Being naive and overcome by madness, I naturally jumped at the chance to see Jeremy Corbyn speak in Bradford, the place I currently call home. The venue was the Karmand Centre on Barkerend Road. Perhaps anticipating a large turnout following a well attended event in Norwich the night before, the event was moved outside onto the adjacent cricket pitch. This was a good idea as I would estimate that between 600 and 800 people turned up. This is pretty impressive for a political meeting in Bradford. I reckon it’s more than George Galloway managed to pull in at his victory rally in 2012. This was the scene an hour before the event. There were already quite a few people there:
I was there pretty early and managed to snaffle some free Corbyn merchandise in the shape of this beer mat:
I wondered aloud on Twitter if Liz Kendall had her own merchandise and someone replied that her beer mat instead crosses out the word socialist and doesn’t include beer.
Anyway, Corbyn was about 40 minutes late. As he walked to the stage he received a spontaneous standing ovation. Surrounded by photographers and goons from the local Labour Party, it must feel a bit surreal to a man who has been an MP for over 30 years without anyone outside his constituency ever really noticing until now. He must be getting used to it though as this was apparently the 43rd event of this kind he had held, with many more to follow.
Before Corbyn spoke though, there were speeches from a number of people, with mixed results. A lady from the GMB union gave an impassioned ( but rather shrill I thought) speech against austerity and the local MP Imran Hussain spoke in his own unique style. If you haven’t heard him speak before, watch this. He shouts really loudly and talks. In really. Short. Sentences. It’s appalling! Not my cup of tea, but then he was one of the Labour MPs to vote against the Welfare Reform Bill (along with Corbyn), so what do I know? The standout speech was given by new Leeds MP Richard Burgon, not someone I know much about but his speech was rabble-rousing, funny and – unlike Imran – brief. Someone to look out for in the future I suspect.
Corbyn’s speech followed Imran’s and I suspect it’s very similar to the one he has given daily for the last 6 weeks. In the US, it’s called a stump speech and it was rather good. Corbyn is not an orator like a Galloway or a Livingstone, but he comes across as relaxed, impassioned and at times light hearted. He has some clear messages that will have rather broad appeal. When talking about tax avoidance he contrasted large multinationals with small businesses who pay their tax struggling to compete on an unlevel playing field. I think this is smart as it appeals to people’s sense of fairness.
He struck a very collaborative tone throughout the speech. It’s clear this is not a man who has ever aspired to lead, and probably still doesn’t really want to, but he is passionate about his ideas, and wants his ‘movement’ (as he calls it) and his ideas to have their chance. This represents a real change from the norm as for at least the last 20 years, politics has revolved around the cult of the leader. Since Blair and his ‘presidential’ style of leadership, a lot of focus has been placed on the man at the top and whether they are ‘prime ministerial’ enough. This is something Ed Miliband struggled with. He didn’t really know what what he wanted to be, and when he decided, asking the rhetorical question “Am I tough enuss?“, it was far too late. It will be interesting to see (if Corbyn wins) how people will react to a leader who wants to take a consensus approach to leadership. Corbyn also seems genuine about wanting the input of the party membership and the broader labour movement in thinking about the policy and direction of the party. Expect some changes to Labour Party conferences I would think.
I think there were a couple of areas where Corbyn will face problems if he does win, which came out in the speech. He spent quite a long time on foreign policy issues, which is obviously his passion. This raises two issues. The first is that while these issues are top priorities for the young (they certainly were for me when I was younger), they are a bit abstract to most voters. Foreign policy is – to me – not something to grab a lot of people who aren’t already positively disposed towards Corbyn and his ideas. His views on foreign policy, while perfectly defensible in my view if granted sufficient time, if not given sufficient time (as will almost certainly be the case), will be easy to caricature as being ‘friendly with terrorists’ or some other nonsense.
The other area I think Corbyn could tighten up on is economic policy. He briefly mentioned his ‘People’s QE’ idea, name-checking Richard Murphy and Joseph Stiglitz, but at the same time talked about needed to collect more tax to pay for public services. There is an inconsistency to me in understanding that infrastructure can be paid for QE-style on one hand, but on the other arguing that cuts are being made because the rich aren’t paying all their taxes. It leaves him open to the age old stupid question “how are you going to pay for it”. I would have thought he would need some support from academia to back up his anti-austerity stance, something Labour never tried to utilise in the last Parliament.
So that’s my summary of events. Unfortunately there was no time for a Q & A with the public at the end as Corbyn was whisked away to speak to journalists. I still have a couple of reservations about Corbyn, but hope he wins. He has definitely captured something in the public imagination. The audience tonight seemed to me to be very varied. There were sandal-wearing vegan types, quite a few elderly people in wheelchairs and on walking sticks, and a healthy number of people who just seemed to want to see for themselves what Corbyn was all about. Not wanting to be left out, there were also quite a few people trying to flog copies of the Socialist Worker to people at the end. I don’t think they got many bites though!
Win or lose, I hope that the momentum he has built up continues. in some form