Does the appeal of Corbyn in Scotland hold the keys to Downing Street?

Gerry Hassan

The Guardian Comment, August 28th 2017

Jeremy Corbyn has been causing waves in Scotland, as he has been across the entire UK. A five-day visit has seen him get lots of coverage and in places crowds, while annoying his political opponents.

It wasn’t always so. Pre-election Corbyn had written Scotland off as hostile and unfriendly territory. Now it is back in play – after six Labour gains in June from the SNP, along with a small rise in their vote – all against everyone’s expectations.

Corbyn’s trip saw him visit eighteen constituencies – thirteen current SNP and five Labour gains in the June election – drawing criticism from the Nationalists that he was avoiding Tory seats.

This ignored that of the 64 seats Labour needs to win for a bare majority eighteen are in Scotland and all are SNP held. The magical 64th – East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow has a 3,866 SNP majority. It is not until Labour’s 96th target seat that you reach a Tory one – Renfrewshire East (formerly Jim Murphy’s seat) currently held by the Tories with a 7,150 lead over third place Labour.

Corbyn held a ‘Festival for Socialism’ rally at Glasgow University Union on Saturday which in its style – poetry, live music and speeches – drew inspiration from the independence movement. It was a sell out event, packed with hundreds of enthusiastic young people who three years ago were avidly pro-independence.

Corbyn gets a good response at such rallies and his appeal is easy to understand. He talks as no other senior Labour politician ever has. He tells them that the neo-liberal consensus is a con and trickle down economics a fraud. Ed Miliband might have had a similar political agenda, but he had the language of a policy wonk. Corbyn cuts through with his simple homilies in a way most politicians, the SNP included, Nicola Sturgeon apart, after ten years in office, consistently fail to do.

He tells the audience stories of the Labour movement, solidarity and internationalism. He quotes from Keir Hardie and Chilean musician Victor Jara. He even has his own personal stories of how he has triumphed over adversity – winning the Labour leadership and in the June election turning the tables on the Tories.

Corbyn was short on detail and the big issues of the day. There was nothing on Trident, Scottish independence and the SNP. But there is also not a single word on the biggest issue of the day: Brexit. This despite a heckle towards the end of his speech to ‘say something on Brexit’ and that on the same Saturday evening, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Stammer has just made a major shift in Labour Brexit policy.

Corbyn’s speech was rapturously received, yet illustrates his pros and cons. He comes over as authentic and consistent. But there is no sign of any strategy in Scotland to build on the success of June or idea of how to take on the still entrenched though weakened Nationalists.

Corbynistas north of the border blame this on centrist Labour leader Kezia Dugdale who they claim has little political hitting power. But while the Corbynista faction, organised around the Campaign for Socialism and the likes of Lothian MSP Neil Findlay, dream of staging a coup, or Dugdale falling on her sword, their cupboard is equally bare.

Scottish Labour have been given an unexpected boost and opportunity. Its June surprise in Scotland is according to polling the product of Corbyn’s enhancing ratings which shifted north of the border in the campaign, while Dugdale’s have flatlined and remained in the doldrums. This has given the Corbynistas permission to dream of taking over the Scottish party, but so far they are bereft of any coherent strategy, beyond anti-Toryism.

Scotland has dramatically changed these last few months with implications for UK politics. The once omnipotent SNP have stalled and seem bereft of ideas. Ruth Davidson is that rare Conservative: popular and populist having brought the Scottish Tories in from the cold. And Labour for so long written off here now have a semblance of life and energy while still being a shadow of their former selves.

Corbyn and company don’t quite know what to say in such changed circumstances beyond what has worked before: campaigning, holding rallies and the old tunes. But they have earned the right to be listened too again and that is a huge leap from where were. And what happens in Scotland could in the future be the difference between Corbyn becoming UK Prime Minister or not.