London—Is Jeremy Corbyn, the new, openly socialist leader of Britain’s Labour Party, ready for prime time? Faithful readers will recall that when Corbyn, a veteran back-bench member of Parliament (meaning he wasn’t considered trustworthy or important enough by previous Labour leaders to be given a top job), first entered the contest to succeed Ed Miliband, he was given odds only slightly better than those on Donald Trump’s winning the Kentucky Derby. Despite winning a whopping 60 percent of the votes among Labour Party members and supporters on September 12, many were quick to predict that Corbyn’s own long record of rebellion, and the fact that he only won the backing of a handful of his fellow MPs, meant he wouldn’t last out his first week in power.
By that measure, Corbyn’s leadership is already a success. Not only has he survived his first week, his speech this afternoon at the Labour Party conference in Brighton drew rousing applause from the delegates, and generally respectful reviews from the press. At least until it emerged that the best bit, a long peroration about how “time and time again, the people who receive a great deal tell the many to be grateful to be given anything at all,” was drafted by a speechwriter who’d originally offered it to Ed Miliband for his party conference speech in 2011. Miliband turned it down.
But then no one would ever mistake either Labour leader for Jesse Jackson, and at least Corbyn’s calm, genial, relaxed—what in another context might be derided as “low energy”—delivery is in keeping with the man himself. Far from seeming desperate to display the appearance of command, Corbyn seems quite content to preside over a party that is still in the early stages of a long, and probably quite bitter, argument. Indeed, the only flashes of passion in his speech came when he derided “the media commentariat” for reporting “disagreements as splits” and always portraying “agreement and compromise as concessions and capitulation.” And when he urged his colleagues to “cut out the personal attacks. The cyber bullying. And especially the misogynistic abuse online”—a coda that brought the conference to its feet.
Yet for all his promise of a new kind of politics, there was no mention at all of the deficit—or even of having just signed up Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz as economic advisers. Nor was there even a token acknowledgement of the fact that Labour had recently lost an election—and that avoiding another defeat would involve winning back at least some of those who voted Tory or UKIP this time.
On Trident—the issue that was supposed to split the party apart—Corbyn dodged a bullet when his proposal to debate whether or not to replace Britain’s aging nuclear submarine fleet was voted down by the delegates. Though reported as a defeat, that result allowed him time to marshall his arguments—and his allies.
More worrying is the sense that the 1980s sociology-lecturer persona that is part of Corbyn’s charm rings true because he really is a figure from the past, more comfortable talking about Keir Hardie, reopening coal mines, and renationalizing the railroads than about the modern world of an under-employed precariat, hyper-mobile capital, and Twitter-generated cycles of outrage and appeasement. Corbyn’s victory was the result of an outpouring of energy and optimism unprecedented in this country. But if he wants to keep up that level of civic and political engagement, Corbyn is going to have to offer them something more substantial—and more imaginative—than the political equivalent of Back to the Future.