Jeremy Corbyn’s closing speech to the Labour Party conference in Liverpool this morning was long and appeared to cover a large amount of ground. It offered a grand tour – often to the point of tedium – of the issues of the day. But it was, at the same time, a speech that still sounded to be miles from Government, in the way it avoided or finessed some of the biggest issues facing both the Labour Party and the country as a whole.
First, there was a lot of talk about industrial democracy and ownership; a pledge on placing workers’ representatives on boards, and another one on childcare. There were pledges about restoring funding cuts to front-line services. But there was no indication of how this would be paid for or implement, and, more generally, any sense of a fiscal trajectory or a sense of priorities. This is a serious problem, not because the work has not been done, but because there remains among the electorate at large a real reluctance to trust Labour with the economy. In 2015 it was the biggest single problem Labour faced; in 2017 it was avoided because the economy was barely an issue in an election that was, as much as anything, about the unravelling of Theresa May’s credibility. This is not to retreat into the position that Labour took in 2015, of simply offering a less severe version of the Tories’ spending position; ending austerity is the single most important issue for Labour. But everybody knows Labour can pledge to increase public expenditure; to be credible as a party of Government it needs to be much more explicit with the electorate about how it is going to do it. Corbyn did not address that challenge today.
Second, Labour’s position on Brexit – although shifting in the right direction thanks to the vote this week to keep all options on the table (a phrase that Corbyn uttered with a surprisingly expressive moue of distaste for one whose platform style is usually so monotonal) – is still, fundamentally, incoherent. Corbyn confirmed that Labour would vote against not deal (although no deal is likely to be a consequence of a failure to agree a position, not one that is on offer) and that Labour would support a deal that met a set of criteria – no loss of rights or standards or jobs – that is not on offer. But the mantra of holding a general election followed by a renegotiation is not credible; the timescales don’t work unless a new Government is prepared to withdraw the Article 50 notification; a position that is open to attack from Tories anxious to keep UKIP voters on board in an election campaign as not respecting the referendum result, as Labour continues to pledge to do. The key Parliamentary votes are no more than a few weeks away; frankly, the time for triangulation has long gone.
Third, Labour’s position on Palestine and antisemitism remains problematic – the scab that the party seems incapable of not picking. Corbyn offered a fulsome statement that antisemitism would not be tolerated – which stopped a long way sort of any kind of apology, or of any kind of specifics about how the Party would deal with the hundreds of current complaints about antisemitism and about creating a zero-tolerance climate in the future. Jewish groups inside and outside Labour will understand that such statements on their own are simply not enough to dispel the belief that Labour has become an institutionally antisemitic party – much more is needed.
Fourth, a curious point is that the one nation of the UK where Labour is in power – and indeed where precisely the childcare policy that Corbyn announced in his speech is just now being implemented – was not even mentioned: Wales. Listening to snippets of other debates during the week, Labour’s view seems to be wholly focussed on England; the realities of devolution, and how the political identities and loyalties of Scotland and Wales, seem to be wholly outside Westminster Labour’s agenda and vision. And in a Welsh Labour party that is about to elect a new leader, that omission will not go un-noted.
In the end, it was impossible not to wonder to whom exactly Corbyn felt he was addressing his speech. It sounded like a speech for internal consumption, one intended to reassure the party faithful rather than to resonate outside that hall. On issues like Palestine – or indeed on the long passages devoted to international issues – it was difficult to avoid the sense that Labour increasingly looks like a party which seeks to provide an environment in which the faithful feel good about themselves, rather than a party offering a realistic and grounded programme for Government (an issue I have dealt with in greater detail in my book The Theory and Practice of Corbynism). It was all rather self-satisfied and pleased with itself. And it was difficult to see what the archetypal voter on their sofa at home would take from this, or whether they were in the speechwriters’ field of view at all. And, for those of us who want to see a social democratic alternative to Theresa May’s Tories, that remains a very serious concern.