To continue 2015’s trend as the most unpredictable year in modern politics, this year’s Labour Party conference has been much calmer than one would have predicted. Those on the right have momentarily been silenced by Corbyn’s resounding victory and have stuck to grumbling at various fringe events, keeping mutterings to their warm proseccos. The Parliamentary Labour Party is grimly attempting to uphold some semblance of unity which is so crucial to opinion polls – no matter how obvious their internal despair is.
But what’s more surprising is that Corbyn and his inner circle seem to be paying more attention to public and media opinion. They are at least trying to convince the public that they’re not scary socialists. Take McDonnell’s first speech as Shadow Chancellor, made to the conference yesterday. While extracts leaked before had promised left-wing presents like the ‘Robin Hood tax’ on stock market trading, the speech didn’t actually use this phrase, and was rather vague in policy detail.
The speech was fairly predictable and did show the obvious leftward swing Labour is taking. There was some classic centrist rhetoric, like insistences Labour will balance the books, but also the left-wing promise of not placing the burden of deficit reduction on the poorest in society. Substantial announcements included establishing reviews into the operation of the Treasury, HMRC and the Bank of England’s mandate, looking to make all of these institutions work very differently. It was made crystal clear that the new Labour team are determined to change the economic narrative in this country and challenge the status quo.
But absent was specific detail on how much McDonnell plans to recover from tax evasion, and promises to raise income tax – another attempt to alleviate fears about the prospect of a Corbyn-led government. The speech’s tone also showed a softer McDonnell who’d been instructed to be on his best behaviour, saying that his usual rants “get me into trouble and I’ve promised Jeremy to behave myself”. This tells us one concrete thing: since Corbyn’s disastrous first week his team are paying far closer attention to how he and Labour come across. The Labour press team’s monumental task is to manage McDonnell’s reputation and keep any further controversial opinions out of the headlines.
This new agreeable image of Corbyn’s team was also pushed during Corbyn’s speech to the conference this afternoon. Yet the speech showed the difficulties his new press team will face in reigning him in – Corbyn emphasised that he wants to build a new, more likeable type of politics, but couldn’t prevent his more contentious views from leaking out in places. Trident is a key example of this – delegates at the Labour Party conference voted against debating it, and yet Corbyn couldn’t resist reaffirming his personal opposition to renewing it. It’s unlikely that the façade that Labour is trying to construct will convince the electorate unless Corbyn and his allies genuinely compromise on key principles like this.
Corbyn’s sudden regard for public opinion is unexpected and ultimately confused. The public would appreciate a new form of politics, but not if it is only a front for a group of politicians stuck in the 1970s. It would have been less surprising if his opinions had been pushed onto the Party with little thought of the consequences for at least a few months, especially given the scale of his victory. What’s still unclear is whether he’s backtracked to save his party from civil war, or to increase his chances of moving into Number 10. The road that Labour is heading down has fog at the end of it.