On Tuesday afternoon I did something for the first time ever. I watched a Labour leader’s conference speech. I had been encouraged by the advance billing that it would not be a long one. It lasted a full hour, so on that count I was disappointed. But what to make of it, and the revolution that has overwhelmed Britain’s Labour Party?
The first point to make is that its delivery was very low-key – which is entirely what we had been led to expect. Jeremy Corbyn wore a jacket and tie, but not a suit; and his tie wasn’t quite done up. His delivery was quite flat, and he often stumbled over his words. He was unable to deliver humour successfully. The speech itself rambled a bit – a bit of a struggle for me to concentrate completely at that time of the afternoon. But this is all very novel, and designed to show an unspun “authentic” politician, who is a nice man to boot. He had a rather lovely knowing look which he delivered from time to time in brief pauses. The contrast with Lib Dem leader Tim Farron’s speech last week, a much sharper and high octane affair, was very striking. Each is playing to their strengths, and not being rammed into uncomfortable poses by expert advisers.
A couple of things about its content are worth noting. He delivered a strong attack on the Conservative government’s economic policy, describing the shallowness of its supposed success. In this he was picking up from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s speech the previous day. Labour is trying to establish a strong economic narrative to rival the government’s – and one that will garner support from respectable, mainstream economists. Unlike Mr McDonnell though, he said nothing about how Labour would deal with the country’s finances. This was all of a piece with his speech – rallying his supporters by stoking up moral outrage, but not trying to challenge them by hinting at hard choices ahead.
A second point is worth noting: he gave a lot of time to international affairs. I don’t think many previous leaders did this. This may be because he has a bit of form associating himself with international campaigns, not all of them entirely respectable. He made it plain he was for upholding human rights and against warmongering. He condemned Saudi Arabia in particular, and opposed military intervention in Syria. He did not, of course, attempt to tackle rather trickier issues, like Israel-Palestine or human rights in Venezuela, where he has a record of supporting its leftist regime. But this internationalist theme is a striking area of common ground with liberals.
For the Labour Party itself, Mr Corbyn said that he wanted to encourage internal debate, and not worry too much about how this is portrayed in hostile media. He made clear his opposition to the Trident nuclear weapons system, without seeking to impose it on the party as a whole. He also called for political debate to be carried out in in an open and civilised way, in a kinder more caring form of politics – not just within the party, but outside the party too. This gave rise to a standing ovation – though it is possible that this was because his audience mistook it for the end of the speech. Judging by a number of people sneaking out towards the end, the Labour delegates were as misled as I was about the length of the speech – and no doubt some had trains to catch. Those of us outside the party, who have witnessed the tribal abuse dealt out by Labour supporters, will believe any such change in style when we see it. One suspects that they can’t see the difference between plain speaking and throwing insults. Indeed the very next day Deputy Leader Tom Watson described the Liberal Democrats as a “useless bunch of lying sellouts”, among other things. So much for that then.
The whole thing made a lot more sense to me after reading Peter Kellner’s article in the New Statesman, actually written before the speech. In it he points out that by tradition Labour presents its cause as a moral crusade (or jihad if you are a Muslim, though I doubt that Labour politician has been brave enough to use that word!) – and not as a class struggle against capitalism. This helps mask the party’s attitudes to capitalism, which vary from outright hostility, through grudging tolerance, to positive enthusiasm. Mr Corbyn’s speech was firmly in this tradition – morality ran right through it. And it did not take a stand against capitalism – indeed he suggested that small and medium sized businesses should have better access to credit, albeit through a nationalised bank.
And it has to be said that the new Labour party does not seem to be playing to the hard left traditions that many of us were familiar with in the 1980s. The emphasis is on members setting policy in a bottom-up, “democratic” process. I put “democratic” in quotation marks, because a self-selected minority using voting procedures to determine their direction is a far cry from democracy – but Lib Dems adopt the same conceit. Nevertheless this is a long way from party activists acting as a revolutionary vanguard, and setting policy as generals choose lines of attack in real wars. I am told this is “democratic socialism”. Of course, this sort of inclusiveness is quite characteristic of the early stages of leftist revolutions – but I think Mr Corbyn genuinely means it. Some of his supporters may not.
The trouble for the rest of us is this. The shopfront may be a moral crusade that is quite attractive, and behind it may be inclusive and open party processes. But so far all this has produced is a blank slate. And with blank slates there is a tendency to project your wishes onto it. Old-left anti-capitalists think the party stands for nationalised industries and intrusive political leadership. Some of the younger recruits surely think it stands for something more liberal. But outsiders do not know what, in actual, concrete terms, the party stands for.
And based on what Mr Corbyn has said of his own beliefs, and what many of his trade union backers have also said – and what both of these have not said – there is every reason to think that what Labour will eventually come to stand for will not be at all liberal. They do not seem to believe in free markets; they are suspicious of the devolution of power; they do not appear to believe in electoral systems that foster plurality rather than polarisation.
And if the moral crusade turns out not to be based on liberal principles, it will merely consolidate power amongst a different, and likely even narrower, political elite. Until Labour moves off its moral high horse and gets its hands dirty, I will withhold judgement, even if I afford them some benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile I am not tempted to move away from a political party whose liberal principles are not up for debate.