Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to Labour conference showed how confident the Labour leader is now. He knew his way around the text enough to be able to make little spontaneous jokes, rather than reading the ‘strong message here’ instruction from the autocue, as he did in his 2015 address. He varied his pitch, his pace and his tone. None of these things have been guaranteed with Corbyn until now. The speech itself was well-written and structured, starting with a lengthy but effective values-based section where Corbyn praised the membership and attacked the press, which warmed up those in the hall no end.
Not that the members needed warming up. They were, unsurprisingly, delighted by the very appearance of their leader, waving ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ scarves and signing that now famous song. They gave many surprise standing ovations that Corbyn clearly hadn’t been expecting, but he is now confident and was able to pick up where he’d been interrupted without a struggle.
All of these things are superficial, but they contributed to the very impression that Labour strategists have been keen to give this week: that Labour is ready for government and feels comfortable in its own skin.
When it came to the substance of the speech, Corbyn did talk a lot about policy, contrasting the performance of the Tories in key policy areas such as health, welfare, business and so on with the plans that each shadow minister had ready for being in power. A few years ago, promises that any shadow minister would be able to implement something once in government would have sounded either delusional or like the kind of thing that any leader would feel they had to say, regardless of the likelihood of or indeed their personal desire for the party actually winning a general election and finding itself in charge. Now, they sounded credible, even if the spending pledges and mechanisms behind the policies are not.
This is a problem for the Conservatives: they would, frankly, have to pay people to create the size and enthusiasm of the gathering of members in today’s hall. Theresa May will next week be on the defensive whereas Labour has this week felt largely proactive and happy with itself. This is no mean feat given the row over the summer about anti-Semitism. Many may feel that Corbyn is continuing to dismiss the anti-Semitism allegations – today he suggested drawing a line under the matter without offering an apology – but the members in the hall were clearly comfortable with this approach.
Labour will leave this conference feeling pretty good about itself. But there’s a risk that this good feeling allows the leadership to continue to fudge on Brexit, both in terms of the deal being negotiated and the terms of a proposed second referendum on that deal. And while the party has largely ignored the complaints of those ‘moderates’ who are considering leaving, this is still a scenario that the leadership worries about a great deal, as it could conceivably rob Corbyn of his majority, preventing him from realising all the ambitions that he delighted activists with today.