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Tuesday, September 29, 2015 

Now comes the hard bit.

Much as it pains me to say it, Jeremy Corbyn's first conference speech as Labour leader was without doubt worse than Ed Miliband's own debut effort 5 years ago.  Looking back at it now, Miliband's speech was pretty much the template of what it was thought a mass appeal political address should be: saying not too much but just enough about the speaker himself, acknowledging the public's concerns through the device of an ordinary voter whom the speaker had met, and attempting to deal with the worries of the audience in the hall and those of viewers at home.  Despite all this or rather because of it, as Miliband was never going to be able to pull off the Blair/Cameron bullshit act with the same panache, it just didn't work.  What at least read fine on the page failed in the delivery, which was nervous and stultifying.

Corbyn's speech also reads fine.  It's disjointed, there's no real overall theme, but it's solid.  There are some great passages, which we've since learned were borrowed from Richard Heller with his permission, and there's very little in it to disagree with.  Sadly, as haltingly delivered by Corbyn, with the same tripping over of words seen at PMQs and the other speeches since he was elected leader, it came across in much the same way, one level above shambolic.  Allowances can only go so far: it was apparently the first time Corbyn has used an autocue, the not being a consummate politician is part of his appeal, it won't matter as it'll be cut up for a 3-minute report on the news, and no one really pays attention to conference speeches in any case.

This is all true up to a point.  Cameron's conference speeches as prime minister have all been godawful and it hasn't done him the slightest harm.  Ed Miliband's subsequent speeches, especially his 2012 and 2013 efforts, were massively improved, and the price cap on energy prices policy subsequently set the political agenda.  Did it make a scrap of difference, and conversely did his "forgetting" about the deficit in 2014 have any great impact?  Again, probably not.  Minds were likely already made up by that point.

With Corbyn, they are very much yet to be.  Along with his first PMQs, this speech will be the beginning of voters making up their minds.  By no means will it be all bad: the difference between Corbyn and the political leaders of the other major parties could not be more stark.  An unspun man of experience who calls not just for a more caring society, but also for a kinder politics, demanding that the personal attacks cease.  A leader who laughs and makes bad jokes about press attacks on him.  A politician who doesn't want to impose his own view on the party, instead wanting debate to flourish and for advice to be given freely.  All are highly commendable and endearing qualities, likely to appeal.

The problem is the speech as a whole was directed at the hall itself, rather than anyone outside it.  Conference itself lapped it up, as they were always likely to; Tony Blair's shtick was to pick a different fight every year with his own party, and how different this was from those days.  Even Ed Miliband in his first speech recognised however that the battle was to win support not in the hall, but out in the country.  We lost 5 million votes he said, asking how the party could win them back.  He didn't have the answers, but at least he posed the question.  To be sure, Corbyn didn't hold back in taking the fight to the Tories, denouncing their cuts to tax credits, contrasting it with their choice to all but abolish inheritance tax, and throwing straight back at them their line on Corbyn and Labour being a threat to national and economic security.  Of the few new policies on offer, the pledge to look at making the self-employed eligible for maternity and paternity pay will no doubt be popular.

For those who stayed with the Tories or went to UKIP though, there was very little here to make them think again.  The politics of the last 5 years will almost certainly end up being defined by the Tory strategy of being as nasty as they could get away with being to the unemployed, immigrants, those on benefits and the poorest in society in general.  Rather than be embarrassed by the growth in food banks or the rise in zero hours contracts, Cameron shrugged it all off.  Moreover, so too did the voters: they might not have been voting for the Tory manifesto or for the UKIP policy of being arseholes to everyone specifically when they put their cross on the ballot, but do so they did.  They preferred the hateful, envious, kicking down politics of the right enough to give UKIP 4 million votes and for the Tories to win an overall majority.  For Corbyn to appeal for a kinder politics is certainly noble and welcome, but for it to actually happen?  At this point it would be almost to go against the very nature of the country we've become.  Sporadic outbursts of humanity aside, the default is nearly always to say no when the request for help comes.

As strong as Heller's lines then were about the Tories expecting the people of Britain to accept what they're given, the sad fact is that's precisely what they did.  Given the choice between what they saw as economic competence, regardless of the reality, and a Labour party they didn't trust, they opted for Osborne's self-defeating austerity and everything that goes with it.  In this respect, yesterday's speech by John McDonnell was far more successful, especially when all it really did was reheat Ed Balls' policies and announce a host of reviews.  Despite this it came across as credible, with all the steel that Balls' pronouncements had lacked.

Perhaps Corbyn felt McDonnell had covered those bases.  He might well have felt that he still needs to consolidate his power within the parliamentary party, extending his hand before he addresses how Labour goes about winning the next election.  He could be of the mind that first he needs to unite the left, drawing back Green defectors and any SNPers having second thoughts by making clear it's time to come home to a Labour party which shares their values.  Viewed on that basis alone, the speech was a success.

To give Corbyn the benefit of the doubt, it could be he simply doesn't yet have a strategy to win over undecided voters.  There's nothing wrong with that for the moment, not least when the only alternatives offered thus far have been to emulate the Tories more.  It does however only encourage the dullards who keep on repeating that Corbyn's supporters aren't interested in winning, not that they need any encouragement (I do nonetheless fear there is more than a smidgen of truth to Janan Ganesh's view that some of Corbyn's supporters are "comfortable").  To not so much as mention the defeat though, to recognise that the party was rejected and to examine the reasons as to why was an unforced mistake.

Corbyn has done the "easy" part.  He now needs to convince he can appeal beyond his natural constituency.  Not doing the bare minimum when he has so much goodwill is a failure he may live to regret.

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If Corbyn's supporters are 'comfortable', do hard-up voters identify more with Burnham or Kendall? And if so, why? Are they really thinking "the Tories' policies will kick us in the teeth, but realistically we can't actually oppose being kicked in the teeth"?

Let me explain it this way - Corbyn won across the board, but overwhelmingly so among the £3 registered supporters. For some of those people the accusations they have no interest in Labour beyond voting for Corbyn (and conversely they could if they like say the same about me and Kendall) regardless of the potential consequences will be uncomfortably near the reality.

Incidentally, I think Ganesh is just subtly altering the power/principles false dichotomy argument to try to make the point that maybe those on the right of the party would be listened to more if they put it in such terms. Corbyn's victory in the main was down to the opposite of being comfortable, quite clearly, otherwise one of the other three would have triumphed. The impact of the welfare vote proves that. It would have been interesting mind if some research had been commissioned that did look into whether DEs, C2s and ABs identified more with Corbyn or Kendall.

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