Jez he did - he Really did! Out With the New, in With Old Labour

\'Up to the lectern, waving dazedly, open-collared and tieless, stumbled the new leader of the Labour party.\'

Published: 13th September 2015 08:44 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th September 2015 08:44 AM   |  A+A-

LONDON: For me, the image that defined yesterday's (Saturday's) extraordinary events was not of a victorious Jeremy Corbyn. It was of Tristram Hunt.

After the result had been announced and the hall had been emptied, the now former shadow education secretary decided to make a break for it. He hastened out of the building's main entrance and down the steps, eyes down, clearly hoping that the waiting Corbynites wouldn't recognise him. He was out of luck.

"OLD Labour!" came the shouts, as he hurried miserably past. "REAL Labour! OLD Labour! Not NEW Labour!"

What immaculate symbolism. The most Blairish of the remaining Blairites, with the most improbable Christian name in Labour front-bench history, scuttling from the scene, while triumphant socialists shook their placards like fists.

Out with the New, in with the Old.

This was, surely, the most remarkable day in Britain's recent political history. For weeks everyone had been convinced that this result was certain - and yet, even when it was announced, it still felt, somehow, like a shock.

The morning began greyly, the skies nondescript. Outside the venue where the announcement was due - the QEII conference centre a minute down the road from Parliament - supporters of the various factions gathered.

One by one, the candidates arrived, each met with encouraging chants from their disciples - except, strangely, Andy Burnham, the one-time frontrunner, who walked up with his wife to scattered applause.

Photographers stopped him for pictures. He couldn't even bring himself to smile. He looked utterly deflated. Worn. Squashed.

He knew.

Up the lift and into the chattering auditorium, where MPs, activists and journalists were taking their seats. Michael Meacher, a socialist MP of the old school, unwittingly took one meant for Mr Burnham.

From the back of the hall came high-pitched wailing. I presumed it was a baby, rather than Chuka Umunna. On the vast screen behind the stage was emblazoned, in glowing white letters, a simple message: "Your Choice."

Your Choice. So Don't Blame Us. At last a hush. Time to begin.

First, the results of the deputy leadership. This was won, after the third round of voting, by Tom Watson, the gangster-sized Brownite from West Bromwich East. To meaty roars from the hall he took the lectern, skin glistening like an iced bun. Passionately he appealed for the party to put its splits behind it. "Only through unity," he proclaimed, "comes the strength to defeat the Tories!"

Unity. That was the call from a man nicknamed "the curry house plotter", as we awaited the election of a leader who has rebelled against the party whip more often than any Labour MP in the last three decades.

We didn't have to wait long. Straight on to the leadership result. Read out first was Mr Burnham's percentage of the vote: just 19 per cent. Then Yvette Cooper's: just 17 per cent. There was practically no point reading out Mr Corbyn's, but here it was anyway: a thunderous 59 per cent. He'd won, by a landslide, in the very first round of voting.

Delirium. Screams of glee. An ecstasy of camera flashes. And, almost immediately, the chanting - but no longer "Jez We Can".

"JEZ WE DID! JEZ WE DID! JEZ WE DID!"

Up to the lectern, waving dazedly - and, as he almost always is, open-collared and tieless - stumbled the new leader of the Labour party.

From over his spectacles he peered out at the writhing jubilant mass before him. For the preceding two months or more, his every appearance on stage had been met with howling acclaim. He still didn't look quite used to it.

At last the din died down sufficiently to let him speak. He began graciously, with thanks to Harriet Harman, congratulations to Mr Watson, a tribute to Ed Miliband. He conceded, wryly, that some Labour MPs may have viewed his candidature "with some reluctance", but he looked forward to working with all of them. He was calm, measured, courteous. The qualities not even his fiercest critics dispute.

But, as the speech wore on, the tone started to change. He complained about the media. Then he complained about the media again. Then, a little later still, he complained about the media once more.

"Abuse", he kept muttering, darkly. His family, he protested, had suffered appalling abuse at the hands of the media.

Journalists glanced at each other. Certainly Mr Corbyn had been the subject of many less than helpful articles. But hadn't those articles been about things Mr Corbyn had actually said or done, at one point or another in his political career? Or about criticism of his views, or his prospects, by fellow MPs? Yet he seemed convinced - gloweringly convinced. His family had been abused.

We looked down at our phones to learn that, even as the new leader was speaking, a member of the shadow cabinet - Jamie Reed, a shadow health minister - had already resigned.

Apart from his disgust with the media, Mr Corbyn spoke about familiar themes: inequality, "the social cleansing of London", war. "Things can - and will - change!" he finished. Throughout the hall, more delirium. Loudspeakers blasted out celebratory music. I caught snatches of the lyrics. "Blessed be the poor... We're all sisters and we're all brothers... I'm working on a building of love, I'm gonna build it in the name of everyone..."

Gradually the hall emptied. Audience members filing out found themselves accosted by a cheerful man in a ponytail, handing out free copies of a Left-wing pamphlet. "Corbyn wins!" he kept hooting. "We've got a socialist party now!"

Outside, supporters waited in their hundreds to greet their new leader. "Je-re-my! Je-re-my! Je-re-my!" they chanted, to the tune of Here We Go. Corbyn T-shirts were everywhere. "I'm not a MORON - I'm in the MAJORITY," read the slogan on one.

They waited and waited, their excitement undimming in the furious sun. Journalists scurried about, trying to keep pace with the news of more shadow cabinet resignations. Faithfully the supporters continued to stand and chant. An hour passed, then a second. Not to worry. He'd be here soon. Surely Mr Corbyn would want to greet his admirers, bathe in their exaltation, revel in this astonishing moment of glory.

As a matter of fact, he didn't. "You do know he's not coming out, don't you?" said a passing security guard. "Slipped out five minutes ago. Gone to the pub."

Indeed he had. Surrounded by adoring activists, Jeremy Corbyn was now celebrating with a lime and soda (he doesn't drink alcohol), and holding proudly aloft, of all things, a tea towel decorated with the face of Tony Benn. He had not, however, forgotten his manners, and apologised for the noise to a bamboozled couple of American tourists, who'd been in the middle of their lunch. "USA! USA! USA!" chanted everyone. (I know. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, cheering for the United States of America. The day was getting weirder by the minute.)

The celebration ended with Mr Corbyn leading the room in a singalong of what else but the old socialist anthem, The Red Flag.

And after that - the afternoon off? A few hours' rest, after the most frenetic months of a previously quiet career? No. He headed off to join a march in support of the Syrian refugees.

So here we are. It really has happened. Three months ago, he looked as though he wouldn't even make it on to the ballot paper.

Then, after he scraped on at the very last minute before the deadline, bookmakers made him the 100-1 outsider in a four-horse race.

Then, as the polls surged and the odds tumbled, came rumours that he didn't even want the job, that he'd pull out before the voting began, that no one would want to be in his shadow cabinet anyway, that Labour MPs would never work with him, that they'd start plotting to remove him the moment he took power, that there'd be leadership challenges, and that he'd give up when the pressure grew, as it inevitably would, too much for him.

Yet, despite everything, he's done it. Jeremy Corbyn, backbencher of 32 years, who'd never previously come close to ministerial office, has actually won.

Well, I don't know about you, but I've really enjoyed this Labour leadership campaign. I can't wait till next year's.

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