On Saturday 13 August, the Jeremy Corbyn show arrived in Milton Keynes. With a stage set up on top of the Fire Brigade Union’s vintage 1990 tender truck, the scene was set for an afternoon of quite spectacular insanity.
A crowd of several hundred eager spectators filled Station Square, waiting to hear their icon speak. Before the man himself would arrive, however, there was a litany of warm-up performances to enjoy, although ‘endure’ might be a better word.
First up came some kind of local indie rock band. Their music was passable, that is up until a song called ‘Leaders’. Leaders set a precedent for songs and poems specifically glorifying Corbyn in a rather frightening way that gives the term ‘personality cult’ an entirely new level of meaning.
A little before ‘Leaders’ began, the band’s lead singer boldly prefaced an earlier track with “if this goes wrong, blame my mum”, something which the Backbencher Twitter was on hand to report live. Shortly after this the bass guitarist began experiencing unmanageable feedback and had to switch to an acoustic. That must have been the capitalist technology getting its own back.
After the band gave way and the crowd waited in anticipation of Corbyn’s publicised 2.30pm arrival, a procession of further warm-up acts was suddenly announced pending his arrival an hour later.
These included a solo musician, a ranting poet nobody could understand, a nurse, a representative from the Communications Workers’ Union and even the head of the Fire Brigade Union. The ranting poet at one point boldly claimed that the time of the majority had come. So much for individual rights.
All this, it turned out, wasn’t build up for Corbyn so much as for his main support act, the immutable Dianne Abbott. After reminding everybody of the important role played by immigrants in the early years of the NHS, she then proceeded to champion immigration and attack globalisation in the same sentence. Borders, quite rightly, shouldn’t be a barrier to free movement, but apparently they should be to free trade.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the crowd’s interest in Abbott’s speech waned part way through as Corbyn himself made his way through the crowd. What ensued for the next fifteen minutes was a kind of celebrity status swarm that well and truly puts Milifandom to shame.
Arguably, Corbyn’s direct engagement with his supporters is one of his better qualities as a politician. It is refreshing in a way to see someone who holds himself as a ‘man of the people’ actually going out, meeting them and acknowledging their support.
But there is a strange vibe that comes off this celebrity status. The constant selfies, hugs, hand shakes and giving of praise feel less like engagement with voters and more like a meet and greet with fans and worshipers. Corbyn does a good job of putting on a jolly face for these encounters, but it’s quite a different image to the one seen in the recent Vice News documentary that went behind the scenes on the Corbyn campaign.
It’s that uncomfortable vibe that in many respects permeated the entire event. The large emblems, angry ‘Tories Out, Corbyn In’ banners, loud chanting and promises to take back control reek of a kind of populism and idolatry that literally hasn’t been seen before in this country. It’s all too reminiscent of scenes from various other countries, however.
A comparison between this movement and full-blown statist revolutions from history is arguably a little extreme, but it’s no joke to point out the obvious parallels. We have a group of people set on imposing their concept of morality and government on the country, regardless of the views of most of its people or of the consequences for individual rights.
Ultimately one has to question what the function of these rallies really is. Everybody at them is already a supporter. They aren’t winning new votes in the Labour leadership campaign in any meaningful sense. They’re broadcasting a tired rhetoric that was already coming through perfectly clearly anyway. So what’s the point?
All in all, the rally was in many ways amusing and interesting, but it was also a frightening spectacle to behold. If this is the way politics is being conducted now, that doesn’t offer much hope for reasoned debate in a society where this group is in control.
Corbyn and his warm up acts repeatedly spoke of their ambition to take Milton Keynes’ two parliamentary seats in 2020. Fortunately Milton Keynes has strongly returned Conservative MPs to both seats in both of the last two elections. The city also recently voted to leave the EU. That’s a healthy reminder that a large crowd is really only a tiny proportion of a massive population, and similarly a loud voice must never be mistaken for a majority voice.
There seems very little risk of Corbyn’s movement actually gaining meaningful traction in Milton Keynes, and given recent poll data, even less risk of him ever forming a government. Still, the themes running through this rally and the manor of politics it conveys are persistent and they will outlive any one politician’s career. It’s important we keep challenging their narrative and questioning their methods. Complacency is the last thing that’s needed.