Jeremy Corbyn closed Labour’s party conference in Brighton on Wednesday with a speech that left his party in a very different mood from the depression it was suffering this time last year. Then, Labour was bitterly divided and trailing badly in the polls. Few of its MPs had any faith in their leader. Irrelevance seemed the party’s fate – perhaps even oblivion, Now, Mr Corbyn appears to be unassailable. Labour, he claimed, is on ‘the threshold of power….a government in waiting’. What’s more, it would be a government ready to implement the most left-wing manifesto in a generation. So is a radically left-wing Labour government now a real possibility?
The transformation of Labour’s fortunes over the last year has been astonishing. Even as recently as the close of polling on election night back in June there was an almost universal consensus, shared by most of the party’s leaders, that Labour was heading for a drubbing. Instead, as Mr Corbyn boasted in his speech on Wednesday, Labour enjoyed its biggest increase in the share of the vote since 1945 and its best vote for a generation.
This achievement has been helped by what many regard as the most cack-handed election campaign the Tories have ever mounted. But Labour’s success (albeit its third electoral defeat in a row) was due also to a deft campaign and the transformation of Mr Corbyn’s image from that of a hopeless incompetent into an authentic and likeable leader. Most of all it was brought about by the armies of new, young supporters who helped bring out a Labour vote that might well otherwise have just stayed at home. Those young supporters have now turned Labour into the biggest political party in Western Europe.
Since the election things have only got better for Labour. The effect on the Tories of losing a majority they were expecting to increase - and of needing to depend on the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland just to stay in power - has been traumatic. Theresa May’s government is now routinely described as ‘weak’ or ‘feeble’; its internal divisions on Brexit have bred indiscipline, as the freelance behaviour of Boris Johnson almost daily shows; and its failure as yet to make progress on virtually the only thing that is occupying its attention, negotiating the terms of Brexit, has created the impression of a government at sea.
Labour is seizing its chance. Or to be more precise, the group of left-wingers around Jeremy Corbyn, which for decades has felt itself to be on the ignored margins of the Labour Party, is seizing its chance. The Labour leader is not only unassailable but has become a cult figure within the party and beyond it among a huge swath of younger voters. ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!’ is the chorus. Mr Corbyn and his allies are using the moment to promote what they have always believed. They are refusing to do what all other leaders with the prospect of power in their sights have felt obliged to do: trim their policies to the centre.
So Mr Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, announced that a Labour government really would renationalise privatised industries such as water and rail. They would end the ‘hated’ system of private finance initiatives to fund infrastructure projects (started by a Tory government but enthusiastically expanded by the last Labour governments) and bring them ‘back in house’. They would introduce rent controls. They would increase company taxation and make the rich pay more.
And they would brush aside warnings of the possible economic consequences of all this, such as the one issued by Caroline Fairbairn of the Confederation of British Industry that ‘forced nationalisation of large parts of British industry will send investors running for the hills’. Indeed, the Labour leadership seems largely to accept that their policies could well cause major disruption and to be prepared to pay that price. Paul Mason, one of Mr Corbyn’s economic gurus, said the fight a Labour government would find itself in with the economic establishment might be a bit like Stalingrad. Mr McDonnell acknowledged his advisers were ‘war-gaming’ scenarios such as a run on the pound following a Labour election victory.
Labour’s leadership seems unfazed by what it regards as familiar scare-mongering about the economic consequences of a left-wing Labour government. They think that few voters will be alarmed by the charge that Mr Corbyn and his colleagues will take us back to the 1970s because they think few voters will remember the 1970s. And they are unmoved by charges such as the one expressed in a Times leader that Mr Corbyn’s speech was a ‘masterly … invitation to mass suspension of disbelief’.
That’s because they believe the world has moved on and that it has moved in their direction. Mr Corbyn claimed on Wednesday: ‘Today’s centre ground is certainly not where it was 20 or 30 years ago. A new consensus is emerging from the great economic crash and years of austerity, when people started to find political voice for their hopes for something better and different’. He said his party was at the forefront of developing ‘a new model to replace the failed dogmas of neo-liberalism’. In short, Labour seems to believe the future is already theirs.
But it will not all be plain-sailing. Labour may have gained thirty seats at the election but it also lost quite a few in the north and in the Midlands. The enthusiasm for the party among the young is not matched among what were once regarded as its impregnable working-class grassroots. Labour has its own divisions on Brexit, just as profound as the Tories’, that are bound to emerge sooner or later. And despite the government’s recent travails, the polls show Labour only neck-and-neck with the Tories, not streets ahead. The Conservatives are unlikely to repeat at the next election the mistake they made at the last: failing to challenge Labour on economic policy. Indeed the day after Mr Corbyn’s speech, the Prime Minister made a robust defence of capitalism as ‘the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created’.
Nonetheless, Conservative Party members gathering at their conference in Manchester at the weekend will be in a far less buoyant mood than Labour’s members leaving Brighton on Wednesday. The Tories know they have a huge fight on their hands not simply to win the next election but in preventing a Jeremy Corbyn government from dismantling everything they have created since their heroine, Margaret Thatcher, thought she had put an end to socialism in 1979.
Is Labour now a government-in-waiting? Can it get elected on a radical left-wing programme such as its leaders outlined in Brighton? Are they right to believe that the ‘neo-liberal’ era in economic policy is ending and that the centre ground has shifted radically towards socialism? And are you now more or less inclined to vote Labour?
Let us know what you think.