Jeremy Corbyn addressed the Labour Party conference for the first time as leader yesterday, using his time in the spotlight to call for a “kinder” society and condemn David Cameron as someone who punished hard-working people whilst providing tax breaks for the wealthy. The speech contained few surprises in terms of its content, policy or presentation (tailored suits and a properly tied necktie appear to remain beyond him) and the activist and rally attendee that won the leadership contest has yet to switch to a more conventional style of political presentation. This speech was a statement: Mr. Corbyn had promised to do things differently, so here he was, doing things differently.
After being introduced by one of his constituents, Mr. Corbyn strode onto the stage confidently and with a smile on his face. He looked relaxed, but was keen to get on with things, attempting to curb the ovation that greeted his arrival by asking: “Any chance we could start the speech?” When he did start, it was with an attack on the media that mocked a headline claiming he welcomed the prospect of an asteroid wiping out all life on earth. He reassured his audience that he had no intention of causing or encouraging a mass extinction event, joking that he would never take such a big decision without giving conference the chance to debate the matter first. The wisdom of continuing to focus so heavily on the conduct of the media remains questionable, but his critique was done with humour and made for a decent opening that tried to dismantle the image of him that has been projected by some sections of the press.
In the same vein, he chose to deal directly with the Conservative claim that his leadership posed a threat to the economic security of the British people. “How dare they?” he asked indignantly, before questioning where the security was for people living in temporary housing or trying to raise a family on a low income. “Where’s the security?” he asked repeatedly before condemning the Tories for presiding over an economy based on unsustainable debt levels and a “failed” policy of austerity that was “out of date”. It was they, not he, who were political dinosaurs, he seemed to be saying. The economic section of the speech also contained two key policy proposals: the creation of a National Investment Bank and a pledge to build 100,000 new houses for local authorities and housing associations. The latter promise had been mentioned already, and this was in line with the style of a speech in which Mr. Corbyn repeated himself on a number of occasions.
He then talked for quite some time about the state of the Labour Party. He spoke of his desire to reverse its electoral decline in Scotland and repeated his pledge to make members heard and harness the power of their enthusiasm. Mr. Corbyn is a veteran campaigner, and he wants to mobilise Labour members in the name of good causes. The two he picked out were ensuring as many people as possible are registered to vote and bringing an end to the stigma of mental illness, so that “parity of esteem for mental health is a reality, not a slogan.” Mr. Corbyn proved with that line that he is not incapable of delivering a soundbite.
The Tories were accused of trying to “gerrymander” upcoming elections in Wales and London and from that point on, the speech moved on from discussing the prospects for Labour and became an indictment of the Conservatives. Referencing the fact that the government had given tax breaks to hedge funds (who were party donors) before breaking an election promise on tax credits, Mr. Corbyn called it an “absurd lie” for the Tories to claim to be the party of working people. Those tax credit cuts, he claimed, were “clobbering” the self-employed and retarding the economy. They were to be opposed at all costs.
Despite using the word “kinder” more than half a dozen times and repeatedly calling for a more civil form of politics, Mr. Corbyn called the Conservatives liars, gerrymanders and human rights abusers who could not be trusted to protect the most vulnerable. Again adopting the mantle of campaigner-in-chief, he finished with a rousing call for Britons to “stand up” and fight for a fairer society. His shouted assertion that “the British people never have to take what they are given” got a standing ovation. This was probably the strongest section of his speech and that line was possibly the note on which the address should have ended.
Instead, the new Labour leader opted to finish with a tribute to the party’s founder, Keir Hardie. This was in line with a speech that had spoken about internal politics and the activities of ordinary party members to an extent that will be ridiculed by many commentators as self-obsessed navel-gazing. Most people, however, won’t see or read anything about that section of the speech. What they will see on the news will be a passionate, unpolished Labour Party leader attacking a Conservative Prime Minister on the grounds that he looks out for its own and treads on working people. That seems to be the sales pitch and as such, it is not entirely at odds with the line of attack chosen by the last Labour leader, Ed Miliband. David Cameron will get his chance to respond at the Conservative Party conference in October.