It was 6,000 words long, lasted 75 minutes and was listened to by 1,500 people in a packed conference hall that delivered nine standing ovations. But for Jeremy Corbyn, his marathon speech to Labour conference was the very opposite of politics-by-numbers. This was big picture politics, with the traditional focus on new policies (there were few beyond the summer’s manifesto) replaced by an attempt to claim he was winning the argument against “neoliberal economics” that has dominated Britain since Margaret Thatcher.
And like any good Marxist, Corbyn believes that if you can rewrite or recalibrate the past, you can own the future. He also knows that the most effective politicians are those who can frame their arguments in historic, tectonic-plate terms. The single most important line was his verdict that “2017 may be the year when politics finally caught up with the crash of 2008”. The main theme of his speech that Labour now represented “the mainstream” on not just austerity but the whole financial system that collapsed so spectacularly nine years ago.
Relishing the irony of using Tony Blair’s “for the many, not the few” soundbite, Corbyn came to finally bury New Labour, not praise it. It was already on life-support under Ed Miliband, but his successor flipped off the switch as he condemned his own party for allowing the Tory model on privatisation and housing to go unchecked. Grenfell was just the most tragic monument to that era, Corbyn argued, as he widened it to attack all “forced gentrification” and “social cleansing” across the country. That felt like a warning to the Tories but also a signal to his own Labour councils to do more to fight it. Blair famously lived in a gentrified part of Islington, turning the very place into a byword for New Labour while his local MP rebelled in his backyard and Parliament.
Corbyn’s critics say that while he roots for the working classes, he himself has gentrified Labour as never before, thanks to a flood of middle class members, and made it more Metropolitan than ever. Blairite pro-Europeans will also be dismayed by the blurred lines on Brexit, the biggest political issue of this generation. Most of all, they worry that the mood of this speech and this entire conference felt like Labour had won the last election, not come second. Yet Corbyn took a leaf out of Blair’s book: put the word ‘new’ in front of something and it may work. He will be hoping that his “new common sense” marks the road back to Government. Only the churlish would point out that we’ve seen a “common sense revolution” in an Opposition leader’s conference speech before: William Hague deployed it in 1999.
The big question now is how Corbyn can build on the momentum (with a small and big ‘M’) of the election. “Regeneration is a much abused word”, he said today, and it felt like him condemning the re-making of his own party too. And this was no Doctor Who-style regeneration, like the three previous Labour leaders who kept the same identity in different physical form. With his best conference speech to date, Corbyn today signalled he wants to change the body politic of his party - and the country - for good.
Read Paul’s full-length analysis in a WaughZone Special HERE.