JEREMY Corbyn has had the most hostile a reception a new leader could experience – from both inside and outside the party. After being elected with 60 per cent of the votes in the Labour leadership contest, one might feel he was entitled to at least a short honeymoon before the criticism started.
But the veteran left-winger has been cut no slack at all. Instead, he and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell are portrayed as deranged and dangerous; unguarded comments from long ago are dug up and spread across front pages; Conservative ministers denounce them implausibly as a “threat to national and economic security” and opponents inside their own party join in the chorus branding them “unelectable”.
But the two men have refused to stick to the script which casts them as pantomime villains from the “loony left”.
In his speech to the Labour conference in Brighton this week, Mr McDonnell refuted accusations he was a “deficit denier” by promising “Labour will always ensure that this country lives within its means”.
But he stood by the central tenet of the new Labour leadership – that austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity. “We are saying, tackling the deficit is important but we are rejecting austerity as the means to do it,” he told the conference.
He pledged to take an “aggressive” approach to balance the books by getting big corporations like Starbucks, Vodafone, Amazon and Google to pay their fair share of tax, but also said he did not plan to raise the top rate of income tax above 50p.
The approach set out by Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell may include radical policies which people will not like, but it does not add up to a crackpot economic programme, as some critics like to imply.
And some of their plans which have been ridiculed by opponents, such as the “Robin Hood tax” on transactions by financial institutions or the proposed national investment bank are ideas widely accepted by even right-wing governments in other countries, including Angela Merkel’s in Germany.
In his first leader’s speech to conference yesterday, Mr Corbyn sought to establish that his priorities are in line with the “shared majority values” of the whole country.
He spoke of a “fairer, more decent, more equal society” and voiced strong support for protecting human rights, eliminating homelessness and welcoming refugees. He also wants “a kinder politics” and promises a “bottom-up” approach to policy-making.
He does not try to hide his belief in change – he told delegates he would be “unapologetic about reforming our economy” – but he knows he has to be responsible as well as radical.
He also needs to be careful when it comes to Scotland. He has quite a bit of common ground with the SNP – on issues from austerity to Trident – yet they are already at daggers drawn.
The Nationalists complain his attacks on them are inaccurate – over rail privatisation, for instance – and they are both arguing about which of them is the real anti-austerity party.
Of course there is an election looming for the Scottish Parliament in less than a year, where Labour will be desperately trying to regain some ground. So an outbreak of hostilities should not be a surprise.
But it would be a pity if the battle for votes were to harm the chances of campaigning for responsible, radical change which probably has more support than some would like us to believe.