The first two days of Labour conference has seen significant progress for the new Corbyn leadership. John McDonnell’s speech as shadow Chancellor was greeted enthusiastically by the clear majority of delegates and followed Jeremy Corbyn’s impressive appearance on the Marr Show. In both cases even formerly open opponents of the new leadership were forced to concede that big successes had been registered.
As a result, Labour MPs from the centre have been obliged to tack left. The Labour right has been forced to shift from overt to more covert plotting. Even prior to John McDonnell’s speech, new deputy leader Tom Watson declared that Labour now has, “an anti-austerity leadership of an anti-austerity party”.
The Labour delegates and others gave a warm reception to John McDonnell because he posed a sharp alternative to austerity. He argued for thorough-going reform of the Treasury, HMRC and the Bank of England, including giving the latter a new remit, not focused just on inflation. The unifying purpose is to break these institutions’ slavish devotion to the interests of the City and big business. He forcefully restated his opposition to persistent budget deficits, the faux ‘Keynesianism’ of the failed post-World War II consensus. Tellingly, his alternative of making the huge multinationals like Google and Starbucks pay taxes brought howls of protest from the CBI and the press barons. But this alternative is extremely popular with voters and if it is combined with large-scale state investment will provide a credible alternative to austerity.
The new leadership’s ability to set the agenda is vital in politically unifying their own supporters and forcing their opponents onto the back foot. But organisationally and politically there is still much work to be done, as the inability to get a debate on renewing Trident demonstrates. Diane Abbott’s intervention in opposing the bombing of Syria was helpful as many others on the frontbench have made clear they would go along with another US-led illegal war. It is also increasingly clear that the opponents of the Corbyn leadership are planning to resort to organisational measures in an effort to thwart and then ultimately overthrow him.
All such manoeuvres will also have to be fought. But politically so far this Labour conference represents a step forward in consolidating the new leadership.