Church House isn’t used to such expressions of faith. Normally, the central hall is home to Anglican bishops and clergy competing in doubt and agonising over matters of doctrine, but for his campaign launch in Westminster Jeremy Corbyn had gathered only his most loyal supporters. Several hundred heads nodded approvingly as Going Back to My Roots played through the sound system. These were the true believers in the resurrection from the dead.
“I give you Jeremy Corbyn, the next prime minister of the United Kingdom,” declared Ian Lavery, Corbyn’s campaign coordinator, with all the fervour of a revivalist preacher. There was a brief pause as everyone in the room did a quick double-take to make sure sure they hadn’t misheard, and then they rose as one to give the Labour leader a standing ovation. What was faith if not the suspension of disbelief?
Corbyn looked up and read the scroll that ran round the top of the circular hall. “A Home of Unfading Splendour, Wherein They Rejoice with Gladness Evermore.” He could give the country that. And more. In the House of Commons, Corbyn often cuts a rather forlorn figure, a man who sometimes gets confused by the logic of his own arguments as well as those of his opponents, but on the campaign trail he comes into his own. These are the moments he lives for, the times when he is energised, passionate and persuasive.
This would be an election between the establishment and the people and it would be Labour’s historic duty to make sure that the people prevailed. “It is the establishment that complains I don’t play by the rules,” he said. “By which they mean their rules. We can’t win, they say, because we don’t play their game.
“We don’t fit in their cosy club. We don’t accept that it is natural for Britain to be governed by a ruling elite, the City and the tax-dodgers, and we don’t accept that the British people just have to take what they’re given, that they don’t deserve better.”
It wasn’t quite a declaration of class war, but it was a decent attempt to grab back some of the land that the Conservatives had annexed over Brexit with their claim to be the party of the left-behind who had voted to leave the EU. Not that Corbyn chose to make more than a passing mention of Brexit; this was to be an election about poverty, inequality and the NHS as much as Europe. At least that was the plan.
Corbyn pressed on. The system was rigged. Gilded corporate elites were stitching things up to their own advantage. Philip Green, Southern rail and Mike Ashley were the real villains. Close your eyes and you could almost have been listening to Donald Trump. Or Nigel Farage. Or reading a Daily Mail leader column. The Labour leader was playing them all at their own game and winning. For the moment at least. How it would be received by the rest of the country was another matter.
To add to the sense of dislocation, Corbyn ended by saying he would “rule for the many, not the few” – a direct lift of Tony Blair’s campaign slogan from 1997. Corbyn crossed himself. Just in case. Blair might be the antichrist but he knew a thing or two about winning elections.
“Let’s take some questions,” said Corbyn, immediately endearing himself to dozens of hacks who had been frozen out by Theresa May since she called the election on Tuesday: the prime minister is deadly serious about stifling dissent. So how would he take on the rigged system? And how much money did you need to earn to be rich? And would he call for a second referendum?
Corbyn was rather hazy on these details. Policy was something for a later date. Something for his disciples. Today was a time for showing there was still life in the Labour party and that the Tories should not treat the election as a foregone conclusion.
But he was 20 points behind in the polls, a reporter pointed out. Corbyn smiled. He’d faced bigger odds in the past. When he’d entered the race to become Labour leader the bookies had priced him at 200-1. The odds were a lot better than that now. He stopped for a moment’s reflection. Did he believe? Did he really believe? Hand on heart, he couldn’t say he did. But he did have hope. Not much, but some. It was a start.