The delegates are still making their way out of the hall as I write this, with the sound of the Red Flag still echoing in their ears, and I dare say, hearts. I wanted to put down a few thoughts on the Leader’s speech straight after I heard it, before I got my own views mixed up with the experts and commentators whose own analysis will trump my own meagre effort.
In many ways, it was a real mixed bag, and not just down to its extreme length. Jeremy Corbyn threw the kitchen sink at the crowd this year, with as wide a range of policies as I can ever remember any leader giving in a conference speech. It is a mark of how confident he is, and how secure, that he is able to meander his way across a myriad of topics and have every word applauded as gospel.
In truth, though, much of it was music to our collective ears. There is so much that the current government are getting wrong that many policy areas provide goals open enough for even a weak opposition to score in, and in reality, we are not quite as weak as we once were. Many passages were genuinely rousing, and Jeremy certainly enjoyed putting the knife in to the Tories and May at times, and it worked very well. Of course, there were also his hobby horses, and the necessary cuts of red meat for his faithful, particularly on foreign policy, and these played well in the student seminar vibe of a modern Labour conference (the omission of South America on his round the world tour does somewhat undermine his universalist approach to global affairs however).
In reality, though, and whisper it quietly, the vast majority of what he said or announced would have found a very natural home in any of Ed Miliband’s conference speeches, and it feels like more of a memory lapse than a seismic shift to truly believe that we have become the radical force that the PR machine seems to build us up into. This is what leads me to my starkest realisation from the speech, and from the leadership in general. It’s not that they are doing a bad job necessarily, even though I am happy to admit that I can’t envisage ever getting truly on board with this new direction, it is more that what this whole project seems to lack is a coherent political narrative for the future.
So much of what we could now call ‘Corbynism’ is predicated around change, but these are usually changes to revert back to an idyllic past. Don’t get me wrong, many of these policies are ones that I have long agreed with, and if done properly would be highly beneficial. We want to take the NHS back to the principles of 1945, we want British Rail back like the 1960s, utilities back to pre-1980s models, universities back to the 1990s, and getting Sure Start back to its heyday of the early 2000s. All laudable ambitions, but, as Jeremy’s wide-ranging speech only served to highlight, there was no meaningful coherent political message behind it. No unifying theme. He has been leader for two years, but, in reality, I am not 100% sure what his vision of our future is, and I am still none the wiser if I am looking for hard facts.
We know Corbynism is radical, because they tell us so, but what does this mean for our future? We want new politics, but how does that look? We want to get rid of the elite, but who replaces it? I don’t feel we have answers to these questions beyond a somewhat arrogant notion that we don’t need to answer them as we are the good guys. We have what is best for the country at heart so why wonder about the minutiae. I fear this pseudo-philosophy is taking ever deeper root within the Party, and I am not sure it is a healthy position to be in.
The Tories are in such a mess that a Labour government is now a real possibility. I welcome that prospect, of course, but taking over devoid of a real philosophy, and I mean a real philosophy, should be alarming. Lacking a coherent structure can lead to truly muddled thinking, and not the sort of decisive leadership that we need to take the UK forward at this crucial juncture of its history. It’s often said that Corbynism is the reversal of New Labour, and oddly enough, I think that has never been truer than in this sense. New Labour was a deep and fully formed philosophy disguised as a clever gimmick. Corbynism is a clever gimmick disguised as a deep coherent philosophy. Apply pressure at this point, and I wonder how long it would hold together.
To the future, then. I believe a real philosophy is possible, but that means taking a hard look at what we believe in and confronting major decisions head on. Not voting on Brexit at conference, for example, is clever politics, but it does nothing to suggest we have the backbone that Corbyn and his followers assure us they have re-inserted into our party. Calling out racism is as vital as ever, but big figures continuing to tell us we have no problem with antisemitism devalues all we have achieved to boost equality, and shames us all.
Is the scent of power taking now too over-powering to allow us to make tough calls, or have these tough conversations? I suggest that it just might be.