As Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, was announced at the Trades Union Congress, the crowd rose, slightly slowly, to their feet. They clapped, they cheered, some even chanted. And still he didn’t appear.
“I promise you, Congress, he’s on his way,” Leslie Manasseh, in the chair for the event in Brighton, on England’s south coast, told the hall, as delegates sat down, a little bewildered.
And then he was there! And the crowd went slightly wild, again! Labour’s members of Parliament, outvoted in the party leadership election by hundreds of thousands of new activists, may have greeted his arrival with silence on Monday, but Corbyn is a lifelong trade unionist, and the annual TUC conference is a home crowd.
“Sisters and brothers,” he began. “Thank you very much for inviting me here today. It seems to be a very fast journey that we’re on.”
As if to illustrate the speed of this journey, Corbyn delivered his address at a breakneck pace, a style born out of decades of arriving on platforms with 15 minutes’ worth of points to make about human rights in Nicaragua, only to be told that there’s a five-minute limit on speeches.
Toward the end of his speech he explained his hurry: “I want to get back to Parliament and vote.”
Corbyn alluded to the difficulties facing his leadership. “I have had the very interesting task in the last few days of a number of events and a number of challenges,” he told the hall, possibly understating the scale of the problems encountered in filling shadow-cabinet positions and dealing with reporters who’ve demanded answers to questions about his failure to promote women to senior jobs.
He pledged to repeal legislation aimed at limiting the right to strike currently being pushed through Parliament by the Conservative government and ticked off points he wanted to make, about union rights, refugees, housebuilding and democratic engagement. He told a story about how he’d learned, in his days as a union negotiator in the 1970s, that people who were good at betting were also good at mental arithmetic.
“The elites in our society look with contempt at people with brilliance and ideas, just because they don’t speak like them and look like them,” he said.
It was a difficult hall in which to stir up an audience, with the delegates spread out at long rows of desks. Corbyn came closest to managing it when he stopped reading his speech, took off his glasses, and said what was on his mind.
He name-checked a small group of strikers from London’s National Gallery who were in the audience, describing them as “a precious national asset, not something to be traded away.”
But the ad libs gave way to circumlocutions. “We have to remind ourselves of what is going on at the present time,” he said. People had “committed suicide and taken their own lives.”
And then he got to his closing thought. “We’re actually quite a rich country,” he said. “And we’re actually quite unequal. These things are not dreams. These things are practical realities that we, together, intend to achieve.”
The crowd rose to their feet to clap him, and Corbyn smiled and clapped back at them, and then he was gone. He’d been planning to speak for 15 minutes, and had spoken for 25, and now he was running late.