A speech of substance: Jeremy Corbyn's TUC address deserves to be taken on merits


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After the day he had, it would be easy to ignore the substance of Jeremy Corbyn’s first major speech as Labour leader, to the Trades Union Congress. It was a guide to all that is good – and not quite so good – about what we might see during his tenure. For he showed himself a more pragmatic and, indeed, smarter politician than is sometimes made out.

Yes, he would indeed repeal the draconian new laws on strikes grinding their way through Parliament. Yes, he was nicer to the activists than Tony Blair ever was. Yes, he said, unions do protect people in the workplace. What he did not do was simply declare that he would repeal all the anti-union legislation passed since 1979 by Conservative governments, and mostly preserved by Mr Blair and Gordon Brown. All he promised his comrades was a “Workers’ Rights Agenda”, which means everything and nothing.

Mr Corbyn mentioned workplace ballots, but was silent on the closed shop, benefit payments to strikers and their families, pre-strike ballots, secondary or flying pickets, and wildcat strikes. Mr Corbyn wisely decided, three days into his leadership, that there is time enough to plot a way through those emotive issues.

Otherwise, this was Corbyn as Corbyn: late on stage; pedestrian delivery not soaring rhetoric – this is no Nye Bevan, Michael Foot or Tony Benn that Labour has elected. He had some promising lines, though. When the rich are offered tax cuts he is right to ask whether austerity is a political choice. Calling the Tories “poverty deniers” was a sharp riposte to their charge of “deficit denier”. Like Ken Livingstone, his old ally, he prefers to take the battle to his enemies rather than accommodate them.

None of that, of course, necessarily means that he and John McDonnell will convince the voters they can be trusted with the economy. But it’s a long time since a keynote speech by Jeremy Corbyn received this much attention.