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Election Notebook

Party people

Corbyn knows the crowd-pleasers, but can he play to a wider audience?

If Jeremy Corbyn felt the strain from a day that started with the fallout from the deputy leader of his party announcing that he has had enough of it all and a former Labour minister advocating voting Conservative, then he was good at hiding it.

The Labour leader was on good form when he took the stage at the Manchester Apollo on Thursday evening for a rally of 3,000 of the party faithful. Having spent much of his adult life addressing supportive crowds, he knows how to work this kind of audience. Without notes, lectern or hidden autocue, Corbyn assumed the stage demeanour, posture and verbal rhythms of a seasoned stand-up comedian, clear in his articulation, simple and direct in his use of language. Effective.

‘I was going to ring all my billionaire friends,’ he confided when announcing the success of Labour’s appeal for funds, ‘until I remembered that I didn’t have any.’ There was even a passable impersonation of Boris Johnson, bumbling into him in the Lobby. 

This was Corbyn at his most fluent and, perhaps not coincidentally, it was him sharing his vision with an audience that needed no persuading. Nobody cared to sing the Red Flag, not when the repeated choruses from the stalls of ‘oh Jeremy Corbyn’ could convey much the same meaning.

Indeed, with minimal facilities offered for media reporting, this was not a rally aimed primarily at securing journalist copy and reaching the floating voter. Rather, it was for energising the already persuaded to believe the truth of what warm-up act Rebecca Long-Bailey assured them was their being within ‘touching distance of a socialist Labour Government. So comrades, the revolution is coming.’ 

Are such ‘amongst friends’ events the political equivalent of in vino veritas? “I don’t think we’re going to get much help from the print media,” Corbyn admitted with something approaching pride, before a second anecdote about billionaires, a category of superhuman that appears to stalk the Leader’s nightmares. Indeed, the interpretation that Corbyn, Long-Bailey and Education Secretary-in-waiting Angela Rayner all placed on the motives of Conservatives was so chilling that it demanded pantomime booing. A returned Tory administration on December 13 would, in Long-Bailey’s environment-focussed prologue, mean “you can’t have a car, you can’t have a holiday, you can’t have a decent house.” 

Whilst avoiding threatening quite such an end of days scenario, Corbyn’s own speech nevertheless touched upon all the main themes. Labour’s Brexit strategy was mentioned in one of the only sections of the address that was listened to sympathetically rather than in ecstasy – at least until the issue was starkly recast as opposing the Tories’ “scapegoating” of foreigners. 

For Labour, Brexit’s greatest utility as a shiver-sender down the electoral spine is as the means through which Boris Johnson is, as Corbyn put it, “trying to put our health service into American hands.” 

The claim that this is the Tories’ secret agenda is catnip to those ready to believe the worst of billionaires/Conservatives. Once again, Corbyn insisted that Johnson was licensing the opening of private channels “with American big pharma” in order to replace a health service with a health market. 

There were many promises made at the Manchester Apollo that drew cheers – particularly the abolition of tuition fees, zero-hour contracts and universal credit alongside the nationalisation (or ‘public ownership’ as it is now rebranded) of rail, mail, water and the national grid. But to all the many appeals to reason and fear that Corbyn rehearsed this evening, none drew a more furiously indignant response than this suggestion of Tory dastardliness. 

No remedies were offered for helping companies grow, no solutions for boosting competitiveness and innovation. Never the first concerns of a mass Labour rally, these details are now just for the billionaires’ constituency that Labour appears happy to write-off completely. Contrasting with the penalties imposed upon the poor, as Corbyn put it, ‘only if you are rich do you need an incentive to do any work at all.’ 

Corbyn crowd-pleased the Manchester Apollo with all these favourite hits. He has five weeks to see how the melodies play to a broader audience, for what he shared with his supporters is not just the tunes of glory that they wanted to hear.  They are the policies he intends to make law.  

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