Kent Barker, HIP co-Political Editor, listened to Jeremy Corbyn speechifying in Hastings last thursday

St Mary in the Castle may not have been a proper church for years, but there was more than a hint of an old time revivalist meeting as Jeremy Corbyn came to address the faithful there. Standing ovations were the order of the day.  First when shadow Home Secretary and Corbyn cheer-leader Diane Abbott took her place in the front row, and then, roof-raisingly, as ‘Jeremy’ himself entered.

PICTURE: Owen Price

Assorted camera operators (actually I think they were all men) jostled for pole position and unleashed a torrent of flashbulbs.  For no apparent reason Thelma Walker, Labour MP for Colne Valley, was given the task of introducing her leader.  Perhaps it was because hers was another marginal seat and she had managed to overturn a Conservative majority in the 2017 general election.  Peter Chowney, Council leader and Labour’s declared candidate for Hastings and Rye, positively glowed in his sharp suit and bright red tie every time his name was mentioned.  He was sitting to Corbyn’s left and the Labour Leader showered praise on his ‘good friend’.

So ostensibly the visit was to bolster Labour support and remove incumbent MP Amber Rudd and her wafer thin 346 majority.  But it was taking place the day after Labour had lost the No Confidence vote in Westminster, pushing back any hope of an early general election.  And not a few among the members in the audience were wondering why Mr Corbyn was in Hastings at all, and not in Downing Street.  Not as Prime Minister yet, you understand, but having taken up Mrs May’s offer of cross-party Brexit talks. 

Certainly that’s what the national press wanted to know; that’s why they’d turned up in such numbers.  They were given slim pickings.  May’s offer was a “stunt” declared Corbyn”.  ‘Take ‘No Deal’ off the table now, please, Prime Minister’, he asked politely, then he would consider face to face discussions.

Jeremy Corbyn Meeting Peter Chowney, Labour Candidate for Hastings and Rye, at a Labour Politcal Rally in Hastings, UK.

PICTURE: Oliver Tookey

On other areas Corbyn was on safer ground or, to mix a metaphor, walking on water. Opposition to benefit and public services cuts got enthusiastic ovations, as did his closing pledge that a Labour government would introduce ‘free education – from Cradle to Grave as a human right’.

But there was little doubt that the elephant in the room was named Brexit and the mood of the meeting was firmly for a second referendum. Here the Labour leader differed from his audience. A people’s vote was still ruled out until after all attempts had failed to get a general election, he said, though at least he was now actually referring to it as a future possibility.

Jeremy Corbyn is an adroit public speaker. He knows just what buttons to press, and moves swiftly onto safe ground if he detects dissention. But the problem was that everyone in the hall – bar possibly the press – was a Labour Party member and would inevitably be voting Labour at the next election.  What the party needs to do is convince the swing voters, and one wonders if Corbyn’s time might not be better spent speaking to them.  It’s riskier as he may get heckled. But the rewards could be far higher than simply preaching to the converted.

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