Those few who regularly read my blogs will know I’m not a Labour supporter. So some will be surprised that I spent my Saturday evening at Momentum’s Leeds rally in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader. However, given the clear mismatch between his incredible ability to motivate massive numbers of people to join Labour and both the 16% poll lead the Conservatives have over Labour and the huge number of Labour MPs who oppose him, I was interested to witness at first hand what is going on. I also wanted to see, without the often complained of bias of the mainstream media lens intermediating, what the man who should be being considered as our next Prime Minister if the Opposition is at all effective, is actually like and what he is proposing.
I want in this blog to be as fair as possible to him and his supporters to try and understand things from their perspective – of course there will be (and were) things about which I’ll differ strongly from them. I can’t guarantee I’ll succeed. A surprise perhaps is that there were a lot of things where I didn’t until it came to the proposed solution or the repeated claim that Corbyn’s Labour were the only ones to care about an issue. I think it is a mistake to believe that. While it makes it easier to paint everyone else as an enemy it makes it harder to persuade them you have a better way because it involves thinking they don’t and can’t care and so don’t need to be persuaded. It irks me to be caricatured as wanting to destroy the NHS and education (etc etc etc) when I and everyone I’ve ever met regardless of political allegiance wants no such thing. I accept I’m not brilliant at it at times but at least I can see that to win you need to win round those who don’t already agree with you rather than to call them evil or idiots who’ve been tricked (by dastardly media moguls or whoever) into supporting evil. This makes it too easy for the content of the message to be, as unfortunately it often was, filled with straw men and non-sequiturs.
One thing which is undeniable is that Jeremy Corbyn is incredibly popular with his supporters. The photos I’ve taken don’t quite do justice to the long queue to get in or the numbers in the meeting hall, although as it wasn’t completely full there was a little bit of stage management in keeping a crowd claimed to be a thousand standing outside to be separately addressed by Corbyn and Richard Burgon (Shadow Justice Secretary and Leeds East MP). Other noticeable things in the crowd were how many people seemed to know each other and its lack of diversity. While two of the six on the platform were from minority ethnic backgrounds you’d have struggled to find more than maybe a couple of dozen including me in the audience of perhaps 2,000 if the organisers’ claims are reliable. In a city the size of Leeds, particularly one with large immigrant communities in areas returning massive Labour majorities it was a surprise. There were many more visibly disabled people than members of visible (or audible, at least on the basis of the people I was around or spoke to) ethnic minorities.
As I wasn’t early enough to get a seat I apologise in advance for not having a note of the half of the panel who were not MPs and so I hadn’t heard of them before. Unfortunately that half was also the half which were women- a point made a couple of times by the speakers as a sign of how Labour promoted women, apparently oblivious to the UK having its second female Tory PM or that Burgon and Corbyn weren’t even in the room while the three women speakers gave their speeches (the first a quiet and shy former sabbatical officer for Leeds Beckett Student Union, the second a councillor from Islington who had been helped to secure asylum as a teenager fleeing DR Congo by Corbyn, the third a councillor from Calderdale who had brought a group of supporters along who intermittently started up football style chants). Much longer, louder and shoutier speeches were given by the men. First, Imran Hussein MP (Bradford East), then Burgon and finally Corbyn himself.
There was a curiously “retro” feel to the main themes and policy areas discussed. Unsurprisingly, the NHS and eulogies to 1945 took up a lot of time, with the main thrust being to give it a lot more money and to remove all private interests from it. There was a reference to stopping exploitation by rapacious drugs companies as well as a plea to have the NHS not reject drugs for being too expensive. Corbyn also talked of the need to invest more in mental health and to remove the stigma it carried, apparently oblivious to the “joke” by Ken Livingston about a Labour MP being mentally ill for his criticism of Corbyn. To rapturous applause, Corbyn characterised what he was fighting against as efforts by the Tories to drive so many people into using private medicine as to leave the NHS as just the provider of last resort for those who could not afford to do so. It isn’t a characterisation which seems grounded in reality to me. Were there really a Tory conspiracy to destroy the NHS it would have been dismantled years ago as we’ve had rather a lot of years of Conservative government since 1945.
Apart from the NHS, the biggest cheers came in parts of speeches covering the Miners’ Strike (plus obligatory booing of the name, Thatcher, out of office 26 years now) and opposition to the Iraq War. There seemed to be a genuine belief that there had been a conspiracy by Blairites to try and ensure that Corbyn was not Labour leader when the Chilcot Report was published and to stop him from issuing an apology on behalf of Labour for the war. It seems to be the basis for a slightly logically shaky thesis that “Jeremy was right about Iraq so must now be right about everything, people just haven’t realised it yet”. That point could equally be used to argue for the LibDems who as a Party voted against the Iraq War but who not many people now would say were right about everything even if prior to the 2010 General Election many said “I agree with Nick”. Other cheers were raised for Tony Benn (his son, Hilary being now an unperson not even mentioned, though I hope consulted by the organisers given that the rally was being held in his constituency) and Dennis Skinner.
Boos were mainly for Thatcher and, slightly curiously, Polly Toynbee. Only derision for Corbyn’s challenger, Owen Smith, and for the 172 Labour MPs who’d voted they had no confidence in Corbyn. Another narrative here across a number of the speakers was of the People vs Politicians. I always find this mildly ironic when delivered by professional politicians but apparently Burgon didn’t have any problem with ridiculing “them” with their £75k salaries while himself being an MP and being also one of them. It made a bit more sense in the image used by the Islington councillor from Congo of the country she came from being like a hand, with the little finger ordinary people, ring finger the community, middle finger professionals, index finger business and politicians being the thumb, furthest away from and different to the fingers. I’m not sure it describes the UK so well, at least not when spoken by politicians.
The other two major policy areas orated on were housing – solution, build lots of council houses – and employment law. Banning Zero Hour Contracts , abolishing fees for employment tribunals (a good idea but unclear why free access to employment tribunals so much more important than say increasing criminal and civil legal aid), abolishing Conservative legislation on Trade Unions and extending employment law protections to the self employed (this one I find bizarre – who are the self-employed going to take action against for being exploited, themselves, their customers?). Curiously Corbyn seemed to think someone had at some point made Sir Philip Green a government Minister.
There were also mentions for nationalisation of railways and using public ownership of the banks to direct their activities. Nationalisation generally seemed to be not just about ownership but about political control. In that context, the cheer an audience member got for shouting “nationalise the media” after Corbyn complained about how the media was biased against Labour and should have a duty not just to report what it said and did but to say what Labour was trying to achieve, was worrying. For me, that is asking to give the next Labour government the power to direct the media to report political intentions and aspirations rather than just what it actually does. Yet somehow I’m sceptical that such a government would support the media having a duty to report the intentions of its opposition.
Relatively little was said on the economy more generally other than to say that we had very high unemployment, which got a cheer despite being somewhat contestable, and that John McDonnell (big cheer) was very different to Osborne and Hammond. The EU was not mentioned at all, the nearest thing being a flyer from the Socialist Equality Party about it having advocated abstention from the EU Referendum (which perhaps is what Corbyn really did by having not campaigned with either Cameron or Labour In). It seemed something of an omission given that the practicalities of Brexit, or of resisting Brexit, are likely to be major activities for the government and opposition for some years and ought, in my opinion at least, to be ones which the major Parties take an active role.
The nearest Corbyn could come to trying to pitch to anyone who didn’t loudly self-identify as working class was to say that he’d take action to improve their lives by making it so that they didn’t have to see so many people living on the streets. Stopping homelessness is certainly something everyone would like to achieve but it felt a bit odd that that was all he could think of to appeal outside the room.
It was an interesting evening and I think Corbyn will easily be re-elected as leader by Labour’s members but I saw no inclination among either him or his supporters to broaden that conversation out to persuade those who did not already believe everything they believed. Corbyn’s generally weak performances in Prime Minister’s Questions are symptomatic of this unwillingness or inability to engage with opposing views. The football chants and jeers in the rally were proof enough for me that apparent distaste for the yah-boo nature of Parliament and desire for a kinder, gentler politics is a sham. I think he’ll let down a lot of people who seemed nice and decent. Or at least as nice and decent as people who need their leader to tell them not to send abusive messages to people who disagree with them and who cheer when told they don’t look like they’re the ones lobbing bricks at people. Had I mentioned I thought Hilary Benn was a decent guy I think the auditorium would have turned into a scene from a zombie movie as all the undead point at the fresh living human.