There was no more wounding image in Jeremy Corbyn’s first week as Labour leader than that of him not singing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain memorial service. It allowed his opponents to immediately cast him as unpatriotic and disrespectful. Corbyn was, of course, entirely at liberty not to sing but even some close allies recognised that it was kamikaze politics.
It is no accident, then, that in the early extracts of his conference speech, the Labour leader twice declares: “I love this country”. He will say: “As I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in the country. Even more inspiring was the unity and unanimity of their values. A belief in coming together to achieve more than we can on our own. Fair play for all, solidarity and not walking by on the other side of the street when people are in trouble. Respect for other’s point of view. It is this sense of fair play, these shared majority British values, that are the fundamental reason why I love this country and its people.
“These values are what I was elected on: a kinder politics and a more caring society. They are Labour values and our country’s values. We are going to put these values back into politics. It’s because I am driven by these British majority values, because I love this country, that I want to rid it of injustice, to make it fairer, more decent, more equal. And I want all of our citizens to benefit from prosperity and success.”
Like Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband before him, Corbyn is framing Britain as a progressive country and seeking to reclaim patriotism for the left.
The absence of top-down messaging is one reason why many of the Labour leader’s opponents have enjoyed the conference more than they expected. As one MP told me last night: “It’s a thousand flowers bloom. We can all say what we fucking like.” In refrence to this new culture, Corbyn will say in his speech: “I am not imposing leadership lines. I don’t believe anyone has a monopoly on wisdom – we all have ideas and a vision of how things can be better. I want open debate, I will listen to everyone, I firmly believe leadership is listening.”
At this early stage in his leadership, Corbyn can neutralise policy divisions – on foreign affairs, Trident and the economy – by promising “debate”. But discussion will eventually have give way to decision. Some of Corbyn’s supporters feel he has already conceded too much: he has vowed to campaign for EU membership in the referendum (having previously hoped to keep David Cameron guessing), resolved not to advocate Nato withdrawal, allowed shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn to support UN-backed airstrikes in Syria and abandoned his capaign pledge to nationalise the big six energy companies (shadow energy and climate change secretary will instead promise to “democratise” them in her speech this morning). Similarly, in his address yesterday, shadow chancellor John McDonnell avoided divisive issues such as people’s quantitative easing and the Robin Hood tax. Corbyn will again emphasise the scale of his “mandate” in his speech but some of his supporters are asking why he hasn’t used it more.
There will be no major policy surprise from the Labour leader today. As I reported on Friday, Corbyn will not, contrary to some claims, apologise for the Iraq war (“It was never the plan. It will be done in due course – as set out during the campaign,” an aide told me). He will, however, take up the issue of rights for the self-employed (who now account for one in seven workers), vowing to give them full access to maternity, paternity and sick pay. In an age of slimmer public sectors and atomised labour, it is vital political territory for the left (though how the pledge will be paid for is another question).
Corbyn’s speech, for which he will use an autocue for the first time, is expected to last for 45 minutes (shorter than Ed Miliband’s epics but longer than reported at the weekend). In another break with recent tradition, he will not be not be joined on stage by his wife Laura Alvarez.