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26 September 2018

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour conference speech showed why the left is the new centre

The Labour leader’s speech was a bid for ideological hegemony: forging unity and confronting enemies. 

By George Eaton

The ambition of Jeremy Corbyn and his allies is not merely to enter government but to permanently transform Britain’s ideological landscape. Three years after Corbyn became Labour leader, his conference speech was a declaration that the left is now the mainstream.

“We have defined the new common sense,” he said, an allusion to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who defined the concept of hegemony – a level of political domination that extends beyond control of a state or parliament into the realm of culture and ideas. “We represent the new common sense of our time,” he later repeated, lest anyone miss the point. “And we are ready to deliver it.”

Ideas that were once dismissed as radical, such as renationalisation and redistribution, are now backed by the overwhelming majority of voters in opinion polls. In recent weeks, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Jim O’Neill, the former Tory minister and Goldman Sachs economist, have praised Labour’s economic programme. “I’ve never sought to capture the mood of a Tory minister before,” Corbyn remarked of the latter. “But let me say to his Lordship: you’re welcome, come and join us in the new political mainstream.” (Another Gramscian refrain.)

But hegemony is not just about making allies, it is also about confronting enemies. In his speech, Corbyn did so unashamedly. Like the Thatcherites before him (who took on the Tory “wets”, the Soviet Union, the IRA and the trade unions), he draws strength from his opponents: New Labour, the American empire, the Israeli government, the City of London and the right-wing press.

Corbyn denounced the “political and corporate establishment” that “strained every sinew to bail out and prop up the system that led to the crash in the first place” (an implicit critique of the Brown government), he attacked a “free press” that has too often used its “freedom” to “spread lies and half-truths”, and assailed Donald Trump and the Israeli government for their violations of international law.

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Yet hegemony, as the Corbynites know, is about forging unity as well as sharpening divisions. To this end, the Labour leader presented his ideas in largely moderate tones – he spoke not of building socialism but of ending “greed-is-good” capitalism and made no explicit reference to renationalisation, still less to squeezing the rich till the pips squeak. 

He also warned against a party split (“our movement has achieved nothing when divided”), made his strongest pledge yet to “eradicate anti-Semitism” (“I will fight for that with every breath I possess”) and offered olive branches to shadow cabinet members, such as Tom Watson and Keir Starmer, with whom he has clashed. He praised the deputy leader’s campaign for the second phase of the Leveson inquiry and said of the shadow Brexit secretary: “Keir, having got agreement yesterday in this conference hall, getting one in Brussels should be a piece of cake.”

Though he insisted that the first priority, should any Brexit deal be defeated, would be to secure a general election, he emphasised that “all options are on the table” – a nod to the overwhelming support among Labour’s grassroots for a second referendum.

And Corbyn, often accused of adopting a “Year Zero” approach, hailed his party’s past as well as its future. “United and ready to win, ready to govern as we were in 1945, 1964 and 1997.”

Whenever Labour has won landmark election victories it has done so by owning the future. After the Second World War, in 1945, Clement Attlee promised a “home fit for heroes” and vowed “never again” to return to the poverty and mass unemployment of the Great Depression. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson harnessed the “white heat” of technology against the grouse moor politics of Alec Douglas-Home. In 1997, Tony Blair spoke of a “new, young country” and swept away John Major’s antiquated Conservatives.

Corbyn’s speech stood in this tradition. He promised a “Green Jobs Revolution”, backed “new forms of ownership and public enterprise” (citing Preston’s innovative model) and endorsed the TUC’s support for a four-day week: “[using] new technologies and automation as an opportunity rather than a threat, a chance to raise living standards and give people more control of their own lives.” This agenda, as I wrote in my pre-conference cover story, represents “Corbynism 2.0”.

The scale of the political challenges confronting the Corbynites remains daunting. They must navigate Brexit, which divides Labour voters and MPs. The European question pits two Bennite principles – Euroscepticism and activist power – against one another. A potential “new centrist party” need only depress Labour’s support by a few points to gift victory to the Conservatives at the next election.

But faced with these threats, Corbyn and Labour, far from retreating, are growing yet more radical.

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