Leader and the pack

To find out what’s behind the surprise emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as front-runner Roger Ratcliffe joined his campaign trail

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“Who’s playing the gig here tonight?” asks a passer-by innocently, surveying a long queue that snakes round the corner and stretches some distance down the street from the imposing Victorian edifice of Nottingham’s Albert Hall.

It’s a fair question. As a concert venue of long standing the hall’s boards were once strode by The Rolling Stones in the Swinging Sixties, as well as the likes of Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath and T Rex. Next month, the headline act will be that old hippie Donovan.

“We’re waiting for Jeremy Corbyn,” the passer-by is told – a name that doesn’t ring any bells judging by the expression on his face. But on the faces of those in the queue – by and large people who look as though they might actually be waiting to see Donovan – there is eagerness and anticipation.

Corbyn’s rise and rise in opinion polls as favourite to win the leadership of the Labour Party when votes are counted on 12 September is the summer’s biggest story. Even future Tory leadership hopeful Boris Johnson felt it necessary to warn his party it would be complacent to write off Corbyn’s appeal as a 1980s throwback. Tories should be “humble” and listen, he said, because Corbyn was talking about true problems in society.

Less charitable sections of Labour, though, are putting his lead down to a rule change giving a vote to anyone who pays £3, allowing members of far left parties and even Tories to distort the election and propel Corbyn, the supposedly least palatable candidate, into the lead.

The other candidates, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, have hinted they might challenge the result if Corbyn wins.

But a random vox pop of those waiting in the queue tells a different story about his appeal.

“Jeremy speaks for many people in this country – people New Labour have ignored to their eternal shame,” says Judy Wills. “I left Labour when it was taken over by Blair but what Jeremy’s saying is what the party is all about, so I’ve rejoined.”

“I’ve been a Labour member for 20 years and it’s been so demoralising,” says Paul Taylor. “You couldn’t tell one party from another, basically, but now Jeremy Corbyn is putting real excitement and hope back into politics. It’s the same thing that happened with the rise of the SNP in Scotland.”

“I left Labour when it was taken over by Blair but Jeremy’s saying what the party’s all about.”

Richard Banker adds: “I’m here because Corbyn stands for ideas I believe in – things like not talking about austerity or driving down the budget. He’s been on the political scene for decades, seen the careers of all those Blairite MPs prosper, yet stuck to his guns. He’s pretty incorruptible.”

“Corbyn’s talking about issues that matter to ordinary people,” says David Mason. “There’s a huge surge in feeling for the man, which is why you see such a long queue tonight.”

As the queue moves forward and the hall begins to fill, Corbyn still hasn’t arrived. His train from London is running late, causing Big Issue North concern that a promised one-to-one interview with the man of the moment might be at risk – well-founded, as it turns out – while a crowd of TV crews fret about their live feeds into evening news programmes. The delay is a cue for one of his sidekicks to blame it on the “privatised, Balkanised railway system”.

When he eventually climbs out of a taxi dressed casually in light brown jacket and open-necked yellow shirt, it’s an issue he addresses with gusto at an impromptu news conference outside the Albert Hall, denouncing the government’s U-turn on the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester route and the Midland Mainline linking Sheffield and London.

“We handed over the running of trains to operating companies who have a protected service, a subsidy to run that service, and then allow them to make very large profits out of it. It’s an absolute genius of a system for doing everything except lowering the cost to the travelling public.”

As he continues in this vein, a reporter in the scrum says quietly: “Please, someone get him off bloody railways.” Another journalist tries being tactful. “Jeremy, you’re obviously a bit of a train buff.” Corbyn nods his agreement, takes it as an entreaty to continue his theme and starts to outline plans to take the rail system back into public ownership.

After weeks of newspapers accusing many of his supporters of being so-called entryists from the far left or mischief-making Conservatives wound up to vote for him by the Daily Telegraph, is he confident that his level of support is genuine.

“Yes,” he says without missing a beat, and if people in the Labour Party are nervous they should fear not. “It has been invaded by young people and by older people. It has been invaded by a democracy of ideas, by optimism and hope. It is going to be a different party, and it’s going to be better.”

A reporter from a Spanish Basque Country TV channel asks Corbyn about the growth of left-wing parties elsewhere in Europe like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.

“There’s now a movement all around the world,” he says. “In France and Germany too, and also the USA where Bernie Sanders [a left-wing senator] has been filling football stadia across the country. I’ve met Alexis Tsipras [Greece’s prime minister and leader of Syriza]. His party tried very hard to stand up to the European Central Bank and I have every sympathy with them.”

With around 1,000 in the hall, another 500 or so aren’t able to get in and for their benefit Corbyn climbs on to an outdoor table belonging to an adjacent bar and delivers a précis of his now well-rehearsed speech. He has addressed 75 meetings in two months and plans another 30. Over 3,000 people turned up to hear him speak in Scotland. In Newcastle – like Nottingham – hundreds were left out in the street, and some teenagers were caught trying to climb in through a rear window.

Demonstrating his appeal to younger people, two warm-up speakers in the hall say they have just sat their A levels. One, Umaar Kazmi, clearly hasn’t been told that Corbyn has disowned the Blairite male dress code of sharp suit, collar and tie, cufflinks and pocket handkerchief.

Jeremy Corbyn

“Many people stopped supporting Labour,” Kazmi says, sounding much older than 18. “And then an individual from the back benches fills us with hope for the future, to close the moral deficit left by New Labour.”

Corbyn’s own speech is littered with criticisms of Tony Blair, each one generating applause and sometimes cheers. Rupert Murdoch is bogeyman number two, but there is strangely no mention of David Cameron, Corbyn preferring instead to paint a picture of us and them.

Everyone knows who “them” are, of course – not just the Conservatives but bankers who created the problems behind austerity. “I look at this way,” he tells the audience. “The banking crisis of 2008-09 wasn’t caused by single parents, nurses and teachers. It was caused by an under-regulated banking system and by grotesque profit making and salaries. People on a million pound salary apparently need a bonus of at least half a million to even think about getting out of bed in the morning, while those people who clean our streets or look after our children in school get no bonus, they just get a load of opprobrium from some of our popular press.”

Austerity, he says, had made the country more unequal, made poor people poorer and made the rich richer. A dozen miles down the road from Sherwood Forest, he is starting to sound like a present-day Robin Hood.

By this time Corbyn is getting applause for almost every point he makes. He is against cuts to public services, against cuts to benefits, would abolish student fees, and wants to create new jobs with a massive investment programme.

He leaves the audience with the thought that they shouldn’t go home thinking they simply cast a vote for him and leave it to someone else.

“Politics isn’t about leaving it to someone else,” he says to his biggest cheer of the night. But it remains to be seen if he’s started a new phase of old Labour politics.

Photos: Roger Ratcliffe

Housing and homelessness crisis response: three out of four ain’t bad

What do the four Labour leadership contenders have to say about housing and homelessness? We challenged them to detail policies they would pursue if elected. Sadly, Liz Kendall did not to respond to our questions, despite reminders.

Andy Burnham

“In the last five years the numbers of people sleeping rough has increased by a staggering 55 per cent across the UK. I want a society where everyone has an affordable home to rent or own. I will lift the arbitrary central government borrowing caps that prevent
local authorities from building more social housing, create a new National Housing Commission to drive progress in every area, ensuring new homes are built with affordable rents, and develop the option of ‘rent to own’ mortgages that require no deposit to give aspiring first-time buyers a way out of the rental trap.

“I will argue for a binding legal commitment that any right to buy sale is matched by the construction of a genuinely equivalent new social rental property, make it easier for councils to crack down on absent landlords who receive housing benefit but allow properties to fall below an acceptable standard, and devolve power to local communities to regulate the private rented sector, including the power to introduce rent controls.”

Jeremy Corbyn

“I represent an inner city constituency and housing’s the biggest issue that I face at advice bureaus. I want to ensure central government either provides capital resources, support through a National Investment Bank, or borrowing opportunities for local authorities to build more council housing for single people as well as families.

“The private rented sector, which in some parts of Britain is now over a third of the entire community, has to be better regulated. There should be longer term tenancies, greater security of tenancy and an end to peremptory evictions. There has to be a limit on rent levels so it becomes affordable, otherwise we end up effectively social cleansing inner city areas.

“I’m not in favour of selling off housing association stock that is necessary for people in desperate housing need. I am in favour of a state-supported mortgage scheme for first time buyers, particularly young people and single people, because that is the fastest growing household dynamic across the whole of the UK.”

Yvette Cooper

“Britain needs to be building 300,000 homes a year. To do this we need to think radically, with plans for a whole new generation of ecotowns and garden cities.

“We need tough requirements on developers and local government to ensure we deliver more affordable homes. We should be looking at ways to prioritise support for councils and housing associations to build more council housing, which is desperately needed.

“The government’s definition of affordable housing means that much of what is described as such is in no way affordable. That needs to change. Strong regulation for the private rented sector is important and we need to look at ways of capping rent rises to give families and private renters the security they deserve.”

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