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‘I am much too old for personal ambition’

18 September 2015

Huw Spanner asks Jeremy Corbyn about ideology, religion, and a drift to the Right


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 www.jeremycorbyn.org.uk, there’s a picture of you sporting a Lenin cap. 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. . .

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.


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.


Was there any religion in your family?

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.


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 past 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.


Are you fundamentally optimistic?

Yes, absolutely.


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!


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.


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, 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. . .

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.


A longer version of this interview first appeared in Third Way in July.The November issue, containing an interview with Paul Mason, appears on 16 October. To subscribe, go to www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk.

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