‘An electoral mountain to climb’

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Jeremy Corbyn’s first conference speech as leader of the Labour Party was a major story. His elevation had been so unexpected that people – well, commentators, at any rate – were intrigued to see how he’d fare on the big stage.

This time round there was no such sense of anticipation. And no real interest in the proceedings of the conference.

The week started with the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday serialising instant books on the EU referendum, both of which were inevitably focussed on the Conservative Party, since the Labour leadership had so little to say for itself during the campaign. The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, chose this week to unleash the fruits of a ten-month investigation into the state of English football: the man of the moment is not Corbyn, but Sam ‘Big Sum’ Allardyce.

But still, some of us are paying attention, so we should ask: how did Corbyn do?

Well, first of all, he’s better at this sort of thing than he used to be. After 32 years of comfortable backbench obscurity, it’s been a baptism of fire, this last twelve months, and he has improved considerably. He still stumbles over the autocue and fluffs his cadences on occasion, but he looks more relaxed than he did last year. In front of the faithful, at least, he has an authority that wasn’t previously apparent. And he’s got good at the conventions of the keynote speech, things like giving credit to his shadow cabinet colleagues.

In terms of content, it was a reasonable speech. He acknowledged that ‘There is an electoral mountain to climb’, and he offered – more coherently than he has before – a vision of how to construct an appeal to voters.

For much of it, there wasn’t a great deal to separate him from Ed Miliband. He promised, for example, to build a million new homes and to create a million ‘good jobs’. He pledged not to let bankers wreck the economy again. He wants to outlaw zero-hour contracts. And he said he’d make ‘shabby tax avoidance a thing of the past’.

There’s less of an intellectual underpinning, of course – that’s not Corbyn’s strength. Instead we got slogans about how ‘the old model is broken’ in ‘the so-called free market system’.

But there was some good new stuff. Allowing councils to borrow to fund house-building is surely sensible. Unlike some potential beneficiaries of John McDonnell’s National Investment Bank, this is a genuine investment: there’s a guaranteed return in the form of rent. A public-sector build-to-rent is the kind of policy that’s easy to communicate. The National Education Service remains a great slogan in search of a programme. He tried it out last year, and it doesn’t seem to have got much further. And the ‘arts pupil premium’, the mention of rights for the self-employed, the commitment to increased funding for research and development – there’s room for development on these.

Shamefully Brexit, the biggest story in domestic politics for forty years, wasn’t important enough to warrant a debate at the annual conference of the official opposition party. It did get mentioned, though, in Corbyn’s speech, and not only in the context of attacking the government for failing to meet ‘the historic challenge of Brexit’.

The referendum vote, he suggested, was the result of people feeling left behind. And he suggested, quite correctly, that Brexit offers the Left some room to advance its economic arguments. None of which seemed to address the desire ‘to get our country back’.

But the main post-referendum emphasis was on immigration. ‘Defend those being demonised,’ he urged, as he denounced racism and division. But it’s uncertain that this is enough. The proposed Migrant Impact Fund is clearly a decent idea, but it doesn’t address the issue that concerns many working-class voters, who see the problem as being primarily one of national identity. And there’s little progress to be made there. Because however often Labour figures say that they ‘hear’ and ‘understand’ the concerns about immigration, the suspicion remains that when Gordon Brown dismissed Gillian Duffy as a bigot, he was expressing what the party really thinks.

There was no mention of terrorism or Trident. But an ethical foreign policy is back on the agenda. There were five mentions of socialism, even if class didn’t turn up. There was precious little on Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland either, though he did say that the ‘arts pupil premium’ would apply to ‘every primary school in England and Wales’, perhaps unaware that education is a devolved matter.*

Nonetheless, it was perhaps his best performance so far. His greatest strength has always been his image of being a decent man (however contested that description is). When he talks about fairness and equality, he sounds better than his predecessors as leader. He even managed to sound okay with some bland Blairite lines: ‘A Labour government will never accept second-best for this country.’

The concern remains, however, whether his leadership is actually competent enough politically to achieve its aims. It should be relatively easy, for example, to defeat Theresa May’s proposed expansion of grammar schools, but for that to happen, it requires parliamentary alliances, not a day of action in ‘our communities’. Indeed the latter runs the risk of alienating the Tory dissident MPs who will be required to mount a successful campaign.

Running through it all – and getting the biggest cheers – there was the predictable call for unity, even if it was a little less than convincing. Following his re-election as leader, Corbyn himself is certainly safe for the immediate future. Indeed, if there’s a challenge next year (and these internal contests are now an important part of Labour’s contribution to the gaiety of the nation), it will more likely be to Tom Watson, whose speech yesterday aroused such fury in some Corbynite quarters.

But the structural problem still remains. Despite the influx of new members (greater than the exodus of old ones), this is still meant to be a parliamentary party. And we know that the majority of MPs have no confidence in their leader, since they had the courtesy to tell us so earlier this year. No one’s going to believe that they feel differently now to how they felt in June. To misquote the saying misattributed to John Maynard Keynes: while the facts remain the same, why would anyone change their mind?

And then there’s the most serious problem of all. Corbyn’s speech isn’t the big story of the day. Labour are in danger of looking entirely peripheral to politics. The brevity of the Brexit section won’t have done anything to help that.

* Our thanks to Martin Johnes for drawing this to our attention.


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