First they said Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t become Labour leader. In 2015, he proved them wrong. Then they said he couldn’t remain leader. In 2016, he proved them wrong.
Will Corbyn now become prime minister? That is the question that exhilarates Labour supporters and terrifies Conservatives. For much of Corbyn’s leadership, many have doubted whether he even wants to occupy No.10. The charge was that the left-winger merely wanted to win power in the party, not in the country.
But in his third conference speech, his first since eradicating the Conservatives’ majority, Corbyn repudiated this notion. “We have become a government-in-waiting,” he declared to a naturally rapturous audience. “Our outstanding shadow cabinet team are here today. And our message to the country could not be clearer – Labour is ready.”
Labour remains 64 seats short of a parliamentary majority and history shows the Tories’ remarkable capacity to regenerate themselves. But Corbyn spoke with the confidence of a man who feels government is within reach.
He didn’t miss the open goals that the Tories’ election humbling provided: “They’re certainly not strong and they’re definitely not stable. They’re not remotely united. And they’re hanging on by their fingertips.” The “magic money tree”, Corbyn quipped, had belatedly appeared – but only to the benefit of the DUP (at a cost of £100m per MP). He continued: “Theresa May told voters they faced the threat of a ‘coalition of chaos’. Remember that? Well, now they’re showing us exactly how that works.”
The leader who once ran shy of mocking Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation, tore into Tory disunity with the relish of ’90s-era Blair. “They are bereft of ideas and energy”‘; “I have a simple message to the cabinet: for Britain’s sake, pull yourself together or make way.”
But more than this, Corbyn spoke with the confidence of someone who feels the ideological tide is flowing his way. The truism that elections are won from the centre ground is not necessarily wrong, he said, “so long as it’s clear that the political centre of gravity isn’t fixed or unmovable, nor is it where the establishment pundits like to think it is.” The 2008 financial crisis led to an enduring loss of faith in economic elites. Capitalism has since failed to deliver on its promise of rising living standards for the majority. And voters have grown ever more weary of public spending cuts.
Indeed, polls have long shown majority public support for Corbyn’s headline policies: rent controls, the renationalisation of the public utilities, higher taxation of the rich, a £10 minimum wage and greater market regulation. In the strongest line of his speech, he declared of public sector workers: “Everyone praises them. But it is Labour that values them and is prepared to give them the pay rise they deserve”. Corbyn mercilessly mocked the Tories for chasing his tail: “Go the whole hog: end austerity, abolish tuition fees, scrap the public sector pay cap.”
On one issue, of course, there is little distinction between the Conservatives and Labour: Brexit. Though Corbyn’s party backs remaining in the single market and customs union for a “transition period”, its policy remains to leave both. The Labour leader, a lifelong Bennite eurosceptic, confirmed as much when he spoke of “A Brexit that uses powers returned from Brussels to support a new industrial strategy to upgrade our economy in every region and nation.” Though Labour’s Brexit policy was not debated on the conference floor this week (a feat of which New Labour would have been proud), the issue will resurge when parliament returns.
At 75 minutes, Corbyn’s speech was the longest of any leader in recent history. At times, it felt like the political equivalent of a prog double album (on the back of a hit record). But as the leader of a party with nearly 600,000 members (the Tories boast less than 150,000), Corbyn is not short of listeners.
With all Labour MPs having accepted that he will remain leader for as long as he wants, Corbyn no longer has to look nervously over his shoulder. Instead, he can look forward: to government. After the 2017 election, power is close enough for the left to abandon fears of the compromises it entails (and Corbyn has made plenty: on Trident, on immigration and on NATO).
The challenge for Corbyn was to cast himself as the leader of a united party that is advancing, rather than regressing – and he succeeded. How Theresa May will struggle to do the same next week.