In scenes aping a Barack Obama rally, Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn addressed the Labour conference last week to chants of “Jez We Can!”
What exactly Jez can do though, remains to be seen.
Slapped down by union bosses, openly contradicted by Shadow Cabinet members, and with knives being sharpened in the wings, Mr Corbyn’s first few weeks seem to have been more about his own immediate survival than changing the direction of the Labour Party and adopting the ‘new’ rather vague style of politics he wishes to practise.
In fairness to Mr Corbyn, in keeping his MPs in check, he faces an uphill battle. Many entered politics and the Party under a Blairite banner and have little time for their new leader. Indeed, many have made clear that they intend to show Mr Corbyn exactly the same loyalty that he has shown the Labour Party; a career which saw him vote against his own party 534 times during the 13 years from 1997 it was in government.
Nonetheless, last week’s conference gave the new leader a chance to throw down the gauntlet to his MPs, stamp his authority on his party and clearly set out his approach to wresting power from the Tories. None of that happened. Instead what we got was a political high-wire act, in which Mr Corbyn attempted to avoid embarrassment and dampen a series of political fires which had burst out throughout the conference arena.
Whilst there are many policies on which ‘Jez’ has reversed or abandoned his ‘principled’ position, top of the bill has to be his remarkable turnaround on the issue of Trident renewal.
During the leadership debate, Mr Corbyn, who remains vice chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, stood out as the only candidate opposed to the renewal of the UK’s nuclear weapons system – sensibly pointing out that the £100 billion price tag could be better spent elsewhere. This is in stark contrast to recent Labour policy which supports Trident. Here was a chance for Jeremy Corbyn to demonstrate his ‘new’ style of conviction politics; shifting the party in a radically different. Instead, he blew it.
Initially promising an ‘open debate’ on the issue, on BBC 1’s Andrew Marr Show, Mr Corbyn was humiliated only hours later as 0.16% of the Trade Union vote and 7.1% of constituency Labour parties voted to see the issue debated before conference. Nonetheless, Mr Corbyn still possessed, pardon the pun, the nuclear option of publicly stating that his party is opposed to Trident renewal and demand that, at least, his Shadow Cabinet fall in to line. Again, he blew it. Tucked away in a single paragraph, the Labour Conference backed a National Policy Forum document which committed the Party to “a minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a continuous at-sea deterrent" (aka, Trident).
Pressed on the issue, a Labour spokesperson said the “whole document was approved” and as such “is party policy”. On top of this, pro-Trident MPs stated that, according to party rules, the matter should now be put to bed for at least another three years. Quizzed by a journalist in the conference hall, one prominent Labour front-bencher could only state: “Chaos and confusion rule the day.”
Later in the week Mr Corbyn obfuscated, saying that the issue was ‘"unlikely to be resolved before May’s Holyrood elections." Such an early capitulation on what is claimed to be one of his fundamental ideals does not bode well for Mr Corbyn and will surely upset those who entrusted him to instil progressiveness and principles into their badly wounded Party.