn-mania has given the left in Scotland’s Labour movement a sudden, heady surge of excitement. He drew more than 300 people to a near capacity lunchtime event in Aberdeen on Thursday, and some 500 more to his evening event in Dundee.
Another lunchtime rally attracted 700 people in Edinburgh on Friday – it needed an overspill room – and an evening rally in Glasgow was expected to attract about 800 people. The Glasgow event has been moved to a larger venue, after tickets for a smaller hall were snapped up before it had been fully advertised. Glasgow too was a “yes city” in the independence referendum. It no longer has a single Labour MP.
Neil Findlay – a leftwing, trade union-backed Labour MSP who is coordinating Corbyn’s campaign in Scotland – was jubilant. “Despite the Edinburgh festival being on, this is the hottest ticket in Scotland,” he said. In sunny Aberdeen on Thursday, Findlay had quipped: “There’s sunshine wherever Jeremy goes.”
Many former Labour supporters fled to the SNP in anger, Corbyn’s supporters say, because of Labour’s weak stance on opposing Tory cuts, its decision to endorse renewal of Trident nuclear weapons, and Ed Miliband’s failure to connect.
Miliband was not seen as an authentic champion of the working classes in Scotland – he was the wrong kind of north Londoner. Margaret Richardson, a Labour activist and retired accountant, had been told by voters as she canvassed for Labour during the election that they distrusted Miliband after he stood against his brother David for the UK leadership.
“The SNP has had it all its own way in Scotland,” Richardson said. “It will help grassroots Labour, because I think people are looking for someone who’s actually principled. [Corbyn] seems for me sincere. I think with Ed, he was too much of a nerd.”
But Corbyn-mania may not run as deeply here as it appears. At the Dundee meeting, perhaps a third of the audience sat in their seats during the obligatory standing ovation. In Aberdeen too, there were rows of people at the back of the room who just politely clapped. Some were there out of curiosity. Many were opponents, there to observe. In Dundee, one yes campaigner launched a tirade on Labour’s refusal to endorse independence.
“There were people in that room who spat on me in May,” said Michael Marra, Labour’s defeated general election candidate for Dundee West and a nephew of one of Scotland’s most famous folk singers, also called Michael Marra.
“They’re not supporters of the Labour party,” said Marra. “They were there because perhaps some of the things he said appeals to them but the idea that the room [is] filled with Labour supporters? Neither was that room representative of the electorate.” Even so, said Marra, Corbyn is genuine.
“In modern media terms, I think the authenticity of voice and character is huge but I didn’t hear anything tonight in terms of how we can answer the electability question,” he said.
“I do agree that this feels like the Labour party’s Scotland moment – there’s a rejection of authority and there’s a rejection of the establishment both within the party and outwith it. But speaking to members of the public, I have heard a different story. I don’t think the people I have spoken to believe he can win [a UK general election].”
Among the capacity crowd at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Friday was Kezia Dugdale, who is widely expected to be voted in as Scottish Labour leader on Saturday. She too is a sceptic, but has been drawn to watch diffident Corbyn – potentially her future leader. “I owe him that,” she told the Guardian, before meeting Corbyn for the first time for a private meeting in a side room.
Dugdale is supporting Corbyn’s rival Yvette Cooper, but said: “I can’t dismiss hundreds, if not thousands of people in different parts of the UK rallying around a person who represents an idea.”
Corbyn could be energising the Labour grassroots like no other candidate, Dugdale said. But she added: “You have to be really careful not to raise a sense of false hope. That’s what we saw from the yes campaign in the referendum, time and time again. Filling out a large hall [doesn’t] necessarily mean you have all the answers, all the ideas, that we need to have to form a credible government.”
Yet Raymond Mennie, 65, a former mechanical engineering lecturer who took part in a three-month long sit-in at a Timex watch factory in Dundee in 1982, believes Corbyn offers the party a potency it has lacked since the 1990s.
Mennie is co-founder of the Dundee People’s Assembly Against Austerity campaign – its banner was placed alongside the trade union red fist banner behind Corbyn as he spoke. “His policy platform and his open democratic style is the best antidote for the problems caused by the Blair and Brown years that lost millions of votes across Britain and considerable support for the Labour party in Scotland,” Mennie said.
“A Corbyn Labour party could win that vote back because, in essence, the people of Scotland want change, change from the neo-liberal mantra which has failed to provide release.”
But even Corbyn’s allies agree that he knows little about Scottish politics or the SNP. Corbyn has spent several hours on his Scottish tour in private briefing sessions with Findlay and Katy Clark, a leftwinger who lost her Commons seat to the SNP in May. He is on a steep learning curve, said Nathan Morrison, a local organiser of the Corbyn campaign who was elected as a Labour councillor in Aberdeen at 19.
But he would be worth the investment. “There’s potential for that because, with Jeremy Corbyn’s policies, we would be presenting a river of red water between us and the SNP. They won’t be able to give us that nonsense of ‘you’re just red Tories’. There’s no way they could call a Jeremy Corbyn-led party that.”
But Morrison adds: “No one should delude themselves, it will be a long march back for us.”
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