Photo credit: Jack Harvey

Witnessing the Corbyn phenomenon in Cornwall

Photo credit: Jack Harvey
Photo credit: Jack Harvey

Cornwall might initially seem as an unlikely place with a strong Labour Party presence. The entirety of the South West of England is controlled by the Conservatives with the exception of Exeter, held by Labour’s Ben Bradshaw MP. Membership of the Labour Party in the South West prior to the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn was described by his second leadership campaign organiser Martin Menear as numbering “in the hundreds.”

Despite this, thousands of people arrived at Heartlands two weeks ago for a rally organised by a local branch of Momentum to hear Jeremy Corbyn and others speak. The rally began half an hour late to accommodate for the number of people attempting to get to the premises by car.

The common theme of the day was insecurity. Everyone on stage spoke of the uncertainties they have faced in their lives; whether it is the fear of the inability to pay all of one’s bills, the chance of eviction or the likelihood of mental breakdown. Anna Gillett’s landlord interrupted her family’s twelve-month contract to sell the property. The new landlady upped the rent, a price too high for Gillett but a price the landlady believed to be suitable for students attending Falmouth University. At her new, smaller property, Gillett’s home was subject to inspections on behalf of the landlord. The inspectors took photographs of her possessions and rooms to send to the landlord abroad. In the course of his five years of life, one of her sons has lived in six different homes. With so much house insecurity and hampered privacy, Gillett has come close to mental breakdowns.

Alongside concerns for insecurity, there was a united opposition to financial austerity. From his wheelchair, Tyler Bennetts described this financial austerity as a dangerous experiment in which the ordinary poor are the guinea pigs. Bennetts was told by a job centre worker not to mention his disability when applying for employment. Three members of Leah Browning’s family have relied on food banks to get by in the last twelve months; 26.8% of children in Liskeard live in relative poverty.

Susan Shand, a retired nurse, read aloud the letter she had sent to Ben Bradshaw after he had described Momentum’s members as “thugs.” Momentum has often been described as a hotbed of Trotskyists, communists and far-left troublemakers. However, when I attended a Momentum meeting this January in York, I found no far-left revolutionaries lurking there. This time, Momentum’s approach was a tad more hostile. There was a general agreement from Momentum members there that austerity is a callous economic policy, imposed by a wicked Conservative Party and something that the Labour Party had to oppose. Despite this, the only troublemakers present at the rally were two members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, who argued with the police when told that their newspapers weren’t permitted to be sold on the premises. Members of Momentum assisted the police in having the SWP stall removed. I am yet to find the plotting revolutionaries that are said to be Momentum’s puppetmasters.

The most powerful speech came from a teacher who has worked for ten years, Laura Rogers, who wept as she made the case for education reform. Nowadays schools are exam factories in which children are rigorously tested. Unsuccessful children leave school convinced that they are failures. The classroom, she said, should be as beautiful and productive as Jeremy Corbyn’s allotment. It is a place of collective action, teaching kindness, love, respect and intelligent discussion. Test after test, Rogers believes, only makes children more compliant, obedient and unthinking, the perfect kind of people that kind be exploited by amoral modern capitalism.

After Momentum’s founder Jon Lansman came Jeremy Corbyn. He ascended to the stage to a rapturous welcome. Speaking for thirty minutes, Corbyn made his case for a new Labour government to work in the interests of Cornwall, a place hit hard by the economic austerity policies of the previous and current governments.

Corbyn began by thanking the people who had organised the event. “Politics changes when people come together in a spirit of determination to ensure something better,” he said. He nodded to Cornwall’s participation in the Industrial Revolution, including Trevithick’s steam engine, but also to the ordinary men who laboured in the mines and factories. Corbyn drew the crowd’s attention to May 2015, where the “fundamental problem” that led to Labour’s defeat…

…was that we hadn’t challenged the idea that you deal with the financial crisis brought about by the greed and irresponsibility of the banking community by cutting public services, freezing wages and damaging the life chances of young people. We hadn’t crossed that Rubicon of saying we were going to do things differently.

Corbyn noted that the media is against him, citing only one positive article in over eighty articles from a particular newspaper measured in a study – positive because he was the author. But 540,000 members strong, the Labour Party is revered in Europe. Why? Because, argued Corbyn, people are coming together to propose an alternative to austerity. Corbyn sought to reach out to those neglected by free market capitalism; from the maligned industrial communities of the North of England to those working for the lowest national wages in the South West.

The popularity of the main speaker was unmistakable. As soon as the proceedings finished, the audience swarmed around Corbyn. He shook a few hands from the front of the stage before saying he would come from the back, to avoid falling into the crowd. Stepping off the platform, the Labour leader disappeared in a swarm of followers. For a while, people on the edges weren’t sure if he was still there.

It took Jeremy Corbyn almost twenty minutes to move a hundred yards from the platform to the conference centre. Shaking hands, posing for photographs, holding babies, signing petitions and listening to stories, Corbyn met almost everyone who attended the rally. The trade union members monitoring the day’s proceedings struggled to form a cordon amid the throngs of people desperate to gain a few seconds of Corbyn’s attention. During all this, he never looked bored, only more cheerful and glad to be there.

Corbyn’s popularity is a major phenomenon of our time. Across the country there are people like those gathered in Heartlands who feel they have been cast aside while finance and culture have flourished in the capital. To many of them, the alternative approaches to economics and politics that they desperately need are manifest in Jeremy Corbyn and his vision for the Labour Party.

If his challenger manages to topple the beleaguered MP from the podium, the enthusiasm of these people will surely wane. Corbyn has energised the public with the hope of an alternative but the strength of this desire arguably depends on the security of the party leader.

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Jack Harvey

Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018. History and Philosophy graduate, studying for MA in Philosophy at University of York.
  • Matt Bradbury

    Hello Jack,
    This is a largely good and very fair report of the rally although I must correct you on a point – as a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and a resident of Cornwall, I can say that I was our only current member there. We did not have a stall, although I would have liked us to have been able to. I did go around the crowd leafleting (and with our paper, Socialist Worker) for some of the time that Corbyn was speaking and almost exclusively politely received, with one other person I didn’t know helping me leaflet at one point.

    This was during the time that I was not helping on a stall for the Cornwall Unite Community branch that I’m a member of. I believe what you are referring to was a Socialist Party stall, although their members are certainly not ‘troublemakers’, but socialists who were trying to freely put across their perspective at an open-air forum. I was referred to this article by a Momentum organiser I know in Plymouth, so I’ve read reports from both him and a SP member who is also in my Unite branch about what happened with their stall and have no reason to disbelieve either. Suffice it to say that it is unfortunate for the police to have been involved, even if it is sometimes diplomatically necessary to deal with them, at big protests or rallies.

    At a time like this, it’s important to unite in activity, to fight for all of the important issues you mention in the article, that the speakers at the rally spoke so passionately about and that Jeremy Corbyn calls for and for which his popularity represents, inside the Labour party and outside. Thanks for allowing my response. Solidarity, Matt Bradbury (Plymouth & Cornwall SWP)

    • Terry Deans

      Thanks for that statement, Matt. For the record, I am the Momentum member referred to by Matt.

      I am grateful to him for pointing out the slight error in the report as he has articulated. It was a great day, indeed, and there were many positives as Jack has highlighted and as Matt Bradbury has echoed.

      Solidarity, comrades!