He looked bored. He looked dishevelled. His half-knotted crimson tie sagged disconsolately beneath his bearded throat. The drab jacket seemed as beige as ever. Corbyn spoke to the Labour conference looking like an embarrassed scout-master thanking his colleagues for a surprise party he didn’t want.
‘Any chance we could start the speech?’ he asked as the crowed clapped and cheered him.
He began in ever-so-humble mode by saying how grateful he was ‘to be invited’ to address the conference. And he warmly thanked the three rival candidates he had trounced in the leadership election. He sounded as if they’d trounced him.
The hesitant, informal style is so effective it looks almost calculated. Maybe it is. This was a shrewdly orchestrated speech and it began with a few merry swipes at the media. One newspaper had called his two-wheeler a ‘Chairman Mao bicycle.’ Another accused him of welcoming a meteor strike that would wipe out humanity.
‘That is not sort of policy I’d want this party to adopt – without a full debate in conference.’
The gag fell flat because he hit the wrong stresses but his ineptitude seems to help him. Presenting yourself as a lousy orator is a great way to get people listening. He then threw two impossible challenges at the prime minister.
Would David Cameron intervene to stop the execution of Saudi dissident Ali Mohammed al-Nimr? And would he step in ‘at the twelfth hour’ to halt the closure of the Redcar steelworks?
George Osborne couldn’t have dreamed up a trickier attack.
Challenging austerity will be Corbyn’s top priority. He’ll make it work as follows. Building 100,000 new homes a year will cut the housing benefit bill and deliver ‘a profit for the tax-payer’.
‘It’s quite simple actually and quite a good idea,’ he said in his homely way. And he offered to help the self-employed by offering them the same protections as other workers.
He’d promised us a fresh approach to politics, which is easy enough, but today he aligned his revolution with the old precepts of the Labour party. And, at the same time, with British traditions. He mentioned fair-play and ‘not walking by on the other side when people are in trouble’. Explicitly he declared that Labour values are British values.
‘That’s why I love this country. We want to rid Britain of injustice.’
He appealed to the pugnacious spirit of the young when he attacked modern economics. Why, he asked, does globalisation always mean lousy pay for workers and lavish bonuses for executives?
‘The Labour party came into being to fight that attitude. Labour says you don’t have to take what you’re given.’ And he urged people to set no limit to their talent or ambition.
He stressed his internationalism and urged a big diplomatic push for a solution in Syria. He added this. ‘We need a strong military to keep us safe and take a lead in humanitarian and peace-keeping missions.’
These sound-bites may seem oddly familiar. ‘A strong military. Help for the self-employed. A housing policy that delivers a profit for the tax-payer. Labour values are British values.’
Straight from the New Labour hand-book, every one of them. And Corbyn has neatly incorporated into them his zingy new political dawn. No one should underestimate him. Parts of this speech were as cunning as anything by Blair.