Corbyn improves his pitch, but it’s still not enough

Peter Hoskin

Peter Hoskin reports on the Labour leader’s speech to his party conference in Liverpool

26 September 2018 14:54

Oh, Jeremy, what are you like? No, seriously, what are you like? As Matt said on Monday, this week’s Labour conference in Liverpool was an opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn to define himself and his party to an electorate that isn’t exactly in love with the serving Government – or at least define himself in terms that don’t involve the conjunction of the words ‘anti’ and ‘Semitism’.

However, ahead of Corbyn’s speech today, the conference hadn’t quite gone that way. The antisemitism row has been allowed to simmer, rather than being taken off the heat. And Labour’s position on Brexit? After the various interventions of the Starmers and McDonnells and others, the best that could be said is that the party isn’t for Remain but it isn’t against it either. It has managed to occupy a new political territory that they’ll probably call ‘Lemain’ or ‘Reave’.

Labour has managed to occupy a new political territory that they’ll probably call ‘Lemain’ or ‘Reave’.

So enter Corbyn, stage-left. If the pressures of the past week have got to the man, if he was nervous about his speech, then it didn’t particularly show. He bounded to the lectern, exclaiming ‘Thank you! Thank you!’, with all the vigour of a TV preacher. Soon after, he cracked a decent joke – by the usual standards of politicians’ jokes – about the Liverpool and Manchester rivalry. Compared to the crotchety figure we saw on the Andrew Marr Show, this was Corbyn as raconteur. Socialism with a smile.

Except when a smile would have been inappropriate. One of the most significant parts of the speech came early on: Corbyn’s response to the antisemitism scandal. This started off as unequivocally as it needed to: ‘I say this to all in the Jewish community. This party, this movement, will always be against antisemitism and racism in all its forms.’ But then came the usual cavalcade of whataboutery, as the Labour leader turned his attention to the Conservatives and their hypocrisies. Later in the speech came an extended attack on the Israeli state. Fine, these are Corbyn’s politics – but maybe just this once, huh?

As for Brexit, let’s consider his words line-by-line:

‘As it stands, Labour will vote against the Chequers plan or whatever is left of it and oppose leaving the EU with no deal.’

The ‘whatever is left of it’ is crucial here. It suggests that any iteration of Chequers – which is probably all that May has left – will be turned down by Labour. And, as he says again, they won’t support ‘No deal’ either:

‘And it is inconceivable that we should crash out of Europe with no deal – that would be a national disaster.’

Which brings us to:

‘That is why if Parliament votes down a Tory deal or the government fails to reach any deal at all we would press for a General Election.’

So, if Labour’s opposition to May’s deal could be combined with enough opposition from elsewhere in Parliament, then Labour would call for an election. And:

‘Failing that, all options are on the table.’

Which, after this past week, means one option in particular: Labour would support a People’s Vote.

This hypothetical timeline doesn’t immediately extract Labour from its Brexit muddle, but it’s a start. It is also a victory for the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Keir Starmer, and for the People’s Vote campaigners who have filled Liverpool this week.

The speech was more notable for how it looked beyond Brexit.

That said, the speech was more notable for how it looked beyond Brexit. It achieved this through its structure, by barely mentioning Europe-and-all-that until near the end. It also achieved it in its content, with policies for a departed Britain – including a proposal to turn old industrial areas into centres of green technology, creating 400,000 jobs in the process. All the usual questions apply, and the answers are sad ones. How will this be done? How will it be funded? Is Corbyn competent enough to deliver? But British political discourse is so stuck on Brexit that it’s weirdly encouraging to hear a politician talk about the years after Brexit, and how its effects might be fixed. More should.

At the end, however, it all comes down to the biggest question of them all – about power. Corbyn concluded his speech by saying, ‘when we meet this time next year let it be as a Labour government’, so presumably he thinks that there’s a good chance of a general election between now and then. That makes this his big pre-election conference speech, and that is how it should be judged.

There was some clarification (on Brexit), some muddiness (on antisemitism), some nice ideas (those 400,000 jobs), and a brief attempt to reach out to older voters – oh, and some jokes. What there wasn’t was a sense of Corbyn as Prime Minister; no macro to offset the micro. A week from now, this one will have blended in with all the other Corbyn speeches because it is mostly the same. Well-meaning but well unpersuasive.

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