Jeremy Corbyn’s closing speech to his party’s annual conference was, as it usually is, passionate, unashamedly left-wing, and full of right hooks at Theresa May’s Conservative government. There were certainly many things that went right for the Labour leader. Perhaps most importantly, he confronted the row over anti-semitism that has, as he quite rightly acknowledged, consumed his party this summer.
He also had several recent government failures to capitalize on, including the re-privatisation of the Birmingham Prison run by G4S and the complete meltdown of the East Coast Franchise. It would not have been a Corbyn speech without a mention of international human rights abuses, including the war in Yemen and the plight of the Rohingya. His speech has thus drawn wide admiration, with the New Statesman’s George Eaton writing that ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech showed why the left is the new centre’, and the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman stating it will ‘send Labour members home happy.’
There are two elements of his speech that deserve some separate analysis. One thing that is particularly interesting, as Eaton pointed out, is Corbyn’s omittance of overtly left-wing terms when referring to economic policies, e.g. the absence of either the term renationalization or socialism in his speech (apart from to quote the founder of the NHS). This is despite the fact that, as was pointed out by John McDonnell in his own speech, public opinion towards renationalization is increasingly favourable. Yet, both McDonnell and Corbyn went to some effort in their speeches to emphasise that their economic policies look forward and not back. McDonnell quite literally promised that “nationalization will not be a return to the past”, and Corbyn went to some effort to mention several times the modernity of Labour’s economic policies.
The second is Corbyn’s remarks on Brexit, which were always going to dominate the headlines. Importantly, the Labour leader promised that if May can secure a deal with the EU that removes the possibility of any hard border with Ireland and provides a customs union, they would back the deal. It’s being interpreted by some as an “olive branch” offering to the Prime Minister. However, the Labour leader made a further interesting statement: “Brexit is about the future of our country and our vital interests. It is not about leadership squabbles or parliamentary posturing. But if you can’t negotiate that deal then you need to make way for a party that can.”
As Holly Ellyatt wrote for CNBC, Corbyn might want to think twice before ringing the general election bell – it might just be the last thing the British public want or need. It’s also not quite clear how a politician renowned for his ambivalence towards the institution will secure the best deal with it. In Theresa May’s defence, her Chequers plan was the product of her efforts to try and keep the UK close to the EU; as an article in The Economist highlighted last month, “Britain has slowly but steadily ceded ground to the EU, not the other way round.” She lost two prolific pro-Brexit members of her party over this stance, putting her own leadership on the line in the process. One thing is for certain, the Labour leader’s comments send a clear message to Theresa May, and, as Dan Sabbagh writing for the Guardian points out, have just made it that bit harder for her to get a final Brexit deal through Parliament without making concessions to the Labour leader.