There’s an episode in season 3 of the ‘West Wing’ where President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) are talking in the Oval office. They’re discussing the upcoming election and how the Republican candidate (in a clear comparison with G W Bush) is the polar opposite of Bartlet.
Toby says to him “Well, there’s always been a concern… about the two Bartlets. The absent-minded professor with the “Aw, Dad” sense of humor. Disarming and unthreatening. Good for all time zones. And the Nobel Laureate. Still searching for salvation. Lonely, frustrated. Lethal.”
I mention this because this afternoon I got to see the current leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn address a crowd of around 200 people in Sunderland on a whistle-stop tour of the North East following the hustings last night. Now I’m going to put my cards on the table and start by saying that although I have supported Labour for most of my adult life (barring a month when I was struck with “Cleggmania”) I have only been a fully paid up member since November/December last year. I joined because I believed in Jeremy Corbyn, that he was the man to lead us into government and to reverse the damage caused by the conservative party. However, after revelations from former colleagues and some close to him, I believe he isn’t the man to lead us so in this leadership election I am backing Owen Smith.
I went to the rally (which had moved location due to concerns about safety) with the intention of seeing what the fuss was about although friends reactions varied from “Don’t get arrested” to “you’re going to chicken suit him, aren’t you?” I’ve seen Jeremy at the Dispatch box, at the leadership hustings and in the rare interviews and appearances he does on TV and he isn’t what I would call, impressive. For the most part he seems to spend too much time with his nose buried in his notes mumbling or with the look of a very disappointed university lecturer, so I at least knew sort of what to expect.
First impressions were that a large proportion of the crowd were from Unite and Unison including a few who are/were SWP not that long ago, momentum members and people from the various Socialist parties selling their newspapers. As the event went on they were then joined by quite a lot of students while the locals mainly stuck to the fringes of the crowd.
The first up was a woman with a guitar, who sang a few songs reworded with more current issues such as refugees and then sang one that was essentially how great Jeremy is (#notacult). While this was going on a man in the crowd started shouting at the people there, resulting in a young man in a Momentum T-shirt to start shouting back at him and getting quite aggressive, which didn’t defuse the situation. It was surreal to walk between people clapping at a song that had the line “Kinder and Gentler” while walking towards this guy and a former SWP member as he yells “I’m a fucking Union man” and the kid in the Momentum Tshirt is getting more irate. As I walked back to my Wife I noticed the kid had been taken to the side of the crowd where the councillors were and was getting spoken to by a police officer.
There then followed Katherine Mason who set up the Penshaw Clothes Bank. In her speech she described the work she does and the impact it has on the most needy in the area, she was incredible and rightly received a large applause at the end. Following her were people from the Unions and a Councillor from Northumberland.
This all leads me to Jeremy.
He wasn’t what I was expecting, instead of the mumbling under-performer, there was a man who was full of passion, who didn’t read from a notepad, was lively, and animated. He didn’t really say anything new and the speech wasn’t that special. Apart from a few lines about local council cuts he didn’t really address the issues people in Sunderland face or believe are important. There was nothing about the EU which struck me as odd considering Sunderlands prominent part in that result. I can’t imagine someone with absolutely nothing in Pallion, Pennywell or Penshaw really caring about building a movement similar to the Bernie Sanders one in the US (Reminder, Sanders stepped aside for party unity.) Although he did once again tell us that the Party abstained on the welfare bill, but what he didn’t say was that during the 3rd and final reading before it becomes law MP’s voted against it.
His message was aimed at the Unions and the younger students in the crowd and this has been one of my main issues with him.
He and his supporters measure their success on the size of their rallies and the support they get there. He isn’t trying to speak to the wider electorate or the wider membership of the party. His message is full of broad ideas without specifics and no specifics ever emerge bar the ones that are unworkable. The idea that his investment banks will be covered by taxation and closing loopholes and avoidance schemes sound all nice, but the practicalities and the likely return to the treasury wouldn’t be enough. He announces policy through the Morning star, his chancellor announces policy seemingly on the fly in areas that aren’t in his area of responsibility (just ask Sharon Hodgson about that) and his supporters lap it up. They can’t understand that in the wider public he isn’t as well liked, they can’t see that Labour have consistently been behind in the polls bar a few day in April and when you do challenge them on it they blame the right wing media, the PLP or some vast conspiracy.
One of the most telling things about to day was the concentrations of different groups of people. Momentum members and the unions/SWP/TUSC were the closest to him, then people like myself were next, and the locals many of whom won’t be labour members were out in the fringes. These were the ones who left immediately after he stopped speaking and from the bits of their conversation I heard were the least impressed by his message. And for me this summed up the situation perfectly.
I thought I would be leaving the event feeling angry, however the overriding feeling was one of disappointment. Disappointment that for almost a year we’ve had a different Jeremy than the one we had in the campaign in 2015, while he was full of energy and was a breath of fresh air, the Jeremy of Labour leader has been the opposite, an almost paranoid, ineffective politician who hasn’t been able to meet the demands and duties of leader of the opposition. For a brief moment I remembered what made me like him and join in the first place but then as I walked down the street past the charity shops, the pawn shops and the now empty shell of BHS I remembered why he needs to go. Labour is a union of left-wing movements but they realised long ago that those movements needed proper representation, and needed to be in Government to bring their aims to fruition. Labour is about coming together, to change the country for the better, to make sure that your children have it better than you. That they have the best schools, the best teachers, the best hospitals and the best doctors all free, that they can realise their potential and reach for it. And even if they fall, that there’s something there to catch them. And right now that is simply not going to happen.
As I got home I heard that the appeal by Labour had been successful and that the voting block would stand, this cause a lot of fellow Smith supporters to be happy at this as those supporters were believed to be more for Jeremy than Owen, however like Toby says during that tense conversation with Bartlet:
” There’s an old expression: “Quando dio vuole castigarci ci manda quello che desideriamo.” When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”