What is Jeremy Corbyn’s vision for Labour in government? Before the snap election, that question seemed so very irrelevant and hypothetical, but the 2017 result and the way the Tories have behaved since makes a Jeremy Corbyn premiership far more likely than anyone could have imagined.
So his speech at Labour conference was quite understandably upbeat, confident, and well-received. It was the best speech he’s ever given – fluent, well-structured and unapologetic. Though of course it went on a bit too long. It included the mandatory pops at the media, and repetitions of crowd-pleasing policy announcements on nationalising various industries. Labour feels so powerful now that it doesn’t need to worry that its policies will upset the public. But the reason it feels powerful is clearly because the Tories are in a huge mess, rather than that the public has suddenly decided that Labour’s policies would work.
The Labour leader told conference:
‘We are ready and the Tories are clearly not. They’re certainly not strong and they’re definitely not stable. They’re not remotely united. And they’re hanging on by their fingertips.’
This is a pretty accurate statement. The Tories are behaving so badly at the moment that they seem less keen on power and more keen on having some kind of cathartic shouting match. And Labour is the party that seems excited about politics and the prospect of power.
But Corbyn’s excitement about politics and the prospect of power seems far more based on the fact that the Tories are in a mess than it does on what Labour could actually do. So much of his speech focused on how badly the Tories were handling everything. He listed the ditched Conservative manifesto pledges, and once again demanded that Theresa May ‘go the whole hog and end austerity, abolish tuition fees, scrap the public sector pay cap’. In previous years, these demands would have seemed merely tummy tickling for the party membership rather than realistic political prospects. Not any more, and that’s why he feels so confident about promising things that previous Labour leaders often spent a lot of time having to deny they were going to do so they didn’t scare the horses.
He argued that Labour was ‘now the political mainstream’, but the overall tone of his speech was not so much that the party had managed to move its beloved Overton window so that the public now agreed with its policies, but that the Tories had done the shoving on Labour’s behalf.
This seems a small distinction but it explains why Labour conference is so deliriously happy. It isn’t just that it thinks the public is now listening to the party in a way that it hasn’t for years. It’s also that the party doesn’t think it has to worry about messing up, because the Tories have already made such an almighty mess that they can get away with mistakes and odd policies. When you’ve been given political space like that, you can be forgiven for being unbelievably happy.