On a relentlessly grey, damp and oppressive Tuesday afternoon on Newcastle’s Thornton Street, Jeremy Corbyn took to a makeshift stage to address the crowds in hats and waterproofs who had gathered there to listen to him. After rallying those braving the outdoors, he did the same to more than 1,000 people gathered in the comparative warmth of the Tyne Theatre (whose hallowed stage has previously seen acts as diverse as Placido Domingo, Mogwai, and yes, Ken Dodd). It was cold, it was wet, it was miserable.
Sitting in the warmth of the Town Wall pub beforehand, we speculated on how many people would show up, given that the sky was becoming ever lower, the light ever dimmer, and the rain ever more torrential. Some 700 people had RSVP’d on Facebook, but that now seemed wildly optimistic. I pictured the scene: a smattering of hardcore socialists, some curious passers-by, a couple of policemen, a shaking, mournful dog. In truth, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I felt a little nervous as we left the pub, put up our umbrellas and headed over to the theatre, carefully avoiding stepping on loose pavement stones and hoping not to be splashed by the double decker buses roaring past on Clayton Street.
But as we rounded the corner from Pink Lane onto Westgate Road, there was a sudden flurry of movement, energy, excitement. A queue from the door of the theatre, over an hour before the doors were due to open, stretched way down the street. Hundreds of people were gathered around the stage, and here and there I saw people sporting eye-catching ‘Vote Jeremy’ t-shirts, designed and printed by local studio Ampersand Inventions. Volunteers shook buckets, collecting change for Corbyn’s campaign. People talked excitedly in small groups. Others had come alone. I pushed my way to a spot near the front. And the crowd kept on growing.
The people I saw around me confirmed the conversations I’d been having with friends (and sometimes with strangers) over the past few weeks. Corbyn is attracting the attention and support not merely of obscure Trotskyites, idealists and scattered discontented readers of The Socialist. Instead he has become a sort of figurehead for some deep yearning within wider society for real change from the political status quo.
To those who say he isn’t credible as the leader of a major political party, and to those who say the floating voters would never vote for him, I would point out the diversity of those gathered in Newcastle to hear him speak on a Tuesday evening. And this before he has even been elected as Labour leader.
Gathered around the entrance to the artsy Settle Down Café were a gang of teenage boys in scruffy Adidas trainers, skinny jeans and leather jackets. Cramming chips into their mouths and sheltering from the rain, they looked more like an indie band circa 2000 than the sort of radicals that Corbyn’s followers have been painted as by the media. An elderly couple sheltered underneath a golf umbrella in front of me; to the side a young woman leaned against a brick wall, sucking pensively on an electronic cigarette. I overheard some women discussing how they were sick of feeling that their politicians did not speak for them. Undecided, they had come to hear what Corbyn had to say. A man turned to me and said: “this is a phenomenon”.
Corbyn’s meteoric rise to prominence in the Labour leadership campaign has the feel of something approaching a phenomenon, showing some of the energy and spark that has made the recent SNP campaign in Scotland so remarkable. As a 20-something living in Newcastle, I haven’t seen anything that has felt remotely so lively. Yes, there is a lot of disagreement about Corbyn and his prospective ability to lead Labour to success, but this very disagreement itself feels dynamic: feels, somehow, positive. It’s getting us to talk about the things we had given up any real hope for, years ago. It’s getting us to debate – to fight for – the future of a Labour party that, just months ago, people struggled to get behind. It feels like the time is ripe for real political change. It couldn’t have been predicted before the result of May’s general election that the Labour party would be in this position now, and, in part, the unexpectedness of it all is what makes it feel so exciting.
Such is the buzz surrounding Corbyn in the run up to the leadership election that when tickets were announced for a rally at the Tyne Theatre, they were snapped up in under four hours. Recognising the demand for Corbyn in the North, Labour councillor for Blakelaw and Corbyn’s campaign manager for the North East, David Stockdale, hastily arranged an outdoor rally with a number of other speakers on the bill. These included the president for Durham Miner’s Gala, Dave Hopper, who gave a rousing opening speech that, quite genuinely, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and elicited one of the loudest responses of the event from the crowd when he decried governments who “spend more money on killing people than keeping people alive”. Amid the jumble of old and new architecture of Thornton Street, Hopper delivered an impassioned cry for change that was almost impossibly stirring, and evoked memories of the lively conversations I grew up around in my grandparents’ house, lingering on the periphery of my consciousness.
Corbyn himself was a little late, having travelled from a prior engagement in Middlesbrough, and the crowd, by this point drenched, were starting to get impatient. There was a flurry of excitement and distaste when a smattering of EDL protestors turned up and attempted to disrupt the event, brandishing their St George’s flag like a weapon and attempting to push past a row of police. They were vastly outnumbered, and powerfully derided from the stage by Ed Whitby, the UNISON convenor for wellbeing, care and learning. For a time it looked like Corbyn might not make it at all, running on a tight schedule between the talk in Middlesbrough and the previously arranged rally inside the theatre. One or two people drifted off while others began to murmur.
Eventually, to a deafening round of applause and cheers, he arrived. After posing, with palpable discomfort, in front of a row of press cameras for what felt like 30 seconds too long, Corbyn began to address the crowds. I’m going to say it: I found Jeremy Corbyn curiously un-charismatic – and, I have to be honest – a pretty uninspiring speaker. This didn’t seem to faze the crowd, who whooped and cheered and clapped when he pointed out the many injustices and hypocrisies of the state of politics today. In fact it didn’t really even faze me because the things that he was saying made such astounding sense. It didn’t need to be dressed up, it didn’t need to be delivered to us with flawless diction and tricks of rhetoric. It was ok that he stumbled over his words in places because they were words that, in my opinion, were very easy to get behind. A corrupt political system? The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer? No more top down organisation in the Labour party? An NHS that is for everyone? Some of the best minds across decades, centuries, lost because of an education system that favours the rich and the privileged? Increasingly large, angry sections of the public who feel that there is no credible opposition to a Conservative government which the majority did not want? Check, check, check.
Yet, as somebody who was just 6-years-old when Tony Blair was voted into government in 1997, I have been conditioned into expecting politicians to act and to behave in a certain way. And so when a heckler who screamed “Yeah” at inappropriate moments got very excited when Corbyn took to the stage, shouting so loudly that it was impossible to concentrate on anything at all, I waited, poised with pen in hand, for him to come up with some witty put down, a scathing comment that would make the crowd laugh, win them over onto his side. But it didn’t come. Instead, he shot the heckler a steely glare and awkwardly told him to be quiet – he had “got the message” and his interruptions were not welcome. It wasn’t exactly a rousing way to begin the rally, and with the expectant eyes of 500-plus people fixed upon him, Corbyn must have felt annoyed to have his thunder stolen just seconds into his highly anticipated speech. His only real attempt at humour came when he said that every penny of his campaign had come from public donations and that he had accepted no corporate donations whatsoever – “before you get too excited” he said, drily, “we were offered none, either”.
But then isn’t this part of what makes him so unique in British politics at the moment? We’ve been subjected, increasingly, to the belief that politicians also have to be celebrities. They have to perform well in front of the camera, to look and to act a certain way. Who can forget that photo of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich, and poor old Gideon Osborne, lampooned when he was papped eating a Byron Burger, his chubby cheeks and bloated profile screaming of privilege and decadence amid times of austerity? Just over a year later, Osborne was seen proudly strutting about the political stage with a new ‘Caesar cut’ and trim figure – proof, the press said, that he was seeking to become a viable prospect for the position of Prime Minister one day. Newspapers went crazy. Look at ‘George Osborne’s new hairstyle’, they shouted. ‘George’s new look!’
While Corbyn’s detractors say that one of his problems is his failure to fit the polished and interchangeable image of Blair, Cameron, Clegg et al, I would suggest this isn’t a problem at all. With his creased brown blazer and red biro in jacket pocket, it’s true that Corbyn does look more like my GCSE art teacher than a potential prime minister. But isn’t this just what we need in a sanitised time in which everything is built around image? In a time when photographs are seemingly only ever taken to be uploaded to Facebook, we are encouraged to think of ourselves as minor celebrities. Mightn’t it be a refreshing and welcome change for someone to be in the public eye who is openly dismissive of this kind of attitude (see the footage which surfaced recently of a news reporter’s snide attempt to deride Corbyn’s jumper, back in the 1980s), and to be encouraged to listen to what someone is saying, instead of how they say it? And isn’t a little patronising to assume that the general public isn’t capable of doing so?
“We’re all in this together,” David Cameron says. But afterwards, walking up from Central Station through a Newcastle that has seen homelessness skyrocket, it’s obvious that some of us are more in this than others. When I walk, every morning, from the suburb of Jesmond into the centre of town, I frequently pass a homeless man in an underpass with drawings and words chalked on the pavement in front of him. “Taxed by the government,” it reads, “Please help.”
It’s difficult to say whether, should he be elected as Labour leader, Corbyn will seem as exciting in three, four or five years’ time. I’ve ummed and ahhed and I’ve changed my mind about him several times. Perhaps I will change my mind again. Presently, however, I think this: even if Corbyn’s opponents are correct and he leads Labour to catastrophe at the next General Election, it is surely preferable for Labour to be out of power again while providing a real alternative to a Conservative government. The only alternative, as I see it, is that they come into power as a sort of Conservative-lite, based purely upon another ‘electable’ leader who appears not to stand for anything much at all. Corbyn offers principles, and if they are the principles of old, then they are the principles that, overall, I agree with. It feels like Corbyn is the only real voice of an alternative. So I say, “Corbyn, Corbyn, Jez we can”, and I say it proudly. Let’s give change a chance.
By Lyndsey Skinner, North East Correspondent
Photos by Phil Pounder