Jeremy Corbyn made his annual leader’s speech today. I watched it so you didn’t have to. Here are four quick thoughts and a postscript on how in this topsy turvy world of Trump and Farage a Left Labour platform could maybe win eventually on a stranger-things-have-happened basis.
1) At the risk of sounding excessively critical and negative, can I say I preferred the old Jeremy Corbyn before they gave him a makeover? Although the original model in his crumpled old jacket was ineffectual, he was at least authentic. In the last year Team Corbyn has come close to New Labourising him in sartorial terms. Today he was dressed as Gordon Brown from 1997, with a dark suit, crisp white shirt and red tie (with small white spots.) What a sell-out…
2) Corbyn’s delivery has improved, a lot, but that wouldn’t be hard. A year ago he was the put-upon geography teacher delivering a shambolic assembly in front of the whole school, explaining to restless pupils the exciting details of his hobbies (wood carving and tending an allotment). Now he is recast as a not very good Bryan Gould impersonator, reading out a shopping list of implausible soft left demands for more spending on everything. That does not make what he delivered a good speech. He achieved a basic level of competence today. That’s all.
3) There was hardly any serious reference to Brexit or the Union with Scotland and the integrity of the UK. The first omission was downright bizarre. This has been a momentous year, yet on his biggest set-piece chance to grab attention on the agenda he had nothing useful or interesting to say. On Scotland it looks as though he barely cares and has already written the place off, not unlike quite a lot of voters in England, so that won’t impact much South of the border. But to not address Brexit properly was weird bordering on the dim.
4) He is positioning Labour as the open-borders party. Good luck with that. The open-borders orthodoxy is crumbling and politics is changing. Why not adapt? But there is obvious method in the madness there, in that his approach is an attempt to shore up what is now (incredibly) the core Labour vote, what Paul Mason terms the “globalist salariat” of public sector managers and workers in the south east and the major conurbations in the rest of England who are pro-immigration. That he needs to shore up that vote is revealing. It amounts to an admission that the working class Labour voters that went for Brexit are gone for good, or at least gone for now, and he must hold on to a different group.
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Gerald Warner wrote us a smart piece at Reaction today on not writing off Labour when politics is so fluid. Tory commentator Bruce Anderson imagined and scripted an imaginary Socialist appeal the other day that explained why it might connect when the Labour moderates have very little to say. The unthinkable does happen. A few years ago Brexit was thought to be a distant joke for all but obsessives. Europhiles are not laughing now. Could it be the same for pro-market forces at some point? Possibly.
A wise Thatcher era cabinet minister described to me recently the circumstances in which the Left might win eventually, in which poor “zero hours” Britain combines with a losing lower middle class stuck in desperate times. It happens like this: the economy takes a turn for the worse, via a global cataclysm, a standard recession (which the UK is due at some point), a botched Brexit, or some combination of all three. The message that the globalised financial system and the market are broken gains a new potency as automation, plunging investment and recession slice through the jobs of those in the marginals and beyond. The bubbling concern about inequality since the financial crisis and the antics of the super-rich comes to the boil. By this point Corbyn is no longer the leader but he has changed the Labour party to ensure that his successor – let us call him or her X – is of the Left. X may not yet be in parliament yet. Imagine that person is charismatic and rather dashing, bounding around the country cutting Boris Johnson or Theresa May to shreds with a rapier wit. When the crisis hits that person can say: “Look, we have to try something different. Politics is broken. The market is broken. Surely we can do better by pulling together and kicking out the fatcats in parliament and the boardrooms?” Corbyn sketched out the beginnings of that message in Liverpool.
Not sure I buy the idea that this would win in marginal seats, even in an economic emergency, but under a different leader it might fly, duly unleashing predictable economic catastrophe on a 1970s model. Worth considering that this could happen, even if just to guard against pro-market complacency and groupthink. Look at all those people who said Brexit would never happen. And then it did.