Choosing your neighbours

Malachy feels the loss at the departure of a family from Fair Isle and looks ahead to the selection

This week our next-door neighbours left Fair Isle. After more than ten years on the island they have decided to make a new start elsewhere.

Departures like this affect everybody to some degree. People lose friends, colleagues and, in this case, the school has lost two of its pupils.

The past couple of years have seen some fairly major comings and going on the island, with several individuals and families choosing to leave, and others arriving to take their place. In total, 16 new people have moved to Fair Isle since the summer of 2005 – the most recent arrivals moved into a flat in the South Lighthouse only a few weeks ago – which, in a population of just over 70, is a pretty significant number.

Next-door has already been advertised to let in the Fair Isle Times (yes, we have our own weekly paper) and may be advertised more widely if necessary. The house, like the vast majority of properties on the island, is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and potential residents will go through a fairly unusual application process to decide on the successful candidate.

Although the decision rests ultimately with the National Trust, a group of five elected islanders, known as the Housing Forum, meet to discuss all applications, and to assess the suitability of each applicant. The forum then makes their recommendation to the trust.

The process for selecting new residents has attracted considerable attention in the past; even leading Endemol, the production company behind Big Brother, to suggest basing a “reality TV” series on it. Needless to say, the suggestion was rejected.

Those with a connection to the island, particularly a family connection, are generally given high priority. People with skills that are needed on the isle, or those can carry out available jobs, are preferred, and families are usually favoured over individuals. If a croft is connected to the property, as it is in this case, then agricultural experience would be a definite advantage. Applicants are sometimes also asked to provide a business plan, to show how they intend to make a living and to demonstrate that they have a realistic understanding of what life on a remote island involves.

This selection process, which is invariably described by the press as a “competition”, has been criticised in the past as being a form of “social engineering”, and, in a sense, that is exactly what it is. But the necessity of such a system is obvious.

In other places, where houses are sold to the highest bidder, young people from the area often cannot afford to stay. Because of this, essential skills are lost and families are separated. At that stage, a community is well on the way to being destroyed.

One of the reasons, perhaps the most significant reason, Fair Isle has managed to sustain its community so successfully, is this issue of housing. Were houses to become available for sale, the island would quickly fill up with holiday homes and rich retirees. And that would be the end of everything that makes this place special.

So, for the moment, until new tenants can be found, my girlfriend and I will be croft-sitting. That means taking care of a muddy field full of miserable-looking sheep, only a month away from lambing, plus one grumpy ram, a handful of year-old lambs, and a dozen hens. I suspect we’ll soon be begging the Housing Forum to hurry up and make a decision. Or, you never know, perhaps we’ll want a croft of our own.

Which reminds me: I must go and feed the chickens.

Photograph: David Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.