The challenge for Corbyn

By Chris Rogers September 27, 2016 4:08 pm

First thing’s first. Tomorrow’s keynote conference speech is not, to quote the hackneyed phrase, the most important of Jeremy Corbyn’s life. In retaining the Labour leadership with nearly 62 percent of the vote, Mr Corbyn pretty much guaranteed his leadership until he decides to step down, barring some remarkable and unexpected turn of fortune.

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That’s not to say Mr Corbyn won’t continue to face scrutiny from the public, the media and, most presciently, his own MPs. Rather, that at present, it’s difficult to see any future challenge to his leadership being any more successful than Owen Smith’s candidacy.

So, accepting that Mr Corbyn will be giving the leader’s speech at the Labour conference for the foreseeable future, it’s not the most important speech of his career. Certainly not in the way Ed Miliband faced the prospect of being kicked out of the top spot if he failed to deliver at conference during his tenure as leadership. Similarly, unless Theresa May performs what could only be described as an ‘epic U-turn’, there won’t be General Election before 2020 so Mr Corbyn isn’t making a near final plea to the electorate for their votes.

But that doesn’t mean his job’s easy. Nor that the pressure’s off. Indeed, tomorrow’s conference speech is an extremely challenging one for Mr Corbyn.

First and foremost, he needs to try and lay the foundations for reconciliation within the Labour Party – specifically with numerous of his MPs who expressed no confidence in Mr Corbyn’s leadership earlier in the year, resigned on mass from the front benches and forced the leadership contest. The Labour leader cannot afford protracted battles with his own MPs. Nor can he sustain a situation in which his Shadow Cabinet is shorn of significant talents within his parliamentary ranks (whilst some members of the Shadow Cabinet – Barry Gardiner – are wearing multiple hats).

Laying those foundations will help Mr Corbyn reach towards another substantive goal – namely that Labour can be again seen as a prospective party of government, that he is a Prime Minister in waiting rather than filling the seat of the Opposition Leader, and that he is looking to win (to paraphrase Sadiq Khan). Those within Labour may have been cheered by Mr Corbyn’s performance in the last Prime Minister’s Questions, when he took Mrs May to task over grammar schools. And he has the opportunity tomorrow to sow the seeds of how he and his frontbenches could capitalise on tensions within the Tory ranks over Brexit – and indeed grammar schools. He can go some way to challenging Mrs May’s assertion that hers will be an administration that helps members of the public to realise their potential.

Finally, Mr Corbyn needs to try and start making some inroads into winning back confidence on issues typically central to Labour’s appeal. Public polling results for Labour have been poor and the Tories enjoy a commanding lead at present. Business confidence in the Opposition is, according to most recent figures, low. And critically, Theresa May is now more trusted on the NHS than Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader could desperately do with redressing that balance and chipping away at Conservative claims of being the party of the NHS.

Can he do it? It’s certainly no small ask and those objectives won’t be realised with one conference speech. But while Mr Corbyn can’t have a fresh start, the leadership victory does afford him a possible watershed. But even if the sentiment is right, he cannot afford some of the gaffes with which the conference has been associated thus far.

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