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30 June 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 2:12pm

Rallying a crowd of London students, Jeremy Corbyn showed us why he can’t resign

Anyone baffled by the Labour leader’s refusal to stand down would learn a great deal from his supporters.

By Anoosh Chakelian

It began where all great revolutions do. The SOAS junior common room. Jeremy Corbyn decided to launch his fightback against the traitorous forces in his party at the London university renowned for its lefty activism. And after a torrid week of media scrums and Labour mutiny, who can blame the man for wanting to address a friendly crowd?

And indeed, aside from a few heckles – “What about Europe, Jeremy? Where were you when we needed you?” and, simply, “MORON!” – Corbyn was warmly received by the crowd, which started off as about 70 and seemed to more than triple over the evening. Too big for the JCR, even. Nothing would have echoed in that chamber.

So his audience gathered on the steps outside. Turning up late, looking knackered but defiant, Corbyn reminded his audience that he ran for the leadership because he “wanted to change the way we did our politics”, and concluded: “I’m very proud to be carrying on with that work.”

But amid all the usual radical student comfort of Socialist Worker touts, blue hair and megaphones, there was a distinctive note of urgency at this particular rally. And it explained a great deal about Corbyn’s position.

Two messages were clear: One, Corbyn is the hard left’s only hope, and if he stands down it will never have another chance to run the party. Two, a second leadership campaign for Corbyn relies on a surge of people joining the party, putting the campaigning work in, and voting.

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Momentum head James Schneider’s plea to the crowd was to join Labour and get campaigning. In a passionate speech, he cried: “If we don’t do it, there is no one else who is going to do it.”

There was a similar fatalism to shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s message to the crowd, who warned that if the anti-Corbyn MPs win, “never again will we see a progressive socialist as leader of the Labour party”.

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McDonnell means that if Corbyn stood down, there would be little chance that another contender from his wing of the party would make the ballot. And Schneider was clear: this audience’s demographic is the one he relies on to return another Corbyn victory and work for a Corbyn-led party.

Both points explain why Corbyn is staying in his job. The ideological slice of Labour that he represents is his political identity. What would be the point of him, as an avowed man of principle, if he was willing to walk away from the last hope he and his allies have of defining the Labour party by his principles? And if he has very few supporters outside of the new membership/young activist circles who turn up to such rallies, as Schneider suggests in his speech, then he has a lot more to lose and betray by standing down than staying put.

Critics would argue that if Corbyn loves Labour so much, it would be more responsible to stand down – to avoid the party’s destruction. But the mistake there is that Corbyn saw the Labour party as something that was whole, unified, fixed beforehand. Actually he saw it as broken, and has done for years, because it hasn’t been characterised by the values he and his fellow travellers believe are best for it.

But even if the SOAS rally made it clear why Corbyn is pushing on, he might have a bigger fight on his hands than just the PLP. Although the students appeared to be almost wholly on side (a straw poll by a Momentum speaker turned up “two strange people at the back” who didn’t have confidence in Corbyn), there was some dissent.

“How dare he stand there and talk about the benefits of Europe, and freedom of movement, when he didn’t lift a finger to help?” asks one young man in the audience. “But Europe isn’t the solution to the refugee crisis,” his friend, defending Corbyn, retorts. “Just because he didn’t have an 100 per cent strong stance on it [the EU] doesn’t mean he isn’t electable. Can you compromise what you truly think?”

It seems Corbyn’s reluctance to get behind Remain has cut through, either way. But how many of his supporters will be bothered by this stance when it comes to voting in another Labour leadership election?