Corbyn's Speech: A step in the right direction, a million more to go

In the less packed conference hall than usual, the people sitting next to me were keen to kick off their game of  “Jeremy Corbyn Speech Bingo”. “Socialism”, “unity” and “poetry recital” were all included. Like many members, particularly those that have been around for a while, this young group had written Corbyn off before he had even opened his mouth. This was the challenge facing Corbyn, so how did he do?

Yesterday, I set out three things I wanted to see from Corbyn in his speech today. First, an olive branch and a sincere call for unity free of guilt tripping or repeatedly citing his mandate. In this area I believe he did well. He only mentioned the “members’ wishes must be respected” line once whereas previously this was his mantra. Instead, his call was based on a sincere readiness to take on the Conservatives in a snap election next year. “No one will vote for a disunited party, we can agree on that,” he said. 

The second thing I wanted to see was leadership. Corby had a tendency to almost abdicate his leadership role and delegate it to members. Today was different. He set out the ten principles, some new, some old, that he hopes will shape Labour’s policy agenda. This is the closest thing we’ve got to a Corbyn vision and manifesto and it was encouraging to see his ideas taking form. He invited members, businesses and the party overall to help formulate his ideas, but he was clear that these are indeed his plans. 

The final point I made yesterday was that Corbyn must speak to the electorate. On this, it was his most credible speech to date. He spoke of campaigning and protest but underlined that this is not why he is leader of the Labour Party - he wants power. This shift in rhetoric speaks volumes when it comes to shaking off the image of a disgruntled backbencher who is more akin to a protestor than a Prime Minister in waiting. Corby has so much more to do in order to make the rhetoric hold, but this is a late yet encouraging start. 

Some bonus points are awarded for setting out policy plans that range from housing to infrastructure and the flagship “national education service”. He even set out a more convincing and rounded economic argument than what Miliband was ever able to achieve. Miliband was afraid to say he would borrow a penny, but Corbyn is clear that a country that does not invest to grow is merely in a state of “managed decline”. That the Government’s own position on investment is also changing demonstrates that this is becoming a mainstream political position. However, voters are more likely to trust the Conservatives with this strategy rather than Labour. 

Points are deducted for not saying enough on Brexit. It is going to be a huge factor in the coming years but his position was very light and lacked substance. This is particularly important given that his lack lustre campaigning during the referendum was what triggered the “trench warfare” he now faces. 

Overall it’s been a somewhat strange conference. The atmosphere on the ground was void of excitement and it was unusually sparse. The fringes were a joke at times with shadow ministers in roles for just a few weeks attempting to speak to policy details whilst others such as Barry Gardiner were juggling multiple roles. But that is to be expected given the black hole in the shadow cabinet and rampant disunity. Corbyn needs everyone to pull together, has he done enough? My guess is that he has bought himself a fragile grace period and will be rewarded with some returnees, but he has a lot of work still to do. Allowing elections to the shadow cabinet will be a start. 

Michael Stott

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search