Image credit: Sam Harrison
On Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaign organised a rally in the Lyric Theatre in Salford's Lowry Centre. Hiring the 1730-seat venue was a risk, anticipating a rally of rare size, but it paid off: while a friend told me that she had seen a few empty seats, the impression was certainly of a packed theatre and many hopefuls were turned away for lack of space. More importantly, it contrasted favourably with Owen Smith's rally in neighbouring Manchester in the Friends' Meeting House, which has a maximum capacity of just 400. Smith's campaign has not divulged the precise number of attendees at that event. Point Corbyn.
I arrived at the Lowry Centre an hour and a half before the event was due to start, to find that there were already numerous others waiting. A great deal of Corbyn paraphernalia from last year's leadership election had been revived, a mere hint of the enthusiasm that still prevails. However, its presence also drew attention to the contrast between the insurgent optimism 2015 campaign, and today's slightly jaded defiance. The mood among Corbynites is generally that this leadership campaign should not be going ahead, but if it must, then they are going to win it.
The speakers seemed to to feel the same way. Chair of the meeting Paula Barker, a UNISON convenor, declared with some force that "I know that Jeremy Corbyn will win this contest - and not with 60% of the vote this time, but a huge landslide victory." For Rebecca Long-Bailey, as of recently the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the priority was evidently national politics. She began her speech by castigating Theresa May's much-feted One-Nation pitch to voters, countering that May is in fact to the right of David Cameron and George Osborne, who next to her would "seem like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro". She condemned the cutting of public services and the closure of hospitals, and she spoke about a constituent whose family, children and all, had been forced to hide behind a sofa to avoid bailiffs. Richard Burgon, the MP for Leeds East who was recently appointed Shadow Justice Secretary, talked at length about the injustice of the employment tribunal fees introduced by the Coalition, which Corbyn's Labour is pledged to abolish, and privatised prisons. Claudia Webb, a Labour councillor and candidate for the National Executive Committee, stated that "the government caters to the demands of the super-wealthy' rather than "the many" and decried the social cleansing of London and disappearance of youth clubs. Corbyn's opponent was scarcely mentioned.
Salford is Corbyn territory. Its newly-elected mayor Paul Dennett and most of its councillors have expressed their support for him, and Long-Bailey, one of his most committed parliamentary allies, is the local MP; she spoke at the event of how her community's "faith in politics" has been restored by Corbyn's election. However, Corbyn's opponents should not write off a 1,730-member rally on grounds that it was held in a stronghold of his; the enthusiasm is everywhere. I spoke to an Economics student from London who had made a three-hour train journey to Greater Manchester just for the day to see Corbyn and a long-standing party member from Angela Eagle's Liverpool constituency of Wallasey, and I was seated in front of a Durham miner.
The narrative that has been created by media commentators since last year is that Corbyn had been catapulted to power by entryists and naїve students. It is immediately apparent that not one of those commentators has ever attended a Corbyn rally. It certainly did not take me long to find a student who had defected from the Greens; however, the audience was composed of people of all ages, indeed the older easily outnumbered the younger; there was only a handful of hipster beards, and I saw just two Che Guevara shirts.
The most interesting Corbynites are, in fact, the long-standing members who feel that after years of fighting a losing battle against the hegemony of the party's Right, they finally have a party that represents their views, and are furious with the PLP for trying to take back control without having given them even a year to prove themselves. There are not a tiny minority bolstered by registered supporters, as the party's right tends to imagine: Corbyn won 49.6% of the first-preference votes of Labour members in total, 49% from members who joined between 2010 and 2015, and 44% from members who joined before 2010.
One of these was my interlocutor from Wallasey. Unprompted, she raised the allegations of homophobia at her CLP, which she said were "utter nonsense". Her fury that the allegations have been allowed to stand and become accepted as fact was tangible. This is another factor of current sentiment in the Labour Party that both right-wing MPs and journalists have consistently misunderstood: the feeling of disenfranchisement among Corbyn supporters, who are unable to defend themselves from the charge that they are near-universally misogynists and anti-Semites, and are fed up with the lack of balancing left-wing voices among the newspaper columns. Unsurprisingly, when Burgon declared that Labour members should not be demonised by the media and MPs, he received a huge round of applause. The same for Corbyn, when he pointedly included a reference to the PLP's 'coup' against him in his remarks about the necessity of halting abuse in the party. The members are fed up with the treatment of their leader and of their reputation.
Columnists' writing is usually imbued with a certain outrage that these fanatical Corbynites keep supporting their candidate despite all the evidence that they provide to persuade them not to. The answer, as anyone who has spoken to a Corbynite could attest, is that the increasingly blatant bias against Corbyn in the media (most comprehensively analysed by a team from the LSE) and the feeling that journalists are more interested in holding the opposition to account than the government has left them with no credibility amongst this group.
It was plain that this Wallasey resident also felt patronised by the parliamentary party. She told me that she had once asked Eagle if she would support higher taxes on the rich. Eagle had replied, "Oh no, we can't go back to that." In the eyes of this member, this exchange proved that her MP was in no way left-wing. After all, she said forcefully, in the 1970s Labour governments had presided over top rates of tax of some 83%. For members like her, Barker summarised it best when she said that many were "disappointed" that the PLP was expending energy that they could be using to fight the Tories on fighting the leader instead.
It was clear that she regarded Corbyn as the candidate of Old Labour: to her, it is not he and his supporters who are the interlopers and entryists in the party, but those wedded to New Labour electoral and ideological orthodoxies. Nor does it especially matter that Corbyn has not proposed to raise the top rate of tax above 50%. To his supporters, what matters is that he be in power, whatever the specific details of his proposals beforehand; they trust him to make the right decisions there, the same decisions, indeed, that they would make, because he is fundamentally one of them. A pointed reference to the rough treatment in the right-wing media that "all decent Labour leaders" receive suggests that they do not regard Tony Blair, who notoriously was endorsed by The Sun, as truly Labour either.
The whole of Saturday's rally was shot through with that feeling that Corbyn is taking Labour back to its roots. Barker began her speech with a celebration of the 1945 government. When Burgon brought up the miners' strike - refusal to support which is considered one of the milestones on Labour's path to abandonment of its working-class roots and left-wing principles - there was fervent applause. Nye Bevan, predictably enough, got a round of applause, as did Tony Benn; Eagle, Smith, and Blair all received mild booing.
One of the great defects of the anti-Corbyn campaigns has been that every Corbyn opponent is certain that Labour needs to win elections, but none has yet shown how they will do that. In fact, you will be hard pushed to find a Labour member who does not believe in winning elections. Much attention was recently drawn to an ill-conceived tweet by Jon Lansman, head of Momentum, which seemed to imply that winning was just an "elite" concern. In fact, as he immediately pointed out - in a tweet that received rather less media coverage - he had not meant that Labour should not seek to win, but rather that it should concentrate on doing the right thing in having won it more than the seeking of it for its own sake. Certainly Saturday's speakers were mostly concerned with what they want Labour to do in office. Burgon had an emphatic response to those who claim that "an Islington-based croissant-muncher" cannot appeal to Labour's working-class base: "by the way, we eat croissants in Leeds as well - we will not be patronised by people from the Guardian trying to tell us how working-class people live." He makes a credible point. Very few of Corbyn's critics are themselves obviously attuned to working-class life.
If his opponents want to appeal to Corbynite members, they should listen to and learn from the words of Sam Wheeler, a representative from Unite who last year wrote Corbyn's Northern Futures strategy and was a speaker on Saturday. He told the audience that he has campaigned in elections up and down the country - "I don't ever want to hear any MP tell me that I don't care about winning elections." He offered an emotional personal account of campaigning under the previous Labour leadership, during which he had knocked on the door of an impoverished full-time carer and habitual Labour voter: Labour's natural constituency, as he pointed out, someone whom it should have been easy to win over to the party, but who was now leaning towards Ukip. However, he told us, he found that when he reached into his "bag of arguments", he found that there were simply no Labour policies that could offer any hope to this man. "I never want to be in a position like that again", he declared, to strong applause. It is people like Wheeler, who have campaigned on the doorstep and found that their party is no longer willing to help those who need it, nor to reach out to those whose votes it should be seeking, whom the MPs insult when they insinuate that Corbynites do not care about effecting real change. In truth, many have simply lost faith in their parliamentarians to deliver it.
What matters to Corbynites, it was very apparent from Saturday's meeting, is that Labour win power and then use it for radical change. Long-Bailey and Corbyn both drew parallels between the pre-war era and the modern day, Long-Bailey talking about economic deprivation and Corbyn making a specific parallel between payday loan companies and 1930s pawnbrokers.
One major distinction between Corbyn and his opponents in the eyes of Corbyn supporters is that prized political asset, 'genuineness'. The crowd cheered when Burgon said that Corbyn made his decisions without consulting "a team of spin doctors or a focus group". Appearing genuine will be one of Owen Smith's great hurdles: the left is not obviously warming to the former Pfizer lobbyist whose prior call for "greater choice" in the NHS has not prevented him from posing as the heir to Nye Bevan.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of genuineness. Now that Corbyn has been at the helm for 10 months, the contrast between his spontaneous style and the rigid inauthenticity of other politicians is even more marked. It distinguishes him from the rest, whom not only Labour members but the populace at large have long decried as being 'all the same'. When he said in his speech that "It's keeping communities together that is the most important thing that we can do," people knew that he was speaking from the heart. The audience was rapt even as he talked about L.S. Lowry and Walter Greenwood, because they loved listening to a politician who took real and obvious pleasure in speaking on a topic he cares about. When he talked about the "moral imperative" involved in political decisions, the audience exploded into applause.
The other great strength of Corbyn is his real belief in the collective - a marked contrast with the right-wing MPs, whom his supporters regard as fundamentally self-serving, and particularly with Smith, who has a reputation even within the PLP for immense personal ambition. For Corbyn, politics itself is about "the empowerment of people... It's about unleashing the imagination and ideas that are there in so many people." New Labour kept the membership at arm's length: now, it is determined to have its say in the policies that it will have to sell on the doorstep. While on Saturday he was keen to stress the centrality of Parliament to politics, presumably cognisant of MPs' complaints that he is uninterested in the place, he also emphasised the importance of extra-parliamentary politics. It is a perspective that seems radical and appealing to the long-sidelined members.
Most importantly, Saturday's rally showed that the passion is still there. During his speech, Wheeler asked the audience to get on their phones and donate money to the campaign by texting a number; one hour later, £900 had already been raised from these 1,730 people alone. Outside the venue, people deposited £10 and £20 notes in collection buckets. In all, Corbyn received three standing ovations at Saturday's event, two of them before he had spoken a word. At the end, the first four rows of seats flooded forwards for selfies, handshakes, autographs, and conversation with Corbyn and the other speakers. As I stood waiting for my sister, who was weaving her way through the throng in the hope of getting close to him, a girl of about twelve danced past me, beaming and yelling "I shook his hand!" The commentators in the media, largely unable to comprehend those for whom ideology is central to politics rather than a tool to be adapted according to electoral expediency, have labelled this a 'cult of personality'. In truth, while Corbyn's very apparent personal decency has appealed to the emotions of his supporters, this kind of excitement could have attached itself to any other candidate at last offering people hope for a party that will represent their views without compromise to lobbyists and other interests. Corbyn simply embodies a Labour Party which, to them, is finally doing what a left-wing party ought to do. Perhaps some less ideologically-driven Labour members will have peeled off from Corbyn simply in the hope of ending the chaos. But in Salford on Saturday, Corbynmania was alive and well.