In her spare time, Paula Brady likes to crochet tiny Jeremy Corbyns. “There’s something about him that translates well into wool,” she says. “He has a sense of grandad about him: old fashioned in some ways, but honourable.”
Brady’s Etsy page, IckleCrochet, is packed with similar knitted figures. While the majority of them are made to order, there is a core collection of celebrities that remain on offer throughout the year. They include, among others, Meghan Markle, Donald Trump, and Falkor (the luck dragon of Neverending Story fame).
However, it is her 30cm tall Corbyn – with his clutched manifesto, removable jacket, and slightly haunted gaze – that remains one of her biggest sellers. “Jeremy is definitely the most popular politician I make,” she says. “I think he has a certain following that really love him. The idea of a cuddly version of him really appeals to people.”
The 70-year-old politician has been dividing the country since his election as Labour leader in 2015. For some, his appeal is unexplainable: he is a “vindictive”, allotment-obsessed radical who loves terrorists and stealing from rich people (sorry, “wealth creators”). What could possibly be attractive about that?
For others, though, Corbyn is an inspiration – and in the most literal sense. The Labour leader has seen an unprecedented surge of support from young voters, many of whom have been campaigning heavily for him both on the streets, and through meticulously organised online activism. This devotion – or ‘Corbynmania’ – has also led to an influx of themed merchandise: an ever-growing collection of clothes and paraphernalia inspired by the Labour leader, and widely circulated among his younger supporters.
Take Corbyn clothing, for example. While the notion of wearing your favourite politician’s name on your body would have been unspeakably lame just five years ago, it is now a very fine and acceptable thing to do. This is partly thanks to the 2017 general election, which saw a spate of bootleg t-shirt designs tying Corbyn to on-trend brands like Champion, Supreme, and Thrasher. (Bristol Streetwear, who are responsible for producing the ubiquitous Corbyn Nike tick tee, tragically refused to be involved in this feature because they found my questions to be too “dry!!!!!”). These big brand Corbyn mashups have even extended outside the streetwear world, reaching as far as Aldi and Greggs.
“It wasn't until the 2017 election was called and 'Corbynmania' kicked off that our design really started flying,” says Gav Lawson, managing director of ethical clothing company THTC. The company’s Corbyn-themed t-shirt swapped the Labour leader’s surname with the RUN DMC logo, and was seen on Stormzy, Benjamin Zephaniah and Rag N Bone Man.
“It quickly became our fastest selling t-shirt ever. I feel that we did our own small part in helping to make Corbyn and his campaign 'cool with the kids'!”
Aside from clothing, there are plenty of other merchandise options for anyone wanting to amplify their love of the Labour leader. There is this embroidered sew-on patch of Jeremy Corbyn’s face; or this phone case featuring a picture of Jeremy Corbyn as Jesus. Or, if you wanted, this ‘Jeremy Corbyn with tits’ mug.
“I generally choose to make dolls of people who I love or admire,” says Susan McKenna, founder of creative project company Fat Hen And Flo. As well as making dolls of Corbyn, she also sells tote bags, scatter cushions, life-size cuddle pillows, and badges inspired by the Labour leader, as well as a ‘sew-your-own Jeremy Corbyn’ kit.
“Jeremy Corbyn first came onto my radar following the leadership election in 2015,” she continues. “It felt as though I’d discovered a new type of politician; someone who was dedicated to helping people and building a fairer society. I felt compelled to make a Jezza doll despite not bringing politics into my work before that.”
“Four years later, I see Jeremy Corbyn as a politician of unwavering strength and integrity. He has dedicated his life to fighting injustice.”
It’s worth noting that this community of online creators and designers seem to be markedly less enamoured with Corbyn’s political competitors. A Google Shopping search for clothing linked to Boris Johnson returns a heavy majority of negative t-shirts, often emblazoned with phrases like ‘Fuck Boris’, or ‘Boris is a bellend’. Type the Conservative leader’s name into Etsy and it’s much the same story: angry badges, anti-Tory totes, and disparaging needlework. (As for leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson? Her name obtained zero results on both sites – a message someone should probably pass on, given her blinding self-belief in her own popularity).
So what, if anything, can we glean from this? Could this community of independent designers and merchandise makers hold the answers to the next election result? Could their fondness for Corbyn – and hostility towards Johnson – signify a wider national trend?
“The Corbyn merchandise has been my biggest seller by far, particularly in 2015 and 2016 when very few people were making Corbyn products,” affirms Susan. “I’ve posted Jezza merch all over the world too which I also find interesting.”
However, she says, sales have decreased since 2017 – a finding which she believes may be down to market saturation (an abundance of Corbyn products) rather than the politician’s dwindling popularity. “Sales have definitely picked up again in recent weeks,” she adds. “So if anything, I feel more inspired.”
THTC also noticed a drop in sales over the last couple of years, but – like Susan – Gav isn’t alarmed, and instead puts it down to lack of promotion. “Sales of the design slowed down a lot in the last year or two,” he says. “We are not promoting the t-shirt as hard this time, and are not as involved with Momentum as we were, since several of the people that we knew there have since moved on. But we have seen a bit of a spike in sales since the election was called.”
Regardless of sales and what their potential customers might want, the feelings of all the merch makers are, at the very least, unified in one thing: they’re still supporting Labour and Corbyn, and will be stepping up their promo in the lead up to the election.
“I am a Labour supporter myself so if my woolly version can help Labour to fight this election then I’d be pleased,” says Paula hopefully. “Jeremy isn’t flashy or exciting, but he is an honest and caring person. I really do believe that he gives many people comfort and hope.”