Jeremy Corbyn: The Big Interview
Thursday 24th December 2015
Government reversals and the Oldham triumph mean the Labour leader enters 2016 with a spring in his step – but reshaping British politics will be a long hard slog, he tells Ben Chacko
FOR a man on the receiving end of the worst media smear campaign of modern times, Jeremy Corbyn is remarkably upbeat.
But then he has reason to be. As Christmas approaches his leadership seems stronger than ever.
I met Jeremy a day ahead of yet another nonentity mouthing off about how Corbyn might “kill” the Labour Party. Comms chief Seumas Milne leans in as we are about to begin: “Jeremy, do you remember Peter Hyman?”
We learn that this giant of the political scene was a “former key adviser to Tony Blair” — there do seem to have been a lot of them — and is planning to share his premonitions of doom with the following day’s Observer.
Jeremy does not seem unduly worried. Repeated denunciations from Blair himself, as well as “prince of darkness” Peter Mandelson and a whole unseelie court of ex-ministers, ex-spads and supposed experts have only increased his popularity.
“It’s because we are doing a different form of politics, which is a mass movement of ordinary people for the first time getting involved,” he says.
That’s borne out over the afternoon. Several customers at the Cafe Metro in London’s Archway, where I met Jeremy after his Huffington Post interview, stop to tell him he’s doing a great job.
One public-spirited citizen switches his phone to record and starts asking questions about Isis and Syria, holding that politicians should answer to ordinary people and not just newspapers.
Jeremy would no doubt agree: “I think the media’s attitude towards the Labour Party and our campaign has been horrendous.”
His shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has long been associated with the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom — as has the Morning Star. The campaign calls for curbs on the power of the handful of super-rich tycoons who control the bulk of the British press.
Would a Corbyn government take action to break up media monopolies? “Yes,” he says immediately. “We are developing a media policy based on breaking up single ownership of too many sources of information.
“And actually promoting co-operative ownership and co-operative access, including local TV and radio stations and newspapers like the Morning Star.”
It says something about how ambitious his “different form of politics” is. Corbyn is no throwback to “Old Labour” or “socialism from above.” He envisions a radical democratisation of every aspect of British life.
This radicalism is what the party’s self-styled “moderates” — actually in the main Blairite diehards unable to grasp that the world has changed since 1997 — loathe.
A panicked Establishment has responded to Labour’s democratic revival with hysteria and fear — denouncing one of Parliament’s longest-serving MPs as “a threat to our national security” and hinting at military coups if he ever becomes prime minister.
Other critics tend instead to decry him as unelectable, out of touch and gaffe-prone. The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley declares the new Labour leadership is “simply bad at politics.” But is it?
Jeremy can point to a string of impressive victories from his first 100 days.
“We’ve beaten the government back on tax credits, which has helped three million people not have £1,200 taken off them in April.
“We’ve beaten them back on police cuts and we’ve beaten them back on Saudi Arabia” (where the government was forced to shelve a contract to provide prison services to the despotic regime after Corbyn raised it in his conference speech).
“We also had a very good result in the Oldham by-election. The activity level of local parties is huge and it’s completely contrary to everything the media are saying.”
There was no period in the last parliament where Labour had the government so consistently on the back foot.
Even over Syria, where Parliament voted to go to war, Jeremy won the moral victory. “We started as a small minority, both in the shadow cabinet and within the PLP.
“I consulted all party members, who were overwhelmingly opposed to bombing Syria. Many MPs thought about it a great deal, and we ended up with a majority of party members, MPs and shadow cabinet members voting with me on a free vote.
“I feel we did everything we could in the circumstances.”
Indeed, media coverage implying the party is now a dysfunctional wreck struggling to understand why Britons are still flocking to join Corbyn’s Labour.
“We’ve increased membership to nearly 400,000, we have the biggest, most active membership ever in my lifetime.”
He’s proud that “our campaign for the leadership did bring a lot of people into politics who have never been involved before,” and reveals he had been knocking on doors with new members that morning.
That’s how he sees the role of the much-maligned Momentum group: “It could be a way of bringing in a lot of people. That’s got to be a good thing.
“If the Labour Party is going to expand it’s got to bring in people who weren’t in it before. You cannot recruit only from your own membership!”
So he’s not impressed by Mandelson’s talk of “real members” fleeing the party?
“I think Peter has misinformed himself,” he smiles.
Some people attack Momentum for including members of other political parties, but Jeremy’s happy to work with rival parties including the Greens or the Welsh or Scottish nationalists: “In Parliament, in opposition, on issues where we can attack the government and maybe even defeat them as we did on tax credits, we’ll work together.
“On the Trade Union Bill and issues like that. But I’m not proposing electoral pacts or coalitions.
“I have huge respect for [Green MP] Caroline Lucas, I’ve worked with her on many issues in Parliament and on nuclear weapons. But I also recognise that lots of people who hitherto voted Green are coming round to supporting Labour now.”
Jeremy’s supporters often cite his commitment to a “new, kinder politics” as a source of his appeal, and observers have praised the way he has transformed Prime Minister’s Questions.
“We respect other people’s opinions and don’t do personal abuse, the model of theatrical abuse when various MPs shout appalling things at each other in the chamber in a sort of Shakespearean style and then go and drink together in the bar.
“I’m not interested. It’s nonsense. I was sent to Parliament to represent people.”
But this “kinder politics” has hardly been embraced by a Tory Party lurching from bullying scandal to bullying scandal.
“I was terribly shocked by [Young Conservative] Elliott [Johnson’s] suicide. There’s got to be an inquiry into it, that will happen.
“Bullying is appalling in any organisation. It’s appalling in the workplace. It’s appalling in politics and sometimes what parties offer as strong, macho politics ends up simply as abuse.”
I ask about the more recent allegations that Lucy Allan, the terrible Tory from Telford, bullies her staff.
“MPs should be model employers. It is a very pressurised job, but you don’t solve your political problems by shouting at your staff.
“The Tories should learn from [postal workers’ union] the CWU, who have a hotline for reporting bullying and harassment.”
Jeremy has worked closely with the CWU, championing its People’s Post campaign, “which is about protecting the universal service obligation on Royal Mail and stopping them from introducing a two-tier workforce.”
He’s announced his commitment to take Royal Mail back into public ownership. “I want to see public control because postal services are fundamental to our communities.
“Postal delivery workers are actually part of the community and they do a lot of good work beyond delivering letters.
“Workers are very nervous of what’s coming with further privatisation of Royal Mail after shares were sold well below their value. It’s an absolute rip-off.”
But wouldn’t renationalising Royal Mail fall foul of EU competition law? “I’m quite prepared to challenge EU competition law and EU directives on public ownership and state funding.
“Other governments in Europe challenge it, it’s kind of weird that the British government doesn’t.
“So Germany and particularly Italy have intervened to take parts of the steel industry into public ownership and we should be prepared to intervene where necessary.
“We’ve already lost a lot of steel capacity in Britain. If we’re going to have a manufacturing base, we’ve got to have a steel industry.”
The government’s treatment of the coal industry — we spoke a day after the “tragic” closure of Kellingley colliery — suggests it doesn’t share his concern for the British economy.
What about countries like Greece, where the EU has actively prevented a left-wing government from fulfilling any of its electoral pledges?
“I would not join the eurozone or the European Central Bank. I voted against Maastricht [in 1992] because it was a Europe based on free-market economics rather than social security and workers’ rights.”
“Yes, the Central Bank has treated [Greece] disgracefully. I had a very useful meeting with the prime minister of Portugal on Thursday and he has invited me and John McDonnell to go there and hold meetings in support of their programme of anti-austerity.
“We’re building an anti-austerity coalition across Europe.”
He’s in no doubt that the right is seeking to permanently eliminate the labour movement, and speaks of a “four-pronged attack” on Labour: the move to individual voter registration, which will see millions drop off the electoral register, mostly those in transient accommodation such as students and the low-paid, who tend to vote Labour; the Trade Union Bill, which seeks to cripple unions’ ability to bargain and will hit union funding for the Labour Party while the Tories continue to mop up millions in donations from hedge funds and the City; the attack on Short money, which helps opposition parties function; and, from the previous parliament, the Gagging Act which curtailed unions’ and charities’ ability to campaign at election time.
Taken together, it adds up to a concerted effort to move the goalposts so that Labour can never win again, which will only be boosted by boundary changes the government is certain to design to favour their own party.
“What they’re doing is actually questioning the existence of labour movement politics altogether.
“We’ve got to stand up for what we believe in as a labour movement. And that means the party’s membership needs to be even bigger, so it becomes a genuinely mass organisation.
“And trade union members are going to have to register to be Labour Party members because the Trade Union Bill is designed to stop them having that direct affiliation.
“On all my campaigning trips I always include union meetings, because I think we should recognise that six million people are in unions for a reason.
“Partly for protection of jobs and working conditions but always because they want to see that collective voice that can improve things in society.
“That’s what unions are about, and they are becoming much more social and getting involved beyond the workplace.”
The Labour Party he leads will never distance itself from the trade unions, he promises: “It’s vital to be with them through thick and thin.”
What’s next? It seems the Labour Party is now a hive of activity, with policies for a fairer and more democratic Britain being developed across the board, on housing, health, education.
On the last, Corbyn is emphatic that Labour will not fall into the same trap as it did in the last parliament, when shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt echoed Tory enthusiasm for free schools and academies: “We want to revive local accountability and actually have more power in the hands of local education authorities. On education the Tories are getting worse. They’re bringing back selection, for example.”
Local authorities have been badly hit by the coalition and now the Tory government, with sweeping funding cuts leaving them unable to run essential services, but Jeremy defends his decision to warn councils not to set illegal budgets.
“That just means the government sends someone in to take over. We need to build up the anti-austerity movement across the whole country so it’s a force to be reckoned with in every community.”
Time runs short and I ask if he has a message for Morning Star readers. He is immediately effusive: “Thanks to the Morning Star for allowing me to be a columnist for 10 years. I’m sorry I can’t continue being a weekly columnist because of my current job but I’m very pleased to be doing this interview.
“I read the Morning Star every day. I see it as a crucial voice for the trade union and labour movement. It’s a voice that we need.”
He asks about how we’re doing and is delighted to hear of our rising circulation, promising to do what he can to promote the paper further and to encourage more MPs to become regular contributors.
He even expresses enthusiasm for his Christmas present, a high-vis Morning Star tabard to wear when cycling. But advisers are pressing round and it’s time to go. The democratic renewal of the country is an unforgiving task: it doesn’t leave the leader of the opposition with gaps in his schedule.
Ben Chacko is editor of the Morning Star.
Stop the War
“It has an honourable tradition of of bringing together peace and community organisations and is an important part of a normal, democratic society. I wasn’t going to be told I can’t attend a meeting of theirs!”
The Morning Star
“It was the only paper to reasonably, decently and fairly report the Labour leadership campaign this summer.
“I thank the Morning Star very, very much for that and for going a voice to people. A co-operatively owned newspaper has got to be a good thing.
“I would encourage everyone to read the Morning Star. The Morning Star has got bigger and better. And I’m pleased there’s reasonable coverage of Arsenal each day.
“So I want us to have a strong Morning Star. That to me is very important.
“I think it should focus on the Labour Party and Labour activity. It could be a way of bringing in a lot of people who haven’t hitherto been involved in the Labour Party.”
“I’m a proud trade unionist. I’ve been a trade union member all my life. I will die a trade unionist. You’ve got to support your unions through thick and thin, however difficult the situation is.”
“It’s really tragic that a once great mining industry barely exists in Britain now. There’s also the question of clean burn technology and carbon capture, which the government has resolutely refused to progress.”
“I think the government is very unclear on what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. The only solution in Syria will be political.
“You can’t negotiate with Isis but you can negotiate with the government and with other opposition forces. Isis and al-Qaida would be better defeated by cutting off their sources of income than by bombing. Bombing kills innocent people, it doesn’t matter if they’re British or US or French or Russian or Syrian bombs.”
“Its name is El Gato — Spanish for cat, which also comes out as cake in French.”
His favourite Arsenal players of all time
“Jens Lehmann and Ian Wright”
His favourite newspaper editor
“[Morning Star assistant editor] Ros Sitwell, for years of patience with my column coming late”
JEREMY CORBYN has only been Labour leader for just over 100 days but he has already delivered significant change in how politics is conducted and in the direction of travel of the party: here.