Jeremy Corbyn today gave his inaugural conference speech as leader of the Labour Party. Through conference orations, leaders have the opportunity to articulate their agenda to supporters and the wider nation. Their words, though spoken rather than inscribed, are used to construct a tangible image of the individual and the party they lead.
Today’s address was therefore an ideal occasion for Corbyn to dispel some myths about his personal convictions and the future direction of the Labour Party. Here are some of the things that he said:
“I love this country and its people”
‘Labour values’ formed a central element of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech. Compassion, decency, solidarity, and respect were all highlighted as epitomical principles of the Labour movement. In order to broaden his electoral appeal, perhaps, Corbyn conflated these distinct political values with our own sense of national identity, saying that: “They are Labour values and our country’s values”.
This patriotic turn from the Leader of the Opposition was also intended to downplay the charge that Corbyn is a seditious internationalist, rather than a proud Brit, following his recent refusal to sing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain memorial.
"Labour will challenge austerity; it will be unapologetic about changing our economy"
Regarding the direction of his economic policies, Corbyn was unequivocal. Highlighting the duplicity of the government’s economic agenda, the Labour leader contrasted the cut to inheritance tax introduced by the last Tory budget with the party's new-fangled approach to child tax credits. Indeed, Corbyn slammed David Cameron for betraying the public’s trust by introducing proposals to cut child tax credits, after the PM had categorically pledged not to do so before the election (video below).
However, Corbyn’s own economic strategy will itself be questioned. During his conference speech, the veteran campaigner revealed his Keynesian streak by encouraging immediate government spending. Indeed, Corbyn proposed that: "The economy of the future depends on the investment we make today". Many will see this as a pledge to resuscitate the now unpopular 'tax and spend' policies of 'Old' Labour.
"Our welfare state must be there for the self-employed"
Corbyn cited that one-in-seven British taxpayers are now self-employed. He was therefore keen to highlight that a left-wing Labour Party would still be on the side of small-business owners - contradicting the right-wing assertion that, with Corbyn as Prime Minister, Britain’s private sector and its employees would be crippled. The Labour leader subsequently pledged to give the self-employed full access to maternity, paternity and sick pay if he was elected into 10 Downing Street.
“We need to renew our party in Scotland… I know that people in Scotland have been disappointed by the Labour Party. I know you feel we lost our way. I agree with you”
Scotland is seen as a key demographic to a potential Corbyn victory in 2020. Given that 56 out of 59 Westminster seats are currently held by the anti-austerity SNP, many sympathisers view Scottish constituencies as fertile ground for Corbyn’s ideas, and are thus hopeful of sizeable gains come 2020. The above statement was an initial attempt to court Scottish voters – particularly those who became disaffected during Tony Blair’s time in office.
"Sorry, commentariat - this is grown-up, real politics"
This swipe at the media was one of several during his speech. Indeed, Corbyn began his address by mocking the sensationalist attitude of journalists towards his leadership; pouring scorn on their attempts to belittle his public image. Corbyn cited a story from one media organisation which suggested that the new Labour leader was in favour of an asteroid destroying the Earth. The Labour leader responded by promising a conference debate on the issue.
Aside from fuelling the tension between Corbyn and the mainstream media, the above statement was also devised to placate members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). By ridiculing the hyperbole of the press – specifically its dramatization of Shadow Cabinet disagreements – Corbyn transformed a whiff of discord into an aroma of healthy debate and democracy.