Labour leader addresses party conference for first time and urges voters not to ‘take what they are given’ in hour-long speech.
Jeremy Corbyn has served notice on shadow cabinet ministers who have challenged him over defence policy that he has a mandate from the Labour party to oppose the renewal of the Trident programme.
In an hour-long speech to the Labour conference on Tuesday, the party leader announced that he is prepared for a fight over Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. Corbyn told delegates in Brighton it was wrong to fund a replacement for Trident.
He said: “There is one thing I want to make my own position on absolutely clear, and I believe I have a mandate from my election on it. I don’t believe that £100bn spent on a new generation of nuclear weapons taking up a quarter of our defence budget is the right way forward.”
Corbyn also urged voters to stand up to the Conservatives’ austerity policies, advocated a “kinder, grownup” form of politics and attacked the media for failing to understand what people wanted. He said: “The British people never have to take what they are given.”
His speech also included a pledge to preside over a new era of house building and a challenge to David Cameron to stand up to Saudi Arabia over its plans to execute a teenage protester.
He ended his address with an impassioned plea for people to follow the example of one of the party’s founders, Keir Hardie, in challenging injustice. Joking that he is the first bearded man to lead the party since Hardie, Corbyn illustrated his argument by quoting Labour’s first leader: “My work has consisted of trying to stir up a divine discontent with wrong.”
Corbyn added: “Don’t accept injustice, stand up against prejudice. Let us build a kinder politics, a more caring society together. Let us put our values, the people’s values, back into politics.”
The Labour leader also challenged the central line of attack on him by the Toriesand supporters of Tony Blair – that he is a threat to the nation’s security domestically and internationally – by saying that they pose the greater threat on these fronts.
He said the Tories risk families’ security through their cuts to tax credits. Of Blair’s decision to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Corbyn said: “It didn’t help our national security when we went to war with Iraq in defiance of the UN and on a false prospectus.”
Corbyn’s team felt that in his speech, he had successfully outlined how he aims to forge a new, gentler and more inclusive style of politics. He quoted the late American writer Maya Angelou, saying “you may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them”, as he attacked the pugnacious atmosphere on social media.
In remarks that appeared to be aimed at some of his own supporters, who made highly personal attacks on Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper during the leadership contest, he said: “I want a kinder politics, a more caring society. Don’t let them reduce you to believing in anything less. So I say to all activists, whether Labouror not, cut out the personal attacks. The cyberbullying. And especially the misogynistic abuse online.”
Corbyn made it clear that his election as the Labour leader, with 59% of the vote, represented a seismic change in British politics. He said: “What happened this summer with the leadership election was a political earthquake.
“According to the script, socialist and social democratic parties were in decline. Social democracy itself was exhausted. Dead on its feet. Yet something new and invigorating, popular and authentic, has exploded.”
The Labour leader said that he would use his huge mandate to persuade people over to his view. But he would eventually force his will on areas, such as Trident, that have defined his political worldview over three decades.
Corbyn said Maria Eagle, the shadow defence secretary, would lead a review into Trident after he failed in his attempt to hold a conference vote on the nuclear deterrent. But he said he is prepared to stand up to Eagle and the other members in the shadow defence team who support Trident.
He said: “I believe Britain should honour our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty, and lead in making progress on international nuclear disarmament.”
But Corbyn insisted that he understand the argument put forward by supporters of Trident, including many of his trade union backers, who are uneasy about the effect on jobs. He said: “In developing our policy through the review, we must make sure all the jobs and skills of everyone in every aspect of the defence industry are fully protected and fully utilised so that we gain from this, we don’t lose from this. To me, that is very important.”
The Labour leader had earlier made it clear that he would assert his authority over the party when he said that his overwhelming mandate gave him the right to introduce change in the way the party is run. He said: “I’ve been given a huge mandate, by 59% of the electorate who supported my campaign. I believe it is a mandate for change. I want to explain how. First and foremost it’s a vote for change in the way we do politics. In the Labour party and in the country.”
Corbyn opened his speech by joking about some of the more absurd stories about him during the leadership contest. His favourite appeared to be a report that he cycles round London on a Chairman Mao bike. He later said Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, would find ways of ensuring that the party can communicate its message through social media rather than more traditional media.
He said: [Tom’s] leading the charge and leading the change of the much greater use of digital media as a key resource. That is the way of communication, it is not just through broadsheet newspapers or tabloids, it’s social media that really is the point of communication of the future. We have got to get that.”
Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary, whose union supported Corbyn in the leadership contest, said: “Today Jeremy treated us to a different kind of politics, and I believe people will like what they see. Principle, honesty, fairness and dignity – our lifelong Labour values – are taking their rightful place in the public realm. He was inspirational: in setting out a new vision for our country, he gave our tired politics a long-overdue shot in the arm.”
Michael Gove, the justice secretary, said: “Labour have confirmed that it is a threat to our national security, our economic security and to the security of every family in Britain. The Labour leader’s policies to borrow more, print money and put up taxes on people’s jobs and incomes would wreck our economy.
“That would weaken our nation’s defences, damage our NHS and hurt our country’s working people – with the poorest hit the most. Only by continuing to build a stronger economy can we deliver strong defences for our country and stability, security and opportunity for working people.”