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17 May 2019updated 23 Jun 2021 5:55am

“Momentum needs to reflect the different regions”: Meet the Scottish Corbynites

By Eleni Courea

On 3 June 2015, Jeremy Corbyn announced his bid for the Labour leadership in a brief statement to the Islington Tribune. As his supporters in England began to organise themselves, they found an already established group of activists north of the border. From the outset, the Scottish Campaign for Socialism – known also as the Scottish Labour Left – had thrown its weight behind Corbyn’s campaign.

Soon after Momentum was formed in October 2015, the two became sister organisations. They began to share information and resources; members of one became automatically part of the other. When organisers from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign visited the UK and held training sessions for Momentum activists, they were invited up to Glasgow where they spoke to CfS members as well.

But Seán Duffy – who became CfS chair in April – says the group, which was formed in 1994, must preserve its own distinct identity. Activists in Scotland, as well as in Wales and the north of England, “know there is a sense that London – or a nebulous idea of London – is dictating to the regions,” he says. “CfS is an independent group with a Scottish dynamic that’s trying to focus on the issues from a Scottish perspective. That is the path Momentum needs to take. It needs to reflect the different regions.”

Duffy thinks this autonomy is essential if Labour is to succeed in Scotland. Though the party’s performance in the 2017 general election defied expectations – across the UK there was a 9.6 per cent increase in its vote share, the highest since 1945 – it fared poorly north of the border. Of just 24 constituencies where there was no increase in vote share, 21 were in Scotland. Two competing arguments emerged for why this happened: one, that unlike the Tories, Labour did not argue strongly enough in favour of the union; the other, that it attacked the SNP too much rather than pushing Corbyn’s radical policies to tackle inequality.

The CfS is firmly in the latter camp, and its then vice-chair Lesley Brennan wrote that “Scottish Labour’s framing of the election around the SNP and the constitution avoided robustly challenging the Tories on their record in government at Westminster”. But Duffy says it’s difficult to make messages about class inequality cut through when in Scotland, “nationalism has more of an emotional prominence.” He illustrates the issue by comparing two demos in Glasgow this month: a march for independence on 4 May, and a May Day workers’ rights protest on 5 May. The former got ten times the turnout.

Winning SNP voters back to Labour requires a serious examination of why voters backed independence, Duffy says, and the CfS “has really tried to reflect on the fact that our traditional vote in the west [of Scotland] has gone towards the SNP. A strategy of patronising that position, or being seen to have no understanding of it, is not helpful.”

The group has not followed Momentum in organising campaigns to unseat opposition party MPs yet, “because a lot of the left-of-centre, moderate voters who would vote Labour in England have gone to the SNP, and going after those SNP MPs would not be fortuitous.” Scottish Tories, meanwhile, are concentrated in areas where CfS membership is much smaller. In England, Momentum has targeted Unseat events at high-profile Tories including Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith, but Duffy says that in Scotland “we don’t have somelike like IDS who is an obvious target.” Nevertheless, the group has plans to hold Unseat campaigns in the future. 

Originally, the CfS was founded to oppose the decision to remove the original Clause IV from Labour’s constitution. The clause called for “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” and has been a long-standing battleground between right- and left-leaning factions of the party. But it’s also an issue that motivates only a narrow group of people, and for years the CfS was a marginal movement. At the beginning of 2015, it had just over 400 members.

In the next three years, which saw Corbyn become leader and fight off a challenge from Owen Smith, the figure more than doubled. The group’s influence is growing within the party. It endorses candidates for Labour Scotland’s governing body (the SEC) as well as the UK and Scottish parliaments. Four of the eight SEC members elected in April had CfS backing, splitting the committee evenly between Corbynites and Corbyn-sceptics. Of 20 Westminster parliamentary candidates selected to contest for Labour in Scotland so far, seven have CfS backing.

A lot of the group’s work is centred on promoting federalism, led by Pauline Bryan, one of its founders, who was made a peer by Corbyn in 2018. It also runs political campaigns similar to Momentum’s, focusing on “high impact, high profile” issues such as social security and transport. But unlike Momentum, Duffy says, the CfS “is an entirely voluntary organisation. We have no staff, we have no office, it’s all based around the efforts of members. Our campaigns are more organic, and some would say they have less reach and less professionalism but that’s just a facet of not paying people to campaign.” 

Today CfS membership stands at 1,418, with around 300 people joining after Richard Leonard was elected Scottish Labour leader in November 2018. “We are keen to maintain our independence,” Duffy stresses. “We are pitched as the Scottish Momentum which can aggravate some of the older guard – and the same happens with the Welsh Labour Grassroots. But at the same time, we acknowledge that a lot of our success has come from the success of Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn.”

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