POLITICS

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Manifesto Launch: The Rock Star Lecturer Hits Bradford’s Campus

He paid tribute to a former Labour PM. No, not that one.

16/05/2017 19:37 | Updated 17 May 2017

For a politician who looks every inch the university lecturer, the venue for Jeremy Corbyn’s launch of Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto was pretty perfect.

Famed for his linen jackets, his avuncular charisma and huge popularity on campus, the Leader of the Opposition arrived to cheers and whoops from students and activists crowding every vantage point in Bradford University’s cavernous atrium.

“Corbyn! Corbyn! Corbyn!” they chanted as if on a football terrace, with Jezza following his team out like Arsene Wenger, the other uncannily under-fire manager of a team who play in red.

Politically, Bradford is important as a home to three solid Labour seats, close to key marginals of Halifax and Calder Valley.

But it was obvious from the get-go that the West Yorkshire town’s emotional and historical links that were just as important to Corbyn, with its direct line to a previous Labour Prime Minister who won three general elections.

Yes, long before new Labour, Corbyn reminded us, it was Harold Wilson who ended years of Tory rule and helped create the town’s university in the swingin’ Sixties.

“Harold Wilson had a vision for Britain and created the institutions to match, like the Open University...Today we set out vision to transform Britain for the 21st century,” he said.

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Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson

The fact that Yorkshire lad Wilson refused to get involved in a US foreign war (Vietnam) probably helped with the namecheck.

Of course, Corbyn came not to praise Tony Blair, but to bury him - and the new Labour legacy of Gordon  Brown and even Ed Miliband -  armed with the most left-wing policy platform since Michael Foot.

Bradford University is home to the world’s very first Department of Peace Studies, that most Corbynite of degree subjects.

As he finally published his lengthy policy wish-list, the only war the Labour leader was declaring was on “the rich, the elite and the vested interests” that he said have run Britain for too long.

But in perhaps the shrewdest move of the party’s entire campaign to date, it was not a politician but an ordinary voter who took centre stage as Corbyn’s introductory speaker.

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Jeremy Corbyn unveils his manifesto.

Martin Kilgallon, a local businessman, told of his struggles with hospital waiting lists and schooling for his sons with brittle asthma and autism. He also bravely revealed he’d struggled with alcohol and one day tried to take his own life, walking on the hard shoulder of the nearby M62.  

The late Jo Cox, his local MP, helped him get support, but Martin ended by saying just how much Britain needed better funded public services and a “fairer Britain”. As he ended deputy Labour leader Tom Watson wiped a tear from his eye and shook him by the hand.

In his own speech, Corbyn declared his would be “a manifesto for all generations”,  sketching out his vision of a country that paid a living wage of £10 an hour, nationalised key services and provided safe staffing levels in hospitals.

He even managed to find good news in the polls, claiming that the recent narrowing of the Tory leader (it’s now 20 points not 22) proved that “opinion is changing and it’s moving toward Labour”. As the cheers rang out around the hall, some Corbyn-sceptic members of the Shadow Cabinet stared impassively.

There were more applause lines to come. When Corbyn said “Labour will scrap tuition fees…” the cheers were so loud and long that he had to stop talking, before adding “…lifting the debt cloud from hundreds of thousands of young people…”

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Corbyn fans watch on.

Talk of tackling the tax “dodgers” and asking the rich and business to “pay a little more” was greeted with more shouts and whoops. As was his line telling Theresa May to “come out of hiding”.

He ended his short oration with the only bit of Blair’s legacy that still persists, citing New Labour’s famous 1997 slogan to “work for the many not the few”.

The questions from the floor, designed to include activists as well as journalists, were another break with the past and throughout Corbyn couldn’t hide his distaste at much of the ‘mainstream media’.

Andy Bell from Five News was roundly booed for asking Corbyn if he wanted to reduce immigration. The Labour leader half-calmed the crowed, saying “Let’s have respect... including for members of the media.” They’re human too, he nearly added.

But he made plain he wouldn’t play the numbers game on migrants and instead went on to praise the contribution made by “nurses from Jamaica, doctors from India” and all those whom he felt “we should recognise our country owes a debt”. 

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A Labour supporter at the Bradford University launch.

Diane Abbott beamed as he said that with her installed as Home Secretary there would be a “fair immigration policy”.  Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, who had only at a late stage got the manifesto to commit to ending EU free movement, looked more inscrutable.

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg asked if Corbyn could confirm that he would spend and tax and borrow more, to which Corbyn replied: “Thank you for that question and thank you for the way you put it.” As with many of his replies, he then riffed like an academic fascinated by the topic in hand without quite offering a direct answer.

When Morning Star journalist Peter Lazenby was called next, he prompted perhaps the biggest cheer of the day: “Can anything be done about the shockingly biased media?” Corbyn replied, deadpan, “Thank you for your question. You’ve noticed some of the media is… slightly biased against Labour.”

The fact that the Morning Star itself boasts that its “editorial line remains anchored in the political programme of the Communist Party of Great Britain” was left hanging in the air, a heretical thought not least as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell had earlier said he welcomed former Communists flocking to the new party.

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Jeremy Corbyn addresses supporters in Huddersfield.

Robert Peston provided the only real media squall of the day, asking why benefit cuts for the working poor were not being reversed in this radical manifesto. Corbyn replied: “Yes, increasing benefits is important, and clearly we are not going to freeze benefits. That is very clear.”

Except that it was far from clear. Soon after, he had to admit Labour was making no commitment to reverse Universal Credit cuts. Aides scrambled to get a new line out, saying £2bn would be used every year to reduce the impact of Osborne’s welfare axe, but not remove it altogether.

The Tories unsurprisingly pounced on new proof of the ‘chaos of Corbyn’.  Still, this was Bradford University, where maths was phased out as a degree level subject in 1997.

There was time for one final round of boos as the Daily Mirror had the temerity to point out to Corbyn that for all the polls showing how popular some of this manifesto was, those same polls showed that “you’re the problem”. “Why do you think that is?”

The Labour leader joked to hecklers in the crowd that “it’s the cult of personality…don’t worry about it”.

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Labour supporters read the manifesto.

But he went on to give possibly his fullest answer to date as to why he would be a different Prime Minister. “Leadership is about understanding the frustrations in people’s lives, and in producing policies that address them,” he said. “Being strong and standing up doesn’t mean shouting, dictating and instructing”.

With Theresa May trying to turn the election into a Presidential contest, here was Jeremy Corbyn saying he would not try to be something he was not.  Like it or loathe it, he was offering something different.

Labour MPs, who fear that Corbynism will lead to a Tory landslide, think that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. They worry that the real ‘bubble’ is not Westminster, but the Corbyn-supporting campuses and Friends Meeting Houses that host packed events across the land.

Those critics point to the 1983 Labour manifesto as definitive proof that socialism is not to modern Britain’s taste.

Yet few realise that manifesto grew out of an even longer policy document, titled “A New Hope For Britain”.  And the Star Wars theme is beloved of Corbyn’s followers, seeing him not just as a rock star university lecturer but as the Obi Wan Kenobi of the Left.

Return of the Jezi. That was the film these Labour activists came to see in Bradford. And one gets the impression that they want the franchise to run and run.

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