1. COMMON SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
Jeremy Corbyn’s central theme today was that Labour represents a “new common sense” and “new consensus” in British politics. Cheekily stealing Tony Blair’s novel prefix (as well as his “many not the few” mantra), this “old” Labour socialist was determined to sound reassuringly reasonable. And his overarching argument was that the public are not just sick of recent Tory cuts, but also the entire “neoliberal” economic model that has dominated the country since the 1980s. Possibly the most significant sentence in the entire 6,000-word speech was this: “2017 may be the year when politics finally caught up with the crash of 2008”.
Declaring “we are now the political mainstream”, the word ‘Left’ or ‘Left-wing’ didn’t cross his lips. Instead, for the first time he admitted that in some ways elections could only be won from the “centre ground”. But the caveat was crucial: “the political centre of gravity isn’t fixed or unmovable, nor is it where the establishment pundits like to think it is”.
It’s worth remembering that Margaret Thatcher, whose private-good-public-bad philosophy was most in Corbyn’s sights, once tried this approach too. Always suspicious of ‘the centre’, she declared after her 1983 landslide that “we have created the new common ground”. I remember too that another Opposition leader once made “a Common Sense Revolution” the key phrase of his conference speech. Yes, William Hague came up with the line in 1999, two years before being buried by a second New Labour landslide. “Common Sense Conservatism” is also a hallowed mantra of the Reaganite Right in the US (where it means cutting taxes and balancing the books), although Donald Trump claimed he invented it last year.
Yet Corbyn was right to say that the centre can shift as “people’s expectations and experiences change and political space is opened up”. The Tories in the last election certainly gave Labour lots of space as they ditched the economy as their key asset and have since shifted on public sector pay, grammar schools, school cuts and maybe even tuition fees. His best line today was about public sector workers, from nurses to teaching assistants: “Everyone praises them. But it is Labour that values them and is prepared to give them the pay rise they deserve”.
Having gone through a crash-course in leadership and oratory (even his friends admit he lacked flair) in the past two years, today’s speech was Corbyn’s best by far. And even his MPs will have been heartened by the attempt to reach out beyond his own tribe, admitting “We need to build a still broader consensus around the priorities we set in the election”. Most of all, he didn’t lose his trademark sensibility, a mix of compassion and empathy. Not many politicians talk of ‘love’ as much as Corbyn, or cite poetry, yet somehow it works.
2. REGENERATION GAME
In a largely policy-free speech (not surprisingly given he’s just fought an election on a manifesto full of them), one of the few areas with a new prescription for the country’s ills was housing. Recognising the sense of national shame and anger over the Grenfell Tower disaster, he sought to widen the issue as an example of the failures of the privatisations and council cuts started by the Tories.
Calling for ballots of tenants affected by plans “regeneration” of their estates, he was right to say that the phrase itself can be a “much abused word”. What was striking was how he then went on to attack it as “forced gentrification” aimed at “social cleansing”. Few British politicians have dared to attack gentrification (though Bill de Blasio in New York has tried), worried that appealing to its losers rather than its winners is too politically risky by far.
Tony Blair famously lived in a gentrified part of Islington, turning the very place into a byword for New Labour while his local MP was considered a relic from a bygone age. But even centrist Labour types accept that Blair neglected council housing, and his Chancellor was so terrified of putting investment on the public balance sheet that he happily saw estates removed from council control. Gordon Brown belatedly injected direct funds as PM, but it was too little, too late for many.
And that’s why many in the party will take note of Corbyn’s words that “we must think again” about regeneration schemes. Across London, Labour-run town halls have been so squeezed by cuts that they have resorted to private sector involvement in regeneration. Often, leftwingers have objected in places like Barking and Haringey. Today felt as much a warning to his own party as to the Tories.
3. SING WHEN YOU’RE WINNING
As well as trying to redefine the last thirty years of British politics, Corbyn’s big task this week has been to try to frame the last election result on his own terms: the Tories lost, not Labour. “We wiped out the Tory majority, winning support in every social and age group and gaining seats in every region and nation of the country,” he said today. “We won the largest increase in the Labour vote since 1945 and achieved Labour’s best vote for a generation”.
Few can deny that getting Labour onto 40% of the vote was impressive. Yet even some of those MPs who benefitted from the ‘Corbyn surge’ worry that he’s not taking serioiusly enough the drift away to the Tories in some parts of the north and midlands among working class Leave voters. For them Corbyn may appear as guilty as Len McCluskey when he claimed this week that “we did win”, dismissing the “whingers and whiners” who point out the party is still well short of a majority.
For those who take the view that governments lose elections more than oppositions win them, the Corbyn surge was more a function of public weariness with seven years of Tory rule than the Labour leader’s own qualities. Ironically, this was precisely the argument used by some on the Left to dismiss Blair’s achievements (any Labour leader would have won in 1997, they often say).
Has the nation reached ‘Peak Corbyn’? Was his surge a one-off or the first wave in a change in the political tides? One Labour peer liked the speech today, but asked me afterwards: “Can he keep this up for five years?” Centrists in Brighton have been quietly whispering that the Tories can never again have as bad a campaign as 2017, will have a new leader next time and will focus on their strong card of the economy once more. The Conservatives’ gift for regenerating themselves could kick in once more and don’t forget there are so many micro-marginals now that they only need a tiny swing to win back a majority.
Countering that, Brexit uncertainty means it’s far from certain the economy will be in rude health in 2022, if this Parliament goes the distance. And there will have been a full 12 years of Tory rule by then. Some on the Left argue that Labour can next time win those voters who hesitated over Corbyn because they were duped into thinking he couldn’t win. No one is ever going to underestimate Corbyn again. Whether they overestimate him is a different question.
4. PARTY TIME
If it’s unclear whether the nation has reached Peak Corbyn, it’s crystal clear that the Labour party has not. The story of this conference has been that the leadership and the Left are in stronger position than ever, and have been extremely canny at consolidating and building on their power.
From a standing start two years ago, the grassroots Momentum movement has turned into a highly efficient and well organised machine. The way it secured majorities in the mass membership on every single vote on the conference floor (including Brexit) impressed even old Blairite and Brownite lags. The rule changes and personnel changes on the National Executive Committee, National Constitutional Committee and Conference Arrangements Committee all point to the Left digging in for the long term.
Centrists are split between the depressives who think this means the party is irrecoverable for their cause, and the hangdogs who think politics is cyclical and the Momentum activists will get either split or get bored over a five-year Parliament. Back in 2010, Neil Kinnock suggested Ed Miliband’s election meant “we’ve got our party back” from the Blairites. Be careful what you wish for, the Blairites now mutter.
Momentum’s modernising impact on Labour has been evident with its hugely popular ‘The World Transformed’ festival brought a party atmosphere this week in Brighton. But its use of social media and superior presentation skills (key in the general election) also notably rubbed off on Corbyn himself today. The video intro to his speech – with music from the on-trend band The Seige - was one of the most professional and slickly produced I’ve ever seen at any party conference.
Everyone in the Shadow Cabinet sounds like a Corbynite now, from a singing Tom Watson to the ovation-getters Angela Rayner, Emily Thornberry and Jonathan Ashworth. Thornberry and Starmer were most visible presences on the fringe and at media parties and receptions. Corbyn’s red-blooded attack on the Daily Mail and traditional media today will have united most wings of the party (even Alastair Campbell is on the same page on Paul Dacre). But with the Left in the ascendant, it’s left to the trade unions to act as a bulwark against some shifts on policy (on Trident and reselection) that could alienate some voters and force out remaining moderates. Next year’s party conference in Liverpool will be the real test.
5. BREXIT BLURRED
This week’s conference smothered with a firm organisational pillow the controversial motions on permanent EU migration or membership of the single market. It instead united the party around an anodyne holding statement on Brexit policy and today Corbyn did little to upset the finely-balanced applecart.
Yet his tone felt more lively Lexiteer (as Labour Brexiteers call themselves) than reluctant Remainer, referring to the need not just to respect the EU referendum result but to go further and make a success of Brexit. The stand-out phrases were about trying to unite “everyone in our country around a progressive vision” of Brexit, “a Brexit for the many” and “a Brexit that uses powers returned from Brussels to support a new industrial strategy to upgrade our economy in every region and nation”.
Still, the standing ovation (one of at least nine) about not scapegoating migrants was a reminder that his party is overwhelmingly worried about Brexit, and many of them think it should back a referendum on May’s eventual deal. It was sensible politics to hold off this week and focus on the Tories’ divisions. The internal battle on the party’s Left over what to do next will have to wait.
For now, voters in most polls haven’t shifted much at all in the 50-50 split on Brexit. All the UKIP voters Labour won back in 2017, thanks to Corbyn’s pitch on anti-austerity, could stick with him if Brexit is delivered. Some MPs worry that attacks on the Royal family this week will further deter those Labour Leavers who went to the Tories, while older voters may never forgive Corbyn’s IRA/Sinn Fein links.
Which brings us back to William Hague. In 1999, he won the European elections on a platform of ‘an independent Britain’ keeping its own currency. He pledged at his party conference to “give back the country” to the people though that “Common Sense Revolution”. “These people are not extreme, they are not fanatics,” he said. “they’ve got more sense in their gut instincts than all the collective wisdom of this Government”. Corbyn today was saying something similar, but suggesting the real ‘extremists’ are the Tories, not the Left. Whether his own version of that pitch will prove more successful remains to be seen.