had only just qualified to run for the Labour leadership when Huw Spanner met him on 19 June 2015. According to the Spectator, he is ‘a genuinely nice man, hugely liked and admired by his colleagues’. According to the Daily Telegraph, he is ‘batshit crazy’. We didn’t suppose for a minute that he was going to win.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Even the Daily Mirror describes you as ‘hard left’, which for me conjures up an image of an intractable ideologue. How would you characterise yourself?
I come from a socialist tradition. I believe in a society where everyone is valued and cared for and included, and if that makes me ‘left-wing’, so be it. On economic and peace issues, obviously I am on the left of the Labour Party; but I don’t apologise for that.
Do terms such as ‘hard-’ and ‘far-left’ make you wince?
What do they mean? I mean, who defines them? They’re an invention by those in the media that don’t want to engage in the political debate.
But you would use the term ‘far-right’, wouldn’t you?
I would use the term for somebody who holds racist or neo-Nazi views, of course, and I think that would be appropriate. But how do you describe a socialist, somebody who believes in democracy, as extreme?
On your website, there’s a picture of you sporting a Lenin cap.1This image has since been removed. Is that making a statement?
Well, you call it a ‘Lenin cap’. How about it’s just a cap?
But it’s associated with Lenin, isn’t it?
Are beards associated with Karl Marx? It’s a cap. I like wearing it. There’s a chap on Stroud Green Road who sells them for £9.
Fair enough! When did you first join the Labour Party?
When I was 16. I first campaigned in the 1964 [general] election with my mum and my dad, and I joined the Labour Party afterwards. I was very active in the Young Socialists, and also in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other peace organisations. If there was any one event that shaped and informed my views, it was the Vietnam War; but it was also issues of inequality and poverty around the world. I did a lot of stuff with War on Want as a kid.
My mum was a Bible-reading atheist – no, agnostic, probably. Her brother was a vicar, and there was quite a lot of clergy in her family. My father attended church; and the school that I went to was religious
My parents’ politics had been formed by the rise of Fascism in the 1930s, by their support for the Spanish Republic – that was, indeed, how they met. They were members of the Labour Party and CND all their lives.
What did they do for a living?
My dad was an engineer who worked for English Electric, later GEC; and my mum was a teacher. (She was also a voluntary archeologist-historian. They were both very interested in history and culture – and very keen on nature and its preservation.)
You were one of the founders of the Stop the War Coalition2www.stopwar.org.uk in 2001. Are you actually a pacifist?
I would always try to bring about a peaceful solution to any conflict, and so I opposed the Gulf War in 1991 and, obviously, [the invasions of] Afghanistan and Iraq. To say I was a pacifist would be very absolutist…
If you had been of your parents’ generation, would you have applauded the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War?
My dad wanted to join the International Brigade, but his health wouldn’t allow it. Would I have supported it? You can’t translate yourself into a different period; but had the rest of the world properly recognised and supported the Republican government in Spain, would the Second World War have happened? We’ll never know.
I do have respect for those people that were conscientious objectors in the war. Does that make me a pacifist? I can’t really answer that. I’m not sure.
What other values did your upbringing implant in you?
Respect for other people’s knowledge, whether they’re academics or not. A love of reading. My mum gave me a lot of books – indeed, I’ve got all her Left Book Club books at home.
Were there values you have consciously rejected?
Selective education. But everybody knows my views on that.
Can we talk about that? The Daily Mail has brought up the breakdown of your first marriage, in part over the issue of whether your son should go to a grammar school…
It’s a long time ago and I don’t think it’s necessary to talk about it – and it’s not fair on the three boys. They have their lives to lead and I’m very proud of them and love them very dearly. I’ve married again, but I have a perfectly good, civil and amicable relationship with my former wife.
OK. Was there any religion in your family, growing up?
Yeah, there was. My mum was a Bible-reading atheist – no, agnostic, probably. She had been brought up in a religious environment and her brother was a vicar, and there was quite a lot of clergy in her family. Going back a lot further, there is a Jewish element in the family, probably from Germany. My father was a Christian and attended church; and the school that I went to was religious – we had hymns and prayers every morning.
The school motto was ‘Serve and Obey’, I believe.
Was it? I don’t remember that but it sounds about right!
So, I did go to church as a child, yeah.
At what point did you decide that it wasn’t for you?
I’m not anti-religious at all. Not at all. And I probably go to more religious services than most people who are very strong believers. I go to churches, I go to mosques, I go to temples, I go to synagogues. I find religion very interesting. I find the power of faith very interesting. I have friends who are very strongly atheist and wouldn’t have anything to do with any faith; but I take a much more relaxed view of it. I think the faith community offers and does a great deal for people. There doesn’t have to be wars about religion, there has to be honesty about religion. We have much more in common than separates us.
Everyone thinks of you as very much an inner-London man. I was really surprised to learn that you grew up in Wiltshire and went to school in Shropshire.
Yeah, it’s a weird world, isn’t it? I grew up in the country and I end up representing the most urbanised place in the country! It makes me acutely aware of the way in which children in a high-density urban area miss out on so much of the natural world.
Do I miss rural life? Yeah, of course I do. I love cycling in the countryside when I get the chance, and I do quite a bit of that. I’ve also had an allotment for years.
You didn’t complete your social-science degree at North London Poly, is that right?
I barely started it, actually. It wasn’t for me. I used the opportunity to stay in a bedsit reading African and American history. Which wasn’t actually on the curriculum at all but I thought it was more interesting than what was on it. I knew full well it wouldn’t last.
In your twenties, you worked for a succession of trades unions…
I worked initially for the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, based in [the East End of London]. My job was essentially chasing down companies that had officially gone into liquidation owing wages and National Insurance on behalf of their employees and then reopened under a similar name in order to carry on trading. I also examined company accounts, to find out what the directors were doing, and attended negotiations with the wages council.
I met Bernard Weatherill there, who later became a Speaker of the House of Commons. He was actually very nice to me.
Wasn’t he a Tory?
Absolutely! He was a pretty high Tory, but he was a gent.
I thought I’d read that you said you couldn’t be friends with anyone who was not on the left…
I would never have said that. I can’t remember ever saying that. Somebody asked me if I’d have a relationship with somebody who was not on the left – now, that’s different. But any friend, you’re not going to agree on everything. It would be quite difficult to have any degree of friendship with somebody who holds appalling views – racist, homophobic or something like that – but with people who hold politically different views, yeah, of course. Surely, we need to have a diversity of opinion around us? It’s good for us, is it not?
You have to be prepared to engage in debate and try to change people’s perceptions. Democracy in its own convoluted way does provide the space in which serious radical reform can take place
Britain was wracked by industrial strife in the Seventies. What lessons do you think you learnt from that period?
A great deal. When I was working for the [NUTGW], we were going through a very rapid process of deindustrialisation and companies were often outsourcing work, trying to drive down wages and costs, sending stuff out to ‘outworkers’ running up garments at home on very low rates. They were also investing more and more in producing in Bangladesh or, later on, China, and we tried to negotiate with some of them about the levels of production they would do in Britain. Marks and Spencer, for example, for a long time had a policy of selling British-made products.
The [NUTGW] had grown out of the Jewish tailors’ union, which had a fascinating history. I remember reading at least the English versions of its minute books. These were guys who had come originally from Russia in the 1890s and early 1900s and then their families had gone on to be very active in the union. Benny Birnbaum and people like that – I knew them all very well.
Then, I got a job with the [Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers], working with the aircraft and motor industry. Tony Benn came to see us in ’74, just after he became Industry Secretary in [Harold Wilson’s] government, to talk about how the union could help him in preparing an Industry Bill. We did a lot of work for him, because he felt that we were a better source of information than some of the official sources.
Then we had the British Leyland crash, in the mid Seventies, and I was one of a group of people from the AUEW, the Transport & General and the other unions who drew up a plan for British Leyland, which was publicly owned, which involved a high level of industrial democracy. We put a huge amount of work into it. We had enormous meetings of car workers in Birmingham, some of whom were quite sceptical about the idea of industrial democracy – they preferred the old style, if you like. In the end, British Leyland was privatised by the Thatcher government some years later.
It was an interesting time of development of ideas and debate. Britain was going through a degree of deindustrialisation, but the reality was that we had not invested enough in manufacturing industry: there had been far too high levels of profit-taking and not enough investment in product development – they had been relying on easy markets for a very long time, in the car industry, the motorbike industry and others. It taught me a great deal and, yes, it did form my view about the role of government in planning and making sure that we had a diversity of industrial production.
I then became a full-time organiser for the National Union of Public Employees, which I enjoyed very much because it was people-to-people.
In 1983, you stood for Parliament for the first time. Why did you decide to do that?
There was a big debate about democracy in the Labour Party and Islington North’s MP, like a number of others, had joined the new Social Democratic Party in ’81. I was invited by people in the constituency to put my name forward and we had a six-month selection process and eventually I was very narrowly selected as the candidate. Then the three old Islington constituencies were merged into two and so there was another selection process, and then came the general election. I was the first and (as far as I’m aware) only person ever to defeat two sitting MPs, because both of them stood, one for the SDP, the other as an independent.
The Labour manifesto you stood on was later described by your fellow MP Gerald Kaufman as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. Do you think he had a point?
Actually, if you read that manifesto and fast forward to 2008, where was it wrong? Where was it wrong about investment banking, about regulation, about industrial investment, about housing policy? I think there was an awful lot in that manifesto that was actually very good and quite far-sighted.
The issue in that election campaign was, more than anything else, one of post-Falklands [Conflict] hysteria.
People on the left are strongly committed to ‘the will of the people’; but in the last 30 years or more the will of the people in England at least has always seemed to favour the right. How do you come to terms with that?
You have to be prepared to engage in debate and try to change people’s perceptions. You win some and you lose some; but you’ve got to be true to the democratic principle. We’re not a completely democratic society even now – no way – but if you look at the general sweep of history from the Great Reform Act in 1832, what followed within a very short time was the Factories Act, and what followed from that was free education, then a second electoral reform, then the introduction of National Insurance, then the curtailment of the powers of the House of Lords, then votes for women, then the National Health Service and the welfare state, and then eventually the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act, which I think were the two best achievements of the 1997–2010 Labour government. So, democracy in its own convoluted way does provide the space in which serious radical reform can take place.
Martin Luther King (among others) said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Do you think that’s true? Are we progressing towards a better world or do you think it’s often one step forward, two steps back?
My mother always said that the most dangerous and aggressive animal is the human being, not the wolf, not the tiger, not the shark. But we are also supremely intelligent, and real human values are about co-operation and sharing
I think we are slowly progressing. On a global level, there’s the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Latin American Human Right Accord, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and so on.
On the negative side, there is the juggernaut of global capital and the growth in power of unaccountable corporations that don’t have much regard for either national governments or democracy. I remember a very thoughtful discussion I had when I first met Tony Benn in 1970, when he was recognising the limited power of a national government to achieve its objectives vis-à-vis the global power of – in that case, it was Esso Petroleum but it could have been any number of other companies.
They are now pushing their luck with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership3aka TTIP. See, eg, the Unison briefing at bit.ly/1N9fyNz. and similar agreements, which essentially enfranchise global corporations at the expense of national governments. And it doesn’t have to be a socialist government – Australia is now being dragged through the courts by Philip Morris,4See bit.ly/1Gue9r1. and there’s nothing left-wing about Tony Abbott and his government!
I think that the growth of military alliances around the world, and especially the global expansion of Nato, is also a huge issue. These are real problem areas.
So, is it always an onward march to a better world? No. I wish it was. But socialist values and a socialist direction are something people seize on very quickly, so if you’re suffering from bad-quality housing, or you’re losing your land in India or Colombia to some global corporation, do you look to the free market for a solution or do you see that as the cause of your problems? I think the latter.
Are you fundamentally optimistic?
What is that optimism grounded in?
In the fundamental good in people, and [a belief] that you can create a society where people do feel valued, do feel involved and can make a contribution. What a waste there is in poverty! What a waste there is in illiteracy! What a waste there is in unemployment!
In 2004, you were one of only two other MPs to sign Tony Banks’s Early Day Motion,5www.parliament.uk/edm/2003-04/1255 which declared that ‘humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and look[ed] forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out[,] thus giving nature the opportunity to start again.’
I know that Banks was being droll, but it piqued my interest, because many on the right would see socialists as having much too rosy a view of human nature.
Yeah. My mother always said that the problem with the world was human beings. The most dangerous and aggressive animal is the human being, not the wolf, not the tiger, not the shark. Where was she wrong? But we are also supremely intelligent and supremely able, and real human values are about co-operation and sharing.
How do green values and red values (if I can put it that way) sit together in you? Many greens would see old-school socialists as being too focused on material goods.
Yeah, well, Lenin’s view that socialism plus electricity equals communism. Well, it doesn’t. You have to sustain the world. You cannot go on exploiting natural resources at the rate we are, destroying ecosystems at the rate we are, without paying a price. Unless we protect the natural environment, unless we ensure biodiversity, the implications are very, very serious indeed.
So, yeah, I do spend a lot of time on environmental issues. I do feel very strongly about these issues. And we can reach out to a lot of people who think this way.
The Green Party’s manifesto is in many ways a socialist manifesto –
It has become more so.
How do you see politics on the left developing?
At a local level, people who are supporters of Labour and the Green Party actually work together on a lot of issues – probably with a few Liberal Democrats as well as others, because when you’re doing local campaigns you’re not necessarily that concerned about other people’s political adherence.
Is there going to be a change in politics in the future? Yeah, I think there is, because there is quite a big movement against austerity in Britain, and quite a big movement for social justice. I think the most interesting development of the past five years or so has been the growth of organisations like UK Uncut.6www.ukuncut.org.uk Essentially, it’s a moral force: they’re saying that people should pay their taxes.
You advocated talking to Sinn Féin long before it emerged that the Government was actually doing so. You admired Nelson Mandela when much of the media was still saying he should have been hanged. You campaigned for justice for the Palestinians long before that became respectable. You opposed the ‘war on terror’ long before many other MPs saw the dangers. Do you ever get credit for being ahead of the political curve?
No – but I don’t mind. It’s not important. The cause is what’s important.
Looking back, are there major positions you’ve taken that you think have proved wrong?
Proved wrong…? I don’t think so.
[On the subject of Mandela,] there was one of those amazing days, when he came to Westminster, shortly after he’d been released, before he became president. Quite a few MPs turned up at the meeting and listened to him for a bit and then went away because they’d got other things to do. Mandela’s aide said: ‘Nelson, you can finish now. The meeting’s virtually over.’ He said: ‘I will stay as long as there are questions people want to discuss with me.’ It ended up with Tony Benn, Nelson Mandela and me sitting round a table having a chat – just the three of us.
Many people would look at the campaigns you’ve been involved in and see them as predictably ‘trendy’, ‘left-wing’ causes. Can you yourself see a common thread in them all? And why, for example, don’t you speak out on human-rights abuses in Tibet or Burma, or Zimbabwe, or Cuba?
Well, I am involved with the Tibet campaign, actually. Ditto Burma. The common thread is human rights and those values surrounding human rights. It’s a question of encouraging people if I recognise what they’re trying to achieve. MPs can’t do everything themselves – we’re not gods – but if an MP says, ‘I will support you,’ that is probably a help to the campaign.
I think the most interesting development of the past five years or so has been the growth of organisations like UK Uncut. Essentially, it’s a moral force
Most people seem to drift to the right as they get older, at least in this country. Why do you think that is, and why hasn’t it happened to you?
People drift to the right possibly because they become slightly more conservative with regard to protecting their own wealth and status, even though those might be relatively modest, and they become concerned about change and what they might see as departures into the unknown. But it doesn’t affect everybody. In the election campaign, I met a boy of 18 who was voting for the first time and a woman of 100 who had been voting ever since she’d first come to this country and both of them were extremely radical. I go to quite a lot of pensioners’ forum meetings and I meet extremely radical people. I’ve got a lot of time for them.
Given your record as a campaigner, a protester and also, it has to be said, a rebel in terms of your party,7See bit.ly/1FgnOCf. one might see you as a very effective leader of the Opposition. But do you seriously aspire to be Prime Minister one day?
I am much too old for personal ambition. I entered this contest because people asked me to. I entered it in order to put across a point of view. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be, any more than you do; but what I do know is that it has given space, legitimacy and opportunity to a lot of people who adhere to perhaps very traditional socialist values in this country and want the Labour Party to represent those values.
The response has been fascinating. Young people in particular are very interested – more than older people.
Why do you think that is?
Well, young people feel put down, often: they go to university and work very hard and then, when they leave university, they’ve got two problems: one is a debt and the second is an offer of an unpaid job. And they want something a bit better than that.
It’s up to the political system to ensure that we so run our society and our economy that they can get it, and can achieve their potential.
This edit was originally published in the July 2015 issue of Third Way.
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Jeremy Corbyn was born in Chippenham in 1949 and was educated at Adams’ Grammar School in Newport. He spent two years in Jamaica with VSO, and was then briefly enrolled at North London Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University).
He got a job as a researcher for the NUTGW in 1971, and then went to work for the AUEW. From 1975 to 1983, he worked for NUPE (now part of Unison), eventually as its national organiser.
From 1974 to 1983, he also served as a councillor in the London borough of Haringey.
He stood as Labour candidate for the safe seat of Islington North in the general election of 1983, and won with 40 per cent of the votes cast. He has held the seat at every election since, most recently with 60 per cent of the votes and a majority of 21,194. He is sponsored by Unison.
Inside Parliament, he sat on the Commons select committee on social security from 1991 to ’97. He currently chairs the all-party parliamentary groups on the Chagos Islands and Mexico and is vice-chair of the group on Latin America and a member of the groups on Bolivia, Britain-Palestine, the African Great Lakes and the Dalits. He is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs.
Outside Parliament, he served for many years on the national executive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and currently chairs the Stop the War Coalition (which he helped to set up in 2001) as well as Liberation and the Dalit Solidarity Campaign.
He is also a vice-chair of CND and a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Centre 404.
He writes a weekly column in ‘the people’s daily’, the Morning Star.
In 2013, he was awarded the Gandhi International Peace Award for his ‘consistent efforts to uphold the Gandhian values of social justice and non-violence’. He was also ‘honoured’ at the Grassroot Diplomat Initiative Awards.
He has three sons by his first marriage, which ended in 1999.
Up-to-date as at 1 July 2015