RSS FeedFacebookSearch
Gary Younge
Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech – the verdict

Did Jeremy Corbyn even have to give a big keynote speech? It all seems a bit old politics, even when shorn of the usual pumped-up pop music and soundbites. You sensed he might have preferred a nice march through Brighton and a rally on the beach.

But as he said himself, “I want to speak to everyone in Britain”. Party conferences are a rare opportunity for defeated parties to reach the majority of the nation who didn’t vote for them; to persuade them to take a second look. Corbyn knew he had to talk to these people. What he wanted to say, alas, remains pretty fuzzy.

He knew exactly what he wanted to say to the sneery commentariat who didn’t see him coming (fair point) and to the rightwing papers; viewers at home will struggle to reconcile this rather mild, avuncular man with the wild-eyed Trot of tabloid legend. He spoke rather decently to his former leadership rivals and angrily to David Cameron, highlighting the barefaced cheek of dubbing Labour a threat to families’ security while Conservative welfare cuts drive people from their homes. He spoke to activists about important things they normally only hear in sparsely attended fringe meetings – civil liberties, electoral registration. But none of it was talking to Britain, exactly; or not the Britain sat at home watching on telly, which voted in May for more austerity.

He’s right that there has been a sea change in politics, and every MP in Brighton feels it. A genie has been unleashed that’s far too excited to go back into the bottle. But I’m not quite sure even Corbyn knows where it’s going next.

Best moment: Saying that voters don’t have to “get what they’re given”. It spoke to a yearning for something bigger and better than the bland politics on offer

Worst moment: Wistfully mentioning his opposition to Trident renewal was a reminder of his powerlessness in failing to get it debated

Like David Cameron scratching a pig so effectively that the creature sighs – as the prime minister is supposedly able to do – Jeremy Corbyn stroked the Labour conference with greater dexterity and love than any leader in living memory. This was a call to ancestral socialist duty, albeit one issued in the digital era to social media activists.

Yes, Corbyn said that he and the party must “above all” talk to those beyond the tribal stockade and “reach out” to the broader electorate. But this speech (so much better than his stumbling remarks after winning the election) was an invitation to join a campaign, not a humble exercise in persuasive rhetoric. He was conspicuously confident that there was “a big British majority” for their plan – a confidence that is hard to fathom but will not be properly tested until next year’s Scottish, Welsh and local elections.

The core of it all was his pledge never to surrender his activist’s beret. Most leaders of the opposition cannot wait for the red box; but Corbyn loves the red flag. Just as George Bush Sr promised “a kinder, gentler nation” in 1988, so this Labour leader demanded “a kinder, more caring politics”. Yet his greatest strength is his insatiable appetite for pavement politics.

As he called upon his party to “stand up”, he seemed to be channelling Bob Marley. And as he reframed his party’s purpose to a bellicose mantra – “You don’t have to take what you’re given” – he swept aside 20 years of meticulous, cautious social democracy at Labour conferences and urged his new movement to rise up like an army of suburban sans-culottes. In time, as the voters demand gritty policy and opposition politicians who look ready to govern, this great strength will become his greatest weakness. But, for now, the day belonged to Corbyn: thrillingly so.

Best moment: Calling upon Cameron to secure the release of hacker Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, presently condemned to execution in Saudi Arabia

Worst moment: Attacking the commentariat. Would Che have bothered?

If you rate leaders’ speeches as an art form, this was always going to disappoint. But what viewers at home will look for is a flavour of the new man. His essential decency was his theme, a nice man promising a kinder, gentler, more caring politics.

He took us on a long-distance ramble through his landmark priorities. Most of them are popular, such as a huge housing programme and returning rail to public ownership. As he prepares Labour’s great assault on next April’s colossal tax credit cuts, that should make the party the place to turn for millions who will be shocked at the sudden drop in income. Turning the Cameron attack on Labour to make austerity the real cause of family and national “insecurity” was strong. Abandoning Trident was back on his agenda – but so was agreeing to disagree with his front bench.

What he wins in authenticity he may lose in authority. Unprofessionalism may charm, but preoccupations with matters of little interest to most citizens beyond the conference hall may perplex. One test he passed: he could say he loved his country, its values and its spirit without causing a toe-curling cringe. No triumph, no disaster, my hunch is he earned himself a hearing, but will have switched few unbelievers to cross the line.

This was authentic Corbyn. Any idea that using an autocue was going to be the start of a respun Labour leader – or that he somehow wouldn’t be up to it – was put to rest. The themes that won him a leadership landslide were all there: rejection of austerity, solidarity, respect for others’ point of view, a kinder politics, a more caring society. And he claimed them all as both Labour and majority British values.

Add to that his unapologetic opposition to saving Syria by “dropping a few more bombs”, rejection of a £100bn Trident renewal and challenge to David Cameron to intervene with his Saudi friends to halt the crucifixion of a protester – and the new direction could hardly be clearer.

Yesterday, John McDonnell spelled out the new Labour leadership’s public investment-driven economic alternative to austerity. Today, Corbyn declared that while people with “property and power” said the world couldn’t be changed, Labour’s message was “you don’t have to take what you’re given”.

But he also started to turn outwards, on home ownership, small businesses and the army of self-employed. The battle will now be to get that message heard through the din of opposition, both from outside the Labour party and within it.

The speech was clear. It had purpose. It anchored a party that has for too long been adrift by reminding it of its core principles and core mission. Corbyn spoke in unequivocal terms about his support for the weak against the strong and fairness against inequality. He voiced support for refugees, trade unions, council housing, peace, international law and human rights. Amazingly, for a Labour party leader, this already made it an exception.

Those committed to deride him will of course find fault. The canned applause we usually witness from the conference hall on such occasions remained resolutely in the tin. As a piece of oratory it lay somewhere between mediocre and abysmal. Odd intonation, erratic cadence, low energy; the rhetorical flourishes that did exist were as often as not swallowed. It had a core narrative – a kinder politics – from which he strayed as often as he stuck.

The trouble for his most venomous critics is twofold. First, they have demonised and caricatured him so relentlessly that expectations are so low he can’t but get over them. The other is that he became leader by giving speeches exactly like this up and down the country. This is who he is. This is how he won.

Best moment: Name-checking Maya Angelou and Ben Okri

Worst moment: Most of the jokes

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
Dispatches From The Diaspora
latest book

'An outstanding chronicler of the African diaspora.'

Bernardine Evaristo

 follow on twitter
© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc