Excitement over Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to become Labour’s next leader reached a new peak as around 1,500 supporters flocked to the leftwinger’s biggest rally yet amid intensifying Blairite attacks on his campaign.
So many people attended a rally in Camden on Monday night that the 66-year old MP for Islington North had to address several hundred supporters in the street standing on top of a fire engine. He then rallied hundreds more in two spillover rooms and finally 800 people packed into a main hall, all filled with belief that the favourite with bookmakers and pollsters to succeed Ed Miliband will win next month.
After attracting large numbers of young volunteers and supporters, Corbyn showcased another flank of his supporter base: grassroots activists he has attracted through decades of involvement in campaigns from CND to Stop the War. There were also scores of older Labour activists who remember Tony Benn and Michael Foot and have been re-energised by Corbyn’s insurgent campaign.
The candidate entered the hall on Monday night to earsplitting cheers and a rock star’s welcome and looked momentarily bewildered as he approached the stage in his characteristic open-neck yellow shirt and baggy brown slacks. It was jarring for a man who eschews celebrity politics in favour of low-key community organising.
In a speech that promised nuclear disarmament, nationalised railways, an NHS free of privatisation and an economy driven by billions of new state investment in manufacturing, he told his supporters that the movement they were part of had been “brought together on the basis of hope, on the basis of determination and on the basis of democracy”.
He said he wanted to “bring about a country that doesn’t thrive on inequality”.
“All over the country we are getting these huge gatherings of people,” he said. “The young, the old, black and white and many people that haven’t been involved in politics before. Is it because they want to see something different in society? Real democracy.”
He weaved through the history of the Chartists, suffragettes, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the CND and the miners’ strike. It might have lacked the polish and rhetorical punch of his rivals – Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall – but he received a two-minute standing ovation which erupted into a chant of “Jez we can!”
“It is not what he says, it is what he stands for,” one of his volunteers said.
The rally was also one of the clearest signs yet of the bitter civil war now raging inside Labour.
Some of the biggest cheers went to attacks on the Blairite wing of the Labour party, rather than the Conservatives, by former London mayor Ken Livingstone and Mark Serwotka, head of the Public and Commercial Services Union. Chris Leslie, the shadow chancellor, was singled out after his Monday morning assault on Corbyn’s “starry-eyed, hard left” economics and Tony Blair’s comment that “if your heart is with Corbyn, you need a heart transplant” was booed. Serwotka, who is awaiting a heart transplant himself, weighed in against the former prime minister’s comment.
With all but one of the main bookmakers still putting Corbyn on course to win (William Hill edged Burnham ahead on Monday after a spate of bets), Corbyn’s camp is braced for more attacks. There was a taste at the weekend of what may be to come when Lord Kinnock, who is backing Burnham, savaged the “malign purposes” of the “Trostskyite left”.
Corbyn’s fans shrugged all that off. “He’s connecting because he’s offering people hope,” said Livingstone. “No more austerity or austerity light.”
Brian Eno, the composer and music producer who was at the rally, said he hadn’t seen as many people queuing since he last went past Madame Tussauds.
“I’m really looking forward to the first transatlantic summit between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump,” he joked in reference to another unlikely candidate bidding for high office – in America.
The rally came as Corbyn’s snowballing campaign came close to raising £100,000 in small donations, with cash flowing in at the rate of £1,000 a day. Over the weekend he addressed packed rallies in Liverpool, Coventry and Birmingham.
Outside the London rally, the stalls hawking far-left tracts, socialist newspapers and £15 “Jez You Can” T-shirts did brisk business.
Nathan Taylor, an unemployed graduate selling the far-left Socialist Appeal newspaper (headline: “Revolutionary mood sweeps across Europe”) could hardly believe the sudden popularity of his political position.
“It’s really exciting for all of the groups like us who normally spend our time on university campuses and now have the chance to tap into the mainstream,” he said.
His colleague, Stella Christou, a 23-year-old Greek graduate, drew comparison with the Syriza movement in her home country.
“New parties and new figures are emerging throughout Europe and now it is happening here,” she said. “They are shaking the foundations of traditional social democracy. Jeremy Corbyn is bringing together the disaffected, demoralised and apolitical people.”
Alistair, a 29-year-old Stop the War activist, was one of many entering Labour politics by way of one of the campaign groups Corbyn helps lead.
“Corbyn offers the possibility of a government that you feel you can have a conversation with,” he said. “Until now many people have seen government as coercive, aggressive and boring.”
Others just saw Corbyn’s analysis that economic inequality has run out of control as common sense.
“I am not a lefty,” said marketing executive Leo Scott, 30. “But I think he puts forward the sensible views of a wide spectrum of people in a fair way rather than those of the powerful and wealthy.” His friend, Fay Milton, 34, a musician, said Corbyn was “only the second politician in my whole adult life with whom I’ve agreed on anything they’ve said”, the other being Green MP Caroline Lucas. “I mainly agree with his position on setting things right on anti-austerity,” Milton said. “I’ll watch him tonight and join Labour tomorrow.”
Petra Dando, 49, a housing activist, welcomed the changes Corbyn could bring about. “We have had the same people at the top for so long, the Coopers, the Jowells, the Harriet Harmans,” she said. “At last here’s a guy speaking our language.”
- This article was amended on 4 August 2015 to remove the incorrect attribution of a quote to Caroline Lucas.
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