Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership bid has a momentum even he didn’t expect
The Guardian, by Ewen MacAskill
Jeremy Corbyn regards it as a badge of honour: Tony Blair’s barb that anyone voting for the insurgent candidate needs a heart transplant. It is only a matter of time before T-shirts start appearing with the slogan “I need a transplant”. They might need a lot of them.
Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership is gathering a momentum even he did not anticipate at the outset. “The events we organise ourselves are getting bigger and bigger,” Corbyn says. When he held his first rally in Birkenhead on 9 July, he attracted a more than respectable audience of 350. The numbers have been steadily growing since. He is due to speak in Liverpool this weekend, with an audience of more than 800 anticipated and an overspill room booked.
On Tuesday evening, the contender attracted more than 400 for a Q&A session in Luton, and an hour later, beginning at 9pm, he addressed a capacity crowd of 800 at London’s Bloomsbury Baptist church, with others listening via a loudspeaker outside.
Corbyn said that last Saturday he did a formal meeting in Warrington and followed it up with an informal gathering of supporters in a pub garden in central Manchester. Even though the latter had been largely unpublicised, he said between 350 and 400 turned up.
On Wednesday he won the backing of Unison, one of the biggest unions in the country. He already has the backing of Unite, the biggest.
Win or lose the leadership ballot, Corbyn has brought excitement to what was otherwise shaping up as a dull campaign.
The longserving MP has tapped into the strong public antipathy to slick, PR-trained politicians, careful with their soundbites, sticking close to the centre ground. What especially angers them is being patronised, being told their views are old-fashioned and redundant, and that their preferred candidate is incapable of winning the 2020 election.
“There seems to be too much of a view around Westminster that only people who have ever been involved only in Westminster have any views on anything,” Corbyn said. “Well there are tens of thousands of people out there who have very good, very intelligent views. And they need to be heard.”
Some of the grassroots engagement and debate seen in Scotland’s referendum last year is finally creeping south. It is not on the same scale – Scotland was about deciding the fate of a nation, this is about electing a new party leader – but there are a lot of echoes, not least in bringing into politics for the first time lots of young people.
It was there at at the Luton meeting. All the chairs taken, people at the back and along the sides, regular bouts of applause for policy lines such as the end to Trident, an audience that spanned the generations, from teenagers to people in their 80s, men and women, black and white.
It was not just the “usual suspects” – as the traditional left are often dismissively referred to – but new members of the Labour party or people simply paying the small fee to register as supporters so they can vote for Corbyn. There were students and professors, labourers, a retired psychiatrist, the unemployed.
The youngest in the room was Jude Mockridge, from a village near Luton, still at school, aged 14. He asked Corbyn how he could ensure that if elected leader, he could avoid being savaged by the media in the way Michael Foot had been in the 1983 general election.
Mockridge is a member of the Labour party – the age for joining is 14 – and will vote for Corbyn. Why? “Because I believe in socialism and he is the only socialist,” Mockridge said.
He spoke up for Corbyn at a meeting of the Luton South constituency party held to discuss the leadership contenders. One of the members, recalling that meeting, said about 56 of the 460-strong constituency party turned up. Of those, three spoke up for Yvette Cooper, five for Andy Burnham, only one for Liz Kendall and 18 queued to speak up for Corbyn, of whom 12 spoke.
A senior Labour politician, who would be classed as mainstream but so far is not backing any of the four, attributed Corbyn’s success so far to the failure of Burnham, Cooper and Kendall to grip the imagination. “Corbyn looks relaxed because he has nothing to lose. He has not flipped: he has remained consistent. He has tapped into what people are saying and thinking. The electorate is often ahead of politicians and Corbyn is the one who has managed to catch up with them.”
One of the young Corbyn supporters, Heather Shaw, 23, who met the candidate in London on Tuesday, echoed this, listing some of the issues that mattered to her. “A large part of his support is from young people. People say he is an old left-winger or an old Marxist but to my generation his ideas seem quite new,” she said. “His ideas on renationalisation of the railways and the energy companies. Free university tuition that people of my generation have not had. The idea of spending more money on infrastructure.”
Shaw, originally from Wigan, works for an online company in London. She recalled how despondent she and her friends had been after the election, gathered in the Cock pub near Oxford Circus. “We were talking about how there was no hope. Nothing good is going to happen. Labour will not get in for the next 10 years. It is only because of Jeremy Corbyn that there is excitement in British politics.”
If it had only been Cooper, Burnham and Kendall in the contest, she said she would not have become involved. “I would just be watching from the sidelines,” Shaw said.
Corbyn, MP for Islington North, is not a charismatic figure – although one of his supporters in Luton described him as having “understated charisma”. Nor is he a great orator. But he is the anti-austerity candidate, in tune with similar movements in Greece and elsewhere in Europe.
Can Corbyn win? It seemed an unlikely prospect even a few weeks ago. The MP has long been among the small bloc of independent-minded leftwingers in Westminster, viewed as troublemakers by the party leadership and whips. But they can sometimes defy the orthodoxy. Ken Livingstone was one of them, becoming London mayor in spite of the best efforts of Tony Blair to stop him.
Corbyn stresses the fact that this is new kind of Labour election, the first since it abandoned the three-way split between members, the parliamentary party and the unions. This time it is fully one member, one vote. He estimates the number who will eventually be eligible to vote at 300,000.
He has managed to secure grassroots support and union organising skills. It is a potent combination. The backing of unions such as Unite, Unison and the rail workers’ Aslef provides him with volunteers to carry out crucial tasks such as manning the phone banks.
Jim Thakoordin, one of the founding members of the black trade unionist solidarity movement, who was at the Luton meeting, volunteers three days a week in Bedfordshire. The 72 year old said he could pick up 100 volunteers for Corbyn in Luton alone and had signed up a further five at the meeting. He said volunteers for the other candidates were not visible on the ground.
Corbyn is already thinking beyond the leadership contest. “We have lots of people sending stuff in. We are developing a much more interactive website where we can have a serious policy discussions. Whatever the result in September, I am very keen we can develop this whole process of ideas and push things forward,” Corbyn said.
“There are a lot of people out there who want to do this. This is a different kind of politics. There are a lot of young people involved not familiar with the Labour party and the union structures – and indeed have no experience of them – but have incredibly good ideas. So let’s make sure we keep them involved. I am very keen we have an effective growth of what I call a social movement out of this.”
The kind of members he is thinking of is people such as Alice Houbart, a politics student from Brighton, who joined Labour after the election, paying the student rateof £1. Houbart, who voted Green at the election, said she had seen Corbyn make what she felt was a rousing speech at the anti-austerity protest in London last month. She was also impressed by his Commons vote against welfare cuts.
Houbart, who was at the Luton meeting, said he had created a sense of excitement in politics not just for her but among her friends in Brighton. “It is the first time in our lives that there is someone in Labour we can identify with,” she said.