Fear and loathing in Brighton
There was a moment when it looked like the Labour party might just get away with it. Jeremy Corbyn had put in an assured performance in his major eve of conference interview with Andrew Marr. A prospective major flashpoint - a debate and vote on Trident - was deftly avoided. Labour’s new shadow chancellor John McDonnell managed to deliver his maiden conference speech without causing a run on the financial markets.
But then it all started to go wrong. Jeremy Corbyn rose and delivered his own speech, in a tone that sounded more like he was addressing the Islington GC, rather than setting out his stall to the nation. Which is essentially what he was doing.
No sooner had he sat down than it emerged Labour’s “straight talking” new leader hadn’t even been delivering his own words at all. Major sections of it had been lifted wholesale from a stock speech written by freelance writer Richard Heller. What’s more, they had already been touted to - and rejected by - every Labour leader since Neil Kinnock.
Then he sat down with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, and in the space of a thirty second soundbite turned the clock back thirty years by announcing he would never contemplate the use of nuclear weapons. A raft of his own shadow ministers were then forced to fan out and explain to the country their leader had been wrong to say that, and that was not Labour policy.
The conference finally closed, with the iconic image of the man who refused to sing God Save The Queen lustily declaring “though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here”.
For all the optimistic talk of hope and renewal, the prevailing mood during this past week in Brighton has been one of suspicion and paranoia.
“It may just be my imagination” one shadow cabinet minister confided to me “but I was speaking at a fringe meeting and I had the impression there was a guy at the back whose job it was to keep an eye on what I was saying. I don’t mean a delegate or a journalist, I mean someone working for the leader”.
Several delegates reported that those who were not deemed to be showing their new leader appropriate respect found themselves singled out for criticism.
“When Corbyn walked on stage everyone started clapping, except one women sitting next to me. People started pointing at her and tutting”, said one activist.
One back-bench MP compared being in the hall for Jeremy Corbyn’s main speech to being in a 1950’s era Soviet rally. “I turned to the person to my left and said “do you think it’s OK to stop applauding now?” She said to me: “No, I don’t think it is”. So I just carried on clapping”.
Some MPs were relieved that a major direct confrontation between the Corbyn team and his shadow cabinet colleagues was avoided, at least until the final day nuclear showdown.
“It’s odd,” one shadow cabinet member told me in the middle of the week. “It’s like one of those horror films where you’re waiting for the bad guy to jump out. You know he’s hiding in the alleyway with the knife, and you know he’s coming. But he hasn’t jumped yet.”
But other MPs were genuinely dismayed at what they saw as Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to make any attempt to use the occasion to reach out to the country.
“The three big issues in my constituency are immigration, welfare and the NHS. And he didn’t have anything new to say on any of them. Actually, he didn’t have anything to say about them at all”.
One other MP I spoke to thought these were significant omissions. “We know what his strategy is now. He’s not bothered about trying to win in 2020. He knows he won’t be around then. He’s not even that concerned about developing policy. He just wants to take control of the party. That’s the project”.
In contrast, Labour pragmatists left Brighton even less sure of their own strategy than when they had arrived. One or two had hoped that a week of national media exposure would finally make Labour activists realise the full political implications of Corbyn’s election. But if anything, it had the opposite effect.
“Just look at how they responded to him in the hall” one despondent MP said. “He could have read out the Brighton phone directory and they’d still have been fainting in the aisles.”
Another MP pointed to what he described as Labour’s “Catch 59” dilemma. “Everyone knows we can’t go on like this for another five years. But everyone also knows you can’t move against a guy who’s been elected with 59% of the vote. At the moment we’re trapped”.
One veteran backbencher summed up the week like this. “Last night I found myself thinking: ‘He’s old. It’s a stressful job. Maybe his health won’t be up to it’. And then I thought: ‘When your best hope is your own leader might just keel over you know you’re in a pretty bad place.’”
After its week in Brighton, Labour is in a bad place. A very bad place indeed.