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Leader has his work cut out to win over soul of the party

By Liam Clarke

Published 30/09/2015

Vernon Coaker
Vernon Coaker

"We are working on a Building of Love", Ryan Shaw's soul classic, belted out as an ecstatic Jeremy Corbyn marched through a packed Labour conference.

He kissed people, got hugged and had his photograph taken. It must have been a peak experience coming minutes after staking his claim to be the new Keir Hardy, Labour's founder.

"My work has consisted of trying to stir up a divine discontent with wrong," he said, quoting Hardy, who he pointed out was the "last bearded man" to lead the Labour Party and who died a century ago. Queue applause.

Behind the comradely banter there are issues. Labour was deeply divided by Mr Corbyn's victory. The vast majority of MPs opposed the new leader on several issues and didn't vote for him. Yet the 300,000 members, 160,000 of them new, backed him overwhelmingly. That tension affects what he says.

Mr Corbyn never mentioned Ireland and never apologised for the Iraq war, as he had promised to do in his campaign. These are areas where the leader can't speak freely without trouble.

On Northern Ireland, Vernon Coaker has said he will be the spokesman and that he had told Mr Corbyn he would take the lead. That interview, in Monday's Telegraph, was circulating at conference and indeed Mr Coaker was the only member of the front bench team who said anything about us.

Mr Corbyn's silence was remarkable given the current crisis here. Local politicians, however, liked some of his spending proposals which would boost our Barnett allocation, but we need more flesh.

Apologising for Iraq featured heavily in his election campaign, a way of dissing Tony Blair's New Labour faction for leading Britain into the warbut doing so yesterday would have divided the party. He made a point of praising Liz Kendall, the most Blairite candidate. She was the first to refuse to serve under him but he remembered her "passion and independence", not to mention her "great personal friendship for me".

Mr Corbyn may like Ms Kendall personally, but it is a political necessity to appease opponents while he makes preparations.

Conference voted against considering a motion on the scrapping of Trident; that would have been too divisive too, but Mr Corbyn still nailed his colours to the mast. He said he does not believe in spending £100bn on nuclear weapons.

That not only creates potential conflict with members of his shadow cabinet, like Mr Coaker, but also with Len McCluskey. Mr McCluskey's Unite union gave £12m to Labour's election fund and backed Mr Corbyn by a narrow majority at a vote of its NEC.

He tried to satisfy Mr McCluskey and his members by pledging to spend the money he saved on other defence jobs.

It was a good speech by Mr Corbyn, far better than the one he made in Belfast because he was surer of his subject, but he often avoided problems rather than solving them.

Agreeing to differ and blaming the media for being beastly, as he did yesterday, is a poor election strategy. People seldom vote divided parties into government.

Mr Corbyn must decide whether he wants to win back his opponents, as he says, or purge the intractable in a deselection bloodbath.

So far he is promising consensus and courtesy; he criticised trolling of rivals on the internet. Yet after the conference is over, consensus will require ditching or long fingering some of the issues he built his support on during his long years in the wilderness.

During the speech, William Hill lengthened the odds on him being leader at the next election from 5/4 to 4/1.

He has proved bookies wrong before, but he has to keep doing it every day now.

Belfast Telegraph

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