Jeremy Corbyn has improved at public speaking. This is good news, given that he aspires to be Prime Minister, and not entirely surprising, given he has spent the last year in the first ever frontbench role of his 33-year career as an MP. It’s also not necessarily wild praise – improvement is relative, and he did begin twelve months ago by accidentally reading out the instruction in his script (“Strong message here”), so it would have been hard not to improve at all.
So what has a year at the top of the tree done to Jeremy?
First things first: he didn’t read any stage directions out loud. Instead, strong messages were delivered in a sudden shout, to ensure we knew quite how strong they were.
The argument was also a bit more structured than his first effort. While last year felt like a scattergun presentation on whatever took his fancy, this year he did at least try to segue coherently from one topic to the next – and mostly succeeded in stringing it all together into a full speech. The only real mis-step was that it went on for too long; he had the perfect opportunity to end on a resounding line about fighting the Tories (indeed the audience seemed to assume that it was the conclusion), but it proved to be a false dawn.
His rhetorical style has also developed as his audience has grown. The 2015 conference speech ploughed grimly on, refusing to pause for laughter or applause – seemingly a product of his years spent speaking to small crowds on the fringes of politics. Mercifully for all involved, the Labour leader has become a bit more responsive, allowing the audience room to react, bending his words to fit with their response and even at one point asking a question for them to roar an answer back.
Part of that must be down to the fact that the man himself now seems more comfortable on stage. Perhaps it’s experience, but more likely it’s the reassurance of having crushed Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. In my review a year ago, I wrote that Corbyn had limited time to use his grassroots mandate to impose his will on his party, and Saturday’s leadership result certainly helped him to do so. While the question of what exactly to do with the PLP remains open, his newly relaxed manner revealed that he feels that it is they who are in danger, not him.
If the reading out loud, the structure and the delivery were improved, however, the content remained the fundamental problem. It’s easy to please a Labour conference hall by railing against grammar schools, greedy billionaires and private rail companies. It’s easy to satisfy them with pledges of hundreds of billions of pounds of new debt (sorry, “investment”). He did all that, as you’d expect.
It’s rather harder to persuade millions of sceptical voters at home that you can be trusted at the helm of the nation, so Corbyn didn’t do much to try.
There was no attempt to reassure people about Labour’s fiscal reputation, even as he urged more borrowing.
The only nods to the party’s crisis in Scotland were a mention of Bill Shankly and the celebration of three council by-election victories, rather obviously neglecting the loss of 14 MSPs and Labour’s slide into third place at Holyrood.
In a rare positive mention of patriotism, he declared “there is nothing more unpatriotic than not paying your taxes”; while tax-dodgers are certainly unpopular, it is a little surprising to suggest they are more unpatriotic than, say, cosying up to the separatist terrorists of the IRA, or calling for the British Army to be disbanded.
Ultimately, the problem remains that Corbyn is completely out of step with not only swing voters but much of his own party’s base. Nowhere was that more evident than on open border immigration, of which he declared himself enthusiastically in favour.
Such a position is no doubt true to his principles, and may well be popular in Islington, but it is in direct conflict with millions of traditional, disgruntled Labour voters. Plenty of them are already extremely sceptical of the Labour leader, and many voted Leave and are thus already semi-detached from the Labour Party, so provoking them to further anger seems unwise. Given that these voters are already potential prey for May’s new opportunity agenda (and perhaps UKIP, if they get their act together), Corbyn’s implication that the opposite of open borders is “racism and division” could almost have been tailored to wind them up.
So while it was a better speech than last year, it still wasn’t a good speech. It’s hard to escape the feeling that while time is slowly sharpening his rhetoric, all the time in the world won’t shift his opinions.