“Don’t tell me that you understand until you hear the man”
GROWING up in Cardiff in the 1990s I can remember newspaper columnists and correspondents to the letters pages often referring to Winston Churchill having addressed an election rally of around 50,000 people at Ninian Park in 1950.
The anecdote would usually be brought out as an example of how politics once captivated the public and campaigning was about more than stage-managed private photo opportunities and tightly controlled interviews.
It appears Jeremy Corbyn, who critics and some admirers see as a throwback, is trying to win June’s snap election by campaigning the old-fashioned way – and if he’s not yet packing out football stadiums he drew a sizeable crowd, at 24 hours notice, at 4pm on Friday, April 21 to the large green in the leafy suburb of Whitchurch in the must win Conservative-held Cardiff North constituency.
Corbyn won the Labour leadership, as he proudly states against the odds, in 2015 by holding large public rallies showcasing an ability to draw crowds that eludes any other politician in Britain. His critics of course point out for the thousands that turn out there may be many more millions with no intention of voting Labour.
But the rallies give Corbyn the opportunity to engage directly with the public – and even if he is preaching mainly to the converted the intention is they are enthused to recruit friends, family, neighbours and colleagues to the flock. Despite the poor PA system at Friday’s rally every line Corbyn delivered was greeted with applause and by holding rallies in public it is as easy for those who oppose him or Labour to attend as it is for supporters.
The only dissenting voice on Friday, a loud one, belonged to a very keen remain supporter who kept shouting ‘stop Brexit’.
Campaigning in the open also allows members of the public to meet Corbyn. After the rally finished the 67-year-old took the time to greet many of his supporters who’d swelled around him as if he was a member of One Direction rather than the leader of a political party, one he pointed out that has half a million members.
Rallies such as Friday’s are also a show of strength. While estimating the size of any crowd in an open public space is difficult there were easily many hundreds more than the 194 voters who gave the Tories the edge when they took the Cardiff North seat from Labour in 2010.
Friday’s attendance has been estimated at between 700, by the BBC, and more than 1,000 by Wales Online. While we don’t know how many of those live in the constituency it was a heartening turn-out for party volunteers who know they must wipe out the current Conservative majority of 2,137 in the marginal.
And no-one in a popularity contest would be disappointed to see many hundreds of people turn up in a field, supporters climbing trees for a better view, residents hanging from open windows and even teenagers chanting their name as they rode past on their bikes. Especially in a constituency that reflects the central battle of the election; how many Conservative seats can Labour take? Cardiff North has a history of backing the winning side in elections, and in the Welsh Assembly the seat is still held by the ruling Labour party, whose First Minister Carwyn Jones introduced Corbyn.
As Public Enemy’s Chuck D said in response to those who criticised his support for the Minister Louis Farrakhan “don’t tell me that you understand until you hear the man” and Corbyn will hope the direct approach will allow the public to judge him for themselves.
It’s unlikely that, even if she wanted to, Theresa May could adopt the same street level campaign in today’s security driven era.
But Corbyn’s campaigning on the stump approach isn’t without modern precedent. It seems surprising but it was only 25 years ago a Prime Minister, who often felt he was mocked by the media for trivial matters such as appearance, turned to a back to basics approach in a general election campaign.
John Major, the “grey man of politics” as famous for liking green peas and his Y-fronts as any of his achievements, would roll up in town centres, pull out his soap box and stand on his shoulder-width wooden platform to address the assembled public. He was mocked by the press at the time but secured an unexpected Tory majority at the 1992 general election.
Of course it was a different kind of back to basics that would be one of a number of elements that lead to Major’s government, and for a while it seemed potentially Britain’s oldest political party, unravelling. But any potential PM knows a general election is only the first battle.
Main photo is courtesy of JPR Morgan Photography – go on visit and ‘Like’ their Facebook page here.