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Would Jeremy Corbyn Win Back Scotland for Labour?

The Labour left sees Corbyn as the party's only hope of beating the SNP. I asked some pro-independence Scots if they see him as just another "red Tory" sell-out.
August 3, 2015, 10:30am

A Scottish independence demo in Glasgow on Saturday. Photo author's own

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Asked his thoughts on the Labour leadership contest a few weeks ago, the senior SNP MP Angus MacNeil said that of the four candidates, there's only one the SNP are worried about—the left-wing upstart Jeremy Corbyn. According to MacNeil, Corbyn is the only candidate with the "courage and vision" to sort Labour's problems and reverse their disastrous form in Scotland, where they lost all but one of their seats to the SNP in May.

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"But he's never going to get it, so we don't fear any of them, as a result of that," he added. That seemed like a reasonable assumption at the time, given that initially, Corbyn's candidacy was little more than a polite reminder to everyone that the Labour left still exist. But it was only a couple days later that polling would appear which put Corbyn ahead of his rivals and, seemingly, on course for victory. Since then, the #JezWeCan insurgency and its excitable grassroots support have come to dominate the news agenda, amid scenes of politician-based hype that haven't seen since, ironically, everyone got worked up about Nicola Sturgeon a few months ago.

Labour in Scotland now seems to exist in a state of perpetual meltdown. It has watched one leader resign after another, amid increasingly outlandish policy proposals and their near total elimination in May's election. In contrast to their failure to win in England—which Labour right-wingers have argued necessitates a shift to the centre ground—their losses in Scotland have been seized upon by those who want to take the party to the left.

"We lost in Scotland to a party that was anti-austerity, in favor of universal benefits and in favor of scrapping Trident. We are ignoring the 40 seats we lost in Scotland… Jeremy is well-placed to get back some of those voters," was how Labour MP Diane Abbott, one of Corbyn's allies in Parliament, put it recently. But is Jez up to the task—and will anyone in Scotland, let alone the country's 1.5 million SNP voters, care?

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Among those who took to the streets of Glasgow for a pro-independence march on Saturday—in a blur of oversized saltires, bagpipes, and customized V for Vendetta masks—the answer would seem to be a resounding no. Marches and rallies for independence have become a fairly frequent occurrence in Scotland even after the referendum. Most of them are grassroots initiatives by those desperate for independence above all else, and perhaps put off by the SNP's reluctance to focus on nothing other than cutting England loose.

I tried to talk to some of the marchers about the finer points of Jeremy Corbyn's policy programme, but it wasn't really on the agenda at Saturday's march. This probably isn't surprising given that one of the largest banners there was emblazoned with the slogan "RED TORIES OUT!" I was keen to find out if they consider Jeremy Corbyn, an MP who has voted against his own party more than 500 times since 2001, a "Red Tory" too.

"It's my mission to totally destroy the Labour party. They have betrayed the working class people of Scotland," answered James Scott, wearing a t-shirt of the "Scottish Resistance" group. "They're all Red Tories."

Others were similarly scathing, although in fairness, the hardcore independence supporters who spend their weekends at flag-draped demonstrations probably aren't those that Diane Abbott or Corbyn have in mind when they talk about winning Scotland back. Corbyn's campaign is gaining a strong social media following and packing out campaign meetings across the country, and Scotland hasn't been entirely immune, despite the different political reality north of the border.

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Martin Lennon, a volunteer with the Corbyn campaign in Glasgow, says he's seen some evidence of people who supported independence last year now coming on board to help Corbyn win. He thinks these people are genuinely supporting Corbyn, unlike the peculiar claims of "SNP infiltration" that a Labour source made to a newspaper last week. He believes Corbyn's victory is essential to the party regaining its lost support in Scotland.

"Labour have had their traditional base decimated by a party that might make arguments using left-wing rhetoric, despite their record in government" he said. "This has only happened to Labour because they have a crisis of credibility when it comes to traditional Labour values. The embodiment of those Labour values is Jeremy Corbyn."

Saturday's pro-independence march in Glasgow. Photo author's own

Among those considering making a leap towards Labour is Heather Anderson, a young SNP member in Ayrshire, who says she has become disillusioned with that she sees as the SNP's "totalitarian" tendencies, to the extent that she's considering joining a party she "grew up believing was the enemy."

"A Corbyn win would be a big problem for the SNP. It would take Labour away as the 'enemy,'" Heather explained. "Thus far, the SNP has had a very clear narrative that has helped them hold on to power, despite the worrying trends thrown up by their internal operations and time in government: Labour and Westminster are bad and corrupt, and the SNP and Scotland are good, with Labour standing in the way of our nation's prosperity and happiness. New Labour handed that narrative to the SNP, and lost Scotland as a result. A Corbyn win would muddy the waters for them and I believe people would start to return to Labour."

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If Corbyn succeeds in his leadership bid and manages to push Labour towards a radical manifesto, the SNP may find itself in the unusual position of attacking them from the right. This could lose the SNP some of their left wing support. However, people with left wing views are much more likely to back independence, so they may struggle to reconcile these views with a Labour Party that campaigned vociferously for "no" in the indyref.

The change that has taken place in Scotland over the past few years feels like a serious cultural and societal shift, that won't be overcome overnight. In the eyes of much of the Scottish electorate, Labour are sell-outs, in hoc to a union that almost half of the electorate voted to leave. In contrast to the UK contest, the ongoing Scottish leadership debate is struggling to excite anyone, and the likely winner—Kezia Dugdale—has joined the chorus of Labour centrists warning that Corbyn will leave them "carping on the sidelines." Those in charge of Scottish Labour are unlikely to be too enthusiastic about embracing a radical Corbyn manifesto—regardless of whether it would be an effective way of undermining SNP support.

Morgan Horn, the National Equalities Officer for SNP Students, is one of the 80,000 new members the SNP gained after the referendum. She reckons Corbyn will have his work cut out if he wants to win back votes from the party. "The Scottish electorate has become politicized and engaged, and Labour's problems here go much deeper than ideological perceptions, as the constitutional question makes politics here rather complex," she said. "Even if Corbyn is elected, I believe Labour will continue to struggle in Scotland. Politics is based on trust, and the people of Scotland no longer trust Labour."

As MP Mhairi Black's maiden speech that went viral recently demonstrated, the SNP have a conflicted attitude towards Labour. They revell in the disarray the party are in and their ineffectiveness at opposing the Government's cuts, while also calling for them to unite together on areas of common interest. If Corbyn wins, the SNP may find themselves with a powerful ally in their Westminster anti-austerity bloc. Scottish Labour, meanwhile, could be waiting for some time to see the benefits.

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