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I Went to a Jeremy Corbyn Rally in Norwich to Try to Understand Corbyn-mania

Testing the atmosphere among hundreds of pumped up socialists at "Norwich's biggest political rally in years."

Jezza, the man of destiny. Photo by David Henry Thomas

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

By the end, you can't buy a Jez We Can T-shirt in any regular size. The only ones left on the merch stand, once an 800-strong audience begins to file out after two hours of Corbyn-mania at Norwich's Open venue, are XXL. By the end, only the morbidly obese still have an opportunity to get on this fast-rolling bandwagon.

This, perhaps, is an early tester for the episodes of shortage that life will be divided into should the workers' soviets elect Corbyn to the nation's top job.


But thankfully, the long streams of Corbyn-maniacs who file out are never morbidly obese. On the whole, they look thin, woody, and serious. Both sexes wear glasses. Many have the air of vegetarian teetotals, like the dear leader—a reincarnation of a sort of socialism that precedes Nye Bevan or even Ramsay MacDonald, and goes all the way back to George Bernard Shaw. Socialism as an idea about human perfectibility—one that leads to a sort of abstemious, stool-measuring leftist cult of the body.

Corbyn himself is a very wiry man upclose. He has a lot of strength, vitality, for 66. If he becomes Prime Minister he will be 70, the oldest new PM since 1855, and then he will need all of that strength. Changing Britain from top to tail isn't how most people choose to spend their seventies. Most choose to spend it playing golf or bingo.

Instead, he has set himself a skyscraping challenge. But then, you get the sense of a man who is loving every moment. JC has spent decades welded to the backbenches, banging on about the same things he bangs on about now—just that he couldn't fill a bedsit then, and now he is hosting to what ITV later calls "Norwich's biggest political rally in years." Now, you're looking at a man who always believed entirely in his own absolute rightness (because for years it was all so hypothetical), being offered a concrete chance to prove his own rightness via the Cabinet, and it has electrified every cell in him.


Before the meeting, Corbyn comes out to talk to the folk who haven't managed to make it. This meeting was a show initially designed for 400 people, then bumped up to 800. But with 1,500 RSVPing, there remains a long line of those who cannot be accommodated. To thank them, he comes outside and offers a ten minute mini-summary of his stump speech. No notes. It just falls out of him in a series of proclamations about the value of the NHS, the dangers of academy schools, and the ongoing need for Trident to be melted down and turned into a women's library and Tolpuddle Martyrs museum somewhere outside Sidcup.

Addressing supporters outside who were unable to get in. Photo by David Henry Thomas

Big cheers follow every point. When he talks about cuts to public services someone cries "shame," though it's unclear know who exactly they are abusing, as George Osborne is nowhere to be seen.

The speech is stock, but the energy of the man isn't, and the glimmer in the eyes of his supporters certainly isn't. They're totally pumped-up on hardcore socialism as much as Cameron was on capitalism.

All their lives they have been told they were the past. Now, they're being told they're the future. As Corbyn's MC puts it from the stage an hour later: "I'm not sure which version of the multiverse I'm living in right now… I've been waiting my whole lifetime to hear a Labour leader talk like that."

Clearly, he was born after 1983, the last moment when the red-or-dead tendency had control of the party, via Michael Foot. That didn't end too well—the biggest rout in Labour history.


But the mood music feels different here, and that is reflected in the first waves of establishment panic. This week has seen an extraordinary number of columnists penning anti-Corbyn pieces.

"Now, now, you've had your fun," is the tone of these… "But seriously. It's time to grow up. Knock it off."

Yet grow up no one ever does. Social media has allowed us to yank our collective insurgent tendencies in new ways. You want RATM Xmas number one? Granted. Wagner to stay in X Factor, or John Sergeant in Strictly? It's yours. UKIP to win the European elections? Go on then…

Corbyn is coming from a similar place. He is channelling this broiling anger we've never quite got a handle on since the Crash. He has his constituency of hard-left, but he is also channelling the fuck-politics vote as much as Farage is. The two are the dizygotic twins of so-called common sense.

Inside the hall, after a lot of warm preamble, Jez comes to the stage. He talks about "the hollowing out of democracy in the Labour Party in the 1990s." There are nods to "My late great friend Tony Benn." To how the present system "subsidizes low wages and high rent." How "everyone needs a roof over their heads." And a few sharp reminders of how he was opposed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

He calls people comrade. He shoots through his points with the brusque straight-backed efficiency of a geography teacher revising precipitation cycles.


In the hall. Photo by David Henry Thomas

He takes only three questions as the end. The first gives a decent idea of who his base is. "Jeremy, I think you're brilliant. I really do. But there's one thing that makes me uncomfortable. So I'm wondering if you could explain it…" The room stiffens. Does he secretly support right-to-buy? In favor of some kind of obscure internal market for the NHS? "Why do you want to continue our membership of Nato?"

There you have Corbyn-mania in a nutshell—Jeremy Corbyn preaching to a roomful of people slightly to the left of Jeremy Corbyn. Jez explains that he feels Nato probably should have been wrapped up at the end of the Cold War. But he is loath to unbundle it right now. Relief sweeps the room.

A JC supporter. Photo by David Henry Thomas

The second question is someone asking him what he'd do about Israel-Palestine. There you have Corbyn-mania in a nutshell—lots of people going on about Palestine.

The third is a question from an National Union of Journalists official, about how he will withstand attacks in the right-wing press if he wins. This will be key: the Murdochs and Desmonds of this world will throw every donkey-jacket weirdy-beardy throwback reference they can at him. If they could eviscerate Miliband with a bacon sandwich, what could they do to Corbyn with muesli?

But Corbyn talks only about the over-concentration of media in too few hands. About Tory plans for the thin-slicing of the BBC. He does policy, even on this most personal of questions. That is who he is—he keeps repeating this refrain of de-personalizing, of no mud-slinging. None of the other candidates—Burnham, Cooper, Kendall, get a look in, by either name or implication. He is on his own game.

A XXL Jezzer Corbyn T-shirt. Photo by David Henry Thomas

And for that reason alone, Corbyn is the one that Cameron probably fears most. Burnham and Cooper are sad sacks of pancake make-up, fudgers, crying crocodile tears for public sector pay cuts and Ver Byootifull NHS. As a hard-headed electoral realist, Liz Kendall ought to be the one he fears most—but she seems about as welcome as a pederast in a playpen to her party's activist base.

Corbyn, on the other hand, may turn out unelectable. But he will at least spend four and a half years at the despatch box every week, speaking in a calm and measured voice about the "common sense" he represents—why can't we build more houses? Why isn't everyone equally entitled to an education? Or a job that pays? Or a decent childhood? Cameron will give him answers that reflect the knotty, compromised reality. But all people will hear will be Corbyn's resoundingly simple questions. It's The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights going head-to-head with a badly-translated MBA handbook.

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