“We must speak for the people to whom Theresa May promised so much but has delivered so little.”
In his keenly awaited speech to the 2018 Labour conference in Liverpool, Jeremy Corbyn covered all bases, addressing everything from Brexit, the economy and democratisation to foreign policy, homebuilding and childcare. He noted that we are marking the centenary of the Representation of the People’s Act, which extended the franchise to include millions more adults, including women for the first time and working-class men. He does not need to play golf with dodgy donors or shady businessmen because Labour’s funding comes directly from ordinary members across the country, with Labour women members alone now outnumbering the combined total membership of the Tories and Lib Dems. So Labour will draw its inspiration from the communities of Britain, including affiliated trade unions and ordinary workplaces: “We will anchor everything we do in people’s day-to-day experiences”.
The moguls who own most of the British press came in for criticism, with support for deputy leader Tom Watson’s campaign to resume the Leveson media inquiry, which has so far been blocked by the Tories. Freedom of the press must not mean “the freedom to spread lies and half-truths, and to smear the powerless, not take on the powerful.” Corbyn sees a vital role in social media to “challenge their propaganda of privilege”, something which Labour will also do in the traditional way on the doorsteps and streets of Britain.
Corbyn drew attention to next year’s 200th anniversary of the Battle of Peterloo in which 15 peaceful demonstrators were killed in Manchester when troops sent in by the Tory government opened fire in an attempt to suppress democratic struggle. Shelley’s poem about the massacre, incidentally, is the source of Labour’s slogan “for the many not the few”. This was followed by a plea for party unity: “We must learn to listen a bit more, and shout a bit less. To focus on what unites us. To accept losing a vote, while maintaining the right to pick up the debate again. We are on a journey together and can only complete it together”.
Acknowledging that the summer was tough and that great hurt was caused to the Jewish community, Corbyn attempted to draw a line under the furore, pointing out that Labour is the party of equality and of “every progressive initiative to root out racism.” He called out the Tories for their hypocrisy in attacking Labour’s alleged antisemitism while also endorsing Viktor Orban’s hard-right Islamophobic government, as well as creating a “hostile environment for all migrant communities.” This was the “shameful brainchild of the present Prime Minister”, leading to the scandal of British citizens being “deported, detained and left destitute”.
Turning to the shambles created by the present government, Corbyn noted how the evidence for the failure of privatisation and outsourcing is steadily mounting up, with the failure of G4S in Birmingham prison, the privatised probation service on the point of meltdown and the East Coast franchise collapsing for the third time in a decade: “You get on a train at Kings Cross and you never know who will be running it by the time you get to Edinburgh.” Not to mention Carillion going bankrupt this year, throwing workers onto the dole and leaving infrastructure such as hospitals half-finished while the directors stuff their pockets with dividends and small businesses in the supply chain take the losses or go bust because they haven’t been paid.
Corbyn complained of the government’s “social vandalism” as it squeezes dry local government, with councils such as Northampton pushed over the edge and the vital community services they provide at risk of failure. “Privatisation and outsourcing are now a national disaster zone. And Labour is ready to call time on this racket.”
There was a promise to revive our ailing free public health service, the NHS – now celebrating its 70th birthday – which founder Nye Bevan described as “pure socialism”. Corbyn mentioned a woman who feared for her daughter’s state of mind as she had been told to wait 12 months to see a therapist, affirming that Labour will give real parity to mental health services. There is currently a hostile environment for disabled people too, said Corbyn, referring to a man whose wife just had her benefits cancelled. “These are the human consequences of a Tory Government that puts tax cuts for the wealthy ahead of care for disabled people.”
When it comes to homebuilding, Labour will “embark on the biggest home building programme in half a century”. There will also be funds to put another 10,000 police on the streets to make people safer. “Investing in young people and communities is key and crime thrives amid economic failure. So under Labour there will be no more left-behind areas and no more forgotten communities.” This will be buttressed by decent early years education, with confirmation of yesterday’s announcement to offer thirty hours a week of free childcare for all two, three and four year olds. Child carers, predominantly women, will earn higher salaries and be given better, graduate-level training.
At the other end of the scale, for the elderly there will a triple lock on pensions plus a winter fuel allowance, free bus pass and a viable NHS – together this constitutes “solidarity between the generations”.
Corbyn went on to attack the present scenario in which the real economy is just a sideshow to finance. So, echoing Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s speech on Monday, there will be new forms of ownership and public enterprise, inspired by local initiatives such as the Labour council in Preston. New technology and automation can be an opportunity not a threat when introduced in a democratic way to give people more control of their lives. Corbyn said McDonnell’s proposals for inclusive ownership funds will mean workers can share “more fairly in the rewards of successful businesses”. Yet “Inequality is not just a matter of incomes. It’s about having a real say too.” Hence Labour’s push for democratisation of company boards.
The present government has led Britain from the 2008 crash to austerity and stagnation: “People in this country know that the old way of running things isn’t working any more”. And, in a reference to the rise of right-wing forces, he went on to say that: “Unless we offer radical solutions, others will fill the gap with the politics of blame and division.”
Noting that climate change is the biggest threat to humanity, Corbyn said Labour will kick-start a green jobs revolution, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and he confirmed that Labour will reduce carbon emissions by 60% by 2030.
Concerning foreign policy, Corbyn accused Trump of abdicating international cooperation and promised progressive values and international solidarity. Under Labour there will be an end to reckless wars of intervention like those in Libya and Iraq. When Corbyn mentioned that he attended the Liverpool Yemeni community’s vigil this week, conference erupted in long applause. He also appealed for “a far more determined effort to help bring the terrible war in Syria to an end”. And he confirmed that Labour condemned both the “shooting of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators in Gaza and the passing of Israel’s discriminatory Nation State Law”. He reaffirmed Labour support for a two-state settlement and said “we will recognise a Palestinian state as soon as we take office.”
On the contentious issue of Brexit, Corbyn was very clear that Labour will vote down both no deal, which he described as a national disaster, as well as the currently unacceptable Chequers-based deal proposed by Theresa May. Labour will be pressing for a general election if, as possible, May cannot push through a deal acceptable to her divided party:
“Brexit is about the future of our country and our vital interests. It is not about leadership squabbles or parliamentary posturing. If you deliver a deal that includes a customs union and no hard border in Ireland, if you protect jobs, people’s rights at work and environmental and consumer standards – then we will support that sensible deal. A deal that would be backed by most of the business world and trade unions too.
But if you can’t negotiate that deal then you need to make way for a party that can.”
In his final flourish Corbyn stressed the new common sense and unity that Labour is now ready to bring to the country:
“We must speak for the people to whom Theresa May promised so much but has delivered so little.
And we must take our message to every town, city and village. United and ready to win, ready to govern as we were in 1945, 1964 and 1997.
So that when we meet this time next year let it be as a Labour government. Investing in Britain after years of austerity and neglect and bringing our country together after a decade of division.
Conference. Let every constituency, every community know Labour is ready. Confident in our ideas, clear in our plans, committed to rebuild Britain.
We don’t want to live in a society where our fellow citizens sleep rough. A strong society is one that gives all our young people the chance to realise their potential and in which all of us know if our parents need care they will get it.
Our task is to build that Britain and together we can.”
Aidan Constable, watching conference from Heidelberg, Germany
For a reaction to Corbyn’s speech from LI member, Nina Davies, in Spain, see here.