Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
As it seemed remiss to miss revisionist history in the making, I caught the Corbyn-Comeback-Not-That-He’d-Gone-Away Tour (starring John McDonnell) live at Redbridge town hall, last week.
There I am, groupie stash in hand: three socialist newspapers, a set of Stop the War flyers, and a poster-size memento, which I might frame. I’m through security successfully (a lady glancing politely in my handbag; no need for membership). And I’m into the Labour’s den…
1) Is this it?
I’d been hoping (against better judgement and awareness) for something more exciting. The audience wasn’t exactly militant: mostly middle-class older people, and families — dragged-along children were about the only ones younger than me. The evening’s ‘convener’ started by saying she knew the place from dropping off her sons for orchestra practice. So far, so familiar — for a Tory event. The hall must seat 700 — soft-backed chairs, heavy stage-curtains, and name all matching the Momentum colour scheme — but, with five minutes to go, there were maybe 200, sitting sparsely, some hanging at the back. When it began — quite late, no shadow chancellor yet — the room was just over half full, no change in demographics.
2) Where’s this ‘new’ politics?
It’s on the t-shirts, but it certainly wasn’t in the dreamy, funk-laced air — Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone — a post-civil-rights ’70s liberation vibe. The speakers weren’t new, either: ‘standard lefty Village People line-up,’ a friend said. The Teacher (‘I’m a bit nervous — I might’ve taught some of you!’), The Junior Doctor (Liz-Kendall-lookalike), The Area Representative (from next-door’s Momentum), and The Trade Union Officer (young, confident). Then, there he was: old John McDonnell, his dashing stories of the Corbyn Selection Wars peppered with the humour the modern left love to troll: ‘I offered to sleep with people’ to get Jeremy on the ballot, he reflected, looking wistful at the thought. And the policies — the few — were also unsurprisingly old-school. The reintroduction of rent control, and the repealing of ‘Thatcher’s anti-TU legislation’: ‘This is not revolutionary. It’s one of those basic human rights we should all aspire to.’
3) It’s shinier, though
Endless helpers — one in Tom Watson glasses — taking photos on iPhones, and a suited guy shouldering a press camera marked ATN Bangla. The helpers in blood-red t-shirts, Metroesque M-leg dangling down. There was even a short film, artfully shot, featuring their recent Liverpool rally — to make, the convener said, ‘an exiled [sic] Scouser feel more at home in Ilford’. Scenes of a (bigger) crowd; a well-spoken clergyman; faded interjections of Tony Benn declaring the NHS ‘the most socialist thing’; and Corbyn himself, ending his speech: ‘Thank you very much, Liverpool!’ A slurred ‘and goodnight’, and he could’ve been Elvis.
4) He may not have been there, but…
It’s ‘Jeremy’, with a smile and self-hug, as in: ‘I know him! It’s Jeremy. Who doesn’t?’ Or, it’s ‘JeremyCorbyn’ — dactyl trochee, Beatrix Potter — whom no-one can touch, yet everyone rates. And, in Redbridge, they clearly did: this was no attempt to persuade; no complaints at lack of Q&A. ‘He will be reelected, and he will be Prime Minister!’ shouted (ok, emphatically said) the area representative. McDonnell focused on the mandarin martyr: ‘He’s not a leader in a traditional way’ (Is Our Jeremy!). And, ‘I’m under strict instructions… I’m not allowed to go anywhere near small red books!’ (Is that a blush? He knows best, I know best, we all know best, isn’t this fab?) Jezza ‘opted’ for a Supermac ‘open-door policy’, don’t you know? ‘Every Wednesday’. Lunchtime? The only awkward moment came when the area representative got carried away in her praise of the Shadow Chancellor, having met him on the conference circuit ‘lots of times’: ‘I’ve often wondered why he wasn’t the Labour leader,’ she said brightly. Momentarily, everybody looked puzzled. Apart from one.
5) The bingo phrases are alive and well…
The junior doctor was particularly good: ‘The NHS is being sold off for profit’; ‘The NHS actually no longer exists’. And the teacher tried: ‘I’m a happy teacher because I’m a retired teacher! That is…all teachers love teaching…but we don’t teach any more’. The TU chap was a pro: ‘Jeremy is a man of dignity. He’s not doing this campaign for himself’ — unlike the ‘Punch and Judy nonsense that goes on in Westminster’. Full house, for sure.
6) …as are the contradictions
Tough, but here are my picks of the night:
i. The junior doctor saying the NHS was at breaking point (people phoning me up, ‘bleeding’ because they ‘can’t get beds’), minutes after: ‘Not to worry’, my colleague who was originally going to speak this evening has broken her ankle, but she’s ‘getting excellent care on the NHS!’
ii. Having stressed the need to ‘recognise democracy’, the area representative concluding: ‘Support Jeremy, or clear off!’
iii. McDonnell: ‘Government dominated by one person and a small group is unaccountable’… (See section 7.)
iv. ‘There was ‘no other way but to sack him’ — McDonnell referring to some ex-minister, before claiming: Jeremy ‘doesn’t like conflict. He’s a conflict resolver.’
v. McDonnell, again: ‘I liked Ed Miliband, to be frank.’
7) They still hate Blair much more than they hate the Tories
Predictably, Jeremy being touted as ‘the only person who can heal the wounds of TonyBlair’ gained a satisfied audience sigh. As did the TU guy’s opening anecdote about his Muslim mate, who — during the ‘crescendo of the Iraq war’ — felt uncomfortable riding the Central Line, because of ‘the way this government has made me feel’. (Yes, that’s Blair’s government, not the Conservatives’.) Then (oh so neat), McDonnell describing the former Prime Minister’s actions in Northern Ireland as ‘heroic’. Continuing, of course, with ‘then Iraq happened’. Bare ‘Iraq’ — the shorthand self-centre of a gap-yearing teenager ‘doing Chile’. Or Venezuela, perhaps. It’s not simply preaching to the converted‚ it’s skillful preaching to those who think they might be, too.
8) They don’t care about Owen Smith, either
A rare name-check came when the area representative criticised him for supporting Prevent, which she explained as ‘state-sponsored Islamophobia and racism’.
9) They’re making history, don’t you know?
And so we return to McDonnell’s warrior tales — his party bonfire entertainments. ‘Attlee and Bevan are remembered for the NHS. Corbyn and Rayner [he clarified who] will be remembered for the National Education Service: free education from the cradle to the grave.’ And the plots. The ‘very British coup’, which didn’t, amazingly, begin after the referendum. No. There was Oldham. And the mayors. And others, it turns out. Followed by the take-home line that, when The Establishment attacks him, ‘We are all JeremyCorbyn’. Nous sommes, indeed.
10) Anything more?
So much has been written about Momentum — since Mark Wallace’s original-and-unbeaten entryism exposé, here, last December — what’s left to say? Now, they don’t even have to hammer Umunna: none of that lot’s names were mentioned explicitly. We know where they stand. And McDonnell remains McDonnell — calculated style and little else, as long as you don’t go too deep. Maybe it’d have been different if JeremyCorbyn had been there. Maybe it wouldn’t. Dismissive acceptance is somehow complicit, but, hey, it’s just momentum — and it’s building up nicely.