It is just possible – I put it no higher -- that Jeremy Corbyn turned an important corner at this week’s Labour party conference. He actually made a speech that sounded as if it had been written for the leader of a political party.
Not the leader of a protest group. Not the leader of a social movement. But the leader of a political party which aims, one day, to form a government. He couldn’t have been clearer: ‘Yes, our party is about campaigning and it’s about protest too. But most of all it’s about winning power.’
Note those words: ‘Most of all.’ Does he really believe it, deep in his heart, after a lifetime of protest? I hope he does, because none of his ideas – and there were plenty of good ones in his speech – will do anything to make Britain a better place unless Labour win power.
‘The central task of the whole Labour party,’ Corbyn said, ‘must be to rebuild trust and support to win the next general election.’ I agree. I just wish he had put a bit more flesh on the bones – and I wish he had told his party activists that they need to start talking much more to former Labour voters in key constituencies and much less to each other.
A year ago, just after he was elected party leader, I quoted from a Fabian Society analysis of what Labour must do to regain power: it concluded that the party would need to gain more than 100 extra parliamentary seats to win a Commons majority, and four-fifths of the extra votes they would need to win in English and Welsh marginals would have to come direct from Conservative voters.
Polly Toynbee quoted the same analysis in The Guardian this week: ‘Even if the young are energised and turnout soars to Scottish referendum heights, it gets nowhere close. Even if every single Liberal Democrat and Green vote went Labour, that only gives 29 seats. Even if Ukip were crushed, its vote divides equally Labour and Tory. As Labour wins radical votes, it risks losing moderate votes to the Tories: 2% went that way last time. Read the research yourself and groan. It hurts.’
Does Mr Corbyn understand that? There were, perhaps, a few flickers of recognition in his speech: a welcome reference, for example, to the ‘explosion of temporary, insecure jobs [and] nearly one million people on zero hour contracts ...six million working people earning less than the living wage and poverty among those in work … at record levels.’ These are the people Labour needs to re-engage with, because there just aren’t enough university-educated metropolitian millennials to bring electoral victory on their own.
But there was nothing in his speech that suggested he has truly grasped the scale of the challenge that his party faces. The electoral challenge alone is tough enough, but the task goes much deeper. Right across the Western world (Canada being a notable exception), the liberal left is in crisis, unable as yet to craft a new set of policies appropriate to the post-crash, post-globalisation, post-industrial world in which we live.
The traditional Labour alliance that united the blue-collar, heavily unionised industrial working class with the metropolitan and instinctively liberal progressive elite has vanished – so the task facing Corbyn or whoever follows him is to fashion a new election-winning consensus to enable the delivery of what he calls ‘a fairer Britain in a peaceful world.’
On Brexit, the over-riding issue facing Britain, he had little of substance to offer in Liverpool. No blank cheque to Theresa May and her ‘three-legged team of fractious Brexiteers’, a defence of workers’ rights and social justice, and of the UK’s right not to further privatise public services. But what a Corbyn-led government’s negotiating strategy would be, not a lot.
We do know, however, that he intends to stand firm against demands from some of his senior colleagues for Labour to bow to anti-immigration sentiment – all credit to him for that, although again, it would have been useful to have heard a more rousing clarion call than a reinstatement of the Migrant Impact Fund (even if he did offer in passing a rare word of praise to Gordon Brown for having set it up) and the introduction of a ‘citizenship application fee levy’ to help pay for it.
On the vexed question of the British nuclear weapons arsenal (he’s a unilateralist; many of his colleagues are not), there was simply an anodyne commitment ‘to honour our international treaty obligations on nuclear disarmament.’ The word Trident didn’t even pass his lips.
Most reprehensibly, however, especially for a man who was one of the co-founders of the Stop The War Coalition, and who again at the party conference voiced his total opposition to military interventions in the Middle East, there was barely even a glancing reference to the catastrophe that has engulfed Syria. He referred to the violation of international humanitarian law in both Syria and Yemen, yet somehow failed to mention the role played by Russia in the ruthless bombardment of rebel-held eastern Aleppo while suggesting that he would halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia over its killing of civilians in Yemen.
Mr Corbyn has an opportunity now to make a real mark on British politics. He has a renewed personal mandate from the members of Europe’s biggest political party, a party that introduced the welfare state and the National Health Service, the 1965 Race Relations Act, the Equal Pay Act; the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized homosexual acts between men over the age of 21, and the national minimum wage.
It is a party with a history to be proud of, and a future full of uncertainty. Mr Corbyn’s first year as party leader was abysmal; if his speech this week marked a new start, the whole country will have good reason to be grateful. A couple of weeks ago, when he roasted Theresa May over grammar schools, he showed that he can be effective in the House of Commons if he puts his mind to it. Perhaps he really is beginning to get the hang of this leadership business.
Someone wrote him a good speech this week, and then persuaded him to deliver it. He has a long, long way to go, but at least, at last, he seems to be heading in approximately the right direction. Meanwhile, the next generation of Labour leaders – Dan Jarvis, Keir Starmer, Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna – need to be setting out their visions for the future of the left in Britain.
If Jeremy Corbyn is right about Mrs May planning a general election for next year (I think he may very well be), and if, as everyone expects, Labour lose that election badly, the next party leader needs to be ready with a fresh set of ideas to continue the long march back to power. More thinking, less plotting – how’s that for an idea?