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7 October 2016

Why Jeremy Corbyn is the political answer to John Peel

The late radio presenter and the Labour leader are both maverick figures whose greatest fame came later in life.

By Stuart Maconie

As wags across social media clamoured to point out when I mentioned the event, the very notion of a “Jarrow Crusade 80th Anniversary Fun Day” is rich in irony. “Relive those heady days of the means test and rickets with a go on the bouncy castle and a jumbo hot dog” and so on and so on. For myself, I was at the “fun day” last Saturday at the Northumbrian town’s neat Monkton Stadium primarily for research purposes, although naturally I was hoping for some fun, or at least that hot dog.

80 years ago this week, 200 or so men (and one woman) marched from Jarrow to London in an act of desperation and protest that has become one of the most romanticised, lionised, misunderstood and contentious events in British social history and a key moment in the iconography of the left. The closure of the Palmers Shipyard laid waste the economy and community of a town already suffering like most northern industrial centres in the 1930s. It was decided to mount a “Crusade” to London to deliver a petition asking for help from parliament. The religious connotations of crusade were quiet deliberate by the way. Hunger Marches of varying degrees of militancy had been a fixture of British life since the 1920s; the Jarrow marchers – and organisers – were keen to be seen as orderly, decent and Christian.

Nevertheless the British establishment reacted with horror tinged with more than a little fear. Bishops and leader writers denounced them. The TUC and the Labour Party cravenly refused to support them worried that communists might be involved or at least that the Tory press would claim they were. Indeed the only unqualified support that the marchers received was from towns and villages along the route, from the Conservative heartland of Harrogate who welcomed them with open arms to the cobblers of Leicester who worked all night unpaid to mend their ravaged boots.

Today’s Labour ruling executive, unlike that of 1936, are positively gung-ho to get with the Jarrow programme. In fact, they’ve sent their top man from London. Jeremy Bernard Corbyn appeared at the Fun Day in what was his first public appearance after being re-elected Labour leader with an increased majority a week earlier. When I arrived at the gate to pick up my wristband from councillor Audrey, I was told, a little breathlessly, that “he” was already here; “We gave him a dinner at the Lakeside pub last night”

Many of those who’d been aware of him in the 80s and beyond as a quotidian Spartist of the metropolitan left have been baffled by Corbyn’s rise to Guevara style Icon. I confess I have been amongst them. So as part of the preamble to my retracing of the Jarrow march for my next book (info at I decided I needed to see the phenomenon at first hand up close. The town’s current MP Stephen Hepburn gave a doughty speech which is as much about JC (Jeremy Corbyn) as JC (Jarrow Crusade) “Had he been at the side of road when those marchers passed by, Jeremy would have shared his sandwiches with them”, the faintly Christ-like tone of this eulogy a little creepy.

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Soon after the man himself took the microphone it became clear to me that JC is not so much that other JC (Jesus Christ) as JP (John Peel). They have much in common; both bearded, softly spoken, mildly drony, educated at private school in Shrewsbury and attaining greatest affection and fame in middle age. Both have appeared principled mavericks and saintly rebels despite long, comfortable careers in two of the cosiest berths in the British establishment, the BBC and the Labour Party, all the time nurturing a monumental disdain for the shallower, slicker elements of their chosen worlds; in Corbyn’s case Blair and Campbell, in Peel’s the Bates/Edmonds axis at “wonderful Radio One.” They are “National Treasures” for the kind of liberal leftist who hates the notion of national treasures.

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After JC, (who gave a genuinely fine tribute to the one female Jarrow Marcher, local MP “Red” Ellen Wilkinson) there were a few other “acts”; a Unison chief straight from central casting circa 1984 (“and let us be clear that we say as a movement to this Tory Government..”), a smooth LibDem, a nice lady from the Greens whose lengthy, factual re-telling of the March smacked of “This term we have been studying the Jarrow Crusade which took place in October 1936…” Funniest was the nonagenarian Conservative candidate who sat on a folding chair beaming and said “I live in Jarrow and naturally I haven’t agreed with a thing I’ve heard here today….” But Jeremy was clearly the main attraction.

Corbyn’s share of the Labour members vote grew to 68 per cent in the recent leadership election and a huge influx of new members have made Labour the biggest political party in Western Europe. All this proves to some that he is our next prime minister. As many have pointed out however, this is rather akin to saying that Liverpool will win the Premier League because their hardcore fans want them to. We will know whether one of them does scoop the top prize, depending on Theresa May’s electoral strategists and pollsters, by next summer when my book on the legacy of Jarrow will be published. But as I set off for my three hundred mile trek to London, Downing Street seemed a long way off for me and JC.