Corbynite candidate aims to capitalise on Scottish Labour youth surge

27 Oct

In a sweaty Glasgow pub on a Friday night, a silver-haired man wearing an open-necked shirt is addressing an enthusiastic crowd of twenty-somethings, setting out a radical vision for Scotland.

This is not Jeremy Corbyn but Richard Leonard, a former industrial organiser now running for the Scottish Labour leadership. His campaign team is certain his Corbynite credentials play especially well with younger voters, contrasting his “rough but authentic” politics to those of his rival Anas Sarwar, dismissed by critics as a managerial centrist.

Scottish Labour’s revival remains far more muted than that of the UK party: its vote increased by a meagre 9,860 votes in June’s general election and it remains the third biggest party in Holyrood. Yet it has mirrored the English upsurge in its burgeoning support among the under-30s.

Many in the 100-strong crowd cheering at Leonard’s references to the Clydeside rent striker Mary Barbour were first politicised by the yes movement during the independence referendum campaign of 2014. Some yes campaigners joined the SNP or the Scottish Greens. Now it appears Scottish Labour is challenging the pro-independence parties’ hold over young people’s political imaginations.

Last autumn young Labour activists told the Guardian they hoped the rise of Corbyn could offer a gateway back to the party for Scottish youth. Nine months later, YouGov polling in Scotland on the eve of the general election put Labour on 41 points among 18- to 24-year-olds, just ahead of the SNP on 40.

Nat Blondel, 22, chair of Glasgow University Labour club, says he witnessed a significant shift on the doorstep in June: under-25s were voting Labour, attracted by Corbyn’s manifesto promises on jobs, housing and student debt, while their parents were still voting SNP.

“It’s quite noticeable that talking to under-25s now the assumption is that they will be supporting Labour [when previously it was SNP]. These are people who voted yes in the independence referendum and for the SNP in the 2015 general election,” he says.

A number of student activists mention that young women in particular have been signing up at recent freshers’ stalls, drawn in by a strongly pro-choice abortion policy.

Scottish Labour’s pre-June focus groups found plenty of scepticism about Corbyn among younger voters but also anger about the Brexit vote and attraction to a leader who they felt was articulating their frustrations. Far more engaged than older voters, they felt the independence referendum had given them a clear sense of their political identity, but also talked about the SNP now as part of the establishment.

Jan Eichhorn, a social policy expert from Edinburgh University who has followed the voting patterns of young people in Scotland since the 2014 referendum, says that although Labour has made gains, SNP support remains solid in this age group. The most recent YouGov polling put the nationalists on 41 points and Labour behind again on 35.

Eichhorn draws a distinction between a core of young people already mobilised by 2014 and seeking new radical proposals to engage with, and a wider group who are attracted by policies that appeal specifically to their own interests and whose votes account for the electoral shift.

Young people remain the strongest supporters of independence: YouGov found this month that 54% of 18- to 24-year-olds would vote yes to independence in another referendum, the highest of any age group.

Both of the Scottish Labour leadership candidates are implacably opposed to Scotland leaving the UK, but the shift in focus to a UK-wide movement for social justice means some voters are content to put their independence aspirations on a backburner. A similar compromise can be seen among remainer youths who appear willing to accept Corbyn’s far less fervent support for Europe.

Dash Sekhar, 26, who joined the Scottish Greens in 2014 but is now the BME officer for the Edinburgh Central constituency Labour party, says: “I don’t think my values have changed very much since being a Green. I never saw Labour as a realistic possibility for a socialist Britain, but the election result rather than the Corbyn push changed my mind.

“As an immigrant, I voted yes in 2014 because the yes movement was based around Scotland becoming a more open, pro-immigrant society. If a socialist Britain is now possible, it means that independence is secondary. I wouldn’t say long-term I’m opposed to independence, but for now I’m happy not to be talking about it.”

Taking money on the door of the Leonard gig is 25-year-old Suzannah Murning, who joined the SNP after the referendum in 2014. She says she has no issue with her candidate’s stance on independence.

“Richard’s position is that class comes before country, and we need to unite together to fight for socialism. I agree with this, although at the time of the [independence] referendum I didn’t have much hope of making any gains for socialism within the UK.”

She adds: “What I believe will put off people who voted yes is a failure [by Labour] to capture their imagination. We had such hope for a radically different country. The passion I feel now is the exact same that I felt supporting independence. But we’re fighting for actual policies now, so in a way this is more exciting.”

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