The mood at the Labour Party’s annual conference is jubilant this year. Following a general election where he performed better than expected—though he still lost—leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has crushed his many critics within the party (or, as his supporters would prefer, re-educated them to his point of view) and, if yet another general election were to be called, would march into Downing Street, where no doubt he would soon be turning the back garden into an eco-friendly allotment. The UK, no longer hindered by the EU's harsh economic restrains, would soon become a socialist wonderland where education, health and transport are efficient, public-owned and free to use.
This is the impression you get from reading the UK's left-of-centre newspapers—The Guardian, The Mirror and to a certain extent the "i" (formerly Independent). However, read the rest of the mainstream press—The Times, Telegraph, Mail, Express and Sun—and you'd be forgiven for assuming the Labour Party was fatally divided by Brexit; that the crazed Trot policies of shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, would send businesses overseas; that the UK would become an anti-Semitic wasteland if anyone voted for this lunatic—which of course they won't. Because he's a lunatic.
So what's the truth? Is Labour on the brink of taking over, with "JC" as its saviour, or will the Conservatives get on top of Brexit, convince the nation that the only way forward is via the free market and private finance and that voting for “this very naughty boy” (à la Monty Python) would see a return to the "dark days" of the 1970s, with associated ills including the three-day week, industrial action, and a devalued pound?
Even Corbyn's harshest critics admit he has overcome a shaky early start to become a convincing leader. Corbyn, who has represented Islington North (a former working class, newly re-gentrifying part of London) since 1983, took over when Labour's previous leader, Ed Miliband, was humiliated by the Conservatives at the 2015 election. New rules, brought in by Labour's executive at the time, meant anyone could join the party for £3 and vote for the new leader. This allowed hundreds of thousands of idealistic students, hardened old Trots, and even mischievous Tories, to vote for Jeremy. Those Tories—who thought Corbyn unelectable—must now be wondering what they started.
Corbyn's image is everywhere in Brighton. There were even plans to have holograms of the leader placed around this south coast city and have "JC" walk on water, on a special platform floating offshore, which was rejected due to cost. The problem is that there is a huge difference between Corbyn's young, idealistic middle class followers and older, hardened Lefties who have fought a losing battle against the free market, for decades.
A glimpse of the hard-nosed reality behind the fluffy image was seen when John McDonnell gave a speech in which he promised to end controversial Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) and re-nationalise the railways. McDonnell sounded convincing, and PFIs in particular have proved deeply unpopular, but his casual remark about preparing for a run on the pound was seized on by right-of-centre columnists as proof that Labour can't be trusted with the economy.
Labour has never really got over something that happened following the 2010 election, when the party was replaced after 13 years by a Coalition government. Former Treasury chief secretary, Liam Byrne, left a note for his successor at the Treasury which said: 'Dear chief secretary, I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.' That note has haunted Labour ever since. The worldwide economic crunch happened on Labour's watch back in 2007, shortly after Tony Blair stepped aside for Gordon Brown (the former Chancellor of the Exchequer under Blair). Labour claimed there was nothing it could do about a worldwide recession and that Brown's swift actions prevented a far worse crisis, but Corbyn's acolytes insist that "New Labour" had contributed to its own downfall by encouraging deregulation and privatisation.
And it is extraordinary how reviled Tony Blair has become among many Labour supporters. His modernisation transformed the party, ending 18 years of Tory rule, and he won three successive landslide elections before stepping aside. Blair's ill-judged decision to stand beside George W Bush and invade Iraq was one of the most disastrous foreign-policy decisions ever made by a Labour government, but Blair's administration did a lot of good, transforming inner cities, introducing the minimum wage and generally modernising the country.
Ironically, it could be argued that it was a policy Blair encouraged and that is still seen by those on the "Left" as his finest achievement, and is the same one that led to Brexit and the divide over Europe: uncontrolled immigration. It was Blair's government which, when the EU was expanded to include ten new member states from impoverished Eastern Europe in 2004, decided to allow unlimited migration from those countries—one of only three EU members to do so. Labour radically under-estimated the numbers who would arrive from countries including Poland and Romania, and many working class Britons found themselves competing for jobs and housing with millions of new arrivals. Even today, many within the Labour elite believe all controls on migration are "racist"—despite the fact that many of the new arrivals are white, and many of the Britons most affected by mass immigration are from BME groups. The trouble is that most traditional Labour supporters are less keen on uncontrolled migration—which is partly why so many voted to leave the EU on 23rd June 2016. This is one of many contradictions within the party that have been brushed under the carpet at this party conference—but which seem certain to resurface in the coming months and years.
Not that you'd think there were any such problems ahead, watching Jeremy Corbyn's speech at the climax of the conference on Wednesday afternoon. Greeted by a standing ovation, and football terrace-style chanting, looking confident and happy in his trademark red tie, Corbyn laughed off attacks by the right-wing press and claimed the party was ready for government. If that is the case, it probably says more about the profound weakness of the ruling Conservatives and Prime Minister, Theresa May, than any hitherto undiscovered qualities exhibited by Labour's latest saviour.
Still, the election of Donald Trump has shown that anything is possible.
Political Journalist -- London