I was instructed to meet Jeremy Corbyn in a café at the Royal College of General Practitioners, close to Euston Station in London. I had asked for as much time as possible with Labour’s 66-year-old man of the moment but his aides had offered “no more than half an hour”. Three weeks earlier I would probably have been granted three hours in his company. Three months ago, when Corbyn was deemed to be little more than a stubborn, if principled, relic of Benn-era Labour politics, he would have been an unlikely candidate for a New Statesman interview, so predictable seemed his oppositionism and so complete his irrelevance.
But now, with the Labour Party traumatised by election defeat and “Corbynmania” gripping the left, the Islington North MP is inundated with requests for media interviews. Even his closest aides accept he could win the Labour leadership, having begun the contest merely content that their man had secured the necessary 35 MPs’ nominations to make it through to the final four.
“Things have gone crazy,” said a breathless member of his campaign team, which is being funded by Unite and other unions. “We weren’t able to give any time to the Financial Times and we could only give the Mirror five minutes on the phone.”
In the event, Corbyn, a veteran of the Stop the War Coalition, the anti-apartheid struggle and CND, arrives 30 minutes late for our meeting. With him is Simon Fletcher, a former chief of staff for Ken Livingstone who also worked for Ed Miliband as a go-between with the unions. Fletcher is an old friend of the New Statesman and I assent when he asks to sit in on the interview, which ends up lasting 14 minutes longer than expected, before Corbyn is hurried away to catch a train to Bristol. (He actually missed his train because, as I learn later, he was mobbed at Euston by young fans wanting to have selfies taken with him. Such are the perils of being the flag-carrier for the radical left in Labour’s excessively protracted and increasingly bizarre leadership contest.)
We meet two days after a YouGov poll for the Times has confirmed what we had reported on our Staggers blog: that Corbyn, who began as the 100-1 outsider, leads the contest to be the next leader of the Labour Party. “I’m really enjoying it,” he says as he orders a mid-afternoon cappuccino. “Who wouldn’t enjoy it? It’s fascinating, the latent thirst that was out there for serious debate and serious politics.”
He pauses. “Oh, look, there I am in black and white.” He glances at a wall-mounted television screen on which a report about him is being broadcast on one of the news channels. I peer at Corbyn and then at Corbyn peering at himself on the screen – and the effect is disorienting, as if I have stumbled into some kind of parallel world in which this survivor from Labour’s most bitter conflicts in the Eighties has re-emerged as a serious leadership contender. But this is no hoax: it’s really happening – and in and to a Labour Party that seems to have lost all confidence and sense of purpose, having endured the disastrous leadership of Ed Miliband, and been routed in Scotland and defeated in England.
There is nothing smug or triumphalist in Corbyn’s manner. He is quietly spoken and, unlike other leftist renegades such as George Galloway or Ken Livingstone, unshowy. He is wearing an open-necked white shirt (beneath which is visible a thin-rimmed vest of the kind my paternal grandfather, a London bus driver, used to wear, even on the warmest days, under his stiff-collared, starched shirts) with one of his trademark beige canvas jackets. His grey hair and beard are clipped short. He looks pale and tired and has a heavy cold, which has deepened his voice. He resembles nothing so much as a red-brick sociology lecturer, circa 1978.
Because of his cold, I ask if the campaign is becoming too much for him. “Not at all,” he says. “I have put the case for anti-austerity economics. I’ve put the case for the kind of anti-Trident peace view of the world and I’ve put the case for Labour being a bigger, more community-based party, and it’s been very interesting the discussion we’ve had at the forums – sorry, the hustings.”
Most of the hustings have been oversubscribed and after each one Corbyn holds his own, separate event. “We went to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival [in Dorset] on Sunday after the London hustings and I wasn’t part of the main stage because the TUC are strictly neutral on this. But after the festival had finished we had our own event outside the Unison tent and we had 3,000 people there.”
Among his many ardent supporters is Richard Burgon, who was elected MP for Leeds East in May. “I was one of the first MPs to nominate him and I’m proud to have done so,” Burgon told me. “Jeremy has enthused tens of thousands of people who were sick and tired of the same old, same old Westminster bubble politics.”
Burgon denied that the Labour intake of 2015 is more left-wing than its predecessors. “There are a range of views among the new MPs. What I would say, though, is that most of us aren’t in thrall to outdated Blairism.” Corbyn, he said, is “not the favourite to win but he can win”. “It’s all to play for. The political establishment and parts of the media are out to get him. They don’t want people to opt for real change.”
Jeremy Corbyn was born in 1949 in Chippenham, Wiltshire, and attended Adams’ Grammar School in Shropshire, followed by North London Polytechnic, from which he dropped out, never completing a degree. His parents – his father was an electrical engineer and his mother a maths teacher – were both peace campaigners, as their son would become, too. Corbyn has at various times worked as a journalist, teacher, union official and councillor. In many ways he conforms to a north London leftist stereotype: ascetic and parsimonious, he is a vegetarian, does not drink alcohol, has his own allotment and does not own a car. His brother, Piers, is a controversial weather forecaster and climate-change denier. Corbyn has been married three times – his present wife is a Mexican, Laura Alvarez, who imports fair-trade coffee – and it has been widely reported that his second marriage ended because his then wife wanted to send one of their three sons to a selective grammar school, as indeed she eventually did. The truth, I was told, was more complicated, as marriage break-ups inevitably are.
How seriously should one take the Corbyn surge? There is certainly much enthusiasm for his uncompromising socialism among the young – “the more we hear about Jeremy Corbyn . . . the more people seem to like him”, wrote the NS blogger Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett – and among many former Labour supporters who became disaffected with the party during the Blair years. “Today,” another New Statesman contributor wrote to me, “I paid money over to Labour for the first time since I was a party member in the early Nineties. Why? Because Jeremy Corbyn has given me hope that the party can return to its roots.”
But which roots are these? From its earliest beginnings, Labour has been an uneasy coalition of socialists and social democrats, of radicals and pragmatists, of workers and professors. It has always sought accommodation with rather than aspiring to replace capitalism. Yet, along the way, there have inevitably been ruptures and splits. In 1951 Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman resigned from the Attlee government because they wanted the party to “Keep Left”.
But how left does left need to be?
A serial rebel, Jeremy Corbyn has spent much of his long career since he was elected to the Commons in 1983 defying the party whip. Throughout the Eighties he was close to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in Sinn Fein; and, as a vigorous opponent of what he calls “Israel’s occupation policies”, he has nurtured alliances with the Islamist terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah. “Look, you don’t make peace unless you talk to everybody,” he says now.
He supports the abolition of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent (“nuclear weapons are immoral”) as well as withdrawal from Nato (“I’d rather we weren’t in it”) – issues that contributed to the Labour split in 1981. A hard Eurosceptic, he told me he had not “closed his mind” to Brexit – so I was slightly surprised to read on 29 July that he had issued a statement arguing that Britons should not “walk away” but “fight together for a better Europe”.
“Taken slightly historically, the turning point in the EU was actually the Single European Act, the Thatcher/Maastricht-era stuff, which was turning the EU into very much a market system,” he says. “Setting up an independent European Central Bank, which then promotes the euro, and I think the sheer brutality of the way they’ve treated Greece, makes me question an awful lot. The other side of it is, I think, that Labour should be making demands about working arrangements across Europe, about levels of corporate taxation across Europe. There has to be agreement on environmental regulation . . . Why are we leaving it all to [David] Cameron, to put together a statement, when he’s had no negotiations with anybody?”
He returns to the plight of Greece. “Look at it another way: if we allow unaccountable forces to destroy an economy like Greece, when all that bailout money isn’t going to the Greek people, it’s going to various banks all across Europe, then I think we need to think very, very carefully about what role they [the EU] are playing and what role we are playing in that.”
He is a republican, but abolition of the monarchy can wait, because “my priority is social justice”. He supports the removal of the charitable status of independent, fee-paying schools (“I’m not saying we’re going to get rid of them straight away”) and he would force state-funded academies and free schools to return to local authority control (“I would bring them back into the orbit of local education authorities”).
Corbyn knows what he knows and has known it for as long as he’s been in politics: he articulates his strident positions without stridency but also without compromise, and he seems comfortable in his own skin as Ed Miliband never did.
Miliband’s public performances were invariably tortured, as he triangulated and equivocated. For whatever reason, he never successfully reconciled the radicalism of his rhetoric about “predator capitalism” with the incrementalism of his retail policies; his cerebral style of book-learned Hampstead socialism with the pragmatic need to convince the electorate that he and his party could be trusted to run the economy more efficiently and effectively than the Tories.
By contrast, Corbyn is an unembarrassed advocate of big-state socialism – high taxes on business and the rich, public ownership of the railways and essential utilities, strict regulation of markets, the abolition of tuition fees, a benign, non-interventionist foreign policy and so on – and is happy to speak of the influence of Marx on his political thought.
As you listen to him, it can all seem so gloriously uncomplicated, as if socialism in one country were eminently achievable, even in age of integrated global capitalism. It’s hard not to respect his conviction and candour even if you disagree with his policies. His zeal and confidence contrast markedly with the caution of Yvette Cooper and the opportunism of Andy Burnham, who this past week joined in the chorus of Labour self-flagellation by announcing that the party today would never have been able to establish a national health service.
The changes to the rules under which Labour elects a leader – implemented by Ed Miliband as part of a new settlement with the unions to diminish the power of the block vote – means that anyone who registers as a supporter and pays £3 has a vote in the leadership contest. Under the revised rules, which have reduced the role and influence of MPs, the party has made itself vulnerable to entryism and outside manipulation. Unite, which supports and funds Corbyn, is also working assiduously, using phone banks to encourage its members to register as “affiliated” supporters so that they can vote in the contest – for Corbyn, no doubt. Leading members of the shadow cabinet such as Chuka Umunna have said that they would not serve under Corbyn. Meanwhile, the Tories are sitting back and watching all of this unfold with ill-concealed delight. Labour has not felt this divided since the early Eighties, when moderates from the right of the party broke away to form the SDP.
The radical left likes to convince itself that Labour lost in 2015 because it was not sufficiently socialist, as if the people of England are yearning for a more egalitarian society, if only the right leader would emerge. Yes, 50 per cent of Scots voted in May for the SNP, which positioned itself to the left of Labour and won 56 of the 59 Westminster seats; but Scotland, in the grip of nationalist fervour, has become an altogether different country from England, which is why so many Scots want to end the Union.
So, how does Corbyn propose to win in southern England and the Home Counties? I remind him that, south of the metaphorical Severn-Wash line, excluding London, Labour holds 11 out of 197 seats. But he says: “Let’s erase the line for a moment and talk about the whole of Britain, where 36 per cent of the electorate didn’t vote . . . the registration system mitigates against young people registering. And so I think we have to think in terms of the disillusioned who didn’t vote. We can grow the electorate: the Obama strategy, actually, that’s a lot of what Obama did.
“Secondly, is it wrong to appeal to everyone and say, ‘Actually, your society and your interests are better served if we have a fully comprehensive wraparound health and adult social-care service, if we have a comprehensive benefits system that doesn’t subsidise low wages and high rent; but instead, we do something about both of those things,’ and that we have a strategy which actually removes the worst vestiges of poverty in Britain? I don’t know about you. You travel around a lot, I’m sure, as I do, it’s absolutely – I’ll put this in black and white now – it’s absolutely disgusting, the level of serious poverty in Britain.”
I ask Corbyn if he is serious about winning. He smiles. “We’re doing this as a serious point, and it’s a serious operation and it’s going very well. I’m putting forward a different economic agenda. And my strong view is that we lost in 2015 particularly, but also in 2010, because essentially we were offering people slightly less hardship than the other side was offering people. It wasn’t very attractive to a lot of Labour voters. Compounded by the vote on the welfare bill, this has put Labour on the wrong side of the feelings not just of the people on benefits or who might be on benefits but a lot of other people who think, ‘Actually, there’s a lot of poverty in our society, which the Labour Party should be concerned about.’”
Does he fear the party could split if he won the leadership, especially as he would have to command the kind of loyalty from colleagues that he has never shown?
“Well, loyalty is about the party and the movement . . . if you want a better and more effective party, we’ve got to open ourselves up much more to our membership and our supporters. And that is what has happened in this election. It’s much more open than any previous contest . . . I think a lot of the people who have joined the party since the election – I’ve met a lot of them – are anti-austerity. They’re people who have joined to do something. Maybe they saw also that the other, very small left parties like Respect and Left Unity just didn’t get anywhere.”
How would he feel about being leader of the opposition? Would he have the stamina to take on David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, week after week?
“I’ve got lots of stamina, don’t worry about that. I cycle every day – it’s OK.”
He wouldn’t win and then resign? “Why would I do that? Who says that? There have been some amazing statements that have come out about me in the past few days. Apparently people know what’s going on in my mind so I don’t need to think any more. I just read the papers.
“Listen, if we win this election, we’re in it for the long run.”
So he’d fight the general election in 2020?
“Well, let’s take one thing at a time. We haven’t been elected yet. We might not be. But I hope the party would want to hold together and I’m sure it would. I hope the party would recognise that the most democratic election we have held has produced an important result and has mobilised more importantly a very large number of people. I’ve never seen so many people at Labour Party meetings.”
We digress briefly to discuss George Galloway of the Respect Party. In March 2012, when Galloway won Bradford West in a by-election from Labour, Corbyn tweeted his support for his old friend even though he had defeated a Labour MP – but now he says they are no longer close. “No doubt George and I will come across each other somewhere . . . I thought the tactics he used against our candidate [Naz Shah, who won Bradford West back for Labour in May] were appalling. I was quite shocked; it was appalling.”
Simon Fletcher interjects. Our time is up and Jeremy Corbyn has a train to catch. Before departing, he says: “I have an issue with the New Statesman. In 1968, when
I was living in Jamaica, I sent a poem to the Statesman for publication. I never heard anything for months – and then it was eventually rejected.”
Would he like me to publish the poem, I ask?
“Yes, I would,” Corbyn says. He seems pleased and his shrewd eyes brighten.
Fletcher intervenes. “We’d better see what’s in it first,” he says, and then, gesturing towards the street, he leads his man away. On the nearby television screen, a clip from a recent Labour leadership hustings is being replayed. The camera closes in on Corbyn as he gestures and expounds. He seems suddenly everywhere – an unspun, pre-internet politician who has become an unlikely icon of the social media age, an inspiration to the idealistic young, nothing less than the man who would be leader of the British left. But here’s the question: can the surge last?
Q&A: Scotland, Israel and WikiLeaks
Jason Cowley Your favourite Tory MP?
Jeremy Corbyn Well, there have been a lot of them. The most amusing is Peter Tapsell. He was just totally historic. He said he had been in parliament so long, he kind of knew it all. I mean, I’ve obviously known a very large number of them. Often extremely patriarchal, right-wing Tories.
NS And favourite Labour MP?
JC Over the years? Well, it would have to be Tony Benn. Because he was an original thinker, and also I think very bravely published his diaries, which showed his developing original thought. And yeah, he got the most amazing attacks and was ridiculed throughout his life but ended up a much-loved, old-school institution. Tony was a legend, in many, many ways.
NS The historical figure you most admire?
JC In Britain or anywhere? That’s a very tough question. Well, there are so many. I think in English history a very interesting character is John Lilburne. Very interesting character, because of the way he managed to develop the whole debate about the English civil war into something very different. And there is a report that I can’t find any proof of one way or the other, that in late 1648 he had a three-day parley with Cromwell at the Nag’s Head in Islington. I can’t find the record of it. But I wish I could get it. Then I could get a plaque put up for it.
NS Is there a historical figure you most identify with?
JC The historical figure that I would seek to identify with is probably Salvador Allende, because I think he was a very interesting guy in many ways. Very thoughtful, deep man.
NS Did you meet him?
JC No, no. I’ve met many people in Chile but unfortunately not him. He was brought down by the CIA, with the help of the British.
NS Do you support Scottish independence?
JC I think they’ve got the right to a referendum if they want one. I would be much happier if they had their autonomy in the way they’ve got it now.
NS Do you still support Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks fame? Do you still think he’s “imprisoned” in the Ecuadorean embassy in London?
JC He’s taken himself into the embassy because he felt that, had he been taken back to Sweden, he would be taken forcibly to the US. The Swedish are unclear about what would happen to him in Sweden. I think it would be much better if the Swedish authorities investigated the case against him, decided whether there was a case for a prosecution or not, and dealt with it that way, while guaranteeing that under no circumstances would he be extradited to the US.
NS Would you abolish the charitable status of public schools?
JC I would look at that, yes. It’s very difficult to do, and I’m not into saying we’re going to get rid of them all straight away. I want to empower local education authorities much more. I’m actually more worried about the role of free schools and academies, which are largely unaccountable.
NS Are you worried about entryism from the far left?
JC I would want the registered supporters to become party members. I am of the view that we should lower the membership fee and increase the membership.
NS Would you abolish the monarchy?
JC Listen, I am at heart, as you very well know, a republican. But it’s not the fight I’m going to fight: it’s not the fight I’m interested in. I’m much more interested in rebalancing our society, dealing with the problems, protecting the environment.
NS Do you regret seeking to build alliances with Hezbollah and Hamas and other terror groups?
JC Look, you don’t make peace unless you talk to everybody . . . There has to be a conversation. Over Hezbollah and Hamas, yes, I’ve met [the Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal. I’ve met people from all these groups, actually, with a number of other people; Tony Blair has [too].
NS Do you support Israel’s right to exist?
This article appears in the 06 Aug 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double