The few hundred people who gathered in Highbury Fields to hear Jeremy Corbyn speak yesterday evening carried many banners and placards. Both the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party were well represented; Momentum – Corbyn’s personal shock troops – clustered around the old fire engine that served as a stage; one man waved a UNISON flag. One group, however, seemed conspicuously absent – the Labour Party.
Certainly, there were Labour members there – I stood next to a large group of them from Crouch End – but visually the party was absent. There were no Labour banners, no placards, not even a solitary rose on the banner that adorned the fire engine. It simply read ‘Jeremy Corbyn. Straight Talking. Honest Politics.’ It was an odd look for a rally that was ostensibly part of a campaign for the Labour leadership.
The Labour Party didn’t feature much in the speeches that preceded Corbyn’s appearance either, other than a few mentions of the need to elect Corbyn as the party’s leader. The warm-up speakers talked about ‘Our movement’ or ‘Jeremy’, but not about Labour. When newly-elected NEC member Claudia Webbe declared that, as an NEC member, her priority was to ensure the election of a Labour government, the crowd applauded politely. When she then demanded that everyone unite behind Jeremy Corbyn, the crowd went into raptures.
Eventually, after almost two hours of build-up, the man himself appeared, introduced like the heavyweight champion of the world and welcomed like a rock star while looking like an ageing politics lecturer. He spoke well, unlike some of the uncomfortable and defensive performances we’ve seen on TV, but that’s what you would expect. A man speaking on his home turf and on his own terms, about his favourite subjects and to people who love him and meet every applause break with thunderous cheering – such a man ought to look comfortable.
It was a perfect example of preaching to the choir. Apart from a couple of journalists and maybe a few passers-by, nobody there was not already convinced that Corbyn is the man to lead the Labour Party. Nobody was persuaded, because there was nobody there who needed persuading. Worse, if this is the Corbyn campaign, there is a real danger that he and his team will begin to believe that there is nobody anywhere who needs persuading. It was the social media echo chamber made flesh and dropped on Islington, and it was hard to see what the point of it was.
He finished with an appeal for unity, for everyone to treat each other with love and respect, including people with different political views. But on the way back to Highbury and Islington station, some Corbyn supporters stuck a different note. ‘We need rapid action to give the party a more socialist bent,’ said one. ‘We need to get the right people into the right positions. We need wholesale deselections. Somebody should draw up a list of names.’ Clearly, this contest will not end with the election of a new leader.