The Corbyn rally in Glasgow Fruitmarket last Friday
by Cailean Gallagher
in the OLR blog series on the Corbyn Campaign
In 1919 the Fruitmarket in Glasgow was used to store six tanks shortly before they rolled into George Square to quell striking workers. Last Friday night this former industrial warehouse was on the right side of history, when it played host to Jeremy Corbyn’s Glasgow rally. Each of the five speakers invoked the tradition of Red Clydeside in a city that has forgotten its precious few communist heroes, some of whom were arrested that night in 1919 that the tanks rolled into George Square.
Jeremy Corbyn held the audience’s attention for the best part of an hour, in a speech founded on the kinds of moral imperatives that characterized the old Independent Labour Party: we as a society must provide for the hungry and the homeless, cherish our children and not commodify them, learn to protect the planet, and abolish the atomic bomb before it’s too late. The internationalist communist mood was heightened by the socialist band’s choice of songs that included Spanish Civil War numbers and the Tankie version of Bandiera Rossa.
Tanks in Glasgow Fruitmarket, 1919
This thousand-strong event marked the high-water mark of Labour radicalism in Scotland at least since devolution. Given the very shallow pool of Scottish Labour leftists, it was an impressive event. The hope on the these activists’ minds is that the 30% of Labour voters who abandoned the party to vote Yes will feel this new pulse in the party – but can Jeremy Corbyn dye the Scottish Labour party a deeper red, lose the ‘Red Tory’ smear, and start a Scottish Labour revival?
Three significant reasons to doubt Corbyn’s success in Scotland are also opportunities for the Scottish Labour left to revitalize the party. They concern popular reach, political commitments and constitutional positioning.
I can’t speak for England, but my strong impression is that the people stirred by Corbyn in Scotland are already likely to be radically engaged: the kind who discuss socialism, attend political events, and have active opinions on policy. This excludes many thousands of people who became engaged in the Yes campaign, and whose allegiance is to the SNP, regardless of the radicalism of Labour. To reach these people, activists will have to transform the elements brought together by the Corbyn campaign into a grassroots organisation strong and organised enough to challenge the ongoing movement for independence – and that is no easy task in our political climate.
The policies and ideas Corbyn is promoting may have deeper socialist hues than those of the SNP, but they are still quite similar; not least his commitments to tax cuts for small businesses, and his rhetoric about seeing an economy and nation that works for all of us, not the richest. Corbynites can win back support for the party only by drawing clear red lines between the SNP and Labour on radical issues – harder than ever when the new Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale will drive Scottish Labour further into the dismal centre. Advances will come when Corbyn’s supporters acknowledge the similarities between his positions and the SNP’s, and then ‘raise them’ positions such as Euro-scepticism, opposition to TTIP, and exit from NATO.
Finally, Corbyn made no effort in his speech to shrug off the obstinate anti-independence stance of Scottish Labour left, which alienates so many of its former supporters. Certainly he has criticized Better Together, but whilst in Scotland he hardly confronted the elephant in Scotland’s cramped political room. As long as the Labour left treats Scotland, in the words of one of his aides, as “just a place” it is unlikely to make traction with Yes voters. It would have been encouraging if Corbyn had approached the question of Scottish independence with a more inclusive tone that that of his fellow party-members, not necessarily abandoning his own anti-nationalist principles, but acknowledging the firm anti-austerity politics of many Yes voters.
By my measure, if this was the high-point of Corbyn’s Caledonian momentum, it has not buoyed Labour enough to win back Scottish support. The event was more authentically socialist than any radical Yes event I have attended, and rallied many determined socialists to prepare their arms for a socialist assault on the SNP’s massive support. But many who mustered last week in the hall where tanks once stood are too fixated on dispersing the swelling nationalist movement. Corbyn’s supporters are preparing to reassert the strength of the Labour party against distracted masses flying not the scarlet but the saltire. But rather than show off their force, they will need to respect, persuade and rejoin the ranks of the Scottish people before they can regain support.
Cailean Gallagher was the founding editor of the Oxford Left Review back in 2010. A Scottish Labour member, he worked for the Yes Campaign in the Scottish independence referendum. He blogs at http://mairnorarochwind.wordpress.com and http://uncivilsociety.scot
Masthead of syndicalist magazine Red Dawn from Clydeside, 1920 (Gallacher Memorial Library)