Upon arriving at Jeremy Corbyn's rally in sunny Stoke-on-Trent earlier, we were immediately accosted by "the BBC". Funnily enough, they were recording something about crowd behaviour for a programme on Radio 4 (can they not get enough of me?), and so asked questions about why people come to rallies, their importance and perception "from the outside", the "threat" they pose, and about Jeremy Corbyn himself. Among other things, I told them that Jeremy was going to take his place atop the FBU's fire engine and say very simple, uncontroversial things about supporting disabled people and building houses. And the fact that's considered radical just goes to show how remote "established" politics has become from everyday concerns.
Perhaps it's because Jeremy was speaking on my Stokie home turf, perhaps it's because of the many, many labour movement events I've been to where, this is the first the public turned up to. Perhaps because I know the guts that were busted by local Red Labour comrades to get Jeremy to Stoke and organise the event at short notice, and perhaps because Jeremy, in my opinion, spoke better here than he did at Derby. Whatever the reason, I thought today's rally was excellent.
Presided over by Cllr Ruth Rosenau, we heard from the CWU's Max Penkethman, Andy Fox-Hewitt of the FBU, local FE student Shakira Rosenau (at her first public speaking engagement!), Unite Community's Clare White, and Unison's Roger McKenzie. They warmed the crowd up with attacks on the Tories (remember them?), the importance of trade unionism, and a vision of a different, better Britain.
And then came Jeremy himself. Seeming quite relaxed, he, as on every previous occasion I've seen him speak, simply set out his stall. This is one leg of his appeal. He is able to make the case for left wing politics in plain speaking, unspun language. He mentioned Thatcher, which drew a round of boos, but that's the nearest he got to making a direct political attack on a personality. He talked about the party's achievement of resisting Tory cuts policies in Parliament, and criticised the beggar-thy-neighbour commonsense happily aired by too many mainstream politicians in all parties. As he noted, you can blame convenient scapegoats for housing shortages, NHS queues, and inadequate school places, but all that sound and fury won't lay a single brick, employ an extra nurse, or take on another teacher. The National Education Service idea got another airing, as did the need to take mental health issues more seriously, the banning of zero hour contracts, and providing cultural and artistic opportunities for those denied them. No mention of the MPs who would have deposed him, and no mention of Owen Smith.
Almost as if Jez had read my write up of his Derby visit, he avoided the acronyms beloved of lefty meetings. And, yes, he did invite everyone present to join. "We want to include everyone", he said. Very good.
Apart from the politics, there were two happenstances that demonstrates why, for so many, Jeremy is something of a new wind. Before the rally kicked off, a couple of blokes had come down from Bolton for the day to busk around the city centre without knowing what was due to happen. Rather than being moved on, these guys were invited onto the fire truck, and ended up playing warm up for the audience of hundreds. The second was after. Jeremy came down and spent a good 45 minutes talking to the crowd who came for a word or a selfie. He talked footy with a Liverpool fan, had a photo with Stokie hero Nello of Marvellous fame, talked politics with a guy who'd been in and out of the YMCA, and much more. It's this that's key. When politicians are typically perceived as uncaring and remote, Jeremy tears up his schedule (much to the frustration of his assistants) and listens to the concerns and complaints of ordinary folk. And, more often than not, this is what people who are interested in politics but are at turns disenchanted and alienated need. They want to say their bit and be heard.
In all, this was the biggest labour movement event in Stoke for some years - certainly since 2,500 marched through the city centre in defence of the local hospital just over a decade ago. Again, like Derby, for a workday lunch time the turnout was fantastic, and doubly so for a city formerly better known for the racist and parochial politics of the councillors it has returned. The crowd was a good mix of ages and genders, and, I think, there was a sense of hope and excitement in the air that seldom attends political events in Stoke. An excellent rally then, and one I hope will energise a further wave of new members and party supporters for the North Staffordshire CLPs.