Jeremy Corbyn is getting the hang of this leadership lark. Britain’s 69-year-old opposition leader delivered his most accomplished speech yet to the Labour party’s annual conference on Wednesday.
It offered a coherent analysis of the challenges facing the nation. It echoed the demands for radical change. It offered a vision for life beyond Brexit. The prescriptions may be populist and anti-business by nature — all broad soundbites, little substance — and major announcements were absent. But it succeeded in making his radicalism appear like the new normal.
As Mr Corbyn put it: “People in this country know that the old way of running things isn’t working any more.” Even among the governing Conservatives, few would dispute that. The greatest change this year was in the leader’s confidence and conciliatory tone. Ever since he rose to the Labour leadership three years ago, he has operated inside a bunker. Internal opposition to his leftwing positions meant that he was constantly under attack and on the defensive.
There was no desire to reach out to internal opponents. Now he is arguing that “Labour is a broad church and can be broader still”. No one can be in doubt about the direction in which the party is heading. Mr Corbyn and his team are focused on power — they want to rid themselves of distractions by “scraping the barnacles off the boat”, as Tory strategist Sir Lynton Crosby likes to put it.
On the difficult areas, Mr Corbyn aimed to speak to an audience beyond the Liverpool conference hall. He offered his most contrite words on anti-Semitism so far (although still, and disappointingly, he failed to apologise for his own past offences).
He thanked the “older generation who built modern Britain” — those who overwhelmingly vote Conservative. Recommended The Art of Persuasion Jeremy Corbyn’s effective rhetoric for the many, not the few The disturbing Trumpian attacks on the free press were in evidence, yet the Labour leader also called for a “much greater culture of tolerance”. And he finally acknowledged that the Russian government was behind the recent Salisbury attack.
But Mr Corbyn has a history of failing to match warm words with tough actions. And the Labour leader’s fundamental flaws are unchanged. Mr Corbyn is inherently unsuited to lead a major country. There are significant gaps between his policies and reality.
This is highlighted in Labour’s plans for greater share ownership: the details are sketchy, they do not account for the realities of modern global capitalism and would result in significant tax rises.
The party is also veering ever leftward. John McDonnell’s speech on Monday showed that the party is satisfied it has largely won the economic debate and can afford to ignore the concerns of businesses. The remark in a speech by one Corbynite MP that the party should force a general strike — which earned her an ovation — shows that confidence is drifting into cockiness.
In what they set out to achieve, both the speech and conference have been a success for Mr Corbyn. His increasingly professional approach will ramp up the stakes for the Conservative party’s conference next week.
It was already going to be difficult: the Tories are more divided on Brexit, the key issue of the day, while Theresa May’s future as party leader and prime minister remains uncertain. If the egos are not properly managed, the event’s fallout will further fuel Labour’s ascendancy.
The Tories can no longer rely on Mr Corbyn to be a divisive and inept figure to help them survive in power. As Jim O’Neill argued in a recent Financial Times op-ed (quoted by Mr Corbyn), Labour is reflecting the mood of the times.
That mood can easily change. But for now Mr Corbyn has confirmed he is in total control of Labour’s destiny. The party is fully behind him. And judging by this week, it is convinced that destiny will soon be government.