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On the Road with Jeremy Corbyn

We joined the Labour leader on the campaign trail as the election entered its final stages.

by Jack Shenker; photos by Jack Shenker
11 December 2019, 10:00am

Jeremy Corbyn at the Barry Island Sports and Social Club, alongside Belinda Loveluck-Edwards, Labour's parliamentary candidate for the marginal Vale of Glamorgan constituency, and Mark Drakeford, the first minister of Wales 

It was Boofy, the owner of Barry Island’s most famous fish and chips joint, who began to spread the word. “We were just walking the dog along the seafront and popped in to Boofy’s to say hello,” explains Dave ‘Taif’ Ball. “And Boofy – you know Boofy, his place is on that Gavin and Stacey show – Boofy tells us, ‘Did you know Jeremy Corbyn is on his way to the social club?’”

Taif – a 62-year-old bassist who has played with Jools Holland and likes to dabble in everything from jazz to death metal – looks at me incredulously, head shaking and mouth agape. “Jeremy Corbyn, in Barry! Well, of course, we walked up here straight away.”

They weren’t alone. By the time Labour’s big red campaign coach trundles up Redbrink Crescent in Wales a few minutes later, the social club is full to bursting and there are at least a hundred more people camped outside in the road. Corbyn emerges into a forest of outstretched hands, shrieking kids perched precariously on shoulders, smartphones held aloft in every direction, and the relentless clicks of professional photographers jostling for the standout shot.

“We are the party of the people, of the community, of the future,” he yells into a dodgy microphone, after finally being bundled through the doors. The stage is low and sticky, and shared with a plastic snowman; alongside flaky coils of tinsel, posters for the venue’s regular “Gingo” (gin plus bingo) nights dot the walls.

“All through my life, I've been on marches and demonstrations and fought against things being closed, things being cut back. We've all done that, and we'll always do that, because that's what we're about as a movement,” Corbyn continues. He pauses and points vaguely eastwards, out past the corner bar and fire exit, towards a distant Downing Street and Westminster. “But I want to be there, with a government that will deliver. Deliver those jobs, those services, that inclusion, that hope, that change. So when we win the election on Thursday…” His voice sounds hoarse, but nobody notices. The remaining words are drowned out by a tidal wave of cheers.

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Jeremy Corbyn arrives at the Barry Island Sports and Social Club

Welcome to Britain’s weirdest travelling circus, led by the man aiming to be prime minister by the end of the week. From Putney to Pudsey, Telford to Truro, Jeremy Corbyn and his ever-rotating entourage have visited more than 70 different constituencies since the start of the election campaign, criss-crossing the country and racking up thousands of (carbon offset) miles in an attempt to win over the public, one affable, anarchic scrum at a time.

“We’re trying to reach past the mainstream media that has consistently abused our views and denigrated my party,” Corbyn tells me, having waded through a procession of backslaps and selfies, and climbed once more aboard the battle-bus. “I feel constantly frustrated by the political classes and the mainstream media.” He sighs, leans back in his chair, and gazes out the window. “But I also recognise that there’s a very different world out there. And ours is a different kind of campaign.”

On the brink of a general election that will set Britain’s course for a generation, the question is whether that campaign will prove strong enough to defy the polls and pundits and propel Corbyn into office come Thursday – causing a political shockwave that would reverberate around the globe. “What’s at stake at this election, particularly for young people, is the future,” says Corbyn. “It’s about the direction this country takes. We are offering a radical transformation, the building of a much more democratic society.”

VICE was invited to follow Corbyn across the final weekend before polling day, as he toured key marginal seats in South Wales. The Barry Island meeting – held, appropriately enough for someone seeking to kick out Boris Johnson, on the site of the town’s former Conservative club – was the first of six public events fronted by the Labour leader on Saturday alone. Each step of the way, his aim is to provide dynamic footage for the national media, galvanise local supporters, and win over undecideds – all on the move at breakneck speed, and interspersed with strategy calls, speech sign-offs, and the occasional few minutes of breathing space snatched with his wife, Laura Alvarez.

Despite the punishing schedule, Corbyn’s energy and enthusiasm seems undimmed. In part, he credits that to the much broader ground war being waged by Labour supporters nationwide; with an unprecedented number of volunteer canvassing and phonebank sessions organised across the UK, it appears as if this election may end up being a record-breaker when it comes to mass participatory campaigning.

“You go round the country, there’s no Conservative campaign in the streets, there’s no Conservative campaign doing the door-knocking that we do,” Corbyn claims. “There is a very expensive and targeted Conservative advertising campaign, and then there’s us – outside all the time, funded by an average donation of £25, a popular campaign of ordinary people.”

That approach – focusing on the persuasion of voters face-to-face, rather than relying primarily on marketing budgets and media narratives working in your favour – is partly the product of necessity; academics have concluded that the UK print press has shown an overwhelming bias against Labour throughout this campaign, while according to the latest set of election funding figures, the Conservatives took in seven times more money than their rivals, including one million-pound donation from a single billionaire financier.

But Corbyn also sees it as a virtue, reflective of the kind of grassroots politics he wants to bring to both his party and the country at large, and who it engages. “The community organising model that we’ve put into Labour, it has changed the nature of the party and the people who participate,” he says. “At the events I’ve done, those involved have been more working-class, more ethnically diverse, there’s more women attending. No one event is a complete microcosm of the whole country, but they look more representative of what this country is about than they used to.”

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Jeremy Corbyn waves from the stage at the Patti Pavilion, Swansea

A sense of the normal rules of formal politics being rewired pervades this election on the Labour side, and not only with regards to the campaign tactics they are depending upon to win it. The party’s manifesto – far more ambitious and forward-looking than its 2017 equivalent – represents a definitive break with the Thatcherite economic consensus that has gripped Britain for several decades, and it has attracted visceral hostility from large parts of a political and media establishment that continue to operate largely within that ideology’s borders. I ask Corbyn whether those borders are now being breached.

“I think the limits have changed a great deal,” he responds. “Because we've now had, what, 30 years of neoliberal economics given to us in various forms, including the ‘trickle-down’ theory that you should be intensely relaxed about the very wealthy but not worried about the rest. Well, I am very worried about the rest. We've got four million children living in poverty, 130,000 kids in insecure accommodation, many thousands of people sleeping rough and homeless, and 150 billionaires.”

But, he’s at pains to argue, despite the current scale of inequality in the UK, Labour’s solutions are actually very moderate. “Our taxation policy would increase corporate taxation and taxes for the very wealthiest,” he insists. “Everything carried out in our manifesto [would] only take us up to the level of public services in France and Germany.”

The impact of austerity – the government cost-cutting programme launched by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in 2010, which persists to this day – can be felt in all of the places Corbyn alights at in South Wales, and is one of the strongest drivers for Labour support. Taif and his partner Suzanne, who works as a chemical engineer at the mammoth Tata steelworks in nearby Port Talbot (“I know if Boris gets in and Brexit goes ahead I’ll be out of a job this time next year,” she tells me), have both voted for the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru in the past. But mindful of the stakes at play this time round, they are planning to back Labour on 12th December.

“We’d never seen homeless people in Barry until the past few years,” observes Suzanne. “Effluent is starting to wash up on the beach because of the cuts, and that hasn’t happened since we were kids.”

Their friend John Cushen, who runs a charity for carers and has a son with disabilities, spoke movingly of his family’s struggles with the benefits system. “Each time he goes for a DSA [Disabled Students’ Allowance] assessment he gets turned down, we appeal, and eventually he is awarded the money – but has to wait several weeks for it to come through,” Cushen explained. “How is he supposed to live in the meantime? I phoned up the helpline on his behalf, and they said, ‘he can go to a foodbank’. We’re talking about this country, Britain, in 2019. It’s shocking.”

It’s a sentiment echoed 40 miles west along the M4 an hour later, when Corbyn arrives in Swansea for a rally at the 19th century Patti Pavilion. “I think he’s banging,” said Charlotte Case, who is 32 years old and also relies on state support. “The lack of care and love for people that you see when you’re inside the benefits system is appalling – they treat people like fucking cardboard cut-outs. I’m generally about giving back to the people instead of taking away, and that’s what I get from Corbyn.”

Her friend Nathan Jones is mainly concerned with getting a new skate park built in the city, but says he’ll be voting Labour because he thinks it’s time to even up the economy a bit more between rich and poor. “Whether you’re in your twenties or thirties, whatever, all young people know that things can’t carry on like this,” he told me. “Unless you have parents who can help you out, then you’re not in a good position.”

The generational dimension of Britain’s economic injustices is at the core of Corbyn’s message, and with three million voter registrations submitted throughout the election campaign – two-thirds of them by under-35-year olds – it is likely to be turnout by younger people that decides this vote one way or another.

“This is about whether or not we have free university tuition fees all across the UK, and whether or not we give support to those attending university,” Corbyn says. “It’s about whether or not we give equal esteem to apprenticeships and academic education. And it’s about the kind of society that young people then move into. Our strategy is to invest for the future: a green industrial revolution to challenge the issues of climate change through technology and investment, rather than just letting it happen.”

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Jeremy Corbyn aboard the Labour battle-bus

From urban shopping precincts to agricultural showgrounds, the battle-bus rumbles on. As darkness falls, the internal lights are activated: two strips of garish neon red along the ceiling, lending the mobile headquarters of the leader of the opposition a sort of Amsterdam brothel meets teenage birthday party vibe. Corbyn himself sits mainly at the back, displaying a regrettable reluctance to observe traditional coach trip etiquette and either play tunes from his phone speaker or lob sweets towards the front. Most of the time he is working through papers or fielding phone conversations while aides bustle up and down the aisle and converse in low voices; everything is bathed in a respectful hush, a stark contrast to the cacophony that always awaits outside. “Two minute warning!” shouts a member of the team as the next stop approaches. “Indoor or outdoor?” asks Corbyn. “Do I need a coat?”

At Carmarthen, one of the oldest county towns in Wales, Corbyn does a walkabout through the high street; he’s mobbed by fans, and also observed at a distance by some who are more sceptical. “We see him on TV all the time and we thought it would just be cool to see him in real life,” said Joseph, a 17-year-old from a local Welsh-speaking school who had come along with his friend Jonathan; neither wanted to give their full names. Although they are too young to go to the polls, both would support the Conservatives if they had the chance – in part because of Brexit and disagreements with Labour’s second referendum policy (this region voted by 54 per cent to leave the European Union).

After Corbyn is taken inside a barber shop for a quick shave under the full glare of the cameras, Francesca Fury – a tattoo artist who works upstairs – runs down to see what all the commotion is about. “He’s a real fucking person, he’s genuine and he gives a shit about people,” she says, grinning. “He’s got my vote.” But as Corbyn leaves, another young woman appears from nowhere and throws herself towards the throng, visibly distressed, shouting that his treatment of Jewish members of the Labour party is a disgrace. Back on the bus, I ask Corbyn about both issues.

“The prime minister uses ‘Get Brexit Done’ as an answer for every conceivable question,” he tells me. “I got home last night and asked Laura if the cat had eaten its dinner yet, and her reply was ‘Get Brexit Done’. It’s a nonsense. Of course Brexit can be very divisive, but I’m determined to keep the party together and to keep people together – and to recognise that however people voted in 2016 they’ve got similar problems: universal credit, housing, debt.”

He claims his strategy of negotiating a new, softer Brexit deal with Europe and then putting it alongside remain in a national referendum within six months – while committing to stay officially neutral as prime minister – is the only viable solution. “My job will be the honest broker to deliver the result,” he argues. “Boris Johnson described it as a sign of great weakness, I think it's the opposite actually. I think it's a sign of maturity.”

On antisemitism, Corbyn admits that the party’s disciplinary procedures weren’t working adequately when he took office and reels off a list of changes that he has since presided over, including an education programme and quicker expulsions in egregious cases where members are found guilty of racist language or behaviour. But many of his critics, including members of the party-affiliated Jewish Labour Movement – which recently submitted a dossier of evidence regarding antisemitism within Labour to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s ongoing investigation into the issue – would reject any suggestion that this was a problem that belongs solely in the past.

I ask Corbyn if he understands why the leadership’s default response to antisemitism allegations – which has tended to be defensive and uncertain – feels so hurtful, both among those within the Jewish community and beyond it? “Labour is an antiracist party: people join the Labour party because they're socialists, because they're anti-racists, because they hate the idea of racism,” Corbyn replies. “There are people in the Labour party that get very upset with the idea that they are in some way or another bad people.” He repeats his insistence that the problem is now being tackled unequivocally. “Antisemitism ended up with the Holocaust,” he concludes. “I simply will not tolerate any form of racism anywhere, anytime, in our society.”

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Jeremy Corbyn shaking hands Carmarthen's town centre

There is no doubt that Corbyn is in his comfort zone on the campaign trail. Unlike the controlled atmosphere of a television studio, this sort of thing – stump speeches, glad-handing and earnest chats with passers-by – seems to enliven him, and the appeal of Labour’s policy offer is striking. When Corbyn repeats his promise to compensate the so-called WASPI women (retired women who lost out financially as a result of previous changes to the state pension age) at the Barry Island social club, I spot two older women catching each other’s eye across the room and pumping their fists. In Swansea, after Corbyn mentions Labour’s plan to institute a new living wage which will cover under-18s as well as adults, the two young bar staff at the back of the venue whoop and holler wildly.

But on the national stage, Corbyn can sometimes appear strangely passionless – determined to maintain a statesman-like demeanour, rather than coming out all guns blazing against an opponent whose reputation for inappropriate behaviour and lying is legion.

“I think we have to set the principles by which we wish to behave, and I personally do not get involved with personal abuse, I never have,” he responds, when I question the wisdom of his repeated refrain: ‘they go low, we go high; they go to the gutter, we go to the stars’. “I think it actually detracts from politics as a whole.”

Does he regret not showing more anger, especially during his two live head to head debates with Johnson? “It’s not me,” says Corbyn, shaking his head softly. “Not me. I try to point out what makes me really angry, and that is hungry children, it's disabled people not getting the support they want, it’s older people not getting the care they need.”

When this election is over and the dust has finally settled, its most important legacy may prove to have little to do with the party leaders themselves – at least not directly. After decades of technocratic stasis during which the main options on the ballot paper were relatively indistinguishable, 2019 represents, for many voters, the first opportunity they’ve ever had to choose between two plausible but radically different options for government.

Far from being apathetic, or “anti-politics”, that choice has spurred vast numbers of people out into the streets to join rallies, to hand out leaflets, and to knock on doors throughout a cold, wet winter. Most are not even members of the Labour party, and many will never have been involved in any campaigning before.

Helping to create the conditions under which that shift was possible – a move from electoral politics being primarily something that people experience passively from above, to it being something that many now pursue actively from below – may be Corbyn’s most significant achievement to date.

“Of course I’m enjoying the campaign,” Corbyn insists as we pull into his final event at Haverfordwest, and prepare to say goodbye. “I’ve got a new pair of glasses, a trim beard and we’re about to do some communal dancing. We’re absolutely fine.”

@hackneylad

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