Show Hide image

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.

This interview is from the New Statesman's Christmas issue. Take advantage of our special offers and get a subscription for yourself or a loved one this Christmas.

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”.

 

***

 

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.”

 

***

 

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.”

 

***

 

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.

 

***

 

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.

 

***

 

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.”

 

***

 

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.”

 

***

 

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

Andre Carhillo
Show Hide image

The decline of the Fifth Republic

With the far right and far left surging in the run-up to a defining presidential election, the French seem intent on blowing up the political establishment.

On a cold Saturday evening in late February, cycling back to my flat in southern Paris, I accidentally ran into a pack of lads on a rampage. They were turning over bins, kicking over expensive motorbikes parked on the street, and obviously looking for someone to fight.

It wasn’t the first time that I’d seen this sort of thing, even in this relatively gentrified part of the city. Usually the best course of action is to stop, let them swarm past and allow the police to do their job. But on this particular night, although I could hear the buzz of a police helicopter above us, there were no officers on the ground. As I nervously became aware of this, one of the lads, no more than five yards away, looked at me and screamed: “T’es qui toi?” (“Who the f*** are you?”). His mates turned and gathered round. Now panicking, I saw that he was pointing a screwdriver at me.

I pelted down the street, heart racing as the young men followed me, so shocked that when I reached my apartment building I twice tapped in the wrong entry code. It was only once indoors, now safe but genuinely scared and sweating, that I understood what had happened.

This was a gang from one of the local ­cités – council estates – that border this part of Paris. They had been flushed out of their normal dens, where they deal in weed and mess about, by police using helicopters and unmarked cars, and were now taking their revenge on these unfamiliar surroundings. When they saw me, a tall, white, male figure, watching in the dark on my bike (stupidly the same dark blue as a police bike), they assumed I could only be one thing: a police spotter. In other words, their most hated enemy.

In the past few weeks, in Paris and across France, there has been a new and special danger in being identified by such gangs as a lone policeman. This is because the ever-present tensions between police and the youth of the cités have become particularly acute following the so-called Affaire Théo. On 2 February in Seine-Saint-Denis, north-east of Paris, four police officers violently attacked an innocent black man, identified only as Théo. The assault was caught on camera and allegedly involved the man’s “rape” with a telescopic baton.

The details of the case caused widespread outrage, right up to the highest level of ­government. In the banlieue, the suburbs where many young people feel excluded from mainstream French life, some felt a desire for revenge. And though their anger related to a specific incident, it was in keeping with the emotions sweeping across France, at all levels of society, in the lead-up to the first round of this year’s presidential election on 23 April.

***

France is in a state of political disarray. This much was obvious during the first live “great debate” on 20 March, organised by the television channel TF1, featuring five front-runners for the presidency.

Probably the greatest loser on the night was François Fillon of the centre-right party les Républicains, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012. Fillon has gone from being a sure favourite to outsider in the presidential contest, following allegations of dodgy financial dealings. Most damagingly, a formal judicial investigation has been launched into reports that he paid upwards of €800,000 of taxpayers’ money to his wife and other family members for jobs they didn’t actually do. Fillon, who denies any wrongdoing, has also been accused of failing to declare a €50,000 loan from a French businessman in 2013 (which he has since repaid). He held himself in check during the debate, trying to look dignified and presidential, but he has become the object of scorn from all sides, including his own.

Benoît Hamon, the candidate for the Parti Socialiste (PS), the party of the outgoing and discredited president, François Hollande, did not perform much better in the debate. Hamon identifies with the far left and green wings of the PS and favours a basic income, the legalisation of cannabis, and euthanasia. He resigned from Hollande’s government in 2014 claiming that the president had abandoned socialist values. But at every public appearance Hamon still looks surprised to be in the race. Although he has positioned himself as the “anti-Hollande” candidate – no surprise, as Hollande has the lowest polls ratings of any French president – even Hamon’s supporters concede that he has no reach outside the party faithful, and his dismal poll ratings reflect this.

In recent weeks, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a veteran left-winger and now leader of his own party, France Insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”), has surged in the polls. He has been compared to Jeremy Corbyn but is more like George Galloway, in that he can be trenchant and biting and speaks fluently without notes. Some of his views – anti-EU, anti-Nato, pro-Russia – are close to those of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National (FN). The candidate of the centre or centre-left is Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker and protégé of Hollande, under whom he served as minister of the economy, industry and digital data. Macron broke with the PS in 2016 to set himself up as an independent candidate with his new movement, En Marche! (“onward”). He presents himself as a voice of moderation and common sense. He defends the EU and the eurozone and is an unashamed liberal globaliser. But Macron is also hard to love: his enemies claim that he is self-serving, an opportunist who cannot be trusted, and, worse, that he lacks experience of high office. On television he can be vain and testy – as was the case when he came under attack from Marine Le Pen, during the TF1 debate.

In many ways, Macron was a gift to Le Pen. She accused him of being out of touch and of not knowing what he was talking about. Even non-FN supporters, who didn’t necessarily agree with her views on security and immigration, conceded that Le Pen was the most convincing speaker. As I was told by a neighbour with an impeccable PS background, it was as if she was the only politician on the night of the debate in charge of what she believed. Le Pen’s popularity increased as a consequence.

So is it now possible to think the unthinkable: that Marine Le Pen could triumph not only in the first round of the presidential election but in the second as well? If that happens, not only would she become the first female president of France but she would transform French politics and further destabilise the European Union.

***

When I put this to Jean-Pierre Legrand, the leader of the Front National in Roubaix, a town of 90,000 inhabitants in the north of France, he shook his head. He wishes Le Pen well but fears that in the second round the mainstream parties will gang up and back whoever her opponent is. “This is what always happens,” he told me. “This is why so-called French democracy is actually a form of dictatorship. You can never really get your hands on power. It belongs to an elite, people like Emmanuel Macron.”

Legrand, 69, has been a supporter of the FN for decades. He smiles a lot and can be witty, but he also likes talking tough, like the hard-headed factory boss he used to be. He admires the way Le Pen has reinvented the party, shedding some of the old-school neo-Nazi trappings. But he is also faithful to, maybe even nostalgic for, the old FN of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who reached the second round of the 2002 presidential election (he lost to the centre-right Jacques Chirac). So I asked him if he was not really a democrat but, like Le Pen père, basically a fascist. “I am not afraid of being called a fascist, or even a Gaullist,” he said. “But all I really believe in is order and authority. And that is what France needs now.”

I had come to Roubaix because it is officially the poorest town in France. It is also, according to most media reports, one of the most troubled. It’s not far from Paris – just over 90 minutes on a fast train – but when you get there it feels like a different, distant place. The train station is scruffy and there is little sense of the usual Gallic civic pride; the stroll down the main boulevard to the Grand Place is drab and quiet, unlike in most French towns.

Roubaix has a large immigrant population, mainly from North Africa but comprising more than 60 nationalities. It has a reputation as a refuge for illegal migrants making for Calais and then the UK, and as a hotbed of Islamist radicalisation. In May last year the conservative news weekly Valeurs actuelles described Roubaix as “le Molenbeek français”. The magazine was referring to the suburb of Brussels where several of the terrorists and sympathisers involved in the November 2015 attacks on Paris, which killed 130 people, including 89 at the Bataclan concert hall, grew up.

Legrand and his FN colleague Astrid Leplat offered to show me around the town, just as they had done with the writer from Valeurs actuelles. The article was criticised by the local newspaper La Voix du Nord as depicting a fantasy version of France conjured up by the FN. I was aware of this argument, but also keen to take up the offer of a tour: it was a rare chance to see an ordinary French town through the eyes of the FN.

I quite liked Roubaix. With its sooty terraced houses, empty textile mills, iron bridges and dirty canals, it reminded me of Salford in the 1970s. The town is neatly laid out even if the streets are scruffy. It is also busy with small businesses – Arabic-language bookshops, kebab houses and tea shops, as well as traditional French cafés and bistros. It looked no more menacing than Bradford or Rusholme in Manchester.

Legrand is proud of Roubaix, or at least of what Roubaix used to be, and has chosen to live here rather than in nearby Lille. Having been a blue-collar worker, too, he admires the noble ambitions and graft of the people who built the town. These were the original indépendants – the aspiring working class, much cherished by the FN, who believe in the values of hard work and public service. But Legrand told me that when he looks at the streets today he sees not the cluttered life of 21st-century, multicultural France but what he called “conquered territory”.

There are problems in Roubaix: 45 per cent of the town’s residents live below the official French poverty line of €977 a month. Describing the local poverty, Legrand used the term “misère”, a word that also translates as “wretchedness”. The unemployment rate is high (40 per cent in parts of town) and on a typical weekday afternoon there are many young men sitting around with nothing to do.

As we drove through some of the tougher areas, Legrand pointed out so-called Salafist mosques, most of them shielded from the streets by the high walls of disused factories. It is these places, unknown and unvisited by outsiders, which have given Roubaix its reputation for radicalism.

It is true that in the recent past Roubaix has produced many extremists. The most notorious is Lionel Dumont, a former soldier who is white and working class, and is viewed as the leader of radical Islam in the French prison system, where he is serving a 25-year sentence for terrorism offences that include trying to set off a car bomb during a G7 meeting in Lille in 1996. Islamists such as Dumont are, in effect, beyond the control of the penal authorities because French laws forbid the monitoring of prisoners on grounds of race or religion. One frustrated director of prisons in the Paris region complained to me that the French penal system was “the real engine room of radicalisation”.

The main reason why Roubaix has produced so many terrorists – including Mehdi Nemmouche, the gunman who fired the shots at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 that killed four people – is not immigration, as the Front National would have it, but geography. This part of France is depicted in the media as “a security black hole”, partly because of its proximity to the Belgian border. You can drive into Belgium from Roubaix in ten minutes, as I did with Legrand; the border is just a roundabout and unmonitored. The French and Belgian intelligence services are minutes away from each other but do not share information or collaborate properly. This allowed some of the terrorists who led the 2015 Paris attacks to escape after the killing spree.

***

Crossing the border to Belgium, you notice that the roads are lined with gleaming new warehouses belonging to Amazon and other technology companies. ­Roubaix suddenly seems like a ruin from the early 20th century. It must be difficult for its people not to feel trapped and abandoned – by the French elite to the south and the new economy to the north.

“If you live in Roubaix it is hard to feel connected to the rest of France,” said Hélène Robillard, a junior civil servant. I had come across her in the centre of town. She was leading a group of young women, merrily banging tambourines, blowing whistles and chanting slogans outside one of the
offices of the local council. They were striking against work conditions at the council, but having a laugh, too, in the best Made in Dagenham style.

I asked the women about the film Chez nous (This Is Our Land), which had been released only a few weeks earlier and was playing to packed houses across France. Set in a fictionalised town much like Roubaix, it tells the story of a young woman, Pauline Duhez, a nurse who is seduced into joining the FN and standing for a seat on the council. As she learns the party’s true positions, she becomes disillusioned and angry. The film ends with Pauline returning to the socialist values of her unemployed father, a former steelworker, culminating in a family trip to watch a game featuring the local football team Lens.

The women protesting with Robillard were all determinedly anti-FN. Those who had seen the film were full of enthusiasm. “It is our real life,” said one of them, laughing. “It shows our true values – not fascism, but football, beer and chips.”

Like Pauline in the film, the FN’s Astrid Leplat is a nurse. Jean-Pierre Legrand explained to me that this was why she had been hand-picked by Marine Le Pen to stand
as a regional councillor. The party has adopted a policy of recruiting fonctionnaires (civil servants), especially those who work in the health and support services. This is partly to demonstrate that the FN has left behind its neo-Nazi origins and is now the party of everyday folk, but also to undermine PS dominance of the public services.

When I asked Leplat why she supported the FN, she said that she had witnessed the disastrous effects of repeated budget cuts on hospitals, with overstretched departments and increasingly run-down facilities. “The Front National are there to protect us,” she said.

Leplat told me she hadn’t seen Chez nous and that she probably wouldn’t, because it would upset her. There were also political reasons why she didn’t want to see it: it had been financed with public money from Hauts-de-France, the northern region that covers Roubaix, as well as the television companies France 2 and France 3. When I pointed out that most French cinema relies on public subsidy, she argued that the film’s release had been deliberately timed to undermine the February launch of the FN’s presidential campaign.

“How else can this be explained?” she said. “The Front National is always persecuted by the establishment elites in culture and politics.”

***

Back in Paris, as part of a documentary I was making for BBC Radio 4, I interviewed Émilie Dequenne, the actress who plays Pauline in Chez nous, and the film’s director, Lucas Belvaux. We met at the production company’s office just off the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the swish heart of Paris – a corner of the city that couldn’t be further removed from the streets of Roubaix. But both Dequenne and Belvaux are intimately connected with the region and the northern working-class life, because they grew up near the Franco-Belgian border and still have family ties there. I asked them whether the FN had a point about the film.

“The film is not ambiguous,” Dequenne said. “It is clearly a warning about being ­seduced by the far right. But it also has lots of [different] ambiguities. The main character, Pauline, is a good person, and not stupid. She wants to help people. She thinks that this is not the case with the main pol­itical parties. So she is attracted by a party that seems to care.”

“I agree it is a warning,” Belvaux said. “We are not yet a fascist country, but I do fear that this could happen.

“There are big social and cultural divisions in France. Not everybody who will vote for the Front National is a bad person, but there are many angry people in this country who feel hurt and damaged. When this is the case, fascism can arrive much more quickly than you think.”

Until now, voting for the FN has been a sign of protest, historically a safety valve for releasing discontent. Whenever the FN has got near to victory, right and left have come together as a bloc to exclude it from power. This is what happened in 2002, of course, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the then leader of the FN, made it through to the second round of the presidential elections. Jacques Chirac won the run-off with 82 per cent of the vote, despite accusations of corruption. The rallying cry across all non-FN political lines was: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist!” Yet there is no guarantee that this will happen again, because Marine Le Pen has successfully reinvented and rebranded the FN, making it more acceptable to mainstream voters.

Even if Marine loses, there is another danger. If those French parties of the left and right which historically have been strongest continue to implode, there will be a new constituency of voters who in future will be “homeless”. Even if Macron wins – having blurred the lines between right and left – he will disappoint at some stage. When this happens, those who supported him may not find their way back to the established parties, thus opening up an avenue to power for the far right. Sylvain Bourmeau, an associate professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, told me that this was part of the Front National’s long-term strategy.

The withering of a historically strong party has already happened in the UK, where voters’ movement to Ukip and the SNP has undermined, if not destroyed, Labour as a national force. Marine Le Pen has already voiced her admiration for Ukip for “breaking the mould”. However, it is important to remember that the FN is not “populist” in the way that Ukip, or indeed Donald Trump, is. Nor are Roubaix and the north of France the same as the “rust belt” of the United States.

Rather, the present conflicts in France are ideological, with roots in the antagonisms and turmoil of French history. The FN’s ultimate goal is to get rid of the present French Republic – the result of the “mistake” of the “liberal revolution” of 1789. In other words, the promise of liberté, égalité, fraternité is to be replaced by an “awakening”, which would lead to a “national movement”: that is, the rebirth of the French nation. The FN is not just about racism, immigration or identity: it wants to send French history into reverse gear.

That is how high the stakes are, and why the coming elections are the most important in France since the Second World War. There is a generalised tension right now – the tension that I encountered on my bike on my own street in southern Paris – which sometimes finds expression in gang violence, anti-police riots and even terrorism, all fuelling the rise of the FN.

For all the polls, signs and omens, it is ­impossible to predict the election result. Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, with the old political certainties melting away, it seems more than ever that France is set on a long and unstoppable journey into darkness. L

Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada” (Granta Books). He lives in Paris. His documentary “Culture, Class and Le Pen” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 24 April (8pm)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496