In the assembly hall where Jeremy Corbyn made his first campaign speech of the 2017 general election, the writing was literally on the wall.
“The Spirit of The Lord Shall Rest Upon Him,” declared the sign, high above the Labour leader’s head. And there was more than a touch of Another JC as the event got under way, with a packed gathering of disciples waiting for the humble, unassuming revolutionary to take the stage.
The venue was Church House, the headquarters of the Church of England, but the reaction of Corbyn supporters of all faiths and none (other than a belief in Jeremy) made it feel more like an old-time revival meeting or gospel event than a fusty parish sermon.
To underline the vibe, the 70s soul classic ‘Going Back to My Roots’ filled the hall. “I feel my spirit gettin’ old/it’s time to recharge my soul/I’m zippin’ up my boots/goin’ back to my roots/yeah..”
The warm-up pastor was Ian Lavery, Labour’s election’s co-ordinator, and he did a superb job in prepping the congregation. His own roots, as a former mine workers leader, showed as he delivered a tub-thumping mini-address on why the party was all about “struggle”. With the TV cameras and long lenses trained on him, he set the tone for the watching media, saying “We will not get a fair hearing from the press..”
At one point he said: “We cannot allow Theresa May unhindered to deliver a breakfast....er….BREXIT!....” But he recovered like a pro, swiftly ad-libbing: “sausage bacon eggs...working class food!”
Lavery promised Labour would fight “in every village, every town” and go “nose to nose” with its opponents (though his lilting Northumberland accent made the latter sound like “nurse to nurse”, he was not talking about the health service).
And then, Lavery gave the finale everyone was waiting for: “I give you Jeremy Corbyn, the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom”
The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition walked up to the lectern and waited for the long, long applause to die down. The ovation was genuine, unlike the usual routine rituals of most political events (I will never forget Iain Duncan Smith’s aides signalling for an ovation during his death throes party conference in Blackpool).
Suddenly, Church House felt like even more of an apt venue. This very hall, requisitioned by Winston Churchill as a temporary House of Commons during the Second World War, was directly hit by German bombs in the Blitz and yet miraculously suffered little damage.
It was also the place the newly-created United Nations Security Council had its first meeting in 1946. Defiant, internationalist, on the side of the meek, it was the perfect backdrop. And the radical, non-conformist tradition that Corbyn represents is as English as the CofE itself.
His face at one point framed by the halo of his translucent autocue, the Labour leader then delivered a passionate speech, setting out the scale of the challenge he and his party faced. “It’s the establishment versus the people, and it’s our job to make sure the people prevail.”
Corbyn rammed home his message that he wanted to take on “the powerful” and “their followers in the media”.
“It is the establishment that complains I don’t play the rules: by which they mean their rules. We can’t win, they say, because we don’t play their game.
“And in a sense, the establishment and their followers in the media are quite right. I don’t play by their rules. And if a Labour Government is elected on 8 June, then we won’t play by their rules either!” Cue rapturous applause.
Corbyn is not normally an adept public speaker, leaving it to others (like John McDonnell) on the platform to deploy the fire and brimstone.
Thanks to two years of leadership election campaigns, he got much better at it, but his appeal remained centred on the very fact that he was the quiet, decent man of the Left. His mild manner, with that tell-tale cardigan charisma, meant that his followers loved him all the more because they knew he was out of his comfort zone taking the lead.
Yet today, Corbyn rose to the occasion as the star speaker, delivering his lines with a fluency and verve that suggested he was very much up for this election.
He chose some easy targets but they were effective nonetheless as he rattled off those who should be worried by his Labour government: Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley and his zero-hours regime, Sir Philip Green and his asset-stripping bravado, Southern Trains who made life a misery for commuters.
He ended with a vision of a New Jerusalem, deploying even an echo of Tony Blair as he vowed: “We will build a new economy, worthy of the 21st century and we will build a country for the many not the few.” Cue another ovation.
It was left to Labour MP Dawn Butler to then act as MC to organise questions from the floor, and she grabbed the role with gusto. “I’ve got to go for The lady in Red!” she said, choosing the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. Corbyn was asked why the voters would suddenly warm to him despite two years of not doing so, but he brushed it aside.
It was when Libby Wiener from ITN asked a trickier question that Corbyn hit his stride. Wasn’t he just one of the elites he was railing against, the “Islington elite”? The question triggered boos, an increasingly ugly sound at any critical media question. Corbyn decided not to admonish his audience but to effectively praise them.
“I am very proud to represent Islington North,” he said, to loud applause. “It’s true that many people in my constituency drinks cappuccinos”, he added, a twinkle in his eye, before adding there was also a large homelessness problem in the capital city. “So don’t go thinking everyone in London is living the life of Riley.” Cue loud applause. This was London Labour, don’t forget, and they saw him as one of their own.
The BBC’s Martha Kearney asked if his ledership had “tainted” the Labour brand in the eyes of its former supporters. Rather than the tetchiness he can display, Corbyn replied with his best soundbites of the event, declaring: “There are people in the audience wearing badges of Keir Hardie [the first Labour leader]. He was vilified beyond belief when he was elected the first ever Labour MP.
“They said ‘how can a working man go to Parliament’? Anyone who stands up to create a better, fairer, more decent society gets vilified - our party gets vilified.
“I tell you what: We’re bigger than we have ever been, we’re stronger than we’ve ever been and we’re more determined than we’ve ever been!”
Other questions were asked about whether New Labour was part of the “Establishment” that had skewed “the system” against the people, about tax rates, about a second referendum on a Brexit plan. All went unanswered, but more almost because Corbyn appeared to focus on his main message than out of any deliberate evasion.
But when Corbyn was asked the Big Question about how he could possibly shift the mountain that is the current Tory opinion poll lead (an Everest-like 24% according to YouGov this week), he delivered the line that cheered his supporters most. “All I can say is two years ago, polls had me as a 200-to-1 shot to be Labour leader.” The congregation cheered and whooped. Dawn Butler described his response as a “mic drop”.
For once, Corbyn seemed to relish the questions from the media (and we were grateful that he at least took some, unlike May on her ultra-controlled visits so far). Seeing his underdog status as an asset, he executed some judo throws, trying to seize on his opponents’ bigger bulk to turn them over.
There are dangers, of course. At times, today had echoes of the Donald Trump events, where journalists are hectored by the crowd. He is of course a million miles on the spectrum from the Republican President. But the theme of a “rigged system” and a nation in crisis were very familiar.
And just like Trump, Corbyn has decided that what worked on the stump in his own party selection race is the same thing that will work in a general election. His tone, his register, his message was not one iota different from his leadership campaigns. Everyone thought Trump would tack to the centre at some point, but he never did. Few expect Corbyn to do any different.
Dawn Butler ended the event with a soundbite of her own to kickstart the election campaign proper: “There’s one undisputed fact: June always marks the end of May!” The faithful loved that almost as much as seeing Jeremy up close.
As it happened, that was to be the high water mark of Labour’s day. Within seconds of Corbyn leaving to a battery of camera flashes, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was asked questions of his own. Would he repeat his suggestion that the party would hold a second EU referendum, this time on the final Brexit deal? The Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire, hardly a Tory tabloid attack dog, asked six times with no answer.
In fact, the rest of the day resembled a microcosm of a typical election, the long weeks suddenly looking like they were concertina-d into a few hours: the usual mid-campaign wobble became a middle-of-the-day wobble, Tory attacks were rolled out and Labour MPs reduced in number.
With the Tories ready to pounce on hints that any Labour Leave voters were being betrayed, it took several hours before a Labour spokesman categorically ruled out a second referendum. The inexperience of the Corbyn team was laid bare once more.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon claimed Vladimir Putin would ‘welcome’ a Corbyn victory. Labour said that was exactly the kind of “smear” they expected the Tories to deploy. Then Butler herself had a car-crash radio interview, in which she went full Trump and said: “This election is Theresa May trying to rig democracy in our country.” She also wrongly claimed Costa Coffee, rather than Starbucks, dodged its taxes.
And by 5pm the list of Labour MPs stepping down had reached 12. That’s a dozen MPs lost without a single ballot cast, with many in marginal seats. One ominous resignation was of Andrew Smith: the Labour MP who more than any other caused Corbynism and the left-wing revival, as he was the 35th vital signature needed to nominate him for leader in 2015.
In Church House, another sign high above Corbyn’s head read: “HOLY IS THE TRUE LIGHT AND PASSING WONDERFUL, LENDING RADIANCE TO THEM THAT ENDURED IN THE HEAT OF THE CONFLICT”.
And conflict there will certainly be in the next seven weeks. Many Labour MPs think their leader is so toxic they won’t even put his photo on their leaflets. The polls suggest that a third of people who voted Labour in 2015 - itself a low point under Miliband - will now back other parties. One poll even found a majority of Labour supporters think May would make a better PM.
But still, Corbyn will take heart from the fact that he started the day off well. He may look like a rank outsider in the Grand National, but got across that even long-shots can win.
Yes he’d been preaching to the choir, but his strategy may be to just minimise the damage from the coming Tory onslaught. Given all the hyped expectations of a May landslide of 140 seats, even a majority of 50 would look as if the PM had done it all for little gain. And Corbyn’s allies, plenty of them in the room today, will try to help him stay on.
If the polls are right, his ability to convert the wider public still looks like a very long shot. But he’s a believer. And so are his supporters.