Tuesday 29 September 2015

A Note on Jeremy Corbyn's Conference Speech

The tradition in recent years is for the shadow chancellor and the leader's speech to be taken as a piece. The former deals with the technical fiddly bits of economic policy, while the latter is about the wider vision. Cometh the new politics and the old set up remains. Yesterday John McDonnell gave a strong speech setting out clearly and unambiguously Labour's line of travel. Speaking as a sceptic, as far as I was concerned it ticked the boxes marked 'politically smart' and 'eminently sensible', while remaining consistent with Labour's explicit turn to social justice and, gasp, socialism. With half the job done, would Jeremy also deliver?

Well, it very much depends on who you ask. Professional Corbyn critic John McTernan thought it the "worst political speech I have ever heard by some distance." Hyperbole much. A more honest and thoughtful contribution from the right of the party comes from Wes Streeting, who said, "many things to cheer in Jeremy's speech but it was the tone on debate that was most refreshing. Test will be how it played outside the Party." Yes, Wes is right.

I liked Jeremy's speech. I don't care that it was rambling in places and a touch repetitive. Give me that any day over stilted sound bites, zero passion, wonkish wonkery, and monochrome monotone delivery. He spoke the truth about austerity. The truth about the Tories. And the truth of what the Labour Party should be about. Before Jeremy, if one is being honest you had to comb the ex-leader's speech and glom the good things hidden amid the delphic passages and commitment to things counterproductive to the party's own health. Not this time.

I did enjoy Jeremy's speech, but it wasn't as outward facing as John's was. I liked it because I'm a Labour person and a socialist. I want to overcome my scepticism and reticence. I want to believe. This speech was aimed at unifying the party and the movement, which I think it largely managed to do - McTernanites notwithstanding. Labour supporters in the country too would have been cheered. Odds and sods flirting with anti-politics probably heard things they liked to hear. But this wasn't a speech designed to win over swing voters leaning toward the blues. This was a base speech, one setting out to consolidate party and movement by setting out Labour's stall.

Is that really a problem? No. The key thing a leader must do is define themselves early on. This is what Ed Miliband didn't do after his victory five years ago. During the contest he'd tacked to the (soft) left, and immediately afterward tacked (soft) right, and this was to characterise his leadership right up to the general election. It was a strategic approach, if it can be called that, Andy Burnham borrowed during this summer's contest with disastrous results.

The sort of speech given today only becomes an issue if this is the tone Labour adopts forever more. Which is not very likely to be the case. If this was the 2019 party conference and Jeremy had said all this and nothing else, then the doomsayers would be entitled to their doomsaying. But it's not. The speech may not have won over large numbers of voters in swathes of swing seats, but at this stage it doesn't really need to. There's a long time between now and next May's round of elections. Appeals to the so-called middle would be long forgotten by then, and an opportunity to strengthen our party and movement now, lost. In all, Jeremy did what he needed to do, and did so with a touch of aplomb.


Chris said...

To be fair, attacking the Tories' economic record is an important way of reaching out to swing voters. A lot of people vote based on which party they think will run the economy best, not specific policies targeted at them. Ed Miliband failed to take the fight to the Tories on the economy and people ended up believing everything the government said.

I also thought appealing to the self-employed was a good move. Labour can be small business's champion if we get it right.

Like you, I'm a sceptic about Corbyn. I'm a socialist and I admire him, but I was worried about how this party would react - that's the pessimism of 10 years in the party. However, I've been impressed with the sure-footedness which Jeremy and John McDonnell have displayed, and I thought Jeremy came over far better today than poor Ed Miliband ever did.

As for John McTernan, I imagine he came up with his response long before he ever heard the speech.

Anonymous said...


Didn’t see the speech but did see a lot of the media commentary. We should start to ignore his internal opponents and “political analysists”.

The former will find fault whatever he says and twist it to their agenda – responding is a waste of time.

The latter cannot see beyond their bubble of polls and focus groups “data” – they have no conception of movement and how attitudinal change can be won through concerted political action. Let them talk amongst themselves.

More interesting was a C4 discussion with Lab delegates who – regardless who they voted for – were behind the leadership and clearly invigorated. Their commitment to the overall cause, however they rationalised it, outweighing any factionalism. So too a piece interviewing his constituents where the common and most negative theme was – “he is too nice to be PM”. We can live with that.

The potential impact of the call for a new honest, straight talking and more caring type of politics should also not be underestimated. Authenticity goes a very long way and reaches out to non-traditional Labour voters sick of the alternative.


Anonymous said...

I though the speech was brilliant. A perfect mixture of the vision, policy indications and very pertinent attacks on Tory policies, along with some very relevant statistics (e.g. re self employed).

It was light on detailed policy but only one of his own PLP members could blame him for that!

Which brings us onto the PLP. If Corbyn cannot cull them and change the makeup of the PLP from 90% hostile to 90% supportive then he cannot do anything but push through watered down policies.

I fear New Labour have already damaged this country beyond repair. And looking at the Middle East their policies seem to have already damaged that part of the world beyond repair.

Instead of banging the war drums those New Labour politicians should be sent to The Hague for crimes against humanity. The least they could do is take a dignified silence. Their war mongering is beyond priceless!