When Jeremy Corbyn strode out in to the last light of Saturday night, the corners of his lips rose to form his trademark half smile. Who can blame him? It was the eve of the largest conference in Labour Party history - some 13,000 delegates. In the Blair years, Labour’s conference was surrounded by influential people, wanting to influence the government. These were normal people, too, wanting to influence the world.
That conference has ended with Jeremy Corbyn a very serious prospect to lead the Labour party back in to government, and to govern in a way this country has never seen.
How did we end up here?
It is not to insult Jeremy Corbyn to say that he got in to politics in order to be a failure.
Jeremy Corbyn never sought success in politics because he never sought compromise, and compromise is all that politics is: successful political parties fight for the median voter.
Jeremy Corbyn has never fought this fight, he is and has always been a devotee of a noble traditions of hard left anti-capitalist west-hating. But anyone who was in Brighton this weekend can’t help but see that, for the first time ever, it is entirely plausible that the median voter is coming to him.
A series of freak accidents leave the man if not quite on the brink, but certainly within sight of the kind of success that has not merely been beyond his dreams, but beyond his ambitions. If, even since the shock of the June election, you’ve been clinging to the idea that a party with 600,000 members, the drive of youth, the money of the unions and the uncertainties of a volatile world, still isn’t really going to change your world, it is time for a rethink.
As Corbyn made his way on to the platform on Saturday night, past a painfully trendy DJ in a black T-shirt emblazoned, naturally, with a black and white picture of a young Jeremy Corbyn, this most unlikely sexagenarian Che Guevara carried the air of a man that could not believe his luck.
There were the usual array of Palestine flags in the crowd, above such slogans as “Anti-Zionism is not Anti-Semitism.” (It isn’t, by the way. And nor is a hamburger a cheeseburger, but if you absolutely love the former, you might just find yourself tempted by a little nibble on the latter.)
Jeremy Corbyn has seen Palestine flags waving back at him in the crowds at rallies for every imaginable left wing cause over four decades or more. What he won’t have seen before are flags of the European Union, but there they were, at least a dozen of them, waved by men and women staring adoringly up at one of the country’s leading Eurosceptics of three decades standing (I say leading purely because his strategically shambolic remain campaign paid dividends, not because, unlike the likes of Daniel Hannan or Nigel Farage, who share his views on the EU, he never actually did very much to make change happen).
On Sunday morning, a delegate in the conference hall at Brighton stood up to repeat over an over again that “Brexit is going to happen” and the pro-EU march that took place outside the conference hall was “an attempt to undermine Jeremy.” He could not have been more wrong. The anti-Brexit march is just as welcome as the pro-one.
Brighton confirmed beyond doubt what the June election result showed. That this seeker of ideological purity, this stubborn beacon for whom change matters less than never compromising, is accidentally doing what he never set out to do, which is to build a genuine, wide coalition of support that could win a general election.
A year ago, Owen Smith was impatiently asking how Labour were ever going to win in seats like Nuneaton, or like Crewe and Nantwich, how a ‘lunatic’ like Jeremy Corbyn was ever going to take the votes and the seats off the Tories that they would need to get back in to government. Well the answer’s there now. Take Crewe and Nantwich indeed, which went back to Labour in June by a whisker, for many reasons but none more important than wealthy worldly metropolitan Cheshire Tories who loathe Brexit and all it stands for, and expressed that loathing by voting for an anti-globalisation, EU-loathing hard left socialist.
Then there is the youth army. They are the ones who make Corbyn cool, who place upon him this veneer of UK grime and snapchat, which aided by his one great strength, this charm, bonhomie, occasional first rate wit best described as cardigan charisma, adds up to that priceless untouchable thing called ‘authenticity.’
The army of youth in Brighton this weekend are the ones who have graduated in a decade of austerity, for whom the financial crisis has wrecked their youth at the same time as enriching the generation above them via the interest rate property price boom. They were the ones who, when this man appeared on the television at some point in 2015 and had a lot more to say and a better way of saying it than the embarrassingly dire alternatives of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, they fled in to the waiting arms of a super smart digital campaign group set up, perversely by another socialist in his sixties by the name of Jon Lansman. But they have stuck with him.
Whenever I stuck my head in to the Momentum conference, called “The World Transformed” I did see a fair few grown adults making dinosaurs with clay to demonstrate the “symbiotic relationship between thinking and making”, or a man in blue lipstick dressed as a cheerleader, serving as de facto hype man for a blue haired woman singing folk songs about the proletariat.
But these are not the incidences that characterised an event was riotously fun, intellectually enriching and generally brilliant. Hundreds queued for a hilarious pub quiz with Ed Miliband. Lisa Nandy spoke at it. Naomi Klein turned up to call Donald Trump a “political fatberg.” Its attendees and its officials were the kind of broad mass of activist student once feared long dead, when what now appears clear is that the apathy of the nineties and noughties was merely a lad culture fuelled temporary bubble in which far too many middle age-encroaching people still live.
Then there is the embarrassingly large chunk of the population who, even now, feel politics does not affect their lives and take a view on who to vote for in the last few weeks of an election campaign, based on which of the two candidates they would rather go for a pint with. These people sprinted to Corbyn, quite possibly in their millions, when it became clear the Conservative choice was three parts utterly tedious, one part utterly deranged and had no better stories to tell than having once run through a field of wheat. And for the moment they’re sticking around.
Add to that a whole load of popular policies which might very well be economically ruinous. Who wouldn’t rather spend their way out of debt than pay it back, but they are popular. The person is popular too. The momentum is with Corbyn. And, save for another leadership race that nobody wants, it is not immediately clear to see what the Conservatives can do to stop it.