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IN the first four months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour doubled its membership in London to 81,000.
In Scotland, however, the story was very different. The party, then led in Holyrood by Kezia Dugdale, put just 2,000 new members onto its grand total.
Though Corbyn had been well received at rallies north of the border, it seemed like it would take more than a left-wing Westminster leader to challenge SNP hegemony.
Momentum was established to channel the energy of the leadership campaign into a permanent project, but this too was less of a force in Scottish Labour, whose activists did not want to replicate the long-established Campaign for Socialism.
But in spite of the continued dominance, especially among young people, of nationalism, a shift was taking place and a small band of committed activists established the Scottish Labour Young Socialists (SLYS — most often pronounced “slice”), in a bid to transform the party’s youth wing from a career ladder into a radical movement.
At the Scottish Labour conference in Dundee this weekend, it’s clear that these activists are in the vanguard of Scottish Labour’s transformation under new left-wing leader Richard Leonard.
As the party makes a conscious shift towards a “community organising” agenda, it’s SLYS that’s already leading the way.
Scottish Young Labour, which is now dominated by many of the same young activists, is holding a “night school” in Glasgow to educate new recruits in the basics of political theory and practice.
Youth activists were also behind one of the hottest fringe meetings yesterday evening, which saw GMB official Hazel Nolan, Midlothian MP Danielle Rowley and Glasgow academic Jim Phillips discuss how the deep state could undermine a Corbyn government.
SLYS co-chair Alistair Craig says much of the group’s success has been in “bringing together people who voted yes and no.”
“We’ve been able to reach people in the radical independence movement, bring people who were in the Green party into the Labour Party and get them involved in their CLPs.
“It’s a model of what the Labour Party can be — a pluralist organisation on the left that encompasses people of different political backgrounds.”
Though SLYS is still quite young, several of its leading lights have already made waves in other Labour spheres. Rhea Wolfson, who previously chaired the organisation, is now on Labour’s national executive committee and came close to winning the Livingston seat at Westminster.
Laura Dover, another key SLYS activist, contested Kilmarnock and Loudoun for Scottish Labour last June.
Craig says it’s important to remember how far the left has come. “Scotland has always had quite a conservative [Labour party] membership,” he notes.
“Members voted for Owen Smith [against Corbyn in 2016], only a couple of years ago Jim Murphy was elected [as Scottish Labour leader] with a landslide.
“We never had anything like Momentum in Scotland. We didn’t have a left leadership in Scotland either. The Scottish Labour Party for sure had sought to distance itself from Corbynism. It was actively hostile.”
Craig goes further, in fact, claiming: “Scottish Labour institutions and bureaucrats did what they could to prevent a leadership surge.”
So the fact the party now has a left leader and has started its electoral recovery, with seven MPs elected last June compared to just one in 2015, is welcome.
But he cautions: “We have to be vigilant. We need to start building the left at a CLP level, within the institutions of the party.”
Scotland has been chosen as a pilot area for the national party’s new community organising drive, which is something Craig welcomes.
“The Labour Party in Scotland has had a real disdain for community politics, largely to do with fact a lot of our councils have been run by bureaucrats and zombie Blairites,” he argues.
“The membership surge will take time, but really it’s about connecting the Labour Party with community campaigns and grassroots struggle.”
Youth activists will have a strong part to play. SLYS itself, Craig tells the Star, “tried to run a quite intensive political education programme” last year and, while this was not entirely successful itself, “it gave us an idea of what we could do” and inspired the forthcoming Glasgow night school.
“The idea is to open up the Scottish Labour Party to a generation of activists who aren’t involved in their CLPs,” Craig says.
“The way in which the Labour Party in Scotland does political education is kind of elitist. This isn’t about ‘future leaders.’ It’s about creating the skills and knowledge for activists in the labour movement. That’s what separates us from the official education stuff in the party.”
But Craig believes the work is crucial. “If you create a bunch of activists who are good activists but have no grasp of theory, the project itself is going to run into walls.
“We want to create an environment where intellectual discussion is accessible but also pushes back against this anti-intellectualism.”
Activists see their task, indeed, as deliberately combating a shift towards charity-style politics that has dominated since the New Labour years. “We’re pushing against the third-sectorisation of Labour politics,” Craig says.
Sessions at the Glasgow night school will be delivered by an assortment of trade unionists, writers and academics. One figure likely to be involved is Ewan Gibbs, an esteemed labour historian based at the University of the West of Scotland.
“A growing and diverse Scottish labour and working class history presents an exciting vantage for activists charting today’s terrain,” Gibbs says.
He’s arguing for Labour to educate based on “a story of the past less chained to institutional accounts” and it means more than just learning about the industrial disputes so crucial to Scotland’s history.
For Gibbs, it’s a means of understanding a “viable socialist politics shaped by class and nation but also gender, race, sexuality and environmental concerns.”
Back in Dundee, Labour’s radical youth is on a mission of equal importance.
“We’re trying to politicise conference,” Craig says. “In previous years it’s been a jolly for movement hacks.
“What SLYS represents is a group in the party who are not involved for career advancement. We’re not at conference to be window dressing introducing speeches any more.”
Conrad Landin is the Morning Star’s Scotland editor.
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