Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn MP: “Ed Miliband could have carried on”

As nominations close, Jeremy Corbyn speaks to Barbara Speed about his late bid for leadership, the failings of party democracy, and why Ed Miliband should have hung on.

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Update 12.05: Corbyn has scraped through onto the ballot with 35 nominations. We are currently updating the full list of nominations here. 

It’s always awkward to ask a politician about the possibility that they could lose. But for Jeremy Corbyn, wildcard in the Labour leadership election, failure  to make the ballot, let alone win the election proper  has stalked his bid from the beginning.

Corbyn announced his intention to stand less than a week before nominations opened, after many MPs had already tacked their colours to a mast. And as of this morning, Corbyn had only 19 of the 35 nominations required to make it onto the list, despite a last-minute appeal on Sunday for the further 11 to 13 MPs he says he needs.

Yet as we speak over Lebanese food on a sunny Friday afternoon in his north London constituency, Corbyn seems relatively at ease with the looming possibility of defeat. “If we get on the ballot, fine, we’ll carry on with the debate. If we don’t, it’s fine, as we’ve already raised the issue of austerity and will continue to push for a different economic direction for the party.”

The key word here, of course, is “we”  though it would be Corbyn’s name on the ballot paper,  he is standing with the backing of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), a socialist pressure group within the party.

Corbyn says the LRC held a meeting in the week after the election  “in which we basically discussed how things were going badly”  and then met several times more, until, the Wednesday before nominations opened, the group decided to put up a candidate to stand on an “anti-austerity programme”.

Corbyn now admits that the push could have come “much earlier”, but stands by the fact that this was always intended as a debate-opener, not a bid for personal power. “This isn’t a personality or personal ambition trick, this is about getting the debate out there.”

Corbyn has served as MP for Islington North since 1983, making him by far the longest-serving of the leadership candidates. This has raised some eyebrows  why not put forward a leftwing rising star, who could play the long game and perhaps win next time? But Corbyn’s strong record as an anti-establishment, yet well-liked, MP may well have made him a shoo-in among LRC members.

In fact, Corbyn considered standing for the deputy leadership on a similarly protest-tinged anti-war ticket back in 2006, but later withdrew. Over the years, meanwhile, he has defied the party whip a total of 238 times, and has campaigned repeatedly on nuclear disarmament, human rights, and the environment.

Within his constituency, he sits on a dizzying array of boards and charities, and says he’s attended the funeral of every victim of knife crime in the constituency since he was first elected. His constituents, meanwhile, seem either unphased or impressed by Corbyn’s radical agenda. He actually increased his voteshare in May by 6 per cent, bringing him to a cool 60 per cent of the local vote.

Corbyn’s bid for leadership, along with his voting and campaigning record, is a symbol of resistance to the idea that Labour should edge rightwards. Corbyn sees this possibility as both a betrayal of the party’s ideology, and plain bad strategy: “If we’re to defeat the cynicism of those that voted Ukip or didn’t vote, then we have to offer them something new. Me too-ism isn’t very attractive”.

While a supporter of many of Ed Miliband’s policies, he also feels that Labour’s mid-election “me too-ism” on issues like immigration let down voters. “I take my hat off to those who ran the poster campaign highlighting what immigrants have done for our country – that's what we should have been doing, rather than trying to curry favour with those who think it’s a problem.”

The economy is another point where the Tories were, Corbyn believes, allowed by Labour to dominate the narrative. He admits the party's mistake in deregulating the banks, but is unapologetic about pre-financial crash spending: “What did we spend the money on? Children’s centres, schools, hospitals. Did we destroy things? No. And yet we’ve allowed the idea that we overspent to become a fact.”

He cites the post-war era, when the Labour government had a 250 per cent debt ratio, yet invested heavily in infrastructure and public services, as proof that austerity is not the only way forward.

Miliband’s swift resignation, too, seemed a kind of capitulation: “The Conservatives only managed a majority of 12. Miliband could have carried on for three months, or even six months.” This, in turn, would have given the party more time to recalibrate prior to a leadership election, he argues. The short timeline of the leadership election is something Corbyn has publicly criticised and may go some way to explaining the lateness of his bid.

Corbyn’s reluctance to be pinned down on EU membership may well stem from similar distrust of climbing into bed with David Cameron and his party. The cross-party Yes campaign, launched last Friday, seemed a “bit rushed”, and, Corbyn believes, could alienate voters. We should not be campaigning for a Yes vote when we don’t even know what it will say. We should be making demands – saying ‘here’s what we want from it’”.

For a start, Corbyn wants a re-examination of the EU’s connection with Nato, and challenges to the power of the Central Bank. This more careful approach, he believes, could stop unsure voters from “ending up in bed with a load of xenophobes who don’t want anything to do with Europe”.

One interesting result of Corbyn’s presence in the race has been a widespread questioning of the party’s electoral mechanisms. On Friday, the Guardian ran a leader on the race, alleging that “rigid nomination rules” are forcing candidates out of the running, following Mary Creagh’s withdrawal.

Of Corbyn, the paper notes: “Few . . . would imagine [him] in No 10. But he too has a right to a place in a contest where his role could prove significant”. The leader ends by calling for MPs to endorse Corbyn.  

Yet, in a somewhat nose-cutting move, Corbyn has lashed out repeatedly at the suggestion that Andy Burham could donate supporters to him, as one way to sidestep the strict electoral rules: “I don’t want charity nominations – I want people to nominate or not on the basis that there’s a valid point to be made here. There are problems with the electoral system but that’s an issue for tomorrow, not today.”

He’s also critical of other party processes. During the election campaign, Corbyn was pushing for a policy on renting to be included in the manifesto, and says the whole process of lobbying frontbenchers made him feel “awkward”. “Where’s the democratic accountability for me doing that, and then them writing it in? Can’t we let conference decide a few things?”

Corbyn won’t be drawn on which candidate he would back if he doesn’t make the ballot, though acknowledges he’s been “name-checked by Andy Burnham quite a few times” during hustings. His hope is that his presence might have shifted the debate leftwards, and perhaps will encourage Burnham to show a more radical leftwing side.

More than anything, though, Corbyn seems determined that the party oppose, not pander, to Tory ideas, despite the blow to leftwing politics represented by 7 May. “They’re planning £12bn worth of benefits cuts. Everyone knows there are bad things coming. Do they want us to do nothing and say nothing to fight it? Or do they want us to be part of a real opposition?”

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.