On a sunny Wednesday morning in mid-August, a small group of local Labour activists stood outside The Carloway Mill, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Gazing out at the tawny, rolling scrubland and glittering blue lochs, they waited for the man they had invited, who lived nearly 700 miles south. A minibus pulled up, the door rolled open and out stepped Jeremy Corbyn.
During the election campaign, when the idea of Labour winning two seats in Scotland still seemed mildly optimistic, Corbyn held rallies in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Now, with seven Labour seats, the Labour leader has the country in his sights. His trip to Lewis was the first day of a week-long tour of a country governed by the Scottish National Party.
Scottish Labour is not known for its Corbynism – a YouGov poll found a majority of members voted for Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership battle – but the conversion of local Labour voters has been swift. “Some people who voted Labour all the time said six months ago ‘[we] don’t think we’ll vote Labour because of Jeremy’,” Matt Bruce, the tweed-jacketed local party chair, told me. “Two weeks ago, it was ‘Jeremy’s coming’. He’s changed things.”
Harris Tweed may be associated with the elite lifestyle shops of Oxford Street, but manufacturing it is a humbler process. The wool is spun at mills like The Carloway, before being sent to individual crofters for the weaving process.
Inspecting the mill, Corbyn seemed genuinely fascinated. He entered a room of spinning cylinders, where green and pink wool streamed back and forth, and disappeared to inspect the looms. A worker in a black waistcoat showed him how to iron on the quality label on finished tweed. Corbyn’s wife, Laura, meanwhile, rifled through the hangers of finished, mossy green jackets (they each bought one).
Brian Wilson, a former minister in the Blair government, who lives on the island and works in the tweed business, watched approvingly.
“Against the predictions of people like myself, Corbyn really struck a chord with a lot of voters who maybe didn’t vote Labour,” he said. “These are the realities and I recognise them.”
After Kezia Dugdale’s resignation, most pundits expect the next Scottish Labour leader to be someone who at least nominally supports Corbyn. But three years on from the independence referendum, will the energy of Corbynism be enough to transcend Scotland’s constitutional politics?
To get to the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides from Westminster, you need to first fly to Glasgow, and then board a propeller plane for a further hour to reach Stornoway. Lewis, in turn, is only the northernmost in a string of islands which make up the constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles). The islanders’ self-sufficient outlook is countered by a deep dependence on the timetable of the ferry. There is little materialism, faith is everywhere, and yet every conversation comes back to economics. Residents have elected a stream of centrist representatives, from early 20th century liberals, to New Labour’s Calum MacDonald and since 2005, the Scottish National Party’s Angus MacNeil, or “Angus Brendan” as he is known to locals.
Centrism may well be a cover for a hard-defended consensus. When asked about Jeremy Corbyn, the default answer in Stornoway was “no comment”. Most locals seemed surprised to hear he was even there. “I haven’t heard much, and I live here in the centre of town,” said Annalisa Engebretsen, a retiree in pink-framed sunglasses. I told her he was at the other end of the street. “Was he?” There was a pause. She pointed to the sky in front of her. “About an hour ago I saw the most amazing group of seagulls.”
The Scottish Nationalists, too, wear their ideology lightly on the island. Alasdair Allan’s office has a copy of the Declaration of Arbroath, the 1320 declaration of Scottish independence, hanging on the wall. But the MSP was more interested in talking ferry fares than freedom fighters.
He was, however, outspoken about a different constitutional issue. “I would be telling a lie if I told you the fishing community took the same view as me in the EU referendum,” he said. “However since then we have had fishermen saying ‘we wanted to leave the common fishing area’. The industry didn’t realise it meant leaving the single market.” Some of the biggest export markets for Scottish fishing produce, he pointed out, were Spain and France.
Allan said the EU had been almost solely responsible for funding the expansion of roads on the island: “There was one village in Harris that had no road to it at all and the EU built one.”
“People do have concerns about the common fisheries policy but their biggest concern is the future,” he added. “With respect to Jeremy Corbyn, the biggest question has been left unanswered is on Britain’s relationship with the European Union.”
After visiting the mill, Corbyn’s next stop was an empty classroom in a Stornoway school, to answer questions from pupils beamed on to a screen. Some of the students were from Castlebay, more than 100 miles away, on the isle of Barra. Their questions were no less direct than a journalist’s, but Corbyn seemed to prefer answering them. One pupil asked him about leaving the single market and the customs union.
“The UK as a whole voted to leave the EU,” Corbyn said. He talked about getting tariff-free access to the European market, and then asked: “Do you feel we should keep very close trading with Europe?”
“Yes,” she said. “I do.”
In the months after the EU referendum, when Labour dissolved into civil war, the SNP stood out for its clear opposition to Brexit. Its position has since looked less wise, given a third of SNP voters backed Leave, and Nicola Sturgeon was forced to retreat from a call for a second referendum.
On Lewis, though, I found that Brexit was more than just a handy SNP rhetorical device. Elly Fletcher, chief executive of the An Lanntair Arts Centre, showed me around a smart auditorium which doubles as the island’s cinema. The building was funded in part by EU grants. “Brexit is a worry,” she said. Another institution at risk is the Stornoway campus of the University of Highlands and Islands, which has already put projects on hold.
John MacLeod, standing by the quay, had a different point of view. Dressed in a blue boiler suit, open to reveal a knitted jumpers, and leather boots to match his tanned skin, MacLeod claimed at 56 to be the oldest fisherman in town.
He remembered how, 30 years ago, the fishing boats in the harbour used to be 10-12 boats deep, compared to the single line bobbing there that day.
“This island is just dying on its feet in the fishing industry,” he said. “Even in the past 10 years it has changed. This place has been decline, decline, decline.” Brexit he saw as just one of many shake-ups required: “We need many changes here, or these islands are going to die a death.”
Corbyn told The New Statesman a “jobs-first Brexit” was “essential to local economies, industries and businesses in Scotland”.
He added: “We are pushing for a Brexit deal that protects the interests of the many and repatriates powers from Brussels to every nation and region in the country.”
Corbyn finished his day in Stornoway with a rally which attracted several hundred supporters. The next day, he flew to Glasgow, where his first appointment was a photo-op at a building site. TV crews in loose hard hats and luminous jackets waited outside. Crammed into the Portakabin with him was Paul Sweeney, the newly elected Labour MP for Glasgow North East, and Frank McAveety, the leader of Glasgow City Council until the SNP shook it out of Labour’s grasp in the 2017 local elections in May.
In May, with Labour’s polling in the doldrums, the loss of Glasgow Council was seen as a harbinger of what was to come. McAveety disagreed. “Clearly there was something already happening,” he said. “The gap between the SNP and Labour on the council elections wasn’t as profound as it had been in 2016 Scottish Parliament election. The glamour was coming off the SNP.”
Sweeney, on the other hand, thought it was Labour’s message of hope that persuaded some Yes voters to back him. “We have perhaps framed things too much in terms of our opponents,” he said. “The best way to defeat our opponents is to ignore them.”
Since 2014, Glasgow has been the spiritual capital of the independence movement. Campaigners gathered in George Square, its iconic Victorian centre, to cheer at rallies, and later to weep, after Scots voted No. Along with Dundee, it was one of only two major cities to vote Yes.
The trade unionist Cat Boyd was at the heart of the independence movement. In 2017, she publicly declared she voted Labour. An articulate trade unionist with striking black hair, I met her in a café near Glasgow’s busy Central Station. She recounted the reaction with rueful laughter. “People see Corbyn as a unionist who does not support Scottish independence, but a lot of the background to that is people’s complete disillusionment and anger with Scottish Labour,” she said.
Boyd, who came to political activism through the anti-war movement, retains a personal respect for Corbyn and she is not alone. Since going public with her vote choice, she has received messages from other Yes voters saying they had done the same. “Corbyn’s message chimes with them,” she said. “At the end of the day, that was what the referendum was about – half the bloody things Corbyn was talking about.”
The problem for Corbyn in Glasgow, it seems, is less his personality and more the party. Matt Kerr, a Labour candidate who narrowly missed out on Glasgow South, a constituency where turnout was also down, told me left-wing supporters could be split into three groups. There were those who switched to Labour, those who stayed at home, and those who were tempted to vote Labour but “believed that ‘Scottish Labour’ didn’t back Corbyn”.
The SNP, on its tenth year in power in Scotland, knows the danger of complacency. “Glasgow is a vivid illustration of the success of our party,” Nicola Sturgeon told the 2016 party conference. “But it also stands as a lesson. Labour lost because they took the voters for granted. They became arrogant on power.”
The question remains as to whether a Corbyn-led Labour party can win over such voters. I visited Mhairi Hunter, an SNP councillor with a big grassroots following in the party’s recent prize – the marbled halls of Glasgow City Chambers. Hunter, whose blue-and-gold walled office would put Westminster ones to shame, was quick to point out the SNP’s hold was a fragile one. “We’re a minority administration, which I’m quite happy with,” she said. “That’s the way proportional representation is supposed to work.”
Hunter believes Labour made gains in the 2017 general election because SNP voters stayed at home. The numbers suggest she is right. In Glasgow North East, Sweeney’s seat, 37,857 turned out to vote in 2015, of which 21,976 voted for McLaughlin. Two years later, the turnout was down by 6,082 voters, and votes for McLaughlin fell by 8,581. Similar patterns were evident in other seats where Labour won.
Yes voters’ attachment to Corbyn, Hunter thought, is more about his story than their politics. “There has been a feeling of the establishment being against them, and not getting a fair hearing. That resonated with a lot of people.”
The distinction between the man and the party was repeated again and again. Outside, in Glasgow’s shopping streets, 25 year-old George Dalkin, 25 told me he had “always been Labour” but “Jeremy Corbyn brought a bit more faith back in me”. Shona Joyce, 20, also voted Labour, but added: “I feel even if you vote for Corbyn you don’t get the changes in the local party.”
Natalie Muir, 38, a conveyancer, repeated the same concerns I had heard across Scotland about Labour’s unclear stance on Brexit. She was relatively happy with the Scottish government, and respected Sturgeon.
She told me: “In terms of down south and Westminster, Jeremy Corbyn seems like a more sensible option.” Then she added: “What he says seems different from what Scottish Labour says.”
One structural difference between Corbynism in England and Scotland is that Momentum has little presence here. Since 2017 it has created a joint membership with the long-running Scotland-based Campaign for Socialism, but the two remain separate organisations. Whether Corbynism can organise at the grassroots level remains to be seen.
In August 2016, it was common to hear Scottish Labour activists bemoaning that “the axis of politics has shifted” to a pro-union argument dominated by the Scottish Tories, and the independence camp commandeered by the SNP. In August 2017, the SNP is playing down independence, a resurgent Scottish Tories are talking about housing policy and Corbyn enjoys at least part of the credit for six new Labour seats in Scotland without devoting much time to unionist politics at all.
The SNP looks tired. The problem for Dugdale’s successor, is so, too, does Scottish Labour. “I am convinced that the party needs a new leader with fresh energy,” wrote Dugdale in her resignation letter, just two years after she took the job of leader. It may be tempting for London HQ to cultivate a mini-Corbyn, but this too has risks – one of the reasons Labour fell from grace in Scotland was a prolonged feeling that the absentee landlords were in power, and that Labour First Ministers were merely departmental heads of the branch office.
Much also depends on the SNP, which holds many of the central belt seats ripe for Labour’s picking. The party has lost seats in its old stronghold of north-east Scotland, home to the old SNP of Alex Salmond, comfortable on the golf course. It has spent the summer soul searching, torn between left and right, Brexit and independence, and the different priorities of urban seats in Glasgow and the needs of places like Lewis. Despite its stumbles, the SNP is still capable of winning, as the Glasgow council result shows. On 5 September, Sturgeon unveiled the Holyrood government’s latest programme, with policies including scrapping the public sector pay cap and a Scottish National Investment Bank. With the consequences of Brexit still playing out, it should not be underestimated.
The SNP and Scottish Labour may be mortal enemies, but Corbynism and the wider independence movement have much in common. They both offer hope, an idealistic vision of the future, and a vision of “the early days of a better nation”, whether that is renationalisation of the railways or reform of feudal land laws. Both are anti-imperialist, sceptical of centrism and driven by left-wing creatives and the young. The challenge for Scottish Labour is whether it can, as the SNP did, harness that idealism, yoke it to a party machine and turn it into practical politics. And that will take more than a Harris tweed photoshoot.