Yes, Andy Burnham got a decent reception and even a little wolf-whistle at the People’s History Museum on Monday. And Yvette Cooper nearly filled the upstairs room at a cinema in Manchester last Friday.
Yet while they fight for what is looking increasingly like second place, Corbyn speeds up to Middlesbrough on a train service he has promised to renationalise, drawing more than 1,000 excited supporters on a wet Tuesday in August. He doesn’t even seem to be trying that hard, yet receives wild applause when discussing the most arid topics – who else could prompt such fervour when outlining his position on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership? (He’s against it.)
First in the rain-sodden queue outside Middlesbrough town hall on Tuesday was Maggie Gee, a retired tutor from Redcar. The rally wasn’t scheduled to start until 4pm but the 66-year-old was taking no chances. Arriving at noon to find herself alone, she popped off for some dinner and returned at 1.15pm with her brolly. She voted Green in the general election but is a member of Ken Loach’s Unity party. Gee said: “I was driven away from the Labour party when we had Vera Baird imposed on us,” she said beforehand, referring to the former solicitor general who was parachuted into the (then) safe seat of Redcar in 2001.
Thanks to her assertive manner and front-row perch, Gee was one of the lucky few to ask Corbyn a question. She used it to pull exactly the sort of stunt favoured by the government at the start of prime minister’s questions each week: she posed a soft-soap non-question which allowed Corbyn merely to show off his virtue. Yes, he agreed, if leader he would indeed be instructing his “compadres” in parliament to act like real opposition and oppose the welfare reform bill.
Corbyn preached to a broad church. Halfway back was David Baines, a 77-year-old “rainbow tai chi” instructor who recently auditioned for BBC talent show The Voice. He failed to get through, so has turned his attention to a different contest. He brought a little glamour to Middlesbrough by wearing a baseball cap lit with white lights (“It’s supposed to be for fly-fishing,” he explained).
He was supporting Corbyn, he said, because he approved of the Islington North’s MP’s stance on “dismantling the war effort”. Plus “the other three are too right-wing and have all started bickering with each other. I think Jeremy could build a united opposition with the SNP. I think he could spearhead something that the population is looking for but didn’t find in the other guy, whatshisname?” Ed Miliband? “Yes, him.”
One woman in the audience asked – to thunderous clapping – “whether your fellow MPs should not be duty-bound to unite behind you if that’s what the majority of your party members want?” Corbyn agreed heartily, saying his colleagues needed to understand “that the parliamentary Labour party is not the entirety of the Labour party”.
In an hour and a half it was all over, to cries of “we love you Jeremy” and chants of “Jez we can!” All of the badges had sold out, just a few of the limited edition red T-shirts remained, featuring Corbyn in a Lenin cap stamped with “North East #Jeremy4Leader Tour 2015”.
Labour’s heir apparent tried to leave the hall but was mobbed by a band of supporters. If it was a rock concert he’d have been autographing body parts and inviting the best-looking back to his Winnebago. But they wanted to talk about apartheid and Palestine. For a man who supposedly doesn’t want to be leader he looked delighted.
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