The early extracts of Jeremy Corbyn’s first conference speech suggested a banal address lay ahead. Declarations of his “love” for Britain and the need for a “kinder” politics implied that Corbyn, like shadow chancellor John McDonnell, would be deliberately dull. The full text, however, was anything but. Emboldened by his mandate, Corbyn strayed repeatedly into divisive territory.
He advocated nuclear disarmament (in defiance of the opposition of his shadow cabinet), lambasted the “media commentariat” (despite allies advising him to end such criticisms) and declared that conference, not MPs, should have the ultimate say over policy (“our party as a whole will decide”). This was the speech that Corbyn wanted to give. There was no mention of the deficit (a deliberate choice, rather than an error) or of immigration, other than in the context of the refugee crisis. The many MPs who believe that Labour will only be electable once it has achieved credibility on both issues will have despaired at that.
Other than a smart pledge to extend maternity, paternity and sick pay to the self-employed (though it would come with a price attached), there were few forays into surprising political territory. Corbyn stuck to the well-trodden ground of rail renationalisation, housing (seemingly repeating the same passage), welfare cuts and human rights (vital though all are). The electorally defining issues of health and education were relegated to the margins. Corbyn’s condemnation of welfare cuts and homelessness, turing the Tories’ language of “security” against them, was powerful and sincere. But, like late-era Ed Miliband, he had much to say about the top and the bottom of society and too little to say about the middle.
The speech itself had little discernible structure, veering from issue to issue. There was no clear theme and few memorable lines. After an opening suite of well-crafted jokes, humour was dispensed with. It was, inevitably, well received in the hall. But almost too well. As he spoke, Corbyn often appeared to be addressing the activists at Brighton, rather than the voters at home. In an ill-chosen analogy, he derided those who declared that Labour was finished by arguing that no one would dismiss a football club that had attracted as many new supporters as the party had members (160,000 since May). Yet as fans know well, it is not the number of supporters in the stands that determines the results on the pitch. Corbyn cited his election as proof that “socialist and social democratic” parties were not in inexorable decline. But Labour will need to win a general election before it can credibly assert as much. Too often, Corbyn appeared more interested in the task of building a formidable protest movement than in becoming prime minister.
He ended with a fine and moving tribute to “the last bearded man to lead the Labour Party” – Keir Hardie. “We owe him and so many more so much,” he declared. But it felt like ultimate proof that this was a speech for the activists, not the voters. The task that many MPs set for Corbyn before his speech was to bridge the gap between himself and the latter. But to most, it will feel wider than ever today.