My review of the Jeremy Corbyn Q&A at the Royal Hotel in York on Saturday. After nearly dislocating my arm I managed to put a question to Corbyn…
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I swallow, gripping the microphone that’s just been thrust into my hand. “Great speech.” I’m addressing Jeremy Corbyn: MP, former Labour-leftie-backbencher, and now, following a Karate Kid-style, underdog-overcomes-the-odds narrative, he’s the emerging frontrunner in the Labour leadership race. He’s doing a Q&A in my hometown, York, in a room filled with 800-odd Northerners. We’re packed like sardines in 25 degree heat; yet Corbyn, I notice, has refused to remove his trademark white vest, the neckline visible above his unbuttoned khaki shirt. It’s a subtle reminder of his old-boy image that the media seems so fond of.
Or perhaps it’s just an indicator of his confidence that nothing today– least of all a question from dehydrated student journalist – is going to make him break into a sweat.
“It’s clear to all of us,” I say, “how much you want and support this vision of a progressive, anti-austerity Labour, but do you really want to be the leader of that vision? Ed Milliband thought he was ‘tough enough’,” I say, my voice gaining confidence, “now, do you?”
There’s titters from the audience. Having nearly dislocated my arm in the effort to secure one of the six questions put to Corbyn, I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself. After all, in his short speech before the floor was opened up for questions, Corbyn even stressed that he was ‘asked to run’ for Labour leader. Having got himself onto the ballot paper back in June by the skin of his teeth (Corbyn secured the required 36 nominations with two minutes to spare), Corbyn wanted the platform to challenge austerity measures and to broaden the debate. No one – least of all, it seems, Corbyn himself – expected him to become a viable candidate.
Corbyn addresses his answer directly to me.
“Your question is about this campaign, and what we’re trying to do… Yes, I was asked to put my name forward. Yes, I did put my name forward. Yes, we’ve got a great campaign going,” he says.
I’m struck by the use of ‘we’, already. Corbyn seems determined to shift attention away from himself as quickly as possible. “Offering something different does enthuse, does excite people, and that is what I’m trying to do in this campaign. It’s not just me; there are a whole lot of us involved.
“And I see this, yes, about one position which I may or may not occupy, but I also see this about changing the way we do our politics, opening up our politics [to a] far more democratic approach to politics. Do our leaders get a hard time from the media? Yeah, we do. Do we get a lot of abuse from the media? Yes, we do. How do we deal with that? We deal with that collectively, we deal with that by mobilising people, we deal with that by rediscovering the ability to communicate with each other, and we don’t act in fear of those people.”
Corbyn cracks a smile.
“The readership of The Sun has – you’ll be disappointed to hear – only gone down by half in the past five years, but there’s still some way to go.”
The room bursts into appreciative laughter; yet I’m irritated. I should have phrased the question more succinctly. Although unlike any politician I’ve ever come across, Corbyn has still answered my question like a politician… i.e. he hasn’t. However, reading between the lines, two things are clear.
Firstly, that he does not see himself as the traditional, spearhead leader, but just one of many in a group of campaigners; he just happens to be the one with the microphone.
A running vein throughout the Q&A is Corbyn’s well-publicised hatred of ‘personality’ or ‘celebrity politics’, where, in today’s culture of tit-for-tat televised election debates, party leaders come to embody their party in the voter’s mind. Secondly, however, what’s also made clear is how nervous Corbyn is of personality politics. He refers to the modern power of social media, which some in the “political classes haven’t caught up with”. His reference to the way in which party leaders – or prospective leaders – are hounded by the press could have been a nod to Chukka Umunna’s decision to bow out of the contest, as well as Corbyn’s own treatment at the hands of the media. Corbyn seems determined to avoid the press’ usual treatment of a prospective party leader; instead of sticking his head above the parapet, he tries to establish himself as just one of many bricks in the Corbyn-Campaign-Castle.
Yet despite his rhetoric, Corbyn surely owes some of his success to ‘personality politics’. His refreshingly straightforward manner, his cut-through-the-crap speeches, his underdog status and even his vests all endear Corbyn to the public. He’s unlike any of the other leadership contestants. Corbyn is the candidate thrust out into the spotlight from the fringes of the party. Corbyn doesn’t come from within the fold, or from a past Labour cabinet. He’s the only one of the candidates to have opposed the Welfare Benefit Cap, the only one who voted against the Welfare Reform Bill. And whilst he opposed the Iraq War in 2003, that isn’t to say he supported the Suddham-Hussein regime.
“I was one of a handle of people who voted against selling arms to Iraq back in the 1980s,” Corbyn tells us with a small smile on his face.
When I embarked on an internship with a Labour MEP at the European Parliament in Brussels earlier this summer, the (then newly announced) leadership candidates came to speak to the MEPs. Corbyn, everyone in the office agreed, was a diversion. Here was someone to add a bit of spice to the debate, to keep the other, more qualified candidates on their toes. But a potential leader? The option was never even considered.
Now, however, he’s been dubbed as the man to breathe new life into Labour. No more ‘Tory-lite’ options, but instead clear-cut, anti-austerity policies. His methods have gained Corbyn a cult following, with queues forming literally around the block at some of his recent talks. At the Q&A in York, Corbyn receives a standing ovation from the crowd. The audience is diverse, with a mixture of the young and old. I’m sat next to two men, one middle-aged and clad in a checked-shirt and chinos, the other sporting a ‘Free Palestine’ T-shirt and dreadlocks. Corbyn receives tumultuous applause during his impassioned ode to the importance of healthcare, and for his condemnation of, as he put it, the ‘dehumanisation’ of refugees.
“I wanted to bring my grandson,” says a beaming woman in the row in front. “After all, it’s his future. And,” she adds, “this is history.” She seems to fully believe that Corbyn will win the leadership battle.
“Is it really right that in modern Britain there is so much inequality?” Corbyn asks us. “People say, well, OK, [wanting equality]… is fine, but that is totally impossible for a political party to achieve. It’s totally unelectable for people out there. Because those who are marginally better off will never do anything to help those who are less well off.” It’s an argument often directed towards the left, and Corbyn pauses for effect. “I strongly and profoundly disagree with that,” he states, arguing that at some time in our life any one of us might need the NHS, or adult social care, or educational opportunities.
Corbyn is optimistic and principled. Two qualities not often associated with political leaders, who by necessity need to adapt, to prepare to compromise. I do wonder whether, had someone else from the left-leaning backbench stepped up, Corbyn would have been a lot more comfortable out of the spotlight, serving as the party’s moral compass rather than its mouthpiece. Nevertheless, whether he likes it or not, Corbyn has thrown out a lifeline to what many perceived to be a sinking ship.
“This is a party that has confidence, it has hope,” Corbyn declares. His vest still peeking out, here is the man responsible for that hope. And though back in June no one expected it less than Corbyn, come 12 September, Corbyn may just find himself the new Labour Party Leader.