At the obs

Fair Isle's rich bird life tempts many visitors to this remote place. Many of them stay at the islan

For most places in the UK the end of summer means the end of the tourist season; for us this is not the case. Late September and October are high season for birds and, consequently, high season for birders.

The island feels full of life at this time of year. Small clusters of people wander endlessly around the roads and fields, with an identical look of quiet, concentrated optimism on their faces – a look which only birders and anglers can truly muster.

Towards the end of the day their sheen of optimism may have worn off slightly, but there remains always an underlying energy that can snap into frantic action whenever required. If a "good bird" is spotted, there will be a rush to the spot, and a small crowd of birders can swell to a great mob within minutes.

Over the past week there has been a veritable flock of these good birds, including a buff-bellied pipit, two lanceolated warblers, thrush nightingale, Pallass’s grasshopper warbler and a grey-cheeked thrush. And that’s what folk come to Fair Isle for.

For the vast majority of visitors, particularly of the ornithological persuasion, the destination of choice is the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. As well as being a centre for the collection of scientific data on bird migration and breeding, the observatory is also a guesthouse, and a significant contributor to the island’s economy.

'The obs', as it is known to both islanders and visitors, is home year-round to a warden and administrator, Deryk and Hollie Shaw, and their four children. Between spring and late autumn it also employs assistant wardens, a ranger, cooks and general assistants. These additional staff – about eight in all – usually spend the entire season in Fair Isle, and play an important role in the island’s life. Increasing the population by more than 10 per cent, they help to add to the vibrancy of the community during the period, and their arrival each year, like the arrival of the birds, is a welcome reminder that winter is finally at an end.

It is difficult to explain or to quantify the importance of the obs to Fair Isle. To attempt to do so in financial terms – the numbers of visitors and the cash they bring to the isle – is to underestimate, and, I think, to misunderstand the nature of the relationship.

It is, in many ways, an unusual and a peculiar relationship. Not only are the full-time staff and their family a significant part of the community, but the observatory itself, as an institution, has a presence within the island that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.

To some extent this is just a question of longevity. The obs began its days almost 60 years ago, in August 1948, so it as been around for a long time. But the island and the observatory have evolved and developed together over that time. The connection has become symbiotic, and the success of one has also been the success of the other.

Today that success is greater than ever, and big changes are planned for the obs. The current building was first constructed in 1969, and, despite some improvements over the years, is no longer considered fit for the purpose. So plans are being drawn up to replace it with a modern building – more comfortable, more weather-proof and more environmentally sound.

This development will mean that for the first time the obs will have to be closed to visitors for one season – most likely 2009. The scientific work will continue during that time, however. And when the new observatory opens its doors the following spring, it will be a great step into the future, for the obs and for the island.

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I am migrating away from the island for the next few weeks, but will return to Fair Isle, and to this page, later in October.

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.