As a rallying call to his core supporters Jeremy Corbyn’s first Conference speech as Leader of the Labour Party certainly delivered. He sought to reinforce his identity as one of them rather than as a member of the Westminster elite. He dressed his attacks on the media (collectively and individually) in what was meant to be self-deprecating humour. But like John McDonnell’s speech the day before the media heard the message loud and clear.
As a speech opener it was designed to increase the wedge between pro-Corbyn party members and the Westminster elite (of which the media and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party are seen as being members). Indeed the growing gulf between many Labour MPs and the Party members has been writ large in the conference bars and fringe meetings where many MPs have performed contortions worthy of circus performers.
While the pre-briefed line that the new politics would be kinder was designed to set the tone, it wasn’t enough to form the foundation of a strong narrative. The speech was instead a list of restatements of Labour activists’ policy shopping list – the only new policy being the extension of paid maternal leave to the self-employed.
The lack of any reference to the deficit or to the general elections of 2015 or 2020 highlighted the fact that no part of the speech was designed to reach beyond the hall to the wider electorate.
Many of the moderates in the Party fear that the strategy of Corbyn and those around him is to change the party rather than win elections. This speech will have done nothing to allay those fears. The strongest statement of Corbyn’s determination on that score was his restatement of his opposition to the renewal of Trident, despite the unions ensuring that a vote on the issue was put off this week. He put himself on a direct collision course with those unions so we should expect that tension on this issue will continue for some time after Conference.
If those wondering how to engage with the Corbyn-led Labour Party were struggling to understand what policy is or might be on a wide range of issues that struggle will be multiplied exponentially for Labour MPs in the coming weeks and months as the battles deferred at Conference play out.
Michelle Di Leo, Head of Public Affairs
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January 21, 2021