Gingers 4 Jezza: How Corbyn became UK politics’ big draw

The Labour leader appeals to young voters. Is it enough to pull off an election miracle on Thursday?

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn launches his election campaign, railing against the Westminster establishment and vowing to defeat what he calls a "cosy cartel" at the heart of British politics that protects the interests of the wealthy.

Jeremy Corbyn was halfway through his speech in Eastside City Park, in Birmingham, when the crowd of thousands shifted their gaze to the sky. When a perfect rainbow formed behind him they cheered. When a second appeared alongside it a woman next to me gasped.

“Oh my God. It’s like a miracle,” she said.

The event felt more like a music festival than a political meeting, with about 6,000 mostly young people in front of a pyramid stage, braving squalls of rain and drinking beer from plastic cups. Before the Labour Party leader arrived to make a speech that was streamed to five other rallies around the country, the event's compere, Steve Coogan, and various musicians and DJs kept the crowd entertained.

Gingers 4 Jezza: Jeremy Corbyn speaks in Birmingham. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Coogan avoided jokes for the most part, although he won the biggest laugh of the evening when he described Theresa May as having all the charisma of a pancake.

Big draw: Jeremy Corbyn with the comedian Steve Coogan, who compered the rally, and supporter Saffiyah Khan. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty

Steve Coogan won the biggest laugh of the evening when he described Theresa May as having all the charisma of a pancake

To the sound of Curtis Mayfield's Move on Up, Corbyn emerged, in a dark suit and pale-blue open-necked shirt, on to a platform in the middle of the crowd, which roared and cheered and waved signs saying "Vote Labour – For the Many, Not the Few". Other signs read "Let June be the End of May" and "Strong and Stable My Arse".

Corbyn’s critics inside his party are derisive about the big crowds he has attracted during the campaign, pointing out that they have usually been in safe Labour seats rather than in the marginals that are at risk on Thursday. No other British politician can draw crowds of this size, however, and Corbyn’s rivals for the Labour leadership struggled to attract anyone beyond paid staff and blood relatives to their campaign events in 2015 and 2016.

“They thought it would all be over by June 8th. Well, I’ll tell you what: they underestimated us, didn’t they? They underestimated us. They underestimated us and the campaign we would mount,” Corbyn said to a roar from the crowd.

Labour has cut the Conservatives’ lead in half since the start of the campaign, and a handful of polls put the parties neck and neck. But if Corbyn is to pull off the miracle of getting into Downing Street on Thursday he will have to mobilise young people to vote in unprecedented numbers. Labour’s manifesto promise to scrap third-level tuition fees is a help, but, like Barack Obama’s almost a decade ago, Corbyn’s central message is not about policies but about hope.

“Oh my God. It’s like a miracle”: a rainbow appears above the stage as Jeremy Corbyn speaks in Birmingham. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

“Let us resolve to do things differently. Invest in education, invest in health, invest in housing, invest in jobs. Invest in a future for all of us. This election on this programme gives us all an opportunity to change the political direction of this country. Wherever you go, ask people what kind of country, what kind of world, what kind of society they want to live in,” he said.

We're young, we're old, we're black, we're white, we're gay, we're straight, we're men, we're women. We're everything

“Look around you. Look at each other, look at the faces, look at who we are. We’re young, we’re old, we’re black, we’re white, we’re gay, we’re straight, we’re men, we’re women. We’re everything.”

When Corbyn finished speaking and started to shake hands and pose for selfies, the Liverpool band the Farm struck up their anthem All Together Now. Some of the crowd drifted away, but many people stayed around long enough to turn the park into a vast dance floor for Liar Liar, Captain Ska's song about Theresa May, which has become one of the most popular in Britain.

Holding a placard saying "Gingers 4 Jezza", Michael Woodmass, who is 23, was with a group of fellow medical students who came to the rally for a mixture of reasons.

"I think tuition fees are a big part of it. Luckily we're in a position where we're able to fund our studies, but for a lot of people we know it's very difficult to actually get to the career path you want to do. So it's a bit for the NHS, it's for funding, it's a lot of issues," he said.

Imogen Stokes, another 23-year-old, took little interest in politics before the campaign, but she is worried about the danger she believes the Conservatives pose to the future of the NHS.

“At first I was a little bit sceptical about Jeremy Corbyn, but over this campaign he’s really proved to me that he has what it takes to be a good leader,” she said. “He’s got people talking. His policies are really going to revolutionise a lot of things. And hopefully that will really inspire the younger generation.”

Corbyn's policies are  going to revolutionise a lot of things. And hopefully that will really inspire the younger generation

A campaign with legs: Jeremy Corbyn leggings at the Labour leader’s Birmingham rally. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

Charles Carey, who is 21, believes that a surge of young voters could yet carry Corbyn into Downing Street. But he says the Labour leader should not resign if he comes up short, because this campaign has already changed politics in Britain.

“We’ve seen a huge amount of young people getting involved in a way they weren’t before, especially around university campuses and stuff, and that’s really important, because if you can galvanise that part of the vote then he can win,” he said.

“And with the movement he’s created it’s just going to take everyone further and get everyone more and more interested – and I reckon more and more young people, especially, are going to vote in the future.”