POLITICS

'Patriotism Is Caring For The People That Elected You' - Jeremy Corbyn Talks About Winning Back Scotland

The Labour leader talks to HuffPost UK.

26/08/2017 06:01 | Updated 26 August 2017
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Labour leader Jeremy Corby addresses a public rally at the Quadrant shopping centre in Coatbridge

It’s mid-August and Jeremy Corbyn should be relaxing with a book somewhere warm.

Instead, he is brandishing a strip of Harris Tweed inside a dimly-lit sports hall in Stornoway as he delivers yet another stump speech. 

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Jeremy Corbyn tries to drum up support in Stornoway sports hall

“The whole history of the highlands and islands has been one of the most brutal theft of land from people – the highland clearances,” he tells residents of this remote Scottish isle, as he warms up to his trademark theme of “tackling injustice”.

Whilst condemning the actions of 18th Century aristocrats, he will be keenly aware his party faced mass evictions of its own north of the border in the not so distant past of 2015.

The Labour leader – holding aloft the tweed aloft and pledging “I will wear it in Parliament” – knows he has a mountain to climb here.

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Ex-Scottish Labour Party leader Jim Murphy led the party to near-wipeout in Scotland in 2015

Scotland’s political landscape is arguably the UK’s most competitive.

Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives are snapping at the heels of an SNP burdened by mistakes made over ten years in power at Holyrood. The issue of independence continues to stir and divide opinion and Scotland returned the strongest remain vote - 62% - of the four nations. 

Labour had reasons to be cheerful in June, clinching seven seats including, significantly, one in working class, Yes-voting Glasgow.

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Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson

But the true winner of the 2017 poll was Davidson, whose revived Scottish Tories gained 12 seats from the SNP (13 in total), and booted out talismanic Westminster heavyweights Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson.

Davidson has won hearts and minds of No voters for being pro-Union and a proud Brit, while a major post-election survey by the TUC found voters spurned Labour as they viewed Corbyn as unpatriotic.

When this is pointed out, the Labour leader bristles and proceeds to tell me what sounds like the essence of his political credo.

“My patriotism is caring for all of the people in the country, dealing with issues of poverty, dealing with issues of injustice, dealing with all children having a chance of a nursery place, of a good school meal, of college, of university, of apprenticeships and training,” he says. 

“I don’t want to lead a country where people in work have to access foodbanks to survive. Patriotism is about caring for the people that elected you.”

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Corbyn allies in Scotland believe the Scottish Labour leadership lacked ambition and fought the election as “an Edinburgh South by-election” throwing most resources at hanging on to their sole seat. 

“I don’t really want to dwell on the unfortunate losses that we have had in the past,” Corbyn tells HuffPost UK.

“What I want to say is that the Scottish Labour Party is growing in membership, in enthusiasm and in activity and optimism.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn meets members of the public at a rally at Quadrant shopping centre in Coatbridge

“I’m here campaigning, as I was during the General Election, and I will be here many, many times in the future.

“We are a party of the UK and we are trying to win a UK election.”

Corbyn also uses his week-long tour of Scotland to make clear his view of US President Donald Trump, whose mother hails from the Isle of Lewis. 

“The response to Charlottesville was significant,” he says. “We had a white supremacist group there with KKK symbols and Nazi symbols as if all the civil rights movement, as if everything that Martin Luther King stood for, suddenly didn’t count for anything. 

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“You cannot accept that in any shape or form and it is surely up to the president to say: we are one nation. I was appalled.”

Should he win power, there would be no “sweetheart deal” with the US. 

“The rise of the KKK and Nazis has to be challenged wherever it is in the world and I’m alarmed that [Trump] is threatening to go ahead with building the wall against Mexico, which is a very odd way of conducting a relationship with one of your neighbours,” he says. 

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Prime Minister Theresa May holds talks with US President Donald Trump on the margins of the G20 summit in Hamburg
 

“Now I don’t want to get involved in every aspect of what is happening in US politics internally but what I do say is that we want a trade relationship with the rest of the world that is fair and just.

“We don’t want a sweetheart deal with Donald Trump that is going to look a lot like TTIP.”

Scottish Labour has added just 1,700 members since the election, bringing the figure to barely more than 30,000 while UK Labour’s membership overall stands at around 600,000. 

While the Conservatives have taken rural, more affluent constituencies in north east Scotland and the Borders, Labour pulled back votes across the key central belt where its main opponents are the SNP. 

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A quarter of the party’s target seats is now in Scotland. They include Glasgow South West, Glasgow East, Airdrie and Shotts, Lanark and Hamilton East, Motherwell and Wishaw, Inverclyde and Dunfermline and West Fife, where swings of less than 1% are now required for victory.

The local elections saw relatively small losses for Labour, with the SNP taking overall control of a slew of council.

By comparison, Tory support soared, with Davidson’s even winning a ward in Ravenscraig, 25 years after Margaret Thatcher’s hated policies closed Motherwell steelworks.

Corbyn’s trip north of the Border saw him take in Coartbridge, Lanarkshire and Fife, ending with a sold-out Edinburgh Fringe appearance and a speech at a music event in Glasgow.  

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The former British Steel works at Ravenscraig in Motherwell being demolished by controlled explosion

Lesley Brennan, the vice-chair of Campaign for Socialism - a sister organisation of Momentum - says Labour should have moved to combat the Tory surge rather than the SNP as Davidson has succeeded in defined herself as independent of Theresa May’s administration. 

Brennan says: “The Scottish Tories managed to decouple themselves from David Cameron’s and Theresa May’s governments, and presented themselves as being an effective opposition to the SNP. 

“By not challenging the Tories’ record in government since 2010 and focussing on the SNP, Scottish Labour’s strategists – still in the Better Together mindset – tacitly oversaw the Scottish Tories increase their votes.”

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The Scottish Labour leadership has been accused of remaining in the "Better Together mindset" 

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, has positioned the party north of the Tweed as strongly pro-Union in a bid to wrest ground back from the SNP.

She is thought to have been furious when Corbyn gave reporters the impression he was relaxed about a second independence referendum, blithely telling them it would be “fine”.

Corbyn blames the media for overplaying party splits and now doubles down on Dugdale’s anti-independence stance, citing the Scottish Government’s own figures, published this week, which highlight a £13bn gap between spending and income since the collapse of North Sea oil revenues. 

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First Minister of Scotland, and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon MSP, poses on a motorbike decorated with Scottish Saltires and stickers supporting Scottish independence

“What I actually said is that [an independence referendum] was legally possible, but anyway let’s not go into that,” he says. “We are not in favour of another Scottish independence referendum.

“Had there been a Scottish independence referendum legally carried out, there would have been a £13bn plus gap between income and expenditure in Scotland and independence would hit Scotland very, very hard.”

But sympathy for Corbyn could remain thin on the ground if his party does not develop a coherent and distinguishable stance on Brexit. 

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Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson (red jacket) at a photo call with the party's newly-elected members of parliament in front of Stirling Castle. Left to right: Andrew Bowie MP, Colin Clark MP, Bill Grant MP, Luke Graham MP, Kirstene Hair MP, Douglas Ross MP, Ruth Davidson, Alister Jack MP, David Mundell MP, John Lamont MP, Rachael Hamilton MSP, David Duguid MP, Ross Thomson MP, Stephen Kerr MP, Paul Masterton MP.

Areas such as the Western Isles face depopulation as opposed to excessive immigration, and the respected Fraser of Allander Institute estimates a hard Brexit could cost Scotland between 30,000 and 80,000 jobs.

Corbyn tells his Stornway crowd: “We are also determined to ensure that Parliament is able to scrutinise every aspect of the negotiations as they go on.

“When Parliament returns we will be voting for Parliament to have the right to call the government to account on every line of the negotiations they undertake. Surely that is what democratic responsibility is all about.”

The SNP is staunchly pro-European and Nicola Sturgeon will use every opportunity to accuse Labour of teaming up with the Tories - a line which has caused Dugdale’s prospects so much damage north of the border.

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The Scottish National Party's Tommy Sheppard

But Corbyn winning the hearts and minds of Scotland’s left wing voters is not a given either. 

Tommy Sheppard was, in the days of John Smith’s leadership, assistant general secretary of Scottish Labour. Today, he is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East, maintaining, as the Nats’ firebrand MP Mhairi Black has, he “never left the Labour Party, the Labour Party left me” after Tony Blair’s period in charge.

Sheppard concedes Corbyn’s campaign gave left-wing Yes backers permission to vote Labour but says he cannot square the circle of growing support among Tories while hanging on to the pro-independence vote.

He says: “Perhaps the most interesting thing is, given Labour has leeched support from the right to the Tories whilst at the same gaining support from SNP and Green voters on the left, the cohort of Labour supporters in Scotland has never been more open to the prospect of independence.

“If the Scottish Labour leadership respond to this by allowing a genuine debate inside the party and allowing those who support independence the right to organise we would be in for a very interesting time indeed. This is something the wider Yes movement should keep a close eye on.”

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Corbyn speaks during a rally at Quadrant shopping centre in Coatbridge.

But the SNP does not intend to carry on haemorrhaging support and Professor John Curtice, the UK’s most respected pollster, has warned the strength of the SNP brand is not to be underestimated simply because Nicola Sturgeon’s party rose so far, so fast.

Sheppard says: “[The SNP] should point out the limitations of Corbynism – and they are many – when it comes to change in the UK.

“He does not support constitutional or electoral reform, despite his personal history he cannot get his party to review, never mind stop, our expanding nuclear weapons programme, and his proposals for the welfare state were a lot more modest than what we were arguing.

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SNP MP Mhairi Black has been supportive of electoral reform

“In short, Corbyn’s Labour isn’t half as radical as it thinks it is.”

He went on: “And here’s the key question. Does the rise in Labour support in Scotland and drop in SNP support mean that there has been a decline in the number of people who believe that independence is the best way to change the world around them?

“I think the answer to that is not yet - but I am far from complacent about the possibility that this might happen.”

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Tory MSP Miles Briggs

The Scottish Conservatives, meanwhile, say it wasn’t long ago that Scottish Labour “dreaded the thought of Jeremy Corbyn coming north”.

Tory MSP Miles Briggs will be just one politician watching for any change in Labour’s stance on independence.

He says: “Had he won the general election, Corbyn would have sold Scotland out in a heartbeat, and that ambivalence to Scotland’s place in the UK hasn’t changed.”

With a recent Electoral Reform Society report finding voters took part in tactical voting at unprecedented levels in 2017, it is not yet clear what potential, if any Labour has for growth in Scotland. 

It may not be known until the 2021 Holyrood election.  

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Corbyn says his party plans no fresh push for electoral reform.

“The Labour Party at the moment is not in favour of electoral reform,” he says. “We want to win an election on the first-past-the-post system and I’m disappointed that we did not win the election but we did gain three million votes.”

He remains convinced, however, a snap election is on the cards “in the near future”. 

“They didn’t win the election when they thought they were going to come back with an increased majority,” he says. “They lost seats. They now rely on the DUP to maintain themselves in office.

“They’ve used £2bn to buy off the DUP with a few pet projects. They couldn’t find anything to lift the public sector pay cap or to invest in vitally-needed health and education across the whole of the UK. I don’t think they can last.”

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