Anyone tuning into the Labour Party Conference on TV this week may have been forgiven for coming to the conclusion they were watching a party of government celebrating a recent General Election victory; the same euphoric images of a triumphant Jeremy Corbyn could be seen on the telly in the days following the actual General Election in June. There were sour, sober faces from the likes of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, despite the two women in question still being in charge of their respective countries, while the reaction of Labour MPs and supporters suggested a win against all odds. In a sense, the remarkable performance of Labour on June 8 was against all odds, but it still didn’t end with the party in government. Not that this heroic failure has dissuaded believers in Brighton, convinced government is within their grasp. Far from it.
We shall we wait to see how the Conservative Party Conference shapes up next, but as far as the Labour shindig on the South Coast is concerned, the Tories are perched on the precipice of collapse, courtesy of a lame duck leader and an ineffective Brexit strategy. The Labour faithful might be right; the Government certainly has look of an administration in its death throes, with backstage jostling for a challenge momentarily on ice whilst David Davis fannies about in Brussels, and the sense of counting down the days before the knives are really out for Mrs May unavoidable. But the fact is that the opposition bench remains red and could well do so for another year or two.
Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with being prepared. The Labour Party certainly didn’t seem so when the Prime Minister caught most by surprise when she called the snap Election; Jezza’s undisciplined army were trailing embarrassingly far behind in the polls, with endless questions still hanging over the leadership, and predictions of electoral annihilation threatening to surpass the Annus mirabilis of 1983; of course, this was one of the reasons why May took her calamitous gamble. Since that memorable evening in June, however, Labour has been on permanent Election alert. Were it not for the PM buying time by buying the favours of the DUP, not to mention a certain ‘European issue’, the likelihood of another outing on the hustings before the end of the year would have been an odds-on cert, and Labour has consciously armed itself for a campaign it will be ready to fight whenever whichever Tory then occupies No.10 gives the green light.
Jeremy Corbyn strode onto the stage for his big end-of-conference speech with the familiar ringing endorsement from his fan club echoing in his ears. They’ve greeted him as a conquering hero from the minute he was elected leader two years ago, but this time round they had his surprising performance in June as an added impetus to their fanatical devotion. When last year’s Labour Party Conference took place, Jezza had just survived a challenge from…er…oh, yes, Owen Smith (wasn’t it?), yet to anyone outside the Corbyn bubble, even brushing aside a challenger only a year into his tenure as leader didn’t appear a sign of strength, merely an indication of Labour’s lacklustre talent pool. Twelve months on, however, Jezza has never looked more secure in his position.
His speech was delivered by a man oozing enough confidence to try to reach out beyond his hardcore audience to the wider electorate. He managed this to a degree during the Election itself, and the Labour manifesto when looked at closely contained a good deal that many non-Corbynites found themselves in agreement with. Yesterday’s speech followed the same path, and I have to admit I was quite impressed. Corbyn now knows there are people out there who may well vote Labour who wouldn’t have done so this time last year, and he knows he needs their votes to win – particularly the elusive inhabitants of the New Towns. Confounding the pollsters has been achieved; now he has to build on that by taking it to the next level. The speech seemed a determined effort to begin that battle.
Corbyn’s sermon veered off-topic a little when venturing into international affairs, and the party’s Brexit plans must have caused the odd drop of froth to gather on the lips of many a Brexiteer; but when sticking to a domestic agenda there was a fair bit in there that was hard to disagree with. The absence of any reference to the ongoing controversy of anti-Semitic elements within the party was a notable omission, and Tory-bashing was a given; but June’s events have imbued Jezza and Labour as a whole with the conviction they really can do it. The atmosphere in Brighton seemed to reflect this, though it would be wise not to become too confident too soon; there’s still a lot of work to be done and still a lot of people that need persuading. But Labour believes it can successfully launch itself into the next Election on the back of the unexpected gains in the last one; the Conservatives at the moment don’t exude that self-belief.
There have been accusations of further behind-the-scenes machinations to keep the left ruling the roost in Labour, and there remains a very narrow representation of party views in the Shadow Cabinet. When compared to the variety (and extremities) of opinion around the table of Harold Wilson’s 1974-6 administration, Corbyn’s chosen few seem very much in the Corbyn mould; by contrast, Wilson picked the best men (and women) for the job, whether or not they were in absolute agreement with him. It’s testament to Harold’s superlative man-management skills that he was able to keep the chalk-and-cheese likes of Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn on the same side for so long, yet it’s almost impossible to imagine Jezza doing the same because he won’t select anyone who isn’t ideologically aligned with him; and if somebody in his team dares to express an opinion that goes against the Corbyn line, they walk the plank. Just ask Sarah Champion.
There are many members of Corbyn’s crowd I shudder to think of holding a Ministerial post, yet when I gaze at the Government equivalent, I see Chris Grayling and wonder how someone so stupid can even put one foot in front of the other, let alone run a department. But it’s a truism that parties in government for longer than five years tend to acquire bags around their eyes, and it’s undeniable that the public gradually get fed up of just seeing their tired old faces. That’s when they turn to a new model, and no amount of further chopping and changing at the top of the Tory Party can alter the fact that any man or woman who grabs power will be doused in the same jaded odour of knackered familiarity that currently clings to Theresa May like the sorry scent of stale farts on a Sunday morning.
© The Editor