There was something different about the Labour Party conference this year – something not seen perhaps for two decades – and it wasn’t just the enormous size of the gathering or the much-remarked on professionalism. It was rather that the party and its leader seemed to be, if not reconciled, at least prepared to unite in the common purpose of winning an election.
Blairite sniping from the sidelines was less than usual; some so-called “centrists” had stayed away, others held their peace. Efforts by the former chancellor, George Osborne, to stir things up by giving Tony Blair a pre-conference anti-Brexit forum in his London Evening Standard gained little traction.
Both delegates and the party leader offered little gestures of give and take. Whether this was because Corbynistas have now gained critical mass, or because Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents have failed to set up a breakaway party, is not clear. But arguments about de-selection and Europe never escalated into the showdowns anticipated.
Corbyn himself appeared both more relaxed and more confident in his speech, and even offered a small olive branch to Theresa May – holding out the possibility of Commons support on a Brexit deal under certain, admittedly unlikely, conditions. His speech in tone was at least more inclusive. His tribute to his wife, in Spanish, was a neat human and cosmopolitan touch – signalling not only that here was someone comfortable in his skin, but that – unlike the current and previous leaders of the Conservative Party – he has a genuinely international side.
Most of all, though, from Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, there were policies that not only hung together for the most part as a coherent whole, but could have appeal beyond what some see as their old-fashioned, even dangerously Marxist, Labour constituency.
This time last year, some of what Corbyn and McDonnell were offering could be contemplated by grateful Conservatives as effectively disqualifying a Corbyn Labour Party from power. That may no longer be so, partly because Corbyn seems to have made efforts to court other constituencies, but partly, too, because the country at large – including sections of the elite – may be more open to ideas like re-nationalisation and selective tax rises, than they used to be.
A bellwether for such change was a recent article in the Financial Times by Lord O’Neill (formerly of Goldman Sachs and for 16 months commercial secretary to the Treasury in the Conservative government), in which he suggested that some of Labour’s current ideas, including re-nationalisation and the need for a fresh look at taxation to take account of the new economy, deserved to be taken seriously. At least – he also said – Labour was producing some much-needed new ideas, at a time when the government was completely taken up with Brexit.
One reason why these ideas may be gaining acceptance in such quarters, however, is the long shadow that is still cast by the 2008 financial crisis. It might even be said that the material and psychological overhang of that crisis – especially for the UK where the financial sector is so central to the economy – is actually of more significance than the bank bailouts and austerity that were its immediate effects.
I would say that it is now widely accepted that the financial sector was too powerful, that the people who had made the mistakes never got their comeuppance, that the rich were largely protected, and that ordinary people had to take the flak – whether in the squeeze on public services or zero interest rates for savers. This sense of injustice will not go away soon, and Corbyn caught that mood earlier than most.
To her credit, May also sensed something of the same, when she gave her first address as prime minister outside Number 10. This was when she talked of those “just about managing” and proposed among other things worker representation on company boards. But she dropped even that modest measure – perhaps under pressure from the City? – leaving Corbyn and McDonnell to revive it, adding the more radical proposal that workers should also hold shares.
To win, however, Corbyn will need to go beyond the youth vote that polls suggest he already has in the bag. And his conference speech more than hinted that Labour had glimpsed an opportunity in the “silver” vote – hitherto regarded as the bedrock of the Conservatives’ support. They may well be right. I am not sure that the government has even now understood quite how politically damaging their proposals for financing “social care” were – even after they were scared into dropping them.
The problem for the Conservatives is that they have seemed to call into question many of the – still flimsy – safeguards for older people, without offering anything in their place. So when Corbyn talked about introducing proper health and social care provision (integration the Conservatives have kept promising but done nothing about), and made firm guarantees about the “triple lock” – whose value is vastly more psychological than financial – and bus passes, this is a lot more than the traditional “pensioners” party offered at the last election.
Corbyn also did well to eschew the fashionable talk about “generational injustice” and focus instead on inclusivity. Parents and grandparents are as exercised as young voters about housing (it is their children they see priced out of the market). And while Labour’s offer of free childcare for all three and four-year-olds and free school dinners for all primary school children, has been criticised as extravagant, the “targeted” approach favoured by the current government means that some choose not to use such services as they feel “stigmatised”.
All right, so there was scant clarity about Labour’s position on Brexit from its conference. In a way, though, the party does not need a fixed and potentially divisive policy while it can watch the Conservatives in such public disarray, as they are responsible for the negotiations.
Given that no one knows how it is going to turn out, sitting on the fence is not a bad place for the opposition, though they might need more clarity in the event of an election. But the party looks infinitely more electable now than it did this time last year.
Before this week’s conference, one of Corbyn’s advisers, Andrew Murray (a former communist and chief of staff at the trade union Unite) claimed that a UK “deep state” was conspiring to keep Corbyn out of power.
I must admit that similar thoughts sometimes crossed my mind – for all sorts of reasons, including the credence given recently to the re-heated claim that Michael Foot was in the pay of the Soviet Union. But you don’t have to “buy” the conspiracy line to accept that for his first two years with the elected leader of his party, Corbyn was scandalously dismissed by most of the UK’s mainstream media. At least in that respect a new chapter is beginning.
We shall see how the Conservative Conference goes next week. As of now, though, I would now go out on a limb and wager that if there is an election in the next year or so, Corbyn and Labour will win. Which, of course, is why not just May, but her rivals, will do their absolute best to avoid one.
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