After a brief introduction from a medical student who lived in his constituency, Jeremy Corbyn strode out on to the conference hall stage. The audience rose to give him a standing ovation. That went on. And on. Corbyn looked momentarily nonplussed before joining in the applause. This only spurred everyone on to clap even louder. It was hard to know who was going to blink first. Let’s call it a draw, for eventually, as if by mutual assent, the audience sat down. If Corbyn’s speech had ended then and there, it would have been a resounding success. Several members of the shadow cabinet looked as if they would much rather it had ended at that point.
The pre-match buildup had focused on how much authenticity Corbyn was prepared to trade for presentational spin. At the start, it looked as if he wasn’t quite sure. Corbyn surprised himself early on by getting a genuine laugh for a decent, well-scripted gag about voting in favour of an asteroid destroying humanity, but then repeatedly came unstuck with the Autocue. At one point, he accidentally read out the instruction “strong message here”. You win some, you win some more. This was exactly the kind of authentic cock-up that has endeared him to so many Labour members. Ed Miliband must be wondering why he wasn’t so easily forgiven for forgetting Derek the Deficit in Manchester last year.
Even so, this wasn’t quite the Corbyn we had been told to expect in recent weeks. The slightly diffident backbencher who had been dragged kicking and screaming into standing for the leadership contest and whose coronation he had himself appeared to greet as a mixed blessing. The politician who was happy to remain anonymous and on to whom others could project their hopes and expectations. A Labour colouring book that his supporters could fill in to their own creative satisfaction.
Not that Corbyn does personal. There was no “Call me Dave” or “Hovis Tim” on offer, because for Corbyn, the politics is personal. Any initial doubts he may have had about putting his head above the parapet disappeared about 10 minutes in, as nerves gave way to sheer enjoyment. For the first time in his life, Corbyn had the full attention of the conference and the national media for an hour and he was going to make the most of it. His speech may have felt a bit rambling and unstructured, but it was his speech – at least the bits that hadn’t been rejected by Miliband’s inner circle four years earlier – and he was going to use it to get everything off his chest.
He talked of victory. His victory. The omertà over Labour’s disastrous election defeat in May remains in place in Brighton. Corbyn is now Labour’s year zero. History has been obliterated: all that is gone is past and all that remains is the future. A future of hope in which a kinder politics would prevail over inequality and injustice. A future with which few decent people could disagree. It wasn’t entirely clear how this future would be realised – straight talking is rather easier than straight answers – though most delegates in the hall were so relieved to hear a leader talking a recognisable language of the left that such anomalies were easily overlooked.
For Corbyn, problems were merely opportunities. The fact that half his shadow cabinet disagree with him on many issues was presented as a new form of consensual politics. “I welcome disagreements”, he said, embracing the inevitable. In turn, the conference hall embraced him for his embracing nature. The love-in was mutual, with Labour policy now to be decided by a quick ring round or a show of hands every Monday morning. It was all quite old school. Or just school. How it will play to all those voters Labour will need to win back in 2020 was a problem, make that opportunity, for another time.
Corbyn had the conference hall in his hands and he wasn’t going to let it go. He loved the country, he announced, ripping off his shirt to kiss the union jack tattooed on his chest as a squadron of Spitfires did a victory roll inside the auditorium. Forget the national anthem, the new Jerusalem was being built right here, right now. Once again, Jezza had confounded expectations. Labour delegates would have settled in advance for something a bit safe and a bit dull. Corbyn was anything but; even the spin felt almost authentic. Yet a conference won is merely a few moments gained. The hard part of delivering on his promises starts now.