The Guardian view on Jeremy Corbyn’s speech: catching the zeitgeist

The Guardian, Editorial

Until today the Labour party’s annual conference had been dominated by one man: John McDonnell. With a speech mixing piety, politics and moral conviction, it very much became Jeremy Corbyn’s. Since last year’s unexpected strong showing in the general election, there has been a recasting of Labour – leaving it uneasily dominated by the left. This has led to a muttering of mutiny by some MPs and constant sniping about the Labour leadership’s ambiguity over Brexit. A torrid summer for Labour over antisemitism raised questions about Mr Corbyn’s judgment which he often struggled to answer. Coming to Liverpool this week, Mr Corbyn needed to calm those fears, explain his vision of a Britain under Labour and give his party belief that it was engaged in a project of which it could be proud. The Labour leader’s hour-long speech achieved that.

Brexit is the biggest issue facing Britain, and the cost of crashing out of the European Union will be borne most heavily by Labour voters. If Theresa May cannot get her Chequers deal through parliament, Mr Corbyn’s preference was for a general election. Failing that, all options – apart from a hard Brexit – remain on the table. Tellingly, the Labour leader, unlike his Brexit secretary, could not bring himself to say remaining in the EU was such an option. In defining the terms under which Labour could back Brexit – a customs union and no hard border in Ireland, while respecting job, consumer and environmental protections – Mr Corbyn showed that Labour could take over and bring direction to a process that a divided Tory party under Mrs May cannot. His line that the Tory Brexiters whom Mrs May is in thrall to “unite the politics of the 1950s with the economics of the 19th century, daydreaming about a Britannia that both rules the waves and waives the rules” was probably the best in his speech because it rang so true. Mr Corbyn’s meeting with the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier tomorrow is now a pivotal political event.

Mr Corbyn framed the government as running a rent-extracting economy which rewarded politically influential insiders. His answer was for “radical solutions”, rather than the “socialism for the 21st century” he offered last year. Significantly, Mr Corbyn mentioned the S-word only once, in passing. After fighting last year’s election on policies from its past, the party has a more transformative agenda concerned with dispersing the rights, wealth and power currently concentrated in a few hands. Mr Corbyn’s levy on those with second homes to help homeless children is sold as a “solidarity fund for those with two homes to help those without any home at all”. His corporate governance reforms would diffuse power through ownership, handing workers seats on boards and equity. Labour’s focus on green energy contrasts with Conservative reluctance to approve onshore wind farms and innovative tidal schemes that would combat climate change and bring jobs to “left behind” Britain.

Mr Corbyn gleefully said Labour, in the words of former Conservative minister Lord O’Neill, had caught “the mood of our time”. People’s experience of private rail, water and energy companies has made them sceptical of corporate efficiency. This has been reinforced by the disaster of privatised prisons and the collapse of giant outsourcer Carillion. Those who caused the 2008 crash, it’s true, have been bailed out rather than punished – making tax and spend policies popular. Without big answers others could, said Mr Corbyn, fill the gap with the “politics of blame and division”. So far, so radical. However, there were missteps: Mr Corbyn ought to protect a “free press”, not attack it. He can only highlight the Windrush debacle because of this newspaper’s reporting. Mr Corbyn did make a sincere expression of solidarity with the Jewish community. Whether this is contrite enough is yet to be seen. He deftly separated his defence of a two-state solution in the Holy Land from antisemitism, and made his most definitive statement about the Russian state’s culpability for the Salisbury attacks. Mr Corbyn says he represents a “new common sense”. Labour does not always have ready-made answers, but it does have a sound political starting point for the right responses. If he continues in this vein then the leader of the opposition could look like a plausible prime minister.