Clutching Momentum and socialist party banners, and placards reading “Geordies got ya back Corbyn”, a crowd of about 50 people swarmed around the Labour leader as he arrived at the Hilton hotel in Gateshead on Thursday evening, chanting his name as he got out of his car. Owen Smith received no such welcome.
Gavin Thompson, 29, an out-of-work civil engineer and organiser for Momentum Tyne and Wear did not get a ticket to the debate, but came to show support for the Labour leader. He described the leadership election as “ugly and awful”.
“We’re going to destroy the opposition,” he said. “I’m going to a put a little bet on a 75%-80% win. It’s been a pointless race and it’s only served to damage the Labour party.
“We could, after the EU referendum, have been siting there with our hands behind our heads laughing at the Tories and enjoying the polls. Instead they went and destroyed the party because they didn’t quite like the exact version of the party they were getting.”
Ronan Dodds, a 34-year-old businessman and Momentum campaigner, said it was not surprising that Smith has not attracted a similar welcome party. “Apart from a small rump in the party, nobody really takes Smith seriously.”
The audience of 450 in the hotel’s Gateshead suite was chosen at random from applications from local party members, with 15 delegates invited from each of the two campaign teams. The reaction to the candidates’ answers made it clear from the start that the audience was overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn.
“I thought we collectively didn’t work hard enough [in the EU referendum], but the leadership that Jeremy showed, I felt, wasn’t sufficient,” Smith said, to boos from the audience. “I felt we had far too narrow a pitch on Europe... [that] was because Jeremy himself admitted he was seven out of 10 in terms of his faith in Europe.”
Corbyn’s response drew cheers: “I campaigned for a remain vote. My own constituency voted remain by over 70%. During the campaign, I did travel to all over the country. I did point out that there were problems with the free market vision of Europe.”
With remarkable timing, just as the debate was about to move on to a question about the emerging crisis in energy supply, a fuse went and the room was plunged into darkness. “I blame the Tories,” quipped Smith. “Let there be light,” said Corbyn, once emergency lighting was found.
Moderator Sophy Ridge, a senior political correspondent at Sky News, was forced to pause proceedings a number of times to ask for calm from the audience, but it had little effect.
“All of the policies we want to put in place, all of the principles we hold dear are worth nought because we will not be able to translate any of that into power,” said Owen, straining his voice over the noise from the crowd. “We will not transform the life chances of a single child in this country if we are in opposition.”
Corbyn’s response drew a huge round of applause: “Owen, our party is a strong party, our party is a big party, our campaigning abilities are immense if we work together on those campaigns.”
“We’ve been here before,” responded Owen. “We’ve been here in my lifetime. We’ve had mass rallies, we’ve had a big party and we’ve lost successive elections. We know how this one ends, Jeremy, and it doesn’t end well for the working people of Britain. It’s not about the-shirts we wear and the badges on our lapels.”
“I think people should wear the T-shirs they want to,” responded Corbyn, calmly.
Speaking after the debate, Nick Gilks, a retired police officer, said the evening’s event had not changed his mind and he would be voting for Corbyn. “I didn’t know who he was when I first went to the hustings last year,” he said. “I know him now and there was nothing I saw in there tonight that is going to change my mind and I’m not a Trot.”
One woman, who asked not to be named, said: “I find the Corbyn hysteria quite irritating, regardless of what you think [of the candidates]. [The audience is] just not listening. I went in there with an open mind but the hysteria really was making me switch off.”
“I’m not 100% in favour of Jeremy Corbyn,” said John Hughes, a teacher who travelled from Darlington. “But I think the way this has been brought about was wrong and I think, in reality, he won on nearly every question.”
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