With the election campaign now in full force, Jeremy Corbyn held a mass rally in Manchester on 7 November 2019. Kate Bradley reports on the evening.
I feel the buzz before I even get to the rally. I’m on a 192, a bus route that takes commuters from Manchester to Stockport in the rush hours. Today it’s standing room only and the bus driver is under instruction to call out as we approach the venue. A woman next to me, probably in her 50s, says ‘I think we’re all going to the same place’, and a handful of people throw her a smile. When we get to the right stop, everyone around me streams off the bus, sharing short exchanges and small talk as we head towards the Manchester leg of Corbyn’s 2019 election campaign.
The rally is at the O2 Apollo, usually only the venue of rockstars and popular comedians, and I still wonder how Jeremy Corbyn must feel in the morning, looking in the mirror, ‘Seven Nation Army’ playing in his head. I think of all the politicians who would have killed to be able to fill a venue the size of the Apollo in just a few days.
As we reach the queue, which stretches around the block, a van drives up. It’s a moving Lib Dem advert, lit up with lights which read ‘Only the Lib Dems will STOP BREXIT’. As I walk, the Lib Dem van slows to a crawl next to me, and it’s like a nightmare, creeping along the road at my side – mostly I’m worried people will think I’m with them. Finally they stop, and a group of the queueing crowd start laughing. The van moves away to circle the block, and a man shouts after it ‘The Liberals used to run the CND! Now they’d push the fucking red button!’
When we get in, the venue fills up slowly – and there are a lot of seats to fill. The crowd is diverse, by no means, the horde of naive youths Corbyn’s fans are presented as in the media, but certainly the most mixed crowd I’ve ever seen at a party-political event. A DJ plays Britpop classics over the speakers, harking back to the Bad Old Days of 90s Cool Brittania. When he finally plays The White Stripes, the crowd begin 2017’s chants of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’, and it almost feels old hat – but it feels good, still the sound of shared optimism.
When the lights drop, it’s like a gig. The crowd roars as the support acts stride onstage – first, a handful of new local prospective MPs, pledging their souls to socialism, mentioning the desperate need for change in politics, and then Angela Rayner, who starts her speech by saying how excited she is to be Live at the Apollo. Her speech is moving, detailing her upbringing in Stockport on a housing estate. She mentions how Sure Start centres taught her to be a mum – a far cry from the way the Daily Mail talk about maternal instinct, highlighting the importance of social provision to the family unit, which has had to re-shoulder the burden of so much care and education since austerity kicked in (usually while parents remain in full-time work). Rayner ends with an attack on ‘Tory austerity’, echoing past Labour movement calls for ‘bread and roses’ in her closing gambit: ‘We can have it all!’ The crowd swells with cheers; it sure sounds dreamy.
Rebecca Long-Bailey’s speech is next. She focuses on climate change, on the risks to our collective future if we continue down the path of climate destruction. She lays out the Labour plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, in which the government proposes to invest heavily in green jobs and insulate every home in the country, amongst other policy plans. Through these moves, they hope to stoke economic growth through investment. The plan helps answer the question posed by many of their other policies: ‘How do you intend to pay for all this?’ But, as I sit there, the anti-capitalist cogs whirr in my brain. Endless growth is not possible on a finite planet, and Labour’s plan for economic growth is still premised on expanding production and consumption. These proposals are a breath of fresh air, but it’s still not, as Long-Bailey argues, ‘saving the world’ – it would take much more drastic action and a system not premised on constant growth to do that.
Finally, Corbyn comes onstage. He gets a standing ovation on entry, and it takes almost a full minute for the cheers to die down. He’s in fighting form, beginning with a quip against billionaires that’s got Bernie Sanders written all over it, and at one point doing an impression of Boris Johnson’s buffoonery that’s not his usual style – he must really hate the guy. When he mentions Brexit, the room hushes, but his recent line – that two people in a similar situation may well have voted different ways in the EU referendum, but we shouldn’t be pitting one neighbour against another when their interests are fundamentally aligned – goes down very well, raising one of the biggest cheers of the night (I wonder if any Lib Dem spies are inside, cursing wasting their money on a mistargeted van).
Through the speech, Corbyn covers a wide array of topics, from homelessness to transport infrastructure to women’s workplace rights. The proposals around workers’ rights, education and public services sound particularly heartening, with plans to restore free education, institute workplace rights from day one at work (where they’re currently two years), and put in place serious action to tackle rough sleeping. Corbyn talks for a while about the Tories’ plans to allow US Big Pharma into the health market, and the crowd joins in, panto-style, with a familiar chant: ‘The NHS is not for sale!’
Faced with the possibility of these long-needed changes to people’s lives, it’s hard to retain some healthy scepticism. But with the political arena so embattled and neoliberalism so entrenched, it seems far-fetched for a Labour government to achieve everything they’re proposing. We have a lot of fights to win before we will be able to make even modest advances – not least by turning the disparate crowd of Corbyn voters into a proper social movement fighting their local and community battles together at the grassroots.
It’s not the time to dissect why I never joined Labour, or why some Labour policies – like those around increasing police numbers – still get my back up. I want a Labour government, but I want it without illusions; it will not end capitalism or put a stop to all the harms in the world. If Labour gets into power, we will have years of work to come – preventing capitulations to the right, fending off disappointment at U-turns, and trying to make use of the breathing space for a little more radical, offensive action.
You can see why Corbyn’s Labour still represents hope, though. At these rallies, you can feel it. I feel myself shift from my defensive cynicism, forever in place when watching parliamentary politics unfold, and at the end, I want to do as much doorknocking as possible. A couple of pints later at the pub afterwards, I even book myself into a campaign launch for my local MP, who’s not even in a marginal. We’ll need to make more sober decisions than that if we want a Labour government.