Jeremy Corbyn still isn’t entirely comfortable in his role. You can see that in his snappy, grumpy tone when even sympathetic journalists like Jon Snow ask even half-challenging questions. But, as he made clear in today’s speech, he intends to fix that problem by clamping down on the misuse of press freedom, which should really, on reflection, only ever have been used to scrutinise the unaccountable, ie Tories.
If the television studio remains an uncomfortable place for the Leader of the Opposition, however, the Party conference stage has become anything but. Gone is the man who accidentally read out “strong message here” back in 2015; gone – mostly – is the tendency to ramble around a topic off the cuff, the inheritance of his past life of megaphone speeches at rallies; gone is his tin ear to when the audience requires a break for applause or laughter.
Instead we saw a far more confident Corbyn – not crow-barred into the role of a great speaker, but visibly more comfortable in his own skin. He has adjusted (mostly, if not entirely) to scripted speaking, and has even picked up some instinct for the ebb and flow of audience reaction. As I’ve written at past Labour conferences, this has been a long road, but he is undeniably learning at least the core craft of his job.
Interestingly, this year his big set-piece speech also differed a bit in the political savvy of its message.
There were still clumsy attempts to “draw a line under” the antisemitism scandal, including a bizarre suggestion that “the row” had caused “hurt and anxiety”, rather than the reality of the actual issue being the problem. There were the habitual assaults on the media (we learned that abroad it is authoritarians and corporations which attack the press, but in the UK really it’s the nice guys who do it). There were references back to the Chartists, too, although they might be a bit miffed to learn that the Labour Party which claims to be their heir is currently opposing their founding principle of equal-sized constituencies.
That’s all pretty standard stuff, the lift muzak of Corbynite life. As we all know, conference speeches have to satisfy the room and the audience at home, so it’s no surprise that he performed a few old favourites for the former. But there were also signs of a greater effort than before to do the latter – actual retail policies, such as a sizeable expansion in free and heavily subsidised childcare.
Of course these come with all the usual caveats for Labour’s pledges: nothing is really free, and it is easier to promise giveaways than to actually balance the books. Given that Labour is already hundreds of billions of pounds deep into its freebie pledges, however, their political calculation appears to be that they just do not care. They’re gambling on the assumption that they’ve already maxed out the opposition of voters who value economic and fiscal responsibility, but are yet to max out the potential support from people who are willing to reward a party that offers things regardless of the consequences.
That calculation may be right, and it may be wrong. The Leader of the Opposition is still far from a master of politics, still carries vast and deeply troubling baggage, and is – despite improvement – still delivering speeches which are unlikely to set the world alight. His Party is in a truly bizarre place on Brexit, and is riven with factions who loathe one another.
In short, there is an opportunity for a strong pitch by a competitor party, offering practical improvements in day-to-day life while credibly maintaining fiscal discipline and pledging to deliver a proper Brexit, to shift the dial back against him. No pressure, Prime Minister.