Corbyn made a powerful, confident speech at conference – in some ways too confident
One notable exception was a commitment to a Final Say on the Brexit vote, something Labour members support at a rate of 10 to 1. What about that promise he made?
Not so long ago, Jeremy Corbyn was so unfamiliar with an autocue that he read out stage directions such as “strong message here” as if they were part of his script. No longer. Mr Corbyn, zen-like, jokey and confident in the adulation of his grassroots support, was dishing out strong political messages with no need for any assistance.
There was genuine passion for those who have found themselves on the wrong end of Tory indifference – Grenfell, Windrush, the “hostile environment”, people on Universal Credit. He tried to reach out to the Jewish community after the antisemitism row, though it may be too late. He reflected on the betrayal of hope by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. The government’s blunders almost wrote Mr Corbyn’s speech for him. Yet, if anything, some of his messages on the economy were a little too strong.
Nothing seems to excite Mr Corbyn and his colleagues so much as the mouth-watering prospect of a snap general election. Some gossip about Theresa May “war gaming” a general election to break the Brexit impasse seems to have been behind this. Despite comprehensive rubbishing by No 10, and despite the salutary experience of 8 June 2017, it seems to have set hares running.
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Nowhere was Mr Corbyn stronger in his leader’s speech than when he called, once again, for Ms May to get out of the way and allow him to win his mandate, take over the Brexit negotiations, and then embark upon the task of building a socialist Britain. Fat chance, Jeremy.
If sincere, then Mr Corbyn is likely to be disappointed. As has been the case so often in the past, Conservatives are perfectly capable of tearing themselves apart and even defenestrating a leader, but immediately rally round when Labour tables a vote of no confidence in a government they, plainly have no confidence in.
There will be no early election, no matter how loud Mr Corbyn shouts. Indeed it is Mr Corbyn’s very radicalism – or extremism, according to them – that means Conservatives are more than usually tribal about their current loyalties. The same applies with Labour’s lead in the polls. Such is the timing of a winter election that they really would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. Tory MPs on every wing agree that a combination of Brexit and Corbynism would simply destroy the prospects for the British economy. They have a point.
Where Mr Corbyn could instead have been strong – on a Final Say national vote on Brexit – he was weak. A man who was elected to empower his party membership has instead ignored them. During his speech at conference, Keir Starmer, as shadow Brexit secretary, pledged that any so-called second referendum would have the option to remain in the EU. For that he was rewarded with a standing ovation. The motion was passed overwhelmingly. Polls of the membership suggest they are for a vote by 10 to 1.
The policy agreed at conference, though ambiguous, at least referred to a referendum, if only as an option. Mr Corbyn said at the weekend to the Sunday Mirror that he would endorse his party members’ wishes. Now, in the moment, he found himself unable to even utter the word “referendum”. All he would say is that “all options are on the table”. It was, forgive us, Blair-esqe in its elusive ambiguity.
In the space of a week, Mr Corbyn’s lukewarm commitment to a Final Say has cooled.
Such is his popularity that he got away with it; but that will not last. “Love Corbyn, hate Brexit” was the unofficial conference slogan, and Mr Corbyn needs to take care that it does not turn into “hate Corbyn” if he lets his natural supporters down on this transcendent issue. Mr Corbyn’s suggestion that he would invest such transformative sums in the British economy that Leavers and Remainers would suddenly unite was unconvincing.
So confident was Mr Corbyn that he was repeated to declare his party “the New Majority”, and its policies “the New Common Sense for our time”. It was tantamount to a declaration that he had managed to pivot the centre of gravity of British politics to the left. It is a grand claim, and one not altogether borne out by last year’s general election result, nor his current leadership ratings. In any event, Mr Corbyn’s speech amounted to a very long list of spending or “investment” pledges, some vague, some more concrete, and, apart from a proposal to go after second home owners, very little indication of how these commitments will be met.
In the past this has proved an Achilles heel for Labour in successive general elections. The public may have little doubt that Labour’s intentions are honourable, and they might even approve of some of the individual plans; but they are rightly sceptical, as they have always been, that the resources can be found to fund them without inflation or wrecking the country’s credit rating. With Brexit itself threatening to inflict harm on the economy, tax revenues and the public finances, the extra strain Labour’s plans will add may be too much for investors to contemplate.
Apart from an ambitious plan to create 400,000 skilled jobs in green energy, at “union rates”, there was little in Mr Corbyn’s speech about raising the British growth rate or solving the productivity deficit that has frustrated governments for so long.
Much of Labour’s rhetoric has been unashamedly anti-business, anti-profit, and anti-wealth, with the aim to redistribute wealth and income rather than to create it: the classic weakness of Labour administrations in the past. Indeed, so visceral is Mr Corbyn’s hostility to finance and to New Labour that he even criticised the rescue of the financial system in 2008 by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling a decade ago – without which the cashpoints would have stopped working within hours and incalculable harm would have been visited upon on the economy. Mr Corbyn may be the first Labour leader in history to use his leader’s speech to launch a disastrous economic policy a decade retrospectively.
In the end, any fool can win an election by promising all things to all voters: a triple lock maintained for pensioners; help for the young on education and training; pay rises for virtually every public sector worker; vast investment schemes and ambitious plans to tackle the housing crisis and the shortage of care for older and disabled people. Mr Corbyn and his team are right to say that some such investment will pay for itself, and that other things can be funded simply by taxing the wealthy and big business, whose screams of anguish will echo around the “mainstream media” in the coming weeks and months.
Opportunities have become more unequal in British society. Much work does need to be done to tackle social evils. However, Mr Corbyn needs to convince the many in the electorate rather than the relatively few disciples gathered in Liverpool that he knows how to deliver his policies and how to pay for them sustainably – and he needs to set some priorities. He gives the impression of a man who does not know how to say “no”.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.
Sign our petition here