Reflections on General Election 2017

First off, I have learned that I need to give up on making predictions about elections. After thinking Ed Miliband would win a majority in 2015, right up until the exit poll last week I was pretty sure the Conservatives would win a 100 seat majority in the 2017 General Election. Unlike in 2015, this was not just based on the media, polls and pundits but also on my experiences helping the campaign of the Conservative candidate for Leeds North West, Alan Lamb (pictured below with the victorious Labour candidate, Alex Sobel, at the count in Leeds Civic Centre, a little before the formal declaration).

Apart from a small amount of token campaigning during the 1992 election while I was a student this was the first General Election I had taken an active part in. That was in the safe Labour seat of Oxford East and at a time when the expectation of an overall win was so low that the Oxford University Conservative Association hadn’t even organised an event to watch the coverage of the results, let alone a party to celebrate the possibility of a win. When the 2017 election was called, a victory looked much more likely, even though coming from third in Leeds North West itself not particularly so. Not that it was entirely out of the question on paper – back in 2015, had there not been tactical voting by those who voted Conservative in the local elections here on the same day to support the LibDem, Greg Mulholland, who’d campaigned on the basis of “don’t let the two Eds destroy what we’ve achieved with the economy”, and instead had voted Conservative in the General Election too, the difference between the three main parties would have been a mere 1200 votes.

I’ll not go too much into the minutiae of the data here or nationally – that’s being pored over by many people far more expert than me and will be filling newspapers and articles for months to come. Instead I’ll share some of the things I learned from being closer to the actual action.

  • People are nice

One of my friends had commented that he expected that going round leafleting and speaking to people on the doorstep for the Tories would mainly involve me spending the day being told to eff off. In practice, that did not happen at all, the nearest being a handful of people (out of about 1500 houses I visited) handing their leaflet back or saying “no thank you” (and a couple of those added “nothing personal, I just never vote”).

There is also a problem about people being nice. It means that their natural politeness makes them say what they think you want to hear. Some people are keen to have an argument or to vent their frustration at you for your party, but most know that those things aren’t really your fault and you can’t do much about them. So we all rub along with people who come to our door and don’t pick a fight. This is why things like knocking up on the day of an election to persuade people to come out and vote right now are effective – those who are wavering are unlikely to be so rude as to say no and at that very moment, not saying no means that they only have to walk a couple of hundred yards to go along with you to the polling station.

  • People pay a lot more attention to what they’re voting for than they’re often credited with- policies matter a lot

From the discussions I had on the doorstep, it was clear that lots of people had actually read the leaflets they’d received and had paid some attention to the main points of the manifestos as they’d been presented in the media. Unfortunately this was a bit of a negative for a Conservative, because the weaknesses in the manifesto and how it had been presented were picked up on (in particular the proposals for social care and the withdrawal of universal free school meals which had widely been understood to be a complete abolition of them for everyone). Worse still, where there were good explanations to give, the usual response was “well why didn’t they just say that then?”.

This shows the importance of having a good and positive story to tell. While there were many serious holes that could be picked in the policies which Labour had in their manifesto, those policies were popular and easy for people to understand would, if brought in, provide them with things they liked and wanted. As I’ve blogged before, the NHS has been very important for my family as my mother has been seriously ill for most of the past 20 years and has spent about half of the past year in hospital so rewarding the doctors and nurses who work for the NHS is a good thing and something I’d support where possible. Merely (as unfortunately some Conservatives too easily do, including disappointingly  Theresa May on the Leaders’ BBC Question Time programme) saying it is impossible without a “magic money tree” is not a good look. There are serious and real practical problems about how to balance out increased spending on the NHS while making the whole economy function but those cannot and should not be reduced to unattractive soundbites which reinforce the stereotype of Conservatives not caring.

The reality is that everybody (apart from the tiny minority of ultra-libertarians) would like to see public services maintained and improved. Last summer, when I went to one of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership re-election rallies, I was irritated by the implicit narrative that only Labour cared. This was continued to the extent of the speaker introducing Corbyn at an event in Manchester during this election saying “I want a leader who gives a toss about stuff”. After all the work to stop being the “nasty Party” (ironically coined by Theresa May herself) under Cameron, it is not an improvement to let it stick in people’s minds that we’re now the “don’t give a toss about you Party”.

My personal view is that despite having apparent costings set out, the numbers for spending and raising revenue in the Labour manifesto were unrealistic and could not be achieved in practice. This would have meant that the tax increases proposed would not have yielded the money which apparently neatly paid for the spending increases, so those increases in spending would not have in fact materialised, while at the same time, they’d have damaged the economy to make future prospects for raising the money to pay for such things even less likely. Regardless of whether objectively the Coalition government of 2010-2015 succeeded in striking the right balance between raising revenue, spending it in the right places and cutting or limiting increases in the right things, the successful and positive message of the 2015 campaign of having a “Long Term Economic Plan” communicated this response to promises focused on just spending a lot more on all the things everyone likes. But having made a break from not just the approach to Brexit of David Cameron’s time as PM but also apparently the overall approach to government and the economy under him, there was a vacuum in the Conservatives’ economic message in the 2017 election. It is perhaps no surprise in this context that the Conservative manifesto was noticeably lacking in any numbers and the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, was conspicuously absent from the national campaign.

It did not have to be that way. The most interesting part of the Conservative Manifesto was its introductory section which spoke very clearly of a belief in the “good that government can do”. That could have been the platform for policies which were set out and explained as good in a persuasive way. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. Whereas Labour were relentless in promoting themselves as “For the Many, Not the Few”, the Conservative message ultimately seemed like “Not for the Any”.

  • Most people are not very partisan or can put their party preference to one side

Whether they were primarily supporters of Labour or the Conservatives, I only heard one person have anything bad to say about Greg Mulholland (and he’d voted for him anyway because he didn’t want Labour to win). Everyone else was quick to say that they’d appreciated what a visible, approachable and active local MP he was, even if they had reasons for supporting one of the other candidates this time. Similarly, I met a pensioner who proudly pointed to the signs he’d put up in his local community with his Conservative councillor to make it a “no door to door sales zone” who also said that he’d only in the last week gone for a pint in the pub with Mulholland.

  • Negative personal campaigning only works if it is a surprise

For me, there are several aspects of Corbyn’s history and preferences which would make the idea of him being Prime Minister horrific. Regardless of whether he believed he was making a genuine contribution to securing peace in Northern Ireland, I think that inviting convicted IRA terrorists to have tea with him in Parliament only days after other IRA terrorists had killed five people at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton and hoped to murder the Prime Minister was a terrible thing to have done (as indeed the Labour leader at the time, Neil Kinnock said publicly). Ditto for his willingness to share a platform with people from Hamas and Hezbollah and to use “inclusive language” in describing them as friends. That contrasts with his refusal to share a platform with Cameron when he was notionally campaigning for Remain in the EU referendum and so meant to be on the same side. If you can be on the same side as terrorists whose violent methods to secure something you want by peace, you really ought to be able to stand alongside the Prime Minister of your own country when both urging people to vote to Remain in the EU. Related to his views on Palestine is the fine line between his opposition to the actions of Israel and the tolerance and support for anti-semitism which has reared its head among a significant section of his supporters.

But, all this and more is known and has been known by the public since at least Corbyn’s initial campaign to become leader. He’s been elected and re-elected as leader in that time. The only real conclusion on this that I can reach following the election result is that many people simply do not care very much about them, or at the very least are willing to accept very generous interpretations of his motivations in doing them. Much like at the opposite end of the political spectrum, many American voters were able to vote for Donald Trump even though he had provided multiple, recent, examples of views and behaviour which many others there and around the world thought appalling. These negatives have all already been priced in and do not reduce support. If anything, they might increase support among those who think it unfair to throw personal criticisms at their favoured candidate. Anything of this sort will therefore not have any adverse impact on Labour (or positive impact for anyone else) unless new and surprising because not of a piece with the stuff we already know. Short of Corbyn having acquired his £1m house in Islington by exercising his right as a council tenant to buy it at a discount and then released some equity to allow him to buy shares in Royal Mail, I’m not sure what would be in this category. Let it lie.

  • Money is not the big issue for campaigns, people are

Leaflets are cheap. Even ones which are posted through Royal Mail. The £12000 or so spending limit locally is very ample to cover sending at least half a dozen publications to everyone in a seat, and on top of that can be added the communications sent out from the parties on a national basis. What money can’t buy is having enough people to deliver, to go and talk to people and to remind them to turn up to the polling stations on the day itself. That’s where having lots of members and active supporters makes a huge difference.  But it is not just in the month or so of an election that this is important – it is needed the rest of the time too. Having councillors who know their part of a constituency well and have spent the previous few years regularly going around and listening to people and helping them with their problems helps to target the messages you send out and to identify those who agree, those who can be persuaded and those who might not normally support your party but trust you personally.

A personal example of this was from my time living in Headingley where I’d had a grumble on twitter about my street not getting Brown Bins for garden waste. One of the local Labour councillors got in touch quickly to try and sort it out. We’ve since had friendly exchanges on twitter and finally met up and had a nice chat at the count. If I still lived in Headingley, I’d vote for him, particularly as in the 8 years I lived there and the 4 since moving one ward away, the Conservatives have only ever put up “paper candidates” in the ward (ie someone who has been nominated and appears on the ballot but does not in fact send out any materials or do any campaigning). Whatever the appeal of national policies or even the quality of the candidate for Parliament for the wider constituency, that counts for a lot when it comes to translating national appeal into the local action of voting.

  • Brexit

Leeds NW voted strongly in favour of remaining in the EU but Brexit was barely an issue locally. This might have been surprising in the context of an election which was supposedly called in order to give Theresa May a stronger mandate for negotiating Brexit, but as there is little detail about the specific choices to be made and the detail of the differences between the Parties on it, not so surprising.

The LibDems’ national policy of opposing Brexit and seeking a second referendum barely impacted on their vote in the one ward where they sent out leaflets about this (Headingley) – they didn’t even mention it in other wards where there were more pro-Brexit supporters or in that case the fact that Mulholland had defied his party’s position in Parliament to abstain from the votes on triggering Article 50. Hardly anyone that I spoke to mentioned it, let alone raised any detailed points or favoured “hard” v “soft”. The 3,000 who voted UKIP in 2015 largely seemed to vote Labour this time. I think at least locally, I’m not alone in just wanting it to be got on with as that is what we have agreed to do as a nation.

  • Everybody matters and nobody can be taken for granted

This might sound a bit trite, but one of the things which pollsters and pundits like to do is to segment populations into different categories – by age, class, whether they voted for Brexit, favourite TV programme, whatever. Certainly some segments of society can feel that they are not sufficiently listened to so will respond if directly addressed. It is no illusion that Labour were very good at enthusing and motivating younger voters, but even in a seat where there are a lot of students, it is too easy to put Alex Sobel’s win squarely in the hands of the students he persuaded to turn out to vote (as indeed he did in his speech at the declaration where he said his win was a sign that students should never again be described as apathetic).

It is true, from my experience at the count sampling the vote in several of the Headingley polling districts, that Labour had pretty much cleaned up in this demographic. Spotting Conservative and LibDem votes in the piles of ballots for Headingley was dispiriting – in some cases I’d tallied up over a hundred votes for Labour before getting to twenty for the sitting MP or ten for the Conservatives, but not as bad as for the Green Party agent stood next to me who often didn’t see a single cross next to her candidate’s name, to the extent that one of the counters paused and gave a little “yay” to make sure she spotted one! Turnout was somewhat increased too in the ward. However, the final healthy majority achieved on what was a slightly reduced overall turnout across the seat was likely to have been at least as heavily drawn from former UKIP and Green voters in wards which had fewer students and an older population. In fact it looks like overall the most significant rise in Labour support here and elsewhere was in adults going up to their mid-40s. In retrospect perhaps this is not so surprising – things like free university tuition might well ultimately have greater appeal to parents of teenagers who worry about supporting their children through university than to the teenagers themselves, who had already decided they wanted to go to university even with fees at £9,000 a year. They are also the age group most likely in a few years to have parents who might need care and the ones most likely to have children in school.

Where next?

I don’t know, but I really hope there isn’t another election any time soon! But I do urge everyone that whatever their political preference, they should get involved to the extent that they can make time for it. Despite having always taken an interest in politics, I think I’ve learned more in the past few weeks of being actively involved than in all the years previously. But, despite having even gone to the effort of printing it out on the day of its launch, I don’t think I’ll ever now get round to reading the LibDem manifesto.

 

– the only blue in Leeds NW on 9th June 2017 was the early morning sky

Leeds Liverpool Canal by bike

 

Cycling along the canal is one of my favourite local days out in Leeds. Back in the Spring, Oli (9) and I tested out the bike he got for Christmas by riding out to Saltaire and back and when I told him that you could go all the way to Liverpool by the canal we found ourselves planning to do just that. After all, having done Kirkstall-Saltaire as a round trip of 21 miles in 3 1/2 gentle hours, it would only involve doing another hour and a half a day over 4 days to cover the full 127 or so miles. On summer days, that would allow for long stops for lunch and drinks and snacks.

So, a few months later, starting over the August Bank Holiday weekend we found ourselves setting off to do the whole trip. We agreed it would be more fun as a holiday to start at Liverpool and work our way back so that we could have a day out in Liverpool first, as we might not fancy it at the end of the journey. The only problem with this was that that the most comprehensive guide to the Leeds Liverpool Canal is written as if nobody in their right mind would contemplate going in that direction – to the extent of even having the maps oriented with the East on the left. Of course, that’s not a huge problem when the whole nature of the canal is that it runs between Leeds and Liverpool so map reading isn’t that high a priority.

Equipment

Oli rode a Frog 69 which is a hybrid MTB without suspension and was on road/track tyres – in retrospect, it might have been better to have switched to the knobbly tyres it came with in case of wet weather, but as it turned out this wasn’t a problem as we only had about an hour of rain on the third day and that came while we were on well-surfaced paths. As a birthday present I got myself a Revolution Country 1 touring bike from Edinburgh Bicycle Co-Operative in Leeds, along with a pair of 40l waterproof panniers (I thought it would be pushing our luck too much to expect Oli to carry more than our snacks and lunches in a handlebar bag). Both bikes were comfortable and well suited to the trip, although some of the sections had only rudimentary paths (particularly in the middle of the Lancashire countryside between Liverpool and Wigan, between Accrington and Burnley, and between Gargrave and Kildwick) where a bike with front suspension might have been more comfortable for me. A road bike would have struggled but pretty much anything else other than a BMX would be perfectly fine for the trip.

Liverpool

After breakfast and a dog walk on Sunday morning, we set off on the easy downhill journey to Leeds station for the train to Liverpool. The Transpennine Express train was quick and had good space for our bikes to be stowed in the carriage safely. We then had a little confusion trying to rely on Google Maps cycle satnav (the iPhone mount worked well) to get us to Prince’s Dock and the Malmaison where we were staying. I haven’t been to Liverpool for years and was pleasantly surprised by how vibrant and lively the waterfront is. We spent the afternoon going on various rides, listening to the bands playing at the music festival that was on and having a wander around Tate Liverpool. We finished off by going out for a Pizza at Pizza Express in the newish Liverpool One shopping centre and a game of mini-golf at Jungle Rumble, which was excellent (and I won by 9 shots over the 18 holes, go me!).

Albert Dock

Spot the Dazzle Ships, OMD fans

There’s no escaping the Beatles, even in a Malmaison

Disco Superhero

The Road to Wigan Pier

Day 1 of our cycling started on Bank Holiday Monday and involved following the canal from where it started, right by the docks where we were staying, up to Wigan. Due to the circuitous route the canal ended up with as a result of complicated local political wranglings in the C18th, this was a 36 mile journey rather than the 22 miles or so it can be done in by road. It was a really nice sunny day with a little breeze at times but otherwise perfect conditions. There wasn’t a lot to see along the canal going out of Liverpool through Bootle and Aintree, but as we were just warming up that wasn’t a problem. Once we’d left the edge of the city behind the countryside was fairly flat but pleasant. There were also, handily placed through mid-afternoon, at least half a dozen canalside pubs with beer gardens any one of which we could have happily spent the whole afternoon. After passing a couple we succumbed to the Saracen’s Head, Halsall for a drink, a snack and a rest after having already exceeded the longest distance either of us had ever ridden in a day (the 21 miles from our initial ride to Saltaire). All along this section, taking advantage of the fine weather and the Bank Holiday, were many families and groups walking or riding their bikes. There were also more bichon frises than we’d ever seen before – they’re clearly very popular in Merseyside and West Lancashire – and these made Oli miss Fluffy. Everyone was very friendly.

We then got back on our bikes and didn’t have another major stop until we reached a lovely ice cream cafe, Yours Is The Earth in Parbold, just outside Wigan. Luckily we got there just in time at 4.30 to get what turned out to be their last ice creams of the day. We felt a little bad wolfing them down on a bench outside the cafe as more than a dozen other people arriving after us were turned away even though the cafe seemed still to be serving coffee! Even though Google Maps was saying we weren’t far from Wigan, it wasn’t clear whether we would have to cycle up the 27 locks to get to the Premier Inn we were staying at so we thought a rest would be a good idea just in case (it turned out that that climb was instead what we’d be starting day 2 with). The Premier Inn staff were very helpful and not only allowed us to keep our bikes safely with us in our room but moved us to a disabled room to give more space. After a shower and a rest we finished off with an underwhelming meal at the Moon Under Water Wetherspoons in the town centre (from my perspective mainly for the George Orwell link).

Day 1: 36.4 miles, 5 hr 53, average speed 6.18mph, 1043ft climbed (a large proportion of which was in Wigan town centre!).

A lock and lunch

Well earned ice creams at Parbold, near Wigan

Not Orwell’s experience of Wigan Pier

Wigan to Burnley

Planning the route to divide into 4 manageable days of cycling was made difficult by trying to find places to stay at the end of each day. Stopping at Blackburn would have been too early and made the third day too long and Accrington didn’t appear to have anywhere at all to stay. So we had to prepare for a longer day to get to Burnley. After spending a week last summer in Dubrovnik if anyone had said I’d have my next summer holiday staying at Premier Inns in Wigan and Burnley I’d have given them a very funny look, but, here we were!

As mentioned, the day started with cycling up the 27 locks going out of Wigan. Just after we passed them we had our first fall as Oli went over in a deep rut, resulting in his new shoes and hand getting muddy but nothing more serious. We then pressed on towards Blackburn. Although we’d stocked up with sandwiches from the M&S in Wigan town centre before setting off, I’d hoped that as with the first day, we’d be able to find a nice pub or cafe by the canal. We were out of luck in the country, but surely a decent sized town like Blackburn would oblige?

No. We passed one pub by the canal on entering Blackburn from the West but it didn’t really have a garden and sitting in a car park having a bag of crisps and a coke didn’t appeal. Unfortunately, that was as good as Blackburn got. There was literally nothing there along the canal to appeal to anyone. We barely passed anyone who could be described as walking for pleasure – almost everyone we met were groups of miserable looking teenagers ambling around  – and there was nowhere to stop other than a bench which looked like it had been set up to offer a view but the only view it offered was of the back of a brewery, a factory car park and rows of houses. In the end we pressed on, Oli concluding firmly that Blackburn’s score for appeal was minus 20 out of 100 (he gives Leeds, his home town 92 and had concluded that he’d happily live in Liverpool, for comparison).

Our moods lifted as we left Blackburn and finally we managed to find a cafe by the river in Rishton. Well, although it had tables and menus it was more like someone’s back yard than a cafe, but the owners were very friendly (even offering to go upstairs and find me a charger for my phone) and it was nice to be back in a place with people who smiled and were having a nice day. We then pressed on through Accrington, which, after having visited some years ago to stand and be sleeted on during a midweek match back in Brentford’s League 2 days (we lost) I didn’t feel any need to inspect further beyond the marker post for having reached the half way point of the canal.

We then slowly ground our way in to Burnley (and I had a small crash as my pedal got stuck in the ground in a narrow rut I was going down) where Google Maps got a bit confused, took us past some Travelers who were preparing to race round some open ground on pony and traps and eventually took us to our second Premier Inn. We were both surprised by how nice the big park in the centre of Burnley was and the welcome in the Brewer’s Fayre attached to the hotel was friendly. In a final rebuff to Blackburn, Oli awarded Burnley 63 points. The breakfast was also nicer than at the Premier Inn in Wigan.

Day 2: 41.0 miles, 6 hours 36 minutes, average speed 6.20 mph, 1887ft climbed

 

 

Halfway – just outside Accrington

Burnley to Gargrave, Gargrave to Kildwick nr Skipton

Being the middle of the week the towpath had few people walking other than a few older men going for an early stroll in Burnley so we were able to crack on at a decent pace. By now we were well used to riding the towpath so even though we had a spell of fairly heavy rain it didn’t dampen our spirits. It was also interesting for Yorkshireman Oli to see us cross the border from Lancashire to Yorkshire and watch as the flags turned from Red to White Roses (we even saw a pair of semi-detached houses a little past Nelson where one had a red rose and the neighbour a white rose – potentially a premise for a sitcom). By the time we got to Barnoldswick and the highest point on the canal (yay, all downhill from here!) the sun was out again and we found a nice cafe for lunch. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to get going again after lunch we probably didn’t stop long enough to digest and Oli developed a headache a bit further along which was exacerbated by the bumpy towpath. Fortunately the nice lady at the cafe had told us that there was a bit of the national cycle path which allowed us to avoid part of the towpath on the way to Gargrave and we took that but by the time we reached the outskirts of Gargrave Oli was flagging and we ended up walking the last mile. Gargrave gave the option of taking a train home or trying to find a room to stay the night and cancel our booking further on in Kildwick, but after a good rest and another drink and a snack, Oli piped up to ask how much further we had and on hearing it was “only” 10 miles said “let’s do it” and then spent the next hour making up and singing songs, when only a little earlier he’d nearly had enough. So we then went on to make it to our final night’s destination, the White Lion in Kildwick where we had a nice large room and a very hearty meal (and some very nice ale for me).

Day 3:

Burnley to Gargrave: 20.0 miles, 3 hours 26 minutes, 5.81mph, 1005ft climbed

Gargrave to Kildwick: 10.1 miles, 1 hour 36 minutes, 6.25mph, 432ft climbed

Lock Stop Cafe, Barnoldswick – the highest point of the canal

Kildwick to Kirkstall

Although the food was great, both of us were pretty much done with full English Breakfasts by this, our fourth in a row so Oli just had cereal. Plus we had lunch at Salt’s Mill to look forward to, or so we intended, on this our final day and one which was planned to be shorter. However, the towpath all the way was well surfaced and wide so we ended up bombing along much more quickly than on the first three days, especially with the assistance of the downhill slope at Bingley and arrived in Saltaire just past 11, far too early for lunch. We decided instead to have an ice cream from the canal boat diner and then to pedal the final familiar ten miles to Kirkstall where Oli’s mum and Fluffy would be waiting to meet us and to take Oli, his bike and our luggage back home to save the slog of the steep hill up from the canal. I followed on my bike, but it felt very strange without the weight of the panniers over the back wheel, even though at times through some of the narrower gates along the previous 128 miles I’d been cursing the panniers and wondering which bits of kit I could safely dispense with for our next cycling adventure!

Day 4: 20.3 miles, 2 hours 29 minutes, 8.14mph, 1277 ft mainly downhill!

Altogether it was a great few days away and a proper holiday. Unlike many holidays where the last day can be a bit down because of the feeling of the holiday coming to an end, we found ourselves excited and at times literally racing to get to the end. If doing it again I’d probably look more closely at finding somewhere to stay around Accrington at the end of day 2, then to finish day 3 in Gargrave before going from there to Leeds at the end, or perhaps going in the opposite direction. But those are minor changes and both Oli and I agreed that it was a great adventure and I think a big achievement for a 9 year old (and not inconsiderable for a slightly out of shape 44 year old!). I wonder what would be good for our next trip. As Oli said, we could go a lot further each day on the road once he’s got more experience with roads and traffic. Any suggestions gratefully received!

Almost home

Things Can Only Get Bitter

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.