We’ve all seen it happen at wedding receptions. Someone nobody likes is going to make a speech; the speaker may well have an unfortunate history with the family but his position (divorced father?) makes his attendance obligatory. We hold our breath and hope that nothing will be said that will cause offence: everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief when this proves to be the case and we can all proceed to the next stage.
I was reminded of this on Saturday when I attended my first ever Progress Conference where Jeremy Corbyn had agreed to speak. For overseas readers Progress is an organization for moderate Labour Party members – widely castigated by others as a Blairite group. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Corbyn’s close ally, has described Progress as a ‘right-wing conservative’ group which had never accepted Corbyn as Labour leader. Certainly for my part I had joined Progress for that very reason.
All credit to Progress to getting Jeremy Corbyn to come. The conference organisers had trailed a surprise speaker and a surprise it was. And all credit to Jeremy Corbyn for coming. However what was he going to say?
My guess, talking with others before the event, is that we could have expected one of two things. The first, which would have been very tough to deliver, would have been an appeal for tolerance towards his leadership. The second would have been a statement on the critical importance of a Remain vote in the June referendum and the obligation on us all to put aside all differences and work for that result in the meantime. Clive Lewis, the Norwich South MP and a Corbyn support, had made just such a statement in a breakout session earlier in the day and it went down well
In fact Jeremy Corbyn did neither of these. He started with a quite a good joke – something he normally avoids. ‘It is my first time speaking here. In fact it’s the first time I’ve ever been invited to a Progress conference – you set a pretty high bar if you have to be elected leader of the party if you ever want to get invited here.’ He then delivered a rushed, and sometimes garbled, address covering topics where no-one in the room could disagree: human rights, protection of rights at work, refugees. He concluded by answering a number of questions – all were very soft with the exception of a tougher one on anti-semitism in the Labour Party.
Someone of the calibre of Neil Kinnock or Michael Foot would have grasped the opportunity and tried to influence the forward agenda in some way. As it was I felt that Jeremy was just pleased to get through without incident – like the speaker at the wedding who knows he is not liked by almost all those present.
It may have been a missed opportunity for him. The case for putting differences aside for the greater goal of Europe is most powerful and everyone is receptive. Two days before the Progress event I went to a most enjoyable Labour Party ‘Remain’ dinner in Tottenham where the Labour MP David Lammy articulated the case with considerable aplomb. His was the speech of the week that I will remember.