Corbyn plays all the old favourites in Bristol but no one's dancing

John Crace
Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

It wasn’t exactly Woodstock. It wasn’t even Birmingham 2017. Back then nearly 10,000 people had turned up to hear Clean Bandit and Steve Coogan appear as warm-up acts for Jeremy Corbyn in the final days of the election campaign. On College Green in Bristol, sandwiched between the cathedral and the town hall, barely a couple of thousand – mostly students – showed up for the start of the Labour leader’s series of whirlwind national rallies.

Corbyn had hoped Bristol might mark the first gig of The Comeback Tour. It felt more like The Long Goodbye. It wasn’t just the audience and the warmth of a summer’s evening that were missing. It was the energy and the enthusiasm. Two years ago, there had been a sense of hope. A feeling that change was possible. Now there was just weariness, a weight of resignation. A commitment to a cause that already felt lost. The crowd had turned up as much to keep the faith with themselves as with their leader.

The first rule of any lunchtime rally in December is that it should start on time. Even on a day of pale watery sunlight, you quickly get cold just standing around. The event had been meant to start at 2pm, but half an hour later there was still no sign of Corbyn. Several people standing near me gave up and headed home. There was only so much excitement they could take. One bloke muttered: “I’m going to give him five more minutes and then I’m going to bugger off and do some yoga.” Five minutes later, the Downward Dog buggered off.

“Get it on the road,” another man yelled. “Or we’re going to the pub.” The rest of the crowd just stayed put. They were here because they were here because they were here. You’ve needed to be a stoic to be a Labour supporter in this campaign.

Forty minutes later than billed, Labour’s Bristol West candidate, Thangam Debbonaire, who had been jumping up and down to keep warm, and Marvin Rees, the mayor of Bristol, took to the makeshift stage. “Wow,” cried Debbonaire, desperately trying to inject some excitement into the proceedings. “Give yourself a huge cheer if you want a Labour government.” The response was a somewhat apathetic cheer. She tried again to provoke some kind of reaction from the crowd, but no one was willing to play ball. Too out of it, still pissed off the event was running so late. Or just plain hypothermic.

Next up was Rees, who sounded more struggling supply teacher than motivational speaker. The words were all in the right order but no one had come for a lecture on Boris Johnson’s racism, the failings of the Tory government and existential ennui. They had come to be inspired. By the time Rees had finished, most of the crowd had lost the will to live.

Debbonaire looked round helplessly. Where was the headline act? Someone behind her shrugged. Haven’t a clue, mate. In desperation, Debbonaire ad-libbed some of the highlights of her own set that she had delivered just minutes earlier. “Who wants a Labour government?” “Is Boris a liar?” In an ideal world, the crowd would have responded by singing Bon Jovi’s, “Woah, We’re half way there / Woah, Thangham Debbonaire.” But, sadly, this was no Richard Curtis romcom.

Eventually, a murmur went round that Corbyn was in the vicinity and nearly an hour later than planned he climbed on to the podium to a desultory chorus of “Oh Je-re-my Cor-byn”. At the last election this chant had come to sound almost devotional. A hymn. Now it’s just a barely conscious Pavlovian response. The last vestige of a failing leadership.

Not that Corbyn didn’t give it his best shot. These are the gigs he loves best. A big – well, biggish – crowd with whom to get up close and personal. You wouldn’t catch Boris getting anywhere near this close to members of the public that hadn’t been prevetted: he can’t do empathy and he hasn’t the bravery.

“Hello Bristol, hello West Country,” the Labour leader shouted, before going into his standard stump speech. Nine years of austerity. Four million children in poverty. The UK condemned by the United Nations. Labour could turn this round and would protect the NHS. Of Brexit there was barely a mention – just one whispered remembrance of things past. He remains desperate to make a Brexit election about anything other than Brexit.

Corbyn ended with a popular crowd favourite of climate change. At times he yelled so loud that he almost lost his voice. But he just wasn’t getting much back. In the past these gigs had been mutual love-ins. Now he was pouring his heart and soul into his act and getting next to nothing back. The chemistry just wasn’t there. People just weren’t feeling it in the way they once had. They had come for a glimmer of hope. They left with the scars of a raging against the dying of the light.

John Crace’s new book, Decline and Fail: Read in Case of Political Apocalypse, is published by Guardian Faber. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

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