A year is a very long time in politics. At the 2016 Labour conference, Sadiq Khan delivered an audacious speech in which he warned “Labour out of power will never ever be good enough” (using the word “power” 38 times) and referenced Jeremy Corbyn just once.
His address at this year’s conference struck a diametrically opposed tone. In the second line of his speech (having finally secured a speaking slot last week), the London mayor hailed his party’s leader: “It’s great to see our Labour Party so fired up under Jeremy Corbyn.” He continued: “We made huge progress. And credit must go the leader of our party, Jeremy Corbyn” (“the king of Glastonbury and the king of grime,” he added).
Khan’s words were an acknowledgment of a new political reality: Corbyn is unassailable. Rather than hinting that his party would never win an election under its present leader, the mayor ended by declaring: “Labour under Jeremy Corbyn will win the next general election.” There was even a shout-out for Momentum: “Labour has Momentum on its side”. Khan, a canny politician, knows where his party’s new centre of gravity is. The audience, unsurprisingly, lapped it up (some allies had feared the mayor would be booed).
But though his words on Corbyn were the most politically noteworthy, there was far more to Khan’s speech. He delivered a moving, Brown-esque peroration to London’s emergency services: “You truly are heroes.” In “the darkness of this year,” he declared, “the bravery of our emergency services has been a beacon of hope.”
Since becoming mayor, Khan has sought to engage constructively with the Conservatives (despite their noxious campaign against him). But in these grim times, he took unashamed aim at their record. “You know, the Tories used to describe themselves as the party of law and order. Well that sounds like a bad joke today. And frankly, as a former home secretary, Theresa May should be utterly ashamed of her record.”
It was a well-crafted speech which Labour would have been the poorer not to hear. Khan ended, however, as he began: by hailing Corbyn. The London mayor may be Labour’s most senior elected politician but he was forced to acknowledge the party’s master today.