General Election 2024

The political redemption of Jeremy Corbyn

Now, as an independent, the former party leader is watching Labour win from afar

July 06, 2024
Corbyn won Islington North by over 7,000 votes. Image: Milo Chandler / Alamy Stock Photo
Corbyn won Islington North by over 7,000 votes. Image: Milo Chandler / Alamy Stock Photo

It felt as if he could make it. On the eve of polling day, Islington North was packed with Jeremy Corbyn supporters, fighting for a seat that had been Labour’s since Corbyn’s election in 1983. The former Labour leader, expelled from the party in May, was polling only five points behind the constituency’s Labour candidate, councillor Praful Nargund. It was too close to comfortably call. Old wounds were being reopened: Tom Watson, Corbyn’s former antagonist and deputy leader, had been campaigning for Nargund. Every day, Corbyn supporters had been leafleting outside local tube stations. An Islington resident told me canvassers usually take the seat as a foregone conclusion. During this campaign, she’d been doorknocked five times.

On Wednesday night, on Highbury Fields, Team Corbyn hosted its final pre-election rally. “Give us a shoutout if you like tofu!” called Mick Lynch, the charismatically taciturn RMT union boss, to the few hundred people on the green. 

There was one result that Lynch was particularly looking forward to, he told us. “Remember Grant Shapps? He said he was going to crush our union within a fortnight.” (In the event, Shapps lost to Labour on Thursday night by 3,000 votes.)

The RMT was expelled by Labour in 2004, but endorsed Corbyn’s leadership campaign in 2015. “The Labour party has left us,” Lynch told the crowd. “Jeremy Corbyn is not an independent—all these posters are wrong, as far as I’m concerned. Jeremy Corbyn is an integral part of the Labour movement.”

Lynch finished his speech urging those gathered to support Palestine, peace, justice—and Jeremy. “A vote for Corbyn is a vote for the future.” But here, it felt a little like a vote for the past.

Many of Corbyn’s prominent supporters from his years in power were present. Journalist and campaigner Owen Jones gave a speech, reminding us of Corbyn’s perpetual position on “the right side of history”.

Palestine flags waved as Jermain Jackman, Corbyn’s friend and the winner of the third series of The Voice, sang Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”. Jackman recounted first meeting Corbyn at 13 years old. “Lucky you!” shouted a voice in the crowd. Diane Abbott used to be his MP, Jackman said, now it’s David Lammy. “Zionist sellout,” muttered a woman behind me. James Schneider, Corbyn’s former director of communications, was watching him from the crowd, as were several of Corbyn’s sons. (One kindly offered me a meeting with Jeremy… if I gave him my number.)

Corbyn Sr took to the stage with a cream rosette pinned to a red shirt, and wearing socks and sandals. He pointed to where the peasants’ revolt arrived in Highbury to sack the local priory. He noted the local heroes—Karl Marx, Mary Wollestonecraft—who lived and wrote and thought nearby. And now, here we were, on the verge of making history again.

“I just think this campaign has been amazing and historic,” Corbyn said. He castigated Keir Starmer’s Labour for its “immoral” two-child benefit limit, failing to act enough on rent rises, NHS privatisation, the Gaza war and the climate emergency.

“You won’t find me condemning the people of Bangladesh,” he said, in reference to Starmer’s comment, in answer to a question about how the party would act on illegal immigration, that “at the moment” people coming from the country are not being removed.

As an independent MP Corbyn would continue to be unreasonable, difficult and stubborn, he pledged. “I am all of those things.” Being barred by the party had been “painful beyond belief”. 

Yet Corbyn seemed relaxed, his battle for survival notwithstanding. “This has been an absolute joy and tomorrow will be a joy,” he said. He read the final lines of Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy”, the poem he so often cites and that inspired his general election slogans. “Ye are many—they are few!” 

Too few to beat him, it turned out. Corbyn won Islington North on Thursday with 24,120 votes—7,000 ahead of Labour. 

When we spoke after the rally, he refused to predict how it would go. “I know how difficult it is.” He was prepared to lose—he’d simply “carry on campaigning, as I’ve always done.” The spirit that propelled him close to Number 10 would be diverted to a broader social movement. “We’ve carried a message of hope, not of despair. And I’m proud of it.”

He hadn’t made his peace with Labour. They’d forced him into running by their “disgraceful” treatment of him. “A lot of people have said to me, ‘you can’t take this.’” 

I asked if he had regrets from the way it all ended. “I’m like Frank Sinatra,” he laughed. “Regrets, I’ve had a few—but then again too few to mention,” before adding: “I sleep well at night… I read, I write, and I represent an awful lot of people.”

Then he continued: “You have to live with what you’ve done and live with what you can do. And I can look in the mirror every night and I can carry on.” In 2017 and 2019, Corbyn got more votes than Starmer managed on Thursday—but from the wrong people. Now, as an independent, he can watch the Labour victory he dreamed of.