Jeremy Corbyn conceded that it would not be easy to revive Labour’s position in Scotland but promised “hard work and dour activities” as he made his first visit to the nation since his election as party leader.
The MP met most of Scottish Labour’s 38 MSPs in private at a cafe associated with pro-independence campaigners near the Scottish parliament and made only limited media appearances as he sought to boost party morale.
Surrounded by a horde of photographers and camera crews as he walked from the Scottish parliament to the meeting, he said: “Oh, there’s no magic solutions. There’s hard work and dour activities and that’s what I’m going to be doing.”
Corbyn and his deputy, Tom Watson, are expected to make regular – and more public – visits to Scotland to help Scottish Labour avoid a further rout at next May’s Holyrood elections; the latest opinion polls suggest the SNP is on course to win a second successive overall majority with its approval ratings at more than 50%.
Corbyn appeared to be wearying of the relentless media attention and came close to sarcasm. Asked by the Guardian what he planned to say to the Holyrood group at the appositely named Serenity cafe, he replied: “We’re going to have a very interesting and very thoughtful and very intelligent and very well informed discussion and then we’ll let you know.”
Pressed for a few specifics, he answered: “Lots of things. I imagine we’ll be talking about poverty; we will be talking about austerity; we will be talking about the enormous growth of Labour party membership all over Britain, including Scotland.”
Katy Clark, the radical-left former Scottish Labour MP who helped Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland, has predicted Labour could be reduced to as few as 12 Holyrood seats in May. The party currently has 37 MSPs.
Scottish Labour lost nearly all its 41 Westminster seats at the May general election, leaving it with just Ian Murray in Edinburgh South.
Corbyn said the party was enjoying a sustained revival after his election. Unofficial figures suggest its membership in Scotland has more than doubled to about 30,000 people – still far behind the 113,000 members of the SNP.
But there remains deep scepticism about Corbyn’s leadership within the country’s Labour group and fears that he could overshadow efforts by Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, to build a clear and distinct identity for the party at Holyrood.
“It’s great to have Jeremy Corbyn back our plans to build a stronger country and a fairer Scotland,” Dugdale said. “Jeremy has connected with people across the country because he puts fairness first. That’s not just about giving everybody a fair chance in life but investing in our economy too.”
Corbyn said the picture for Scottish Labour was now “very promising”, adding: “Labour party membership in Scotland is the biggest it has been for many, many, many years. Members are joining all the time and every day.”
He flagged up Labour’s intention to continue pressing for a 50p top rate of income tax, protecting tax credits and opposing welfare cuts and the reforms of trade union law being planned by the Conservative government.
Asked how he combated the SNP, which won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats on an anti-austerity platform, Corbyn said: “We mean it, we’re doing it because we mean it.
“We’ve learned the lessons of the economic strategies of the past and the way they haven’t worked – it does mean rebalancing our economy, it does mean maintaining the 50p top rate of tax, it does mean not cutting the tax credits for the poorest people in our society.”
Labour under his predecessor, Ed Miliband, had offered “austerity lite”, Corbyn added. But that would now change: “Labour has a labour voice, Labour has a labour tradition, it has an attitude and a vision which is about reducing inequality in our society, which is about providing real hope and opportunity for the poorest and young people within our society.”
Several bystanders were welcoming. He encountered one couple en route to the MSPs’ meeting, who said “Glad you could visit, Jeremy,” and “Well done!” And outside a nearby cafe, a man cradling his baby daughter in the sunshine shouted out to him: “Thanks for bringing humanity back to politics. Well done, sir.”
After a brief exchange of pleasantries with Corbyn, the dad told reporters: “I think he’s a true gent and he’s what politics needs.”
This article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland editor, for theguardian.com on Thursday 1st October 2015 20.10 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010