Five Things We Learned From Jeremy Corbyn's 2016 Labour Conference Speech

Defiant, confident, socialist. But will it work in marginal seats?

28/09/2016 20:57 | Updated 29 September 2016
Danny Lawson/PA Wire


From his opening sentence, Jeremy Corbyn showed a flash of steel that delighted his supporters. The joke about Virgin Trains assuring him there were 800 empty seats in the conference hall was more about defiance than self-deprecation. It was as if he’d held up his two fingers in a victory salute, and then swiftly turned his hand round to flick a V-sign at his corporate critics.

And the defiant tone shot through this entire speech. The botched coup in the summer turned out to be not so much a near-death experience for Corbyn as an injection of adrenalin. While his assassins were limping from the bullets shot into their own feet, here he was spelling out just why he’d been right all along.

He began the speech by framing it with examples of where he’d proved his critics wrong. What others saw as dogmatic stubbornness, he pitched as dogged determination and consistency. “Some people say campaigns and protests don’t change things. But the Hillsborough families have shown just how wrong that is,” he said. That was a neat riposte to Tony Blair, who said only recently that ‘I’m the guy on the placard, he’s the guy waving the placard’.

There was a swipe back at Tom Watson too, who had positively glowered at Corbyn on Tuesday with his own show of defiance. Watson, like Sadiq Khan, had stressed that Labour was nothing without power. Corbyn said that “most of all” Labour was “about winning power in local and national government, to deliver the real change our country so desperately needs”.

But there was defiance too in the way he effectively blamed the PLP for the current dire state of Labour’s opinion poll ratings. He suggested that “millions of our potential voters stayed at home” because of Ed Miliband’s uninspiring message, although he admitted he had still to “win over the unconvinced to our vision”. And then came the warning to MPs: “And let’s be frank, no one will be convinced of a vision, promoted by a divided party. So I ask each and every one of you, accept the decision of the members end the trench warfare and work together to take on the Tories.” The message was clear: if we’re seen as a disunited shower, that’s your fault, not mine. That famed olive branch suddenly looked very much like a birch stick with which to beat his opponents into line.

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There were attempts at conciliation, not least his admission that “we all have lessons to learn and a responsibility to do things better and work together more effectively…I will lead in learning those lessons”. There was the thanks to ‘all the Labour party staff’, some of whom have felt under siege from his supporters this summer, not least over claims of a ‘rigged purge’ (copyright: JMcDonnell).  He even mentioned ending the online abuse and anti-semitism that had scarred the leadership battle.

But buoyed by his second landslide, Corbyn had more than a few warnings for the PLP. There was the left jab about the leadership contest: “I hope we don’t make a habit of it.” There was the uppercut on deselection of MPs, with a telling line about the new mass membership: “Some may see that as a threat. But I see it as a vast democratic resource.” Was the plea for unity a rope-a-dope act, or was this just him stamping his new authority as leader?

Despite talk of an inclusive reshuffle, he won one of many ovations for praising the MPs who helped him get a Shadow Cabinet together after the ‘coup’. “They didn’t seek office, but they stepped up when their party and in fact the country needed them to serve..they are our future”. I’m guessing he meant Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey being the future, rather than Kelvin Hopkins and Paul Flynn, but anything is possible.

And there was his claim that ‘we are reuniting the Labour family’ by having leftwing unions like the Fire Brigades Union back in the party. “Each and every one” of the new members, including those previously barred (like Mark Serwotka), was welcome.

Corbyn often uses the word ‘we’ when asked for his own opinion in interviews. It’s not so much false modesty or even humility, as an expression of the collective. “We are half a million of us, and there will be more, working together to make our country the place it could be,” he said.

Labour MPs may say that his ‘we’ consists of party members, rather than voters. And they fear that he means only the loyal we. I saw a small, but co-ordinated group of delegates in the hall today refuse to join the ovation. Many Labour MPs had left Liverpool early to avoid being ‘vox-popped’ by eager TV cameras.

Yet there is something in his line that the Corbyn revolution is not about him. “It’s not about me of course, or unique to Britain,” he said. “Across Europe, North America and elsewhere, people are fed up with a so-called free market system, that has produced grotesque inequality stagnating living standards for the many calamitous foreign wars without end and a political stitch-up which leaves the vast majority of people shut out of power… Since the crash of 2008, the demand for an alternative and an end to counter-productive austerity has led to the rise of new movements and parties in one country after another.”

Others will point out that while there is obvious discontent with the status quo, Britain didn’t exactly rush to the polls to defeat austerity in the 2015 general election. In fact, as Lisa Nandy put it to me this week, many voters backed the Tories “not despite austerity but because of it”.

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Tony Blair famously had a 100-watt ‘Colgate smile’. But Corbyn’s supporters see his own toothy grin as the embodiment of his self-effacing charm. Today, the Labour leader was the most confident I’ve seen him since he took up the top job.

“When I meet Theresa May across the dispatch box, I know that only one of us has been elected to the office they hold, by the votes of a third of a million people,” he said, to huge cheers. It was a neat line, encapsulating the PM’s own lack of a mandate from either her party or the public.

But it was striking that he even blew his own trumpet in this way at all. Despite all his years on the rallies and demos circuit, Corbyn has never been known as a rousing public speaker. In last year’s leadership bid, his gentle monotone was often a counterpoint to others on the platform with more of a firebrand approach. For his supporters, his appeal stemmed from his quiet integrity rather than his oratory.

Today, however, he upped his game. The speech, crafted by aides Andrew Fisher and Seumas Milne, had an over-arching theme (’21st century socialism’, see below) that he lacked last year (perhaps also down to the fact that last year’s speech was written in just two days, I’m told).

He even relaxed enough to take in the applause lines, at times playing with the audience. His joke about not wanting to upset Everton fans with his tributes to Liverpool FC just underlined he was actually enjoying himself.

There was the gag too about his 10-point manifesto, “Don’t worry, they’re not the Ten Commandments”, which sounded like a jibe at the infamous EdStone. (Miliband got a kick from Watson yesterday too, as he attacked the ‘predators and producers’ line from Liverpool in 2011).

Normally very private about his private life, Corbyn for the first time talked about his personal backstory and his parents. But he couldn’t resist previewing this passage with the line “Each of us comes to our socialism from our own experiences.” The millions of voters who don’t have a ‘socialism’ of their own, may have felt that wasn’t a very inclusive line.

David Cameron, for all his faults, won an election after 10 years of ‘Cameron Direct’ events, where he met the public for Q&A sessions. ‘Corbyn Direct’ events consist of rallies of adoring supporters. A true sign of his new-found confidence would be to perhaps hold sessions with former Labour voters in marginal seats who gave the Tories that majority in 2015.

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Whereas the s-word used to be seen as toxic in the Blair era, under Corbyn you can’t move for Labour MPs saying they’re a ‘socialist’. Ed Miliband’s soft left started the trend but it seemed compulsory in Liverpool. John McDonnell said the word no longer had to be ‘whispered’, and Corbyn virtually megaphoned it today.

Socialism got four namechecks in the speech. Quoting Liverpool manager Bill Shankly was a smart way to play to the local gallery, “the socialism I believe in, is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards..that’s how I see football, that’s how I see life”.

Even that 1980s vintage item “municipal socialism” got a mention, though it was shrewd to pay tribute to the councillors across the country who are actually in power rather than talking about it. The plan to allow them to borrow to build more council houses was popular across all wings of the party. But after the NEC’s decision to ban councillors from setting illegal budgets, the modern version of municipal socialism won’t quite look like McDonnell’s rate-cap rebellion.

Corbyn’s wider ‘socialism of the 21st century’ was a mix of tax rises on business, green tech and hi-tech jobs, arts cash for kids, public investment and a non-specific pledge to “never let a few reckless bankers wreck our economy again”.

Sheila Coleman, Hillsborough Justice Campaign, introduced Corbyn with a plea to “unite behind our socialist leader”. One MP muttered to me after the speech that Coleman had endorsed calls to deselect local MP Louise Ellmann, which only goes to underline just how divided the party remains.

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Immigration was one very visible policy area where Corbyn mixed defiance with his new-found confidence.

Although the overnight brief got a kicking in many papers, he didn’t cave to the pressure to say he wanted to ‘reduce’ migration. There’s a good Labour case to make on why targets and the ‘numbers game’ is a fool’s errand, not least as May may well miss the Tory manifesto pledge to get net migration down to below 100,000 a year. As soon as a politician talks about getting the figures down, they have to talk about specifics that are fraught with difficulty.

But many Labour MPs know that just as they have to listen to and respect the Brexit vote, they have to at least say some types of migration are ‘too high’. Perhaps influenced by Andy Burnham’s speech in the morning, Corbyn said: “We are not helped by patronising or lecturing those in our communities who voted to leave. We have to hear their concerns about jobs, about public services, about wages, about immigration, about a future for their children,”

It was Corbyn’s defence of migrants that got him some of the loudest cheers of the day. His peroration, “it isn’t migrants that drive down wages… It isn’t migrants who put a strain on our NHS..It isn’t migrants that have caused a housing crisis” got the crowd on their feet. How he mixes that message with a finessed policy on Brexit is still perhaps the most difficult task he faces in the coming year. It may even be more difficult than uniting his Parliamentary party.

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