He didn’t say the word “Israel.” That was the biggest take-away from newly-elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s inaugural address to the Labour Friends of Israel fringe meeting at his party conference Tuesday night.
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When a heckler pointed this out toward the end of Corbyn’s eight-minute address to a packed room, he was swiftly hustled out of the room by security.
It would be wrong to read too much into this. Corbyn is far from being one of those swivel-eyed loons who believe that even naming the Jewish state is akin to endorsing apartheid. But it was an eccentric omission, considering how eagerly a rather friendly crowd was waiting to hear him speak about Israel. Something – anything – that might prove reassuring, given Corbyn’s track record as a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights and now-famous references to Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends.”
He drew attention to the siege on Gaza and hoped restrictions should be lifted – but no mention of the rockets launched by militant groups from within the Strip to provide a crowd-pleasing morsel of context (one had just been fired, giving him the perfect opportunity).
He used the word “dialogue” repeatedly, referred to justice for “all the peoples of the region,” and mentioned refugees in a general way. It was all more than a bit anodyne.
Corbyn has a problem. His biggest sell – that of humble authenticity – means he cannot shift his position too much, even when it makes complete political sense. His staunch supporters love this, delighting in his refusal to sing the national anthem at a World War II memorial service or his appointment of a vegan as shadow agriculture minister. Those who need more convincing – including large swathes of the Jewish community – are at best baffled.
Earlier in the day, he gave his much-anticipated inaugural conference speech as party leader, which had none of the usual tricksy devices beloved by his predecessors, such as a closing appearance by a loving spouse. (No mention of Israel in that speech either, although he did criticise Saudi Arabia, twice.)
Social media had lots of fun with Corbyn’s brown suit and red tie combination, which bore an uncanny resemblance to that sported by Mr. Bean. This marks something of a pattern – his predecessor Ed Miliband suffered the unfortunate nickname “Milibean” – but in Corbyn’s case the tone was rather fonder.
Corbyn is more of a liberal English Everyman, marking a sharp change from Blair’s slick party machine and Miliband’s awkward wonkery. That’s a major reason why he was elected, and his conference speech was part of Corbyn’s much-vaunted new style of politics. It’s one that plays to his strengths – calm, mild-mannered, authentic.
Shortly after he was elected, Corbyn first staked his claim to this new style in his debut Prime Minister’s Questions. This British tradition gives the leader of the opposition a weekly opportunity to put the head of the government on the spot, amid much guffawing, waving of dispatch papers and general showing off. Instead, Corbyn used his time to read out questions selected from submissions by 40,000 concerned citizens, passing on a question from “Marie” on affordable housing and asking about mental health provision on behalf of someone called Gail.
This proved to be a non-confrontational, refreshing change from the usual old boys’ club. But it gave David Cameron an easy ride, and revealed nothing about what Labour under Corbyn would do to challenge government.
It was an opportunity missed, just like Corbyn’s speech at LFI.
Two nights previously, he addressed a Labour Friends of Palestine fringe event where journalists described him as being “mobbed” by excited fans. There, Corbyn took pains to make clear that his election as party leader wouldn’t change any of his long-held views on the conflict.
LFI would have liked to hear exactly the opposite – that his new role might lead him to temper views that until now have appeared more as articles of faith than reasoned policy. Corbyn still has people guessing.