How Corbyn’s Labour Changed the Minds of Young Scottish Voters

by Lauren Gilmour

11 December 2019


For the past several years, Scotland has been stuck in a constitutional quagmire over the question of independence. 2014’s referendum pitted an optimistic ‘yes’ campaign in favour of independence against a ‘no’ campaign dubbed “Project Fear”It is little wonder that young people by-and-large got behind the “yes” campaign, galvanised by new opportunities to reshape the country for the better. Many of these young people went on to vote for the Scottish National Party (SNP), the party at the forefront of the ‘yes’ campaign,  in the subsequent general election. But with a series of seismic political events taking place over the last five years – including the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader – the SNP has seen its quest for independence challenged by Labour , who is offering its own compelling answers to creating a better Scotland. 

Speaking with young Scottish voters, Lauren Gilmour traces how and why their allegiances have switched from the SNP and independence to Labour. 

“A bubble of optimism”.   

Back in 2014, the Scottish independence referendum offered many young people the opportunity to become involved in their first political campaign. The SNP’s vision for independence was seen as progressive and many of their policies reflected the kind of country that young people wanted to live in – among them, scrapping the UK’s Trident nuclear missiles and ensuring that welfare provision was humane.

Trade union organiser Tam was one of the young people enticed into politics by the prospect of independence, emphasising the sense of possibility and inspiration that the referendum stirred up. “There is no chance I would have went for Abertay Student President if it hadn’t been for the independence campaign,” he said, “I had a great experience… It really formed my politics as someone who wanted to go out and do things and not just wait for politicians to give the answers. I was also in Dundee at the time and as a ‘yes’ city we were kind of in a bubble of optimism.”

Labour activist and public sector worker Jessica agreed, explaining how the independence movement felt like something exciting and different. “The energy of people talking about the possibilities of independence was infectious. I felt like a massive constitutional change was an opportunity to build a fairer society.” Meanwhile, for others, like care-home chef Connor, it felt like a “real chance to change and be a part of history.”

“Bullshit and lies”.

While support for the SNP was snowballing, the Labour party, on the other hand, was falling apart. Jessica, who had previously been a Labour member, before leaving to campaign for independence, summed up the mood at the time: “To be honest I think I was just totally disillusioned with the labour movement…there seemed to be no challenge to centrism in British politics.”

Tam, too, felt frustrated with the state of the party. “I lived in Gordon Brown’s constituency and it all felt like bullshit and lies. I was never really sold on the SNP but most definitely was not a fan of Labour. At that time I saw Ed Miliband as an extension of Blairism.”

Trainee teacher Sean, however, didn’t share Tam’s contempt. He liked Miliband, but was concerned about whether the party, “especially in Scotland, was genuine about promoting and implementing socialist policies.” It was this distrust that ultimately led him to vote SNP.

The pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with what the Labour had become translated into an unprecedented, historic 56 seat (out of a possible 59)  victory for the SNP in the 2015 general election, leaving just one seat each for the Lib Dems, Tories and Labour. The defeat for the Labour party was huge: they lost 26 seats and the majority. Ed Miliband resigned quickly after. 

What had become clear was that Labour’s turgid social democracy offered little for young people. There was too much baggage from the Blair years – something had to change. And it did.

“It all changed”.

In 2015, backbencher Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour party leadership election in a shock landslide victory. For Sean, this was a monumental moment: “It all changed after the election”, he said, “Corbyn was clearly more left wing and a genuine socialist compared to most of the SNP and ‘yes’ campaign.”

Connor was particularly impressed by the new Labour leader. “Corbyn made a big difference for me.” he said, “I like the fact that he is an anti-establishment rebel”.  

But while many young activists continued to campaign for the SNP and independence-supporting parties into 2016, change was in the air. The 2017 general election saw Labour polling better than the SNP with 18-24 year olds in Scotland – Labour on 41% and the SNP only slightly behind on 40%. In Scotland, where expectations for Labour were low, they managed to win six additional seats.

“The tables have turned”.

For many activists who formerly voted ‘yes’ in the independence referendum, a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn now looks like the better choice.

All of the young people I spoke to who voted for the SNP in the 2015 election shifted their allegiances to vote Labour two years later – and on Thursday, they will be voting Labour once again. “My vote for Labour in 2017 was to get the Tories out after they had a majority,” explained Connor, who has since gone on to pursue a degree in politics in the wake of the last election. “I’ve seen the actual effects of austerity. I’m voting Labour this year because they are closest to me ideologically and are our only chance at stopping the Tories.”

It’s a view that Tam sympathises with: “When Corbyn first got elected I was sympathetic but never comfortable biting the bullet and actually getting involved. But then I saw more and more of what the SNP were doing to Dundee city council and knew I had to get involved.”

Jessica also believes the tables have turned. “Corbyn’s Labour has all the energy and the independence movement is clutching at straws and resorting to negativity over Labour’s ambitious spending plans. The independence movement in its current form is not offering anything nearly as radical as the Labour manifesto.”

What’s more, the feelings articulated by these young Scottish voters look to be increasingly shared by young people. Election Maps UK suggests that if only young people voted, Labour would win 47 out of 59 seats in Scotland. In the last few weeks, several high profile activists in Scotland who had previously campaigned for independence such as Matt Crilly, the current president of Strathclyde university’s student association and Sean Baillie, a community organiser and independence campaigner, have both endorsed a vote for Labour. The 2019 Labour manifesto promises a £10 an hour minimum wage, free broadband access and free university tuition as part of the wider National Education Service. What’s clear is that Corbyn’s Labour has a genuine offer to make to young people.

And it couldn’t have felt more true than in September this year when 300 students packed into Strathclyde university’s student association on the first Friday of fresher’s week to listen to Corbyn speak. Looking around, expecting to see a few familiar faces, I didn’t recognise a single person. No other politician has captured the youth vote in the same way as Corbyn. Now he’s got it in Scotland too.

Lauren Gilmour is a Labour activist and writer based outside of Glasgow.

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