The Corbyn crowd, and its message

In Yorkshire, the spontaneous popular response to the Labour leader hints at an undercurrent in Britain's election. Could it yet break through?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
18 May 2017


Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at Hebden Bridge Town Hall, during a General Election campaign visit. Peter Byrne/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In the first act of West Side Story, when Tony is disillusioned with gang life and hasn’t yet met Maria, he sings his first solo, “Something’s Coming”. The Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein music give a sense of hope, encapsulated in:

"I got a feeling there's a miracle due,
Gonna come true,
Coming to me!
Could it be? Yes it could.
Something's coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something's coming,
I don't know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great!"

To put this in the context of the UK general election on 8 June may seem an odd thing to do, but there is a sense that the outcome is rather less predictable than almost every pundit says. Certainly, the consensus is that Theresa May, the Conservative leader and prime minister, is heading for a huge victory, on a par with that of Margaret Thatcher in 1987 or Tony Blair a decade later, and the odds are that they are right. Yet there is a niggling sense that something may be developing under the surface that could break through even in the short time left.

With not a single national newspaper outside the Morning Star fully supporting the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the majority of the press utterly resolute in their condemnation of Labour in general and Corbyn in particular, is such a breakthrough simply too unlikely?

Even to suggest the possibility requires a further word of caution. At the time of the 1992 general election, the Labour Party was led by Neil Kinnock. He faced a similarly hostile and pro-Tory press as Corbyn does today. Even so, a few days before polling, Labour seemed to have closed the gap with the Conservatives, who were led by the rather lacklustre John Major. Indeed, some pundits pointed to a narrow Labour victory, or at least a hung parliament.

Then, on 1 April, just eight days before polling, Labour held a huge and very glitzy rally in the new Sheffield Arena. At least 10,000 supporters took part in an event that had been planned over eighteen months and was modelled on an American presidential election rally. My wife, Claire, and I went to the rally and witnessed a sense of euphoria and confidence that, according to some commentators, came over as triumphalism. Much of the rally was built around Kinnock’s undoubted oratorical skills but it had little positive effect. The following week Major’s government was re-elected with a working majority in one of the most surprising results in recent British polling history.

Now, fast forward a quarter of a century. Last September I reported in these columns on another trip by Claire and me to a Labour meeting (see "The Corbyn crowd, and its signal", 2 September 2016). This was in the closing stages of the leadership election and took the form of a very hastily organised meeting on Derby’s Cathedral Green. 

We got there more than half an hour early to find just a smattering of people with a small group hastily assembling a platform and a sound system. We weren’t sure that it had been sensible to make the trip, but in the next half hour people came from every direction and by the time Corbyn spoke there were around a thousand people present. Moreover, this wasn’t just during the working day but was also at the height of the holiday season when many would have been away. 

His speech was received with enthusiasm. In that column I supplied a little anecdotal evidence of the continuing surge in Labour Party membership, concluding: "[After] watching Labour Party politics for more than fifty years I have this feeling that an awful lot of us haven’t got a true handle on what is going on under the surface. If so, then Jeremy Corbyn may be with us for quite a long time yet.”

Observing it all from one of the balconies overlooking the Atrium I got a sense of genuine warmth towards Corbyn and what he stands for.

Now, come to the present, and some observations of Jeremy Corbyn’s experience in west Yorkshire over the past two days. On Monday morning he spoke at a rapidly arranged meeting at Hebden Bridge, just up the road from Happy Valley territory. Hebden Bridge is a rather laid-back and very independently-minded town but even so the support was surprising, with queues round the block and Corbyn having to repeat his speech to the packed hall to an even larger crowd outside.

Then, in Leeds in the afternoon, several thousand people turned up, again at short notice. He was given an extraordinary welcome, with streets hastily closed and people climbing trees and onto rooftops to get a view. OK, this is a university city and the student fee issue is popular, but Corbyn attracts people on a smaller scale but no less enthusiastic just about wherever he goes. On Tuesday afternoon it was in Beaumont Park near Huddersfield for yet another crowded meeting again publicised at very short notice.

What I found personally more interesting, though, was the launch of the Labour manifesto at Bradford University earlier the same day. I was there the whole time, both before and afterwards, and was able to compare how it was covered on the main TV channels with what I saw.

Again, you expect enthusiasm from a largely student audience, but Bradford does not have a notably radical student body even though it has one of the most multicultural, multi-confessional and low-income student populations of any UK university.

The media reported on a very enthusiastic reception given to Corbyn and his team but implied that they were selected Labour supporters as would be the case with the Conservative launch. What was not picked up was that no more than 150 of the thousand or so who crammed into the Atrium came from the Labour Party – all the rest were students and staff who had only been notified about the event the previous afternoon.

Yes, the student fee issue was bound to get a cheer, but what surprised me was the overall level of support, right through to pledges on pensions and social care. Observing it all from one of the balconies overlooking the Atrium I got a sense of genuine warmth towards Corbyn and what he stands for. To repeat, the great majority of those present were not handpicked party members, but they demonstrated once again the support Jeremy Corbyn receives just about wherever he goes.

Neil Kinnock could certainly attract a huge crowd to that Sheffield rally but it had been tightly organised over many months whereas all the Corbyn events have been put together quickly and the great majority are open to everyone who wants to come,

Does this mean that something’s happening? I am really not sure and for now veer between optimism and pessimism. All I would say is that there is an undercurrent which is not reflected in the broadcast media coverage and most certainly not in the national press. Neither is it yet reflected in the polling, even if Labour’s share may be starting to creep up. At the very least, though, it is reasonable to conclude that things are fluid and could still change a lot.

A traditional view among political commentators is that an election campaign makes little difference, with the eventual result rarely showing much change from the start of the campaign. This may be true but not always – think Brexit, Trump, the 2015 election in Britain and, indeed, that of 1992 as well.

We are in uncertain times, but with Theresa May having called an election on the back of a working majority, anything less than a fifty-seat majority will look a poor result for her. As I ended last September’s column: Jeremy Corbyn may be with us for a quite a long time yet.

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