1) HE’S NOT THE MESSIAH
The faithful started queuing at 10.45am, sitting on steps outside the conference hall some four and a half hours before the actual speech. This was a very British Wimbledon crowd, patient, carrying sandwiches and a good book. Yet their fervour for the dear Leader was palpable.
Corbyn is seen by some as a hapless Life of Brian, an accidental leader riding a wave of euphoria as the People’s Front of Judea go hammer and tongs with the Judean People’s Front. Today, he made plain he was not the Messiah, stressing his self-effacement. Instead, he tried to shift from the personal to the political, making clear he was just one man in a larger movement. Never comfortable with being in charge, he stressed “I am not a leader who wants to impose leadership lines all the time” and “I firmly believe leadership is about listening”. Thousands of new Labour members are projecting their hopes onto Corbyn and he seemed to be saying ‘I’m a cipher, not a leader’.
Burying New Labour and Old Labour, he declared the party’s new members now made up ‘A Modern Left Movement’. For some old hands, that’s precisely the problem: Labour is in danger of ceasing to be a party of government and looking more like a protest ‘movement’.
2) BUT NEITHER IS HE A NAUGHTY BOY
John McDonnell may be the bad cop to Corbyn’s good cop, dishing out tax punishment beatings and praising the IRA and superglued protestors. Yet Corbyn’s main mission today seemed to be to reassure the public that he himself was not a threat. Picking up on Cameron’s line about him being a danger to voters’ economic and national security, he used the word ‘security’ an astonishing 22 times.
The detoxification strategy was aimed at telling the voters that the real threat was to the security of millions of people threatened by Tory cuts to benefits and public services. It seemed a bit like Neil Kinnock’s attempt in the 1980s to reclaim the word ‘freedom’ from Margaret Thatcher, claiming freedom from poverty was as important as freedom of choice. Let’s see if he’s any more successful.
As for defence policy, his emphasis was all on diplomacy and his line ‘yes we do need a strong military’ seemed forced, as if Maria Eagle had insisted on it. But Corbyn true believers will have been delighted that he reaffirmed his belief that Trident was a waste of money.
3) HE REALLY, REALLY DOESN’T LIKE THE NEWSPAPERS
Corbyn clearly thinks the ‘old media’ are as much of a problem as the ‘old politics’ and he went on the offensive like no party leader before him. He started with a self-deprecating series of gags (with echoes of Miliband’s lines about Wallace & Gromit) about asteroids and Chairman Mao bikes. But his frustration spilled over with his lines about both ‘broadsheets and tabloids’ alike failing to understand the mass movement behind him. ‘Sorry, commentariat, this is grown up politics where real people debate real politics’. Clearly there’s an exception to the ‘no rudeness from me’ edict. Blair had his ‘feral beasts’ but few believed him; Corbyn really means it folks.
And to be fair, he’s right that ‘splits’ stories just don’t have any currency these days when a leader actively encourages dissent. Yet once the debates are over, he may well want unity ahead of 2020. Unless he’s going to change another apparently iron law of political gravity: that voters don’t like disunited parties. He’s right the public sniff out media games quicker than ever these days, and that Facebook is read more often than newsprint, yet even his allies know that professional media management is still needed to get your message across. His plea to some of his more Lefty cyberwarriors to ‘cut the abuse!’, much of it misogynistic, prompted one of the biggest ovations of the day.
4) TONE MATTERS. BUT TONE BLAIR DOESN’T
His tie was red (naturally), though barely done up. He steadfastly refused to wear a suit and his jacket and shirt were typically a size too big for him. For Corbyn fans, the slightly dishevelled look is all part of the appeal, yet his biggest asset is his tone: a passionate reasonableness. As his countless rallies have proven, he’s not a natural public speaker, often seeming an anti-climax after all the fiery rhetoric of those who come before him.
The introduction by a young medical student was a masterstroke today. And his only really clunky line came with the slightly surreal ‘Young people and older people are fizzing with ideas. Let’s give them the space for that fizz to explode into the joy we want of a better society!’ His fluffing of the line ‘straight talking, honest politics’ didn’t help either, but few will care.
What does matter for new leaders are first impressions of the voters. IDS and Miliband were doomed within their first six months so at least Corbyn will think he’s underlined his strengths today.
In tone, Corbyn has always been more of a Quaker than a radical priest. He’s getting better and today his best line, ‘you don’t have to take what you’re given’, felt like the pulpit than the Friends Meeting House. The public are wary of old or new testament prophets, not to mention religious zeal, after years of Tony Blair. But for all their differences, it was still surprising he didn’t pay tribute to Blair. A namecheck on the minimum wage section or the conflict resolution section (Good Friday Agreement) would have sounded gracious – and in keeping with his ‘all parts of the party’ line. Miliband and Keir Hardie got namechecks, but Blair and Brown may as well have never existed.
5) HE’S NOT TAKING IT ANYMORE
The big rhetorical ‘takeaway’, as the Americans would say, was Corbyn’s key line that ‘you don’t have to take what you’re given’ (so good he used variations of it six times). Trying to acknowledge the truism that a conference speech should be to the country not to your party, he declared “I want to speak to everyone in Britain...” and injected some real passion to his soundbite “The British people never have to take what they are given.” It turns out the line itself was a takeaway of its own, lifted from a blogger who offered similar speech lines to Ed Miliband.
He tried to connect his values to those of the country, with a Blair-like stab at claiming Labour represented “The People’s Values” such as caring for others, standing up to injustice. The read-across on how the value of ‘fair play’ affects policy on benefits or migration was unclear, however. The pitch to White Van Man self-employed stressed legal rights but little on how to grow their businesses.
The Rolling Stones famously sang ‘You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometime/you just might find/ you get what you need’. How long before Billy Bragg pens a new tune for his friend Jez, ‘We’re No Longer Taking What We’re Given’?
6) HE DOESN’T LIKE DAFT KAPITAL
The ‘not taking it’ passage was actually a musing on the nature of globalisation that is causing problems all Western political parties. It’s been a long time since a party leader used the words ‘class’ and ‘capital’ in the same sentence, let alone a conference speech. He’s claimed before that we all really owe a debt to Marx and Das Kapital sounded not very far away with the line: “they expect millions of people to work harder and longer for a lower quality of life on lower wages. Well, they’re not having it.”
He raised the case of the Redcar steel workers, calling for state intervention just as the Italians do. Surprisingly, he didn’t mention the way Peter Mandelson’s sang froid over Redcar while he was Business Secretary.
7) HE’S NOT GOING AWAY
Not for nothing did he mention reforms to Labour’s National Policy Forum. Corbyn’s bigger mission is to entrench a new left consensus in the party. Even if he is ousted between now and 2020, or loses in 2020, he wants to change Labour for decades to come by ending what he sees as the Blair-Brown drift to neoliberal consensus.
Moves to change the £3 supporters into full members are already bearing fruit. Changes to the National Policy Forum would give members more of a permanent say over policy. Already the Left is gearing up for a huge push to get its own people as Constituency Labour Party delegates for next year’s conference. And unless the ‘moderates’ get their ground war sorted, it is 2016 that could see majorities for motions on things like Trident and Nato. Aptly enough, next year's conference is in Liverpool: scene of those bitter factional fights of the 1980s.
Quietly, Corbyn is getting his way at the top machinery of the party too. Removing Hilary Benn from the NEC on Saturday, replacing him with leftwing Rebecca Long-Bailey, was sold as an attempt to get more women in post but has sparked fears that this was more about tribalism than gender. Similarly, today, the centrist union Community rep was replaced on the NEC by the Bakers’ union. The symbolism of looking like you’re purging the steelmakers’ union - at a time when Redcar is facing a huge loss of steelmaking jobs - was not lost on some Labour MPs. But there is now a pro-Corbyn majority on the NEC for the first time. The battle for the future of Labour has only just started.
8) HE’S DR FEELGOOD
The hall loved it. From his first entrance, right through the applause lines, to the lenthy ovation at the end, the party faithful adored the speech. All leaders get an enthusiastic reception at conference, of course, but this felt more like genuine applause than the usual ritual stage management.
The 'Corbyn Feelgood Factor' that has driven his entire campaign, ever since that historic moment when he squeezed onto the leadership ballot on the stroke of midday with his 35th MP backer, is not going away soon. But there is a problem with a rival 'Osborne Feel-OK Factor': the Tories will argue he offered little to those parts of Britain who feel the pinch but don’t feel impoverished (given record employment and low interest rates).
The sunshine on the seafront , as well as beery late nights, have cheered up the troops in Brighton. The Tories may have a rainy Manchester conference but know they are making inroads with their ‘Northern Powerhouse’ rhetoric.
9) NEW POLITICS, BUT NO SO MUCH NEW POLICY
At one point, he said ‘our Labour party says No’ to worker exploitation. But there was little it says Yes’ to. Five years from a general election, few expect detailed manifesto-ready policy. Still, new leaders have to make a mark with their general big themes on policy stances. There was little on Europe, welfare, immigration, crime.
The bigger question is not how softly spoken or reasonable Corbyn is (as on Marr), but exactly what he’s proposing to the voters. All the talk of healthy internal debates could look like ‘manana’ politics, especially with May’s elections looming. Corbyn himself acknowledged the London, Scotland and local election challenge. If Labour loses London to Goldsmith or council seats - or even a by-election in a safe seat - to UKIP, Tristram Hunt and Dan Jarvis are not the only ones ready to deliver a verdict.
The wider point is that in a two-party system with first-past-the-post voting, Labour can’t possibly win power without winning Tory voters in Middle England and the South. Appealing to Britons’ altruism is one thing, but appealing to their self-interest may be much harder.
10) OSBORNE’S SMILING, DAVE’S IN A HAMMOCK
The Tories are happy. Why? Because this speech did enough to keep Corbyn in place. Overall, it cleared the low bar that had been set (deliberately or not) for it. No gaffes, no hare-em, scare-em revolutionary socialism. George Osborne, Boris Johnson and David Cameron (and that order matters, dear reader, given their respective interest in who’s fighting who in 2020) rather like the idea of a cuddly, softly spoken opponent who abandons the centre ground.
Thoughtful Tories worry that Corbyn may have tapped into a wider public mood about the way politics is conducted, but they are convinced the public don't want to shift Left. And anyone who saw the PM put down his PMQs binder the other week, confident that he faced no probing follow-up questions, will know that the Conservatives are not really worried by the second coming of JC. David Cameron was swinging in a hammock that day. Corbyn’s challenge is to tip him, and Osborne, out of it.