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Jeremy Corbyn: The last comrade

On a visit to Prague, Jeremy Corbyn opens up on Donald Trump, Russian war crimes, Brexit woes, anti-Semitism and the promised socialist transformation.

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One day in late June, as the “coup” to oust Jeremy Corbyn gathered momentum in the immediate aftermath of the vote for Brexit, Owen Smith visited the Labour leader in his office at Portcullis House, Westminster. A vote of no confidence had been tabled against Corbyn and shadow ministers were, at choreographed intervals, resigning in protest at what was perceived to be his failed leadership. Many blamed him personally for Brexit, believing that he was a “secret Outer”. (He was not.) Corbyn’s allies had long anticipated a move from within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) against the leader – they thought that it might come as early as the day after the local elections in May – and they were determined to defend their man to the last. Would Corbyn
be similarly resolute?

Long isolated and irrelevant, the far left had waited more than three decades since the end of the Bennite wars of the 1980s to be in a position to control the Labour Party. “This is what it’s all about,” John McDonnell, Corbyn’s long-time ally and neo-Marxist shadow chancellor, told his close friend as he urged him to stand his ground against their gathering enemies in the PLP.

With a hostile media camped outside his house, Corbyn felt the strain. He was concerned about the effect of the relentless scrutiny on his wife, Laura Álvarez, and his neighbours, many of whom he considers friends. “But they all said, ‘Stick at it. We’re with you,’” Corbyn told me during a recent trip to Prague for the annual conference of the Party of European Socialists (PES). “Friends, family, neighbours – they said, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give in to what’s going on.’ And I didn’t.”

A former lobbyist for the biopharmaceutical multinational Pfizer, Owen Smith was elected as the MP for Pontypridd in 2010 and purported to be from the “soft left”. His high self-regard and considerable ambition compensated for a lack of ministerial experience, and he had an ingenious plan that he wanted to put to Corbyn when he visited him in his office. The plan was simple: Corbyn should resign and Owen Smith should become the leader of the Labour Party. Encouraged by his supporters among the soft-left faction of MPs, such as John Healey and Lisa Nandy, Smith told the Labour leader that if he moved aside gracefully, his reward would be to become the president of the party.

“What do you think of that?” Smith said, peering at Corbyn expectantly. There was silence and then he spoke, the low, rasping tone of his voice betraying no irritation. “There’s no vacancy for president, Owen,” Corbyn said, “because the position doesn’t exist.” He then offered to make Smith a cup of tea.

In the event, Corbyn crushed Smith in the ensuing leadership race, the second that he had contested and won in little more than a year since the debacle of Ed Miliband’s general election defeat, “burying the soft left along the way”, as one senior Labour figure put it to me.

Labour has been “captured by the far left for the first time in the party’s history”, Tony Blair said to me in sorrow a few weeks ago when I interviewed him at his offices in London. But Corbyn has not coerced his way to the leadership. No one forced the membership and activists to vote for him. Corbyn never hides who he is, what he represents or what his anti-capitalist positions are. He is the leader the members want – perhaps the leader the party deserves – and he draws his inspiration and determination to carry on from the hundreds of thousands who have joined Labour to support him. “The mandate I was given by members on two occasions and the support I get from a lot of people – that’s why I do it,” he told me. “And the pleasure, because I enjoy travelling around, I enjoy the campaigning work and I enjoy representing my constituency.”

Corbyn certainly enjoyed himself in early December when we were in Prague, where he was the star turn, repeatedly being stopped for photographs and handshakes, to which he responded with patience. “He’s very popular with young people here,” Kristyna Kocvarova, who works for the Czech Social Democratic Party, told me. “He’s a good speaker, open-minded, courageous, a guy from next door – yet really charismatic. He’s an inspiration to socialists across Europe.”

I watched as Corbyn took part in a panel discussion on the “future of democracy” in Europe in the main conference hall of a labyrinthine, communist-era building. Leaning forward in a chair, his reading glasses perched on the end of his narrow nose, Corbyn spoke from notes, his voice quickening whenever he wished to be emphatic or to convey urgency. He seemed delighted to be in the company of four left-wing women onstage. “I like being in the minority as the only man on this panel, just as we will have a majority of women ministers in a Labour government,” he said to loud applause.

“We can’t make a politics for straight, white men,” said one of the panellists, a blonde-haired woman from the Karl Renner Institute, the political academy of the Austrian Social Democratic Party. Corbyn nodded vigorously.

The Labour leader – his image projected on a large screen behind him – said that politics had been shaken up across the world and that corporate America had “bought up industrial America, deindustrialised it and sold it off”. He and his fellow socialists had to be “agents of change”. Injustice had been “brought about by free market economics”, he said, and: “We should stand up to unfettered capitalism . . . We cannot be protectors of the status quo.” His speech was a hymn to socialist internationalism. I sat listening in the front row, next to Corbyn’s charming wife, Laura, who is Mexican and was dressed in a mustard jumper and dark scarf. She used her phone to take photographs of her husband as he spoke, which she then shared with me. “Do you like this one?”

Corbyn performed creditably on the panel. He is at his most comfortable in these situations, speaking to fellow true believers, scourges of global capitalism and far-right nativism. “We need a socialist economic strategy across Europe for the redistribution of wealth and power,” he said. When asked from the floor about his role in the EU referendum campaign, Corbyn said that the vote for Brexit was “a cry from the heart from neglected communities”.

One questioner, a woman from Andalusia, said: “Jeremy, you are an icon, a rock star, but we European federalists cannot forgive you for your poor performance during the referendum. Why did you let us down?” Corbyn seemed unmoved by the criticism.

“I tried as hard as I could,” he said. “My message was ‘remain and reform’. But if we rejected the result now, what message would that send to the Labour voters for Brexit?” Then he declared that what was needed above all else was “the redistribution of wealth across Europe”, and everyone applauded again.

Afterwards, Corbyn met a group of Czech journalists in a small, overheated room and took quick-fire questions from them. Moderate social democracy was finished, he said, because it attempted to “manage the system, rather than transforming it”. He repeated the need for a “redistribution of wealth and power” and said that the “management model” did not work as it had created a “free-for-all market economy that blames minorities for the inequalities”.

 

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Since his victory over Owen Smith in the second leadership contest, Corbyn has begun to feel more  secure in his role, even as Labour’s ratings have collapsed – a recent poll put the party 17 points behind Theresa May’s Tories. While we were in Prague, the result of the Richmond by-election came through and Corbyn seemed unconcerned that the Labour candidate had lost his deposit. “The by-election was an act of extra­ordinary hubris by Zac Goldsmith and of extraordinary opportunism by the Liberal Democrats,” he said on several occasions in a curiously jaunty tone.

To observe Corbyn in Prague – as he mingled with other European politicians, paused for multiple selfies and did several television interviews – was to observe a politician increasingly at ease with his responsibilities and revelling in the attention. (Laura said: “If Labour charged a pound for every selfie, it would be very rich.”) Corbyn is heavier, especially in the face and around the stomach, than when I interviewed him in July 2015, when he was still the improbable insurgent, the rebel leader in waiting.

“I was the last to be convinced we could win,” he said, reflecting on that heady summer of campaigning. “I took a lot of convincing. People kept saying, ‘You’re going to win.’ I said, ‘No way.’ And then the pressure I got was from a neighbour who put a great deal of money on me, and he hasn’t got a great deal of money. So I suspect he borrowed the money to put it on. So every time I saw this guy, I had this feeling of responsibility towards him! He said, ‘You are going to win, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Well, I hope you’re going to vote.’ And he said, ‘No, no, I didn’t register.’ Thanks mate.”

Corbyn admits that he was completely unprepared for what he would do if he won. He was elected on a Saturday and four days later had to face off against David Cameron in the House of Commons. After that first Prime Minister’s Questions, which I watched from the press gallery, Cameron, impressed, told one of his aides that Corbyn’s hands “were not even shaking” as he read his prepared questions in what was his first ever appearance at the despatch box at the age of 66. “Did he say that?” Corbyn asked. “I don’t get nervous. I just thought, ‘Well, we’ve been through so much.’ I finally got in there and sat down, ready to go up at the despatch box, and looked around and the place was absolutely packed. You couldn’t move. Every single seat was taken. I thought, ‘Wow.’ There must have been about 2,000 people there in total, I suppose, inside the chamber. The galleries and everything, completely full. I thought, ‘Wow – 2,000 people. And about 1,900 of them don’t want me to do well!’”

Moving on from the Commons, Corbyn went to the Labour party conference in Brighton, where he made 41 speeches in three days, and then the next week to a rally in Manchester that was planned to
coincide with the Conservative party conference taking place in the city, after which he and Laura took a brief holiday. “Laura and I went up to Scotland and we were accused of taking a lengthy holiday. Two days, and one of them was in Fort William on a bicycle. It’s not luxury. The small-mindedness and the way in which many of our media will always believe the worst of you. We were eating a bag of chips. And suddenly this guy sells a story about me eating chips to the Sunday Times – I hope he got well paid. So things have changed a lot.”

Seumas Milne, the Guardian journalist-turned-spin doctor and chief strategist, had told me that Corbyn works relentlessly and is much tougher and more determined than his mild demeanour suggests. “He’s a generous man,” Corbyn said of the friend he addresses in jest as “Comrade Milne”. “He does the same [he works relentlessly].”

I’d heard that Milne hadn’t had a day off since last Boxing Day. Corbyn laughed. “He hasn’t. What breaks have we had?” He turned to Laura. “We had that infamous holiday during the referendum campaign which amounted to one and a half days. We went to Exmouth at Easter for one day. We were going to stay for three, but then I went to Port Talbot [because of the crisis at the steelworks]. And then we had two days at the beginning of June in Swanage. Cycling. And we took a journey on a steam train.”

Corbyn’s aides believe that he is finally learning to stick to agreed positions – or “lines”, in the jargon – in interviews. The running joke among his entourage is that, after an interview or television appearance, they check “not against delivery but to see if a line was delivered at all”. His appearance is smarter – in Prague, he wore a dark suit and an open-necked pale blue shirt – and he is more willing to play the game and to make more of the necessary compromises of leadership.

He is also more comfortable in shadow cabinet meetings. Encouraged that he has more allies on the Labour front bench, he knows that he has silenced most of the PLP, at least for now. There is little speculation about a second attempt to oust him any time soon, though Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn supporter who, as one MP told me, has been “triangulating his way out of being too much the Corbyn loyalist”, is frequently mentioned as a future contender or challenger from the left.

Labour MPs have ceased using Twitter to condemn and mock Corbyn’s every statement and public performance. As things stand, Corbyn will lead Labour into the next general election, which his aides believe could be as early as May 2017. “We are preparing for a May or June election and we are ready,” I was told. As for his and the party’s dire poll ratings, Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, has said that these will steadily improve over the next 12 months, presuming there is no general election.

Labour MPs are clearing the ground for Corbyn to fail, in his own way, on his own terms. Many of the party’s most influential MPs – Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Rachel Reeves – will not serve under him. By contrast, Keir Starmer, whose Commons performances shadowing Brexit Secretary David Davis have been impressive, believes that he can best serve his party and country by demonstrating his competence in opposition and by seeking to hold the government to account on what is the defining political and economic issue of our times.

“Jeremy will be responsible for the manifesto and the outcome,” one senior Labour MP said to me. “He has to understand that he’s the establishment now. He will be responsible for our successes and failures. Yet the idea of leading us into the election – that’s the one thing that keeps him awake at night, because of the media scrutiny. They will go through his record, day after day, over a six-week period . . . I still wouldn’t be surprised if he stepped down in 2018, if there’s no early election.”

 

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How does it feel to be Jeremy Corbyn? How does it feel to be adored by activists and members but traduced by your MPs, reviled by the “mainstream media”, while presiding over catastrophic poll ratings for the party you lead? How does it feel to have spent three decades on the back benches pursuing various radical causes unconstrained by the usual career considerations or by the discipline of collective responsibility – only to find yourself in late middle age becoming the accidental leader of a great national political party at a time of profound crisis for the left?

As Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today, put it to me when we spoke recently, Corbyn has unlocked something long repressed on the left. His consistency, his uncompromising socialism and his hostility to American power and the liberal world order have inspired many who turned away from Labour after the Iraq War to re-engage with politics. He has awakened, too, the interest of young people who are enraged by growing inequalities of wealth, despise the Westminster jamboree and distrust elites. Why, in the era of the hipster beard, even the facial hair is working for him.

But Corbyn is also an epiphenomenon: his election to the leadership is a symptom rather than the cause of Labour’s malaise, as well as more generally of the rejection of mainstream social democracy and what Tony Blair calls “muscular progressive centrism” by voters throughout the West.

In countries from the United States to France, the left is losing. There are social-democratic governments – in Portugal, Sweden and the Czech Republic, for instance – but they are invariably fragile coalitions. In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s Social Democrats are in government with the pro-business ANO party. ANO’s leader is a Berlusconi-style populist billionaire named Andrej Babiš, who is the deputy prime minister and finance minister and, before making his fortune, worked as an agent for the communist-era security services. No social democrat, Babiš is yet another billionaire Big Man in an era of authoritarian Big Men: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Narendra Modi in India.

Corbyn has a simple answer to the question of the struggles of the left. He believes that for too long progressive parties have pursued the wrong policies and have been too willing servants of “neoliberalism”, especially his party and the US Democrats. In America, Donald Trump won the presidency because he “was a well-funded opportunist who doesn’t appear to put forward an entirely coherent message other than one of blaming women and minorities”, and he “somehow managed to present himself as a “saviour” to people who were “suffering the trauma of industrial decline”. Though he deplores Trump, Corbyn said he would like to invite him to north London “to show him the Finsbury Park Mosque and give him a cup of tea”. He said they would “discuss Mexico on the way” to an Arsenal game.

Corbyn’s analysis is broadly Marxist: a far-reaching economic transformation of the exploitative system of market capitalism will lead to political transformation and the creation of a new society. “Social-democrat parties haven’t offered enough hope and optimism to the left-behind communities, haven’t offered hope that their housing issues are going to be dealt with,” Corbyn told me. “There also has to be a challenge to the power of globalism [by which he means, I think, financial capitalism], because we are told that the only solution to globalism is to retreat from the consensus model of a welfare state and roll back on it. And that’s what has been rolled back on in the USA and has left people very angry, and the Democratic Party couldn’t offer an alternative to it. So what’s to be the way forward in Europe? Sign TTIP [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] and have a furthering empowerment of global corporations, and say that the only way forward is to cut living standards and cut wages in order to have a global market, or is it to do something different in order to protect and increase and improve those living standards? I’d obviously go for the latter.”

The paradox of ultra-liberal globalisation and EU federalism is that these have resulted in what Corbyn describes as a “retreat into local identity agendas” and in the emergence of “strong separatist movements in Spain and France to a lesser extent”. As for the Scottish National Party, it offers a form of what he calls “identity nationalism”. Is the SNP a party of nativists? “To some extent. They are also very broad. And like all national movements, become very contradictory.”

Even after the vote for Brexit, Corbyn supports freedom of movement within the EU and strongly favours immigration. He is a cultural liberal but an economic protectionist. You might say that he is left-liberal on culture and left-liberal on the economy. He favours open borders, at least within Europe, but less open and much more tightly regulated markets. I asked him about the failures more generally of liberalism and of the post-liberal turn, but he didn’t quite understand what I meant. He is simply baffled by the reaction by some on the left against what the American writer and academic Mark Lilla has called “identity liberalism”.

“I don’t know why everything always has to be identified as ‘post-something’. I’m not sure we’ve had ‘post’ lots of things. How about we say this is the time for opportunity for social justice? I know it’s a bit of a mouthful. But as an idea, surely it’s a bit more optimistic than saying we’ve come to the end of some kind of era. I’m not sure eras are something people recognise when they’re in the midst of it.”

 

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Corbyn’s entourage in Prague comprised his wife, Laura, Seumas Milne, Jennifer Larbie – a former National Union of Teachers organiser who was recently appointed to advise Corbyn on foreign affairs and was excellent company – as well as the aides Gavin Sibthorpe and Mark Simpson.

One afternoon, we headed north-west out of Prague and drove for 60 kilometres into northern Bohemia, where we visited Terezín (formerly Theresienstadt), the site of a Nazi-era concentration camp and a Jewish ghetto. Long before that, it had been a Hapsburg military fort and small garrison town. It was intensely cold – the temperature was well below freezing – and frost was already forming on the grass beneath our feet as the New Statesman’s photographer Kate Peters took a series of portraits of Corbyn outside the high walls of Terezín in the fading late-afternoon light. Laura stood by watchfully and removed a red tie from her bag, which Corbyn put on dutifully – “Because of where we are,” Laura said, “we must be respectful.”

We were taken on a tour of the camp and into various cell blocks, where more than 150,000 Jews (including 15,000 children) were imprisoned in appalling conditions before being transported to death camps such as Mauthausen and Auschwitz. We were also shown the claustrophobic cell where the young Bosnian-Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip spent two years after he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, the shot that was heard around the world. The experience in the camp was harrowing.

As we prepared to leave, a Czech Social Democrat asked Corbyn to deliver on camera an impromptu message to “the young people of my country”. Corbyn reasserted that he opposed all forms of racism and that we should be especially vigilant because the far right was rising again in Europe. Corbyn knows that Labour has a serious problem with anti-Semitism, which is presumably why he took time out to visit Terezín. Anti-Semitism would not be tolerated in the party, he told me.

“I am very concerned about any reports I receive of any racist activity, or any anti-Semitic activity of any sort,” he said. “I’ve asked [for] an investigation to take place, and it’s been reported and where there is any evidence, a suspension may well follow, following the investigation.”

But why doesn’t he condemn anti-Semitism in and of itself (he always uses the wider frame of “all forms of racism”)? “I have totally condemned anti-Semitism on its own terms,” he said.

I asked what he made of Terezín. “I’ve been to other concentration camps and I remember as a young man going to Dachau, near Munich, which was awful, obviously. It was designed to be. We went to Auschwitz about five years ago, maybe more. It was a bitterly cold January day, and that was the right time to see Auschwitz. And today, this camp – very well presented, I thought, beautifully presented, and the guide, well, you were there with me. I thought he was very good. And I thought it was very moving to see it . . . The inhumanity that people can descend into.”

He has not been to the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial in Jerusalem but said that he “will be there” the next time he visits Israel.

 

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By the time we returned to our cars, it was dark. Corbyn’s aides were becoming concerned that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. There were sandwiches waiting for him in one of the cars, but these turned out to be ham or tuna – as a vegetarian, he could not eat them. Someone passed him a slice of bread from which the meat had been removed. He took a couple of unenthusiastic bites and then drank some water. I had been warned that Corbyn could become “a touch robotic” if he was tired and hadn’t eaten and, on the journey back to Prague, we chatted but many of his answers were indeed robotic, like an actor delivering overfamiliar lines.

He was most engaged on foreign affairs. He favoured what he called a foreign policy based on “human rights”, as opposed to one based on, say, pragmatic national interest or cool-headed realism. A Corbyn foreign policy would be independent of America, under which Britain would not “automatically accept the foreign policy initiatives of the Unites States” and one would “challenge countries that routinely abuse human rights”, such as Saudi Arabia.

I asked him about Russian war crimes in Syria and whether a serious consequence of the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq was the reluctance of Western powers to intervene in the Syrian War, even to prevent humanitarian catastrophes such as in eastern Aleppo – which Peter Tatchell likened to the horrors of Guernica when he disrupted Corbyn’s speech in London on 10 December.

“The slaughters are appalling,” Corbyn said to me of the Syrian tragedy. “Had we gone in, would there have been any difference? I’m not sure whose side we would have gone in on, and it would have been a three-way civil war [sic]. I think the failure has been to keep the Geneva process going; the failure has been to bring about the political settlement when it should have been brought about.”

I asked if he thought that Putin was a neo-fascist. “His government is very repressive in many ways. I disagree with a lot of his policies, particularly his human rights policies, but one has to recognise that Russia is a place of enormous self-consciousness as a country. I think there has to be an engagement in Russia that is critical but at the same time hopes to bring about some kind of de-escalation of tensions. These tensions can get very dangerous.”

Why have so many politicians, from Viktor Orbán in Hungary to France’s Marine Le Pen and Ukip’s Nigel Farage, been attracted to Putin? Even Donald Trump seems sympathetic.

“I’m not entirely sure. I think that they like it that he’s the mirror they put in front of themselves. They see him as a very strong leader, which he is, and that expresses his determination on behalf of his country. I don’t quite see it that way. I do see him as somebody who is obviously president of Russia, obviously very powerful in Russia, and Russia is obviously a place that is always going to be important for its traditions, its natural resources and everything else. But I do not want us to get into a military arms race with Russia, and that’s why I want to see better agreements made with Russia.”

I asked again about Russian war crimes in Syria, and he said: “I would want to see them investigated. The bombing that’s gone on is appalling, particularly the bombing of the UN convoy, and as one who has spent a lot of time at UN human rights councils over the years, I would want to see an investigation on that. And so, if war crimes have been committed, then they must be charged.”

Towards the end of our conversation in the car, Corbyn pushed back against Blair’s claim that Labour had been captured by the far left. “I don’t know where the definitions of left and far left come from. You’ll have to ask Tony Blair. If I call myself a socialist, that’s because I am a socialist.” Then he checked the football results on his iPad.

 

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How serious is Jeremy Corbyn? Is he for real? One Czech journalist asked me this after he had fired several questions about Brexit at the Labour leader. Because of their history of occupation and communist oppression, the Czechs have a heightened sense of the absurd – and the startling decline of the Labour Party in the UK has become a kind of absurdist parable of these turbulent new times. And the Czech Republic is, after all, the land of Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek and Milan Kundera. There is a tradition in central and eastern European literature of the holy innocent or idiot who may or may be not be feigning his idiocy.

In Hašek’s celebrated novel The Good Soldier Švejk, which is about the misadventures of a Czech soldier serving in the Austro-Hungarian army, the hero mimics the absurdities and idiocies of the military bureaucracy in which he finds himself. As an empire crumbles around him, his performance is so convincing that no one can tell if he is merely acting the fool or he means quite what he says and does.

As Nicholas Lezard has written, “Švejkian means an enigmatic mixture of idiocy and cunning, deep folly and deep wisdom, an incarnation of human stupidity and yet also with something of the divine about it.”

For his supporters and detractors, it is something like this with Jeremy Corbyn, who can seem guileless in his self-deprecating affability and unworldliness, even innocent, as he repeats his stock phrases, chats about his allotment and preaches the virtues of peace and justice and an end to all war and conflict.

Is Corbyn as guileless as he can seem, or would have us believe? No one would doubt that he is politically sincere. Yet does he sincerely believe that his politics can have wide appeal? Does he believe that enough of the British people are yearning for a full-scale socialist transformation of society, even as the Labour Party collapses in Scotland and struggles desperately beyond its urban strongholds in England?

Labour has long been an uneasy coalition of the working class, minority groups, public-sector workers and metropolitan liberal intellectuals – and today that coalition is fracturing as its voters find themselves on different sides of the Brexit divide. Labour wins when it reaches out to and connects with the aspiring lower-middle and middle classes, when it attempts to speak to most of the people most of the time. It wins when it has an optimistic programme, when, as Clement Attlee said of the government elected in 1945, we look “towards the future”.

Another difficulty for Corbyn is that he drags his past behind him like a ball and chain. Some people will never forgive him for inviting members of Sinn Fein to Westminster only a few weeks after the IRA attempted to murder Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and many of her cabinet in a bomb outrage at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. I put it to Corbyn when we were back at his hotel that he had sided with the IRA over the British state. “Not true,” he fired back. “I was always wanting there to be peace in Ireland. I recognised what was happening in Ireland and that there had to be peace and there had to be an end to the war . . . I represent a very strongly Irish community – it’s more mixed now, but then it was very strongly Irish. And I always firmly believed that the only way you would ever bring about peace in Ireland is by talking to people.” The problem is that, on any number of conflicts – from Northern Ireland to Israel-Palestine – he invariably chooses to speak to only one side.

As for the provocation of inviting Sinn Fein to parliament, he said: “Well, the ones who came were actually former prisoners who had done their time. They came to parliament and we actually discussed what future there was. Whenever I had invited them, it would have been the same kind of thing, and the Daily Mail certainly managed to fill quite a lot of pages with that.”

 

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Jeremy Corbyn is a cannier media operator than he is given credit for. He is adept at deadpanning television interviewers and at deflecting questions about Trident or Nato by making reference to his jam-making. And he is at once ideologically inflexible and pragmatic. His economic policies so far are in essence no more than reheated Keynesianism. He has compromised on any number of positions since becoming leader, including on his opposition to Nato (membership is party policy, he told me) and unilateral nuclear disarmament (which isn’t party policy). He is an ardent Eurosceptic, yet he campaigned sincerely, though never as passionately as some colleagues would have wished, for Remain. David Cameron and George Osborne certainly believe they were “let down” by Labour and Corbyn during the campaign.

In her biography Comrade Corbyn, Rosa Prince suggests that the Labour leader’s world-view has been unchanged since he returned from working as a young man for the Voluntary Services Overseas scheme in Jamaica, where each week he used to wait for the New Statesman to arrive by post from England and wrote poetry. “I personally have always seen Jeremy as a Peter Pan figure, just not a grown-up,” one unnamed friend told Prince.

His aides see him differently, as a “quintessential Englishman” of a type that Orwell would have recognised in all his strangeness and eccentricity. Every Thursday, Corbyn sends his aide Gavin Sibthorpe out to WHSmith buy a copy of a railway magazine and the most excited that I saw him in Prague was when he received a text or email from a Labour councillor who was a train driver, offering Corbyn a “ride in his train cab”. “Look at this, look at this!” he said to Milne when the message landed. Dressed in a dark suit and dark polo neck sweater and drinking a double espresso, Milne smiled peaceably.

Corbyn has been caricatured as sectarian and as a humourless Spartist. But in person, he is humorous and nicely self-mocking. He has a hinterland, speaks Spanish and reads widely – he enthused about the novels of Edward Upward and of Orwell, especially the earlier works of low-key provincial English realism, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air. As we waited for the photographer to choose locations outside the Terezín memorial, he chatted about East German cars with Milne and recalled travelling through Czechoslovakia on an MZ 349 motorbike in the 1970s. “You had to change a fixed amount of money every day but there was nothing to spend on it. Everything was excessively bureaucratic and the officials were bad mannered.” He ended up buying some glass trinkets on the border to spend some money. “It’s not a good idea to carry glass on a motorbike,” he said. “But I think we got some back.”

Corbyn was especially animated when he spoke, as Laura poured us some tea at his hotel, about his two years in Jamaica and how the experience shaped his politics and made him the person he is. “I’m not sure changing politics is a good thing,” he said when I mentioned the comment of the unnamed friend in Prince’s book. “Yes, it was a dramatic experience. Here was me, a country boy from Shropshire, grown up albeit with a radical family, or left family, I suppose, didn’t do particularly well in school, and was suddenly bizarrely taken on the VSO to Jamaica. I went there and was suddenly told you had to teach 70 kids geography. So I was learning a lot about the little boys. It was a boys’ school I was teaching in. Also I took a lot of kids on camping trips, which I enjoyed, and that got me interested in a lot of other things. I started turning up at a lot of random evening classes at the University of the West Indies when I had an evening off. Anthropology, history, cultural stuff. Anything really. Just turn up and listen for a while. And talk to people, and then I went on a journey around Latin America, where I saw unbelievable repression and poverty.”

 

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One ally of Corbyn told me that they feel that he has something special – what the Andalusian activist in Prague described as his rock star charisma. “Jeremy has something powerful – Boris has it, too. He appeals to people, especially young people. We’ve got to capture that and use it better, because he offers something hopeful, a different way. It’s a kind of populism of the left, if you like . . .”

Is this what Corbyn feels that he is offering, too, a populism of the left to confront the new populism of the right that is sweeping Europe, especially if, as he believes, it’s all over for the moderate centre left?

“[You need] a community of endeavour,” Corbyn told me, somewhat prosaically. “A community of endeavour to achieve social justice and social change . . . There is a growing feeling that there has to be economies developed that are more sustainable and more rational and that Europe doesn’t have to succumb to the globalisation of the trade agreements. Instead, Europe has to be the manufacturing place.”

He seems unconcerned by Labour’s poor poll ratings, blaming the coup against him and a summer of internal conflict.

“We were distracted by the leadership contest when we could have been attacking the Tories,” he said to me. “We’ll see how they [the polls] develop as we develop our economic programme. We have got to be optimistic. We have got to offer hope,
not blame.”

Why aren’t people listening? “It’s extremely noisy, there is a lot of hate out there,” he said. “But people also think about things more deeply than many give them credit for. And a lot of media tend to speak to a lot of other media and don’t recognise that there’s a whole parallel system of information going on through social media that never touches the rest of it.

“So there are different forms of communication going on, and the dangers of racist populism are very serious indeed. And you have to confront it.

“I recently spoke to the CBI [Confederation of British Industry] conference and I said that I represented a very successful enterprise known as the Labour Party. Which, in less than two years, has doubled its membership, paid off all debts and all mortgages and has put a stash of money away for the next campaign that we’re involved with. I think we deserve congratulations for that.”

If he deserves congratulation, why are Labour MPs so unhappy?

“Some people are just never satisfied. Look, I hope they all have a wonderful Christmas, and I hope that we can do what we did [sic] on the schools, on the health service, on the economy, and win the election campaigns to come. We are on the way. We are hopeful. We are confident. And we are committed.” 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016