Corbyn billed his party as a government-in-waiting in a confident address. But will it be enough to assuage his critics—and win over voters?by Stephanie Boland / September 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
At 75 minutes, it was a mammoth speech. Conspicuously left-wing and confident, the leader’s address to conference was greeted with multiple standing ovations. During the first few months of this year, some doubted whether the Labour Party would make it to Brighton in one piece. Today, Corbyn seemed triumphant, and the key thread of his speech was of Labour as a government in waiting.
As Isabel Hardman observed over at the Spectator, much of the power of this speech came from capitalising on Tory mistakes. While Corbyn may be singing from the same broad hymn sheet as last year—nationalisation, improved infrastructure, housing, ending austerity—his pitch has undoubtedly improved, although whether it merited a full 75 minutes is debatable.
His description of Grenfell as a “monument” to the “horrible [Conservative] regime” and argument that homes should be “for the many, not speculative investments for the few” will appeal to those increasingly disturbed by the rise of homelessness in Britain—and by the disdain for residents’ safety which allowed the Grenfell tragedy to occur. To quote the Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire, “Grenfell standing for a failed and broken political system is another Corbyn attack that resonates because it is true.” His proposal that councils ballot tenants before regenerating estates will also please his unashamedly left-wing base.
Focusing on the inspiring response of public servants to terrorism, too, was a neat rebuke of the soft-on-terror image which the Conservatives largely failed to make stick during the election campaign. Corbyn’s support for scrapping the public sector pay freeze and opposition to police cuts which took place during Theresa May’s tenure at the Home Office will do him no harm either.
A harder sell
Other aspects of his speech will be harder to sell, particularly to his sceptics. His call for proper intervention in Myanmar was appropriate and delivered in a heartfelt fashion, but will do little to assuage concerns regarding his general approach to foreign policy, particularly when it comes to the two flashpoints of Europe and Venezuela.
Similarly, while the condemnation of abuse suffered by Diane Abbott was important, the glaring absence of any reference to anti-Semitism was striking after a week in which some young Jewish members admitted they felt uncomfortable at conference.
The comments delivered with his own party in mind, too, won’t necessarily be welcomed by all. The public thanking of shadow cabinet members will please supporters invested in “kinder, gentler politics,” but cynics will remember the lack of an expected “unity reshuffle” after the election—and note that Tom Watson’s bizarre attempt at the “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” chant yesterday on the conference floor failed to earn him anywhere near the applause offered to Rebecca Long-Bailey, John McDonnell and particularly Laura Pidcock, whose biggest media moment so far comes from her vocal scepticism of working with Tories.
Labour’s lost love
Such internal struggles were explicitly referred to when Corbyn spoke of the need to “do politics differently.”
“It’s not always been easy,” he said, to laughs and applause from the crowd. “But I promise you we will do politics differently, and the vital word here is we.” Power, he said, must be devolved to communities, “not monopolised in Westminster and Whitehall,” with politicians “truly accountable to those we serve.”
It was a reminder of a key divide in the party, between those who see it as a conduit for the views of ordinary people and those who see it as a group of elected officials with a mandate to exercise their own decision-making powers. Born of Labour’s traditional Janus position as the parliamentary wing of the trade union movement, at best this tension is a productive one. At its worst, however, it has the power to fragment the party dramatically. Talk of a a split has all but disappeared after Labour’s better-than-anticipated performance in June, but the fracture remains.
In Brighton, the energy seemed to have shifted from the hotel bars—the Hilton was particularly scarcely-populated by midnight last night—towards Momentum’s parallel The World Transformed festival. Today, Corbyn’s call for unity will make it harder for critics to argue that it is he, rather than they, dividing the party. “I hope we have left our own divisions aside,” Corbyn said, adding that Labour “must make our unity practical.”
He also addressed the belief that elections can only be won from the centre ground with a wry smile and a populist swipe at the media, saying: “The political centre of gravity isn’t fixed or unmovable,” or “where the establishment pundits” believe it to be—“because they know everything, as you know.” Most people, he said, want what was in the Labour manifesto.
For now, though, Theresa May remains in No 10—heretical as it has become to suggest that Labour lost the election. If some of his supporters still believe it is better to be an uncompromising campaigning force than a compromised government, this speech was expressly billed as that of a government-in-waiting. Whether those outside the hall are willing to elect that government, however, remains to be seen.