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Jeremy Corbyn’s two universes

The Labour leader is under fire at Westminster and in the media. But out in the country, his supporters are just as loyal as ever. How can he bridge the gap between these two worlds?

“He’s here! He’s here!” A girl of no more than six bounces manically on the spot, arms flailing, shaking with excitement. She has waited for nearly an hour, and cannot believe what she is seeing. Her mum, keeping watch behind her, looks on with a wary smile. The girl pogos into the path of her idol. He stoops, exchanges some twinkly pleasantries, and takes a daisy from her hand and puts it in the breast pocket of his jacket. He strides on towards the stage, slapping backs with matey familiarity, grasping hands. The room is a din of cheers and whistles; the girl, practically convulsing with joy, is now audible only to dogs.

It was the sort of reaction a boyband might receive if they dropped into a provincial record shop. Or, these days, perhaps a minor YouTuber. But the froth of excitement and adulation is for a very different pin-up: Jeremy Corbyn. It is A-Level results day and I, along with about 400 other people, am sitting expectantly in a sixth-form college hall on the outskirts of Mansfield, the Nottinghamshire mining town that fell to the Conservatives for the first time in its history last June. The Labour leader is here to win it back. Nobody in the room doubts his ability to do so.

Outside, though, it is a different story, as the row about anti-Semitism in Labour party rages on. As a political journalist in this hall, I can see that Corbyn inhabits two universes. In the world of Westminster, of awkward questions from lobby journalists and suffocating political convention, he is dogged by accusations of racism and loathed and distrusted by many of his own MPs. Even his aides wearily admit that he seldom looks at ease, and is tetchy and irritable on camera – rolling his eyes at a Channel 4 News journalist recently – and antsy at the Commons dispatch box.

For most professional observers of the Labour leader, Westminster is home. There, the near-unanimous contempt for Corbyn remains, even though he has defied expectation time and time again.

Few political journalists spend much time in Corbyn’s other universe, as I did for a week last month. Hacks and Corbynsceptics at Westminster often ask: “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?” It has become a rather lame running gag, but they are right to say he isn’t “on the pitch”, or, rather, their pitch. This summer, like the one before, and the one before that, Corbyn has been where he is happiest. On the road, in his favoured political universe.

For Labour, this is precisely the point. It isn’t the Corbyn of Westminster that will win them back Tory seats like Mansfield, they say – but the Corbyn of the road.

***

Every July and August since his improbable election as Labour leader has seen Corbyn go on tour, addressing the faithful and potential converts at rallies in the provinces. In 2015 and 2016, he went out to drum up support for his leadership campaigns. In 2017, having humiliated Theresa May in that June’s general election, it was a sort of victory lap. (Glastonbury went wild.) This year, he has headed to Conservative-held marginals in the English Midlands, as well as to Scotland. His party needs to make gains in both areas to get him to Downing Street.

Corbyn’s detractors privately deride his rallies as a symptom of a cult of personality. Their leader, they say, is preaching to the choir. His team sees it differently. Labour's institutional focus is no longer, as one puts it, “obsessing about what the deputy political editor of the Telegraph thinks”. The two words most reviled by the Corbynite left are not “Theresa May”, or even “Tony Blair”, but “top-down”. Their focus is the party in the country.

This year’s summer tour was a more focused, sober affair than previous years – at least in the way it was spun to the press. Its stops were a list of seats that Labour must win if Corbyn is to become prime minister: Broxtowe, Corby, Walsall North, Telford, Stoke-on-Trent South, Mansfield.

The latter two were won by the Conservatives for the first time ever in 2017, while dozens more former safe seats in Labour's post-industrial, Brexit-backing English heartlands have had their majorities slashed, some to just double figures.

Even in seats where Labour retains chunky leads, MPs fret that the Corbyn surge is masking a deeper structural decline. “It’s all very well and good saying ‘I’ve got a safe seat and my majority's never been bigger’,” says one Corbynsceptic MP in the north-west of England. “But that doesn’t mean the Tory vote isn’t the highest it's ever been and isn't going up and up at the same time.”

Both the Labour and Conservative leaderships know these places will decide the next election. “The thinking in Downing Street,” says one government source, “is that metropolitan seats like Battersea are gone. There’s no point trying to win them back for now. Instead, they are focusing on the Ashfields, the Bolsovers, the Middlesbroughs. Everything the government says and does has to be understood in that context.”

These seats, according to Tory strategists, are more attracted to May’s brand of Conservatism than Cameron’s social and economic liberalism. So how do Jeremy Corbyn and his roadshow fight back?

Labour’s answer is that he doesn’t. Not alone, anyway. His rallies are not rallies, his team insist, but community organising events, sold to members as People-Powered Mass Meetings. Labour has recruited dozens of staff to a new community organising unit to lead the push. They are based primarily in seaside towns and Tory-held marginals (“It doesn't take a genius to work out the seats we need to win,” reflects one staffer). There will be 40 by autumn, working on local issues from Hastings to Glasgow.

Their brief is to rebuild trust in the party, to translate the still fervent enthusiasm for Corbyn at the grassroots into a campaigning force, to broaden and diversify its membership and rekindle relationships with other movements. To make Corbynism bigger than Corbyn. Those already in post have organised events like Iftar dinners, housing campaigns and voter registration drives. “This work is absolutely central to [his] and Jennie Formby’s vision of a Labour Party that is a movement rooted in communities across the country,” a source close to him says. 

Corbyn himself puts it this way: Labour campaigners must spend more time talking to local residents than the people who deliver their pizza, and those who know most about their communities must shape Labour’s policies. Its intellectual roots are on the American Democratic, rather than British, left. But Labour believes it can empower left-behind communities and deliver them a majority; short-circuiting the conventions of the media-political complex.

This idea echoes the work of Ed Miliband, who retained the expensive services of Barack Obama organiser Arnie Graf with the same hope. That initiative, though well-recieved by some activists, divided opinion internally and did not lead to a Labour government. Can Corbyn succeed where his predecessor failed?

***

Stoke-on-Trent South, Tuesday 14  August

Arriving in Stoke in the early afternoon, I trudge to the bet365 Stadium, home of Stoke City Football Club, along the towpath of the Trent and Mersey Canal. Corbyn, who spent the morning at a pottery factory, will speak to a members-only meeting, which has not been advertised to the press. A camera crew from Sky News, hoping for a line on anti-Semitism, does not get in. Nor does a photographer from Getty. I do.

Three-quarters of an hour before Corbyn is due to speak, the queue outside the ground is already 100-strong. Eventually, it will swell to 400, well above the capacity of the room. (To some disappointment, he is not speaking on the football pitch itself.) As was frequently the case during Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, there are so many attendees that he has to address an overspill meeting in the foyer (“It’s quite a good problem to have,” Corbyn quips later).

Waiting in the queue, I am struck by how profoundly ordinary it is. Yes, there are a disproportionate number of trade union lanyards and Corbyn T-shirts. There is the obligatory picket of paper-toting Trotskyists, a middle-aged woman with blue hair, and foppish teenager in bow tie, seemingly auditioning for a place in a Ramsay MacDonald cabinet. But there are also people far from the Corbynista stereotype still lazily peddled: entire middle-class families, lone mothers with their children in prams, labourers in paint-splattered overalls, pensioners, and bored teenagers (“I’d have only been sat on my arse watching Vine compilations all afternoon, so I thought I may as well,” one dryly reflected in the queue).

What unites them, obviously, is “Jeremy” (he is almost never referred to by his full name). In Westminster's universe, Corbyn is under sustained fire over his alleged participation in a wreath-laying ceremony in Tunis in 2014 for the terrorists behind the Munich Massacre. The previous day, he had said: “I was present at that wreath-laying, I don’t think I was actually involved in it.”

But the weeks of negative publicity have had no discernible impact on support for him here. Behind me, conversation turns to the latest controversy. “He’s definitely not a racist, is he?” says one middle-aged man to his companions. “No,” comes the impeccably on-message reply. “The wreath he laid wasn’t one for the bombers, it was for the Palestinian headquarters that was bombed. That was condemned all over the world.”

The venue is the Tony Waddington Suite, a plush executive lounge overlooking the pitch and garlanded with trade union banners (Waddington, appropriately, was a manager who led an unfancied Stoke to the edge of glory in the early 1970s). The bar is open, but they are not serving booze.

More’s the pity. Corbyn’s rallies have been compared to gigs, but at first this meeting has the slightly restless air of a health and safety briefing. On the platform with Corbyn are the local party chair, the community organiser and Mark MacDonald, a barrister who is Labour’s local candidate. The local chair introduces things. He trots out the line that this isn’t a rally, but a People Powered Mass meeting.

“Oooooooooooh!” comes the pantomime response from a game crowd.

Their patience will soon wear thin. Before the headline act speaks, we are invited to turn to our neighbours and discuss what the burning issues are in the local area – or “horror stories”, as one speaker puts it – before feeding back to the room.

Sat beside me is Liz Hunt, who runs a training centre in Stoke and is concerned about levels of employment, and the “horrific” state of health and social care in the city. She is in her late fifties, a former member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, and she tells me that she left Labour over the Iraq War, before rejoining after Corbyn’s victory (he is “the best thing since sliced bread”). But, being from Congleton in Cheshire, she says she is unlikely to hit the doorsteps here.

After a brief chat – the main attraction has a train to catch, so we are racing through the agenda – the meeting is reconvened. One attendee complains that Stoke’s GCSE results are 17 per cent below the national average; another, a recent graduate of the University of Manchester, complains of brain drain. Other campaigners are here to lobby against the closure of a park for housing.

Corbyn, whose sleeves are rolled up, nods sagely and takes notes, occasionally taking pictures of the room on his iPhone.

Next comes a personal story from the community organiser, a former NHS worker and shop steward who says he wanted to do more to get Labour into government.

At this point the central paradox of the meeting becomes apparent: the event is not meant to be about Corbyn, but, for most people, he is the only reason why they are here. As the organiser begins his monologue, an impatient call comes from the back of the room. “IS JEREMY GONNA SPEAK?” Someone else follows their lead.

The organiser ploughs on. Each of the audience is urged to have 20 conversations about Labour with their friends, and to commit to canvassing training. That way Mark MacDonald, we are told, can overturn Tory MP Jack Brereton’s 663 majority at the next election.

With a “massive trained team”, MacDonald says, he can make sure Stoke South is never Tory again. It is a big ask: Labour is experiencing a structural decline here, having lost control of the city council in 2015 and neighbouring Newcastle under Lyme in May. The would-be MP introduces Corbyn, to a standing ovation, as the next prime minister, and man who “if you cut down the middle, he would ooze equality, he would ooze friendship, he would ooze love of society. He is, to the essence, a good person.”

It is quite the welcome. The devotion to Corbyn at the grassroots is as much personal as it is political. The Labour leader is relaxed, far more so than he appeared in the ill-tempered television interview hours earlier (his wife, Laura Alvares, is watching). This is no surprise: even his allies admit he much prefers meeting “real people” to journalists, who he more or less universally dislikes, and speaking in the Commons chamber.

The transformation is dramatic. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that it’s like watching a different person. He speaks without notes and jokes freely about Arsenal’s poor form. The controversy dominating the airwaves – anti-Semitism – gets a mention after a disobliging aside about the media: “Over the last few days, no, few weeks, no, few years . . . whatever . . . there’s been a number of our friends in the national media who’ve been very hostile to us, and attacked us a great deal . . . and it seems to me to be directly proportional to the strength of support the party has in the public, and on the streets. The stronger we get, the more they attack.” (Corbyn then describes anti-Semitism as a “scourge”, along with other forms of racism.)

During an upbeat passage in which Corbyn recalls the result of the general election – “We gained seats, we gained the highest number of votes in England since 1970” –  there is little acknowledgment that Labour lost the very seat in which he is speaking, nor any attempt to explain why it did so. The speech is what Ronan Bennett, a former Corbyn staffer, describes as the only one he ever gives: “He really has only one speech, one theme: that we should all get together and be nice to one another.”

But the crowd love it. “Brilliant!” says Liz, my neighbour. “Have you ever heard a politician speak like that?” She is right to say that nobody else in British politics talks like Corbyn. Nobody gets a reaction like him either. In May, when I saw him address a packed hall at Queen’s University Belfast, the room – populated entirely by people who lived in Northern Ireland, and thus could not vote for him – erupted when he suggested reviving the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a moribund power-sharing institution.

The reaction in Stoke is just as electric when he suggests that every school pupil should get their own musical instrument (a policy aides say is his favourite). When Corbyn eventually concludes, having missed three trains, about a third of the room abruptly files out. But the meeting is not yet finished: Corbyn then draws a raffle and proceedings are formally closed.

He gets a Stoke-made vase as a gift, which he flaunts to the room. Leaving the stadium, he has passed the test of footballing lore: can he do it on a rainy Tuesday in Stoke? He can, albeit for an audience made up entirely of his fans, not all of whom could be induced to sign up for the canvassing training. But the mood is nonetheless upbeat, and John McDonnell will soon visit to pick up where his ally has left off with one of a series of local economic policy conferences.

***

Mansfield, Thursday 14 August

Like Stoke, Mansfield is a town particularly vulnerable to easy and often unfair caricature. Won by Ben Bradley, a 28-year-old Tory, in 2017, it has become a shorthand for everything Westminster thinks provincial England thinks is wrong with Jeremy Corbyn. It was an evocative loss: this is coalfield country. If Labour’s incongruous victories in Kensington and Canterbury had a mirror-image, this was it.

What Mansfield is not, however, is the bleak post-industrial moonscape that some in Westminster seem to imagine. On a Thursday afternoon, its town centre and market are busy, and Corbyn speaks on the leafy outskirts of town – where some houses push close to £1m – at its further education college, near to the old headquarters of the strikebreaking Union of Democratic Mineworkers. As is the case in Stoke, Labour’s problems here predate and run deeper than its leader. The party lost control of the council in 2002, and its majority had been steadily shrinking since 1997.

Can Corbyn, who his detractors blame for losing seats like this, swim against the tide? His audience, the biggest on the tour at more than 400, certainly thought so. The same leftie stock characters are here, the same Corbyn t-shirts and badges – one particularly popular design mimics Barack Obama’s 2008 election poster, HOPE, another has Lenin dabbing. There are warriors prosecuting struggles old and new: miners’ strike veterans, Waspi women, anti-fracking campaigners. But the bulk of the audience are ordinary members and supporters – including that excited young girl with the daisy.

This meeting has a carnival feel. The chorus of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”, absent in Stoke, starts early. Owen Jones, the Guardian columnist and Corbyn supporter, poses for selfies in the corner of the room (he has organised several canvassing events here).

Corbyn arrives slightly late, to rapturous applause. He is on home turf and suitably insouciant. The college’s vice-principal opens proceedings by notifying us that no fire drill is scheduled. “Great speech!” Corbyn jokes, affecting laughter and clapping with ironic gusto as she walks off the stage. Again, the headliner speaks last, after an introduction from a resident of a local estate, the local community organiser, and Sonya Ward, the local candidate.

The event follows the same format. As I did in Stoke, I find myself sat beside a middle-aged woman who is not from the seat in question. Diane, who is retired and from nearby Sherwood, another Tory marginal, is not a Labour member, unlike her husband. She nonetheless votes religiously for Labour, and much prefers Corbyn to “Teflon Tony” (though frowns that the current leader always “seems to be on the edge of trouble”). Asked whether she would knock on doors, she demurs, and says she is too old.

After another brief chat, the room feeds back. The first audience member to speak gives a rousing endorsement of Corbyn but is unfortunately much too young to vote for him. Ashley Robertson is 11, and, in a broad East Midlands accent of the type you’d hear in a Shane Meadows film, booms that Britain is “falling to pieces”. It is the second time he has seen Corbyn speak in Mansfield. “I really think we need a Labour government to fix Britain, to make it right again,” he says.

The next speaker is a Waspi woman fighting for her pension rights, who says a Corbyn government will “make reparations” to people like her. “All we need to do is give him a chance.” Another says she “wants to stop this abomination called fracking” (there are plans to drill nearby). Corbyn nods intently.

Earlier, Labour had lodged a formal complaint with Ipso, the press regulator, over coverage of Corbyn’s visit to Tunis in six newspapers: the SunTimesTelegraphMailExpress and Metro. Just before Corbyn got to his feet in Nottinghamshire, Unite’s Len McCluskey, his closest union ally, had accused Jewish community leaders of “truculent hostility”, overshadowing his call for Labour to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in full.

Here, the only sign that all might not be right in the outside world is the amount of time Corbyn spends tapping his phone. As another media storm rages, events like these are his safe harbour. He is all relaxed bonhomie. Corbyn's gift this time is a mug and tote bag decorated with NUM strike badges. He jokes that he already has them all at home.

His speech covers similar ground: a meditation on Good Things (the NHS, musical instruments for primary schools, Labour’s manifesto) and Bad Things (Theresa May, the right-wing press). Nye Bevan and his hometown, birthplace of the health service, get a lengthy tribute, ending with a curious flourish: “Well done him, and well done Tredegar!”

Last year’s election falls into the Good Things category, despite the loss of Mansfield. The only mention that defeat gets is an implicit one, in the very loose sense that we are all sitting here because it happened. Not everybody signs up for training sessions. But internally, Labour’s community organising unit has held up Mansfield as a model for what it should do elsewhere; an earlier session hosted by Ian Lavery, the left-wing MP and party chair, saw 120 people commit to campaign.

Can this new bottom-up, community-led approach work in seats lost at least in part because of antipathy towards Labour’s leader? Can purely local efforts ever override the unpredictable currents of a national election campaign? The jury is out. With the party's community organising yet to hit its stride, it is probably too early to tell. But if the Tories are scared, they are hiding it well. Ben Bradley’s verdict on Corbyn’s visit was characteristically blunt. “Big thanks to him for coming all the way up here to remind so many in Mansfield just why they switched from Labour to Conservative in 2017,” he said. “Come as much as you like.”

***

The party’s mission, then, is harnessing the power of its 570,000-strong membership to win both Corbyn’s two universes, and take power. Labour’s leader sums up the approach like this: “We will win this election, not by buying up thousands of poster sites, but by having millions of conversations. I am going to be leading those conversations in village halls, community centres, workplaces right across the country, starting this week and every week from now until the election.”

But that Labour leader isn’t Jeremy Corbyn, but Ed Miliband. Those were his words in the Arnie Graf era, just before the 2015 election. And we know how that went.

What is different this time is that Labour has a leader who inspires devotion and personal loyalty from its membership. Few politicians pack out rooms like he does. He is visibly comfortable in the communities his party wants to organise, in a way that Miliband, who was so visibly and painfully a creature of Westminster, never could. After eight years of austerity, and Brexit, the political context is arguably friendlier too. 

Just as the Corbyn of Westminster is a lightning rod for inchoate anger and contempt from his detractors, the Corbyn of the road serves the same purpose for the diffuse ambitions, pain and grievance of his base. It remains to be seen whether he can do so for Britain's neglected communities. But if he can win power through the second universe, while still so reviled in the first, something fundamental will have changed in British politics.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left