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26 June 2024

Jeremy Corbyn’s last stand

In Islington North, the veteran agitator is in battle against the party he once led.

By Oliver Eagleton

It takes time to walk anywhere with Jeremy Corbyn. As we set off on the campaign trail one afternoon in Islington North – where he is standing as an independent against Labour, the party he once led – he was stopped immediately outside Finsbury Park Mosque by a group of men who shook his hand and asked for selfies. He knocked on a door off Seven Sisters Road and disappeared inside for several minutes before emerging to take a photo with the family in the front garden. Their neighbour beckoned him over with a question about the NHS. Back on the street, some passers-by solicited his predictions about the Premier League. More selfies. A large group of 20-somethings outside a pub across the road raised their pints to him. He shouted back, “Register to vote!” After ten paces he stopped again to chat to a council worker clearing rubbish from the gutters. When we eventually returned to base camp, who was waiting to greet him but the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, fresh off the plane from Athens, brandishing a sign that said “Vote Corbyn”.

This reception reflects Corbyn’s peculiar political status, as an MP who has been rooted in his constituency for more than 40 years, yet has also become a major national figure – more famous than Keir Starmer and Liz Truss, according to the latest polls – and a symbol of the left-populist movement that rose and receded in the West over the past decade. The memory of this insurgency remains potent despite its electoral wipeout in 2019. Keir Starmer, on the cusp of Downing Street, wants nothing more than to erase that unruly legacy.

For this reason, the battle for Islington North was never going to be a purely local one, although buses and parks loom large in the campaign literature. It is also a test of the current leader’s attempt to toxify his predecessor – and the extent to which the promise of the Corbyn years can persist under a Starmer administration. It may even be a referendum on whether Corbynism was the start of a political process or the end of one.

The stakes are clear to Corbyn himself, who, at 75, remains tenacious. Over the past year he has launched a campaign to save local music venues, co-edited a poetry anthology with the former Unite leader Len McCluskey, drafted most of a political memoir and spearheaded the Palestine solidarity movement, as well as preparing to contest his seat. We spoke over a coffee in his campaign office – a makeshift arrangement of desks on the top floor of a ghostly retail centre – not long after a YouGov survey described the race for Islington North as a “toss-up”.

Corbyn told me his aim is to advance an alternative to the calcified consensus in Westminster. “This is a strange and sad general election,” he said, “because the manifestos of both parties seem to accept an economic orthodoxy: a continuation of the existing tax structures, a continuation of austerity.” His constituency, though caricatured as a liberal Arcadia, has suffered acutely from such policies: “45 per cent of our children are in some degree of poverty; 40 per cent of the population live in housing association or council accommodation. Meanwhile, side-by-side, you see extraordinary levels of personal wealth.”

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“If the incoming Labour government were to go much further than it’s indicated,” he continued, “if it were to end the two-child benefit cap and take water, energy, rail and mail into public ownership, then I’d support that. But I fear they’ll change very little, and instead go down the disastrous route of private finance initiatives. In that case I will be their number one critic. I will be a voice of opposition.”

I asked how the campaign was going. “Three weeks ago we had almost nothing. Now we have a massive, well-organised operation. People who live locally, and who weren’t previously politically active, are turning out to volunteer in a way I’ve never seen before in any election.” The difficulty lies in taking on the Starmerite machine. “We have no data… Less than a half an hour after I announced I was running, I got basically a one-line email saying I’ve been expelled. And local party officers bizarrely got an email saying that Jeremy Corbyn must not be allowed in or near any Labour Party event or function, as if I was some sort of dangerous criminal at large.”

Corbyn pointed out that during the selection process the local Labour Party was given a shortlist of two candidates, later whittled down to one, on which it was not even allowed to vote. Thus was Praful Nargund, an Islington councillor and private healthcare businessman, imposed as Corbyn’s challenger. A video soon surfaced online in which Nargund, speaking at a health symposium in 2015, says that “the privatisation of the NHS is very, very important”. Since then, he has refused to debate the incumbent at multiple hustings events. Nargund agreed to speak to me by phone, although he limited our conversation to five minutes and his staffers requested a “heads-up re the line of questioning” beforehand. I asked him why he’s running for parliament.

“Because I’ve been a local activist and councillor in the community. I’ve seen the harm the Tories have done to Islington, and I want to make sure that Islington North is part of the change of a Labour government, is not on the outside for another five years but is right at the heart of that Labour government with a seat at the table.”

He defended private-sector involvement in the health service. “I grew up in an NHS family. My family came to this country to work in the NHS as junior doctors, and they worked under Tory NHSs, and our lives were transformed after 1997, with record investment and better outcomes for patients… I worked in IVF, which is not universally funded or universally provided by the NHS, so in our case we were focused on reducing the cost of treatment and reducing the physical burden on women.”

Does this mean more privatisation is the answer? “I fully believe in an NHS free at the point of use,” Nargund insisted, “and Labour’s priority is to get the waiting lists down so we can get the NHS back on its feet.”

Why, if he was unashamed of this position, had he turned down invitations to hustings? Shouldn’t his potential constituents be able to question him on his platform? “They have been, in record numbers. We have organised the biggest campaign that Islington North Labour Party has ever seen, with hundreds of Islington North Labour Party members out on the doors every single day of the week…  It’s a snap election. There isn’t a lot of time. Regrettably I’ve had to send apologies, because my priority has been to speak to as many people as possible in Islington North.”

Given how Labour has treated its aspiring left-wing candidates – even those, like Faiza Shaheen, who have gone out of their way to placate the leadership – I wanted to know whether Corbyn thinks they should have broken ranks sooner. Wouldn’t this have given the independent campaigns springing up across the country a greater chance of success? Corbyn recognised the argument, but said he understood why many of his comrades were reluctant to leave. “The Labour Party has always occupied a particular cultural place. I’ve been in it since I was a teenager, and I’ve had my ups and downs. But it is a place where you make many friends and it becomes your social milieu. That is now being broken up, which is counterproductive in the long run.”

As the Labour he once knew is hollowed out, so too is the Conservative Party: an organisation that “pervaded everything” in the Shropshire town where Corbyn grew up. With its presence in civil society receding, there is a clear contender to take its place: Faragism. “This could be the equivalent of the 1910s,” he warned, “the moment that George Dangerfield described in The Strange Death of Liberal England. The Reform party is a different kettle of fish to the Conservatives. It’s extremely dangerous.”

Amid this nationwide shift to the right, the parliamentary left has scant influence. A Corbyn victory might make the incoming prime minister wince, but it would do little to change this structural fact. If elected, would Corbyn consider forming an alliance with other socialist politicians to increase their leverage? “I’m sure there will be informal alliances around issues like the two-child benefit cap and Gaza. I’ll work with the SNP, Plaid, Galloway, the Lib Dems and with Labour MPs, though they might be nervous initially. And we’ll be helped by pressure from outside parliament. There might not be much pressure right now. But in one or two years’ time it will be very great indeed.”

I pressed Corbyn on what form that pressure might take; in particular, whether it should focus on transforming the uniquely unaccountable institutions of the British state. With both parties committed to using authoritarian legislation such as the Public Order Act 2022, should the left renew itself by fighting for genuine democracy, including proportional representation (PR)? He responded with a detailed anatomy of the Commons: its uneven distribution of power, its lack of scrutiny over the executive, the distortions of first-past-the-post. His preference would be for democratic decentralisation, plus an elected second chamber and a form of PR that would combine constituency MPs with an additional member system. What’s needed is to “fundamentally change the constitution, as Tony Benn tried to do with the Commonwealth of Britain Bill”.

But who are the inheritors of Bennism? Andy Beckett’s recent account of the 1968 generation in The Searchers – featuring pen portraits of Benn, Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Ken Livingstone – suggests that it has few contemporary analogues. “Why is Andy Beckett so bothered about age?” Corbyn laughed. “People sometimes have a rose-tinted view of the past. They look back and say, ‘Oh god, those Bevanite Brains Trusts were fantastic, weren’t they? The Tribune Group was brilliant, wasn’t it?’ Well, I think there have always been a very large number of people in Britain who are socialists, even if they don’t all realise it. And there still are.”

This gets to the heart of Corbyn’s unlikely optimism. Exiled from the party, smeared by the media and fighting a knife-edge campaign to keep his seat, he is sustained by the fact that, as he put it, “The repressive free-market right cannot deliver for ordinary people, so there will have to be an alternative.” When he can no longer represent that alternative, someone else will.

As our conversation moved from the fate of Islington North to the fortunes of the global left, it seemed appropriate to ask for his reflections on the left’s “populist moment” of the 2010s. All the major electoral revolts of that era – in the UK, US, Spain, Italy, France and Greece – have been defeated to differing degrees. What was his general explanation?

Corbyn, as much an internationalist as a localist, rejected the narrow scope of the question. “Look at some of the recent elections around the world,” he replied. Finland moved to the left in the European Parliament vote. France’s new “popular front” is fighting an energetic campaign against the far right in the forthcoming legislative election, while Emmanuel Macron trails behind. “In India, Modi has lost his overall majority and has to contend with a rejuvenated left. The Workers’ Party is back in power in Brazil and [President Gustavo] Petro has changed the political landscape in Colombia. In Mexico, there was a much bigger majority for [Claudia] Sheinbaum than anyone predicted. She has a massive mandate for social change.”

Digressing, Corbyn told me he looks forward to attending Sheinbaum’s inauguration in October – “nobody throws a party like they do in Mexico”. “What all this shows,” he said, “is that when people unite on the broad issues of social justice they can still win. We see this spirit in the enormous number of people that have demonstrated over Gaza. People must remember that and learn from it.”

We ended the interview as various staffers who had been trying to draft a tweet to promote the next day’s canvassing session vied for the candidate’s attention. They believe the outcome in Islington North hinges on how many people they can mobilise. Corbyn himself claimed it’s impossible to predict. As I was about to leave, he was struck by a final thought: “By the way, I sent the New Statesman a poem of mine in 1968. The first line was, ‘Today the flood tide of human advance began with the burning of the gold exchange in South Africa and the lifting of cobblestones in Paris.’ They rejected it. I’ve been upset with them ever since.”

[See also: Does Jeremy Corbyn inspire enough loyalty to win Islington North?]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine