Jeremy Corbyn: has there been a more emotive name in modern British politics? Maybe it’s the initials. After all, he’s not the first JC to have both a devoted following and passionate detractors. Just ask Jeremy Clarkson. And that other chap with the beard.
Since becoming Labour party leader in September 2015, political observers have been obsessed with Corbyn. They’ve built quite a picture: Comrade Corbyn; dangerous, incompetent; lover of terrorism; hater of big red buttons; a menace to society who’s going to take us back to the 1970s; bad at bowing properly; doesn’t wear a tie. The kind ones say he’s ‘principled’, but ‘not a leader’ and ‘unelectable’.
Then there’s the other side: the near-messianic status Corbyn holds among many people. No other Labour leader has ever drummed up such party membership numbers, and in two leadership elections he’s resembled Lionel Messi rocking up at your post-work five-a-side. For many, he’s the great white-haired hope against a future of unaffordable housing, a low-wage, zero-hour economy, and a slow march back to the 1870s.
With a general election looming large, its mist of mantras and awkward TV appearances darkening the skies, these extremes have been magnified. Somewhere between them, though, must lie the truth, for those who still care about such things. So here I am in Leicester – home of unlikely victories – to meet Corbyn and look beyond headlines and hem-touching. To ask him, in a nice calm conversation, why we – intelligent, reasonable, ambitious men of impeccable taste and moral fibre – should vote for him.
“Think about the opportunities you’ve got, in life and society,” says Corbyn, after spooning the froth and chocolate flakes from a cappuccino into his mouth (without getting any in his beard). “Are you happy, for example, that young people find great difficulty in getting housing?”
We’re sitting in the 6 Degrees café. I chose it because it looked nice on Facebook, but it turns out I inadvertently picked a very ‘Corbyn’ location: run by a charitable trust to fund local outreach programmes.
“Britain under the Conservatives will be a continuation of privatisation of public services, underfunding of local councils, serious underfunding of the National Health Service and social care system, and an idea that the best way to have a relationship with Europe is to shout at them.
“Are we going to go down a road of continuing to reduce the role of public services? Or is a successful society one that invests in social infrastructure? I say think very carefully. You get better economic success as a society when you have good quality public services.”
This is the first time I’ve met Corbyn, but not the first time I’ve laid eyes on him. That was in September 2015, soon after I’d moved to his Islington North constituency (to be near my beloved Arsenal FC, not JC). Corbyn had just won his first leadership election, when I saw him cycle down my road, looking every inch the history teacher (comprehensive school, of course); the leader of the opposition, on his own, with no more security than a helmet and bicycle clips. Ooh, I thought. Not long afterwards, I saw him jogging alone through Finsbury Park in his grey sweatsuit. Then at a vigil for Jo Cox. I’d see him outside Arsenal tube station, with local party members or residents. Turned out that, if you hung around the area enough, you’d see Jeremy Corbyn. The novelty wore off.
But it didn’t for British politics. He remained a novelty, a curiosity, offering an actual, visible gap between the two major parties, in terms of approach and policy. Something different. This excited many, appalled many.
And this is one of Corbyn’s great challenges: to persuade the populous at large, in a historically conservative country – during a time of fear, instability and no little tragedy – that ‘something different’ is good for them, for all of us.
“There is change happening in everybody’s lives across the industrial world,” he says. “You can do what the far-right do and turn against minorities, creating the most horrible possible atmosphere in society, or you create an economy that works for everyone. Hate is always easier to stir up. You can say to a town, ‘You’ve got a hospital waiting list, a jobs problem’, and you can turn against a minority in the town; say it’s all their fault. But you haven’t actually created any jobs or employed a nurse; you haven’t achieved anything. So you find someone else to hate. And it goes on and on and on. Our message is the opposite, to work together as a community.”
Labour’s manifesto promises such things as free childcare, free school meals, investment in small businesses and infrastructure, renationalisation of the railways, extended paternity and maternity leave, no university tuition fees, to eradicate rough sleeping, four more bank holidays. Positivity abound, no mention of tough decisions, it’s clearly the most optimistic of the manifestos. Some have, of course, labelled it unrealistic. Theresa May called it a “fantasy wish list”. The choice, according to Corbyn, is: what do you want your government to aim for?
“After the economic crash,” he says, “people are frightened of alternatives. The alternative we offer is all of us investing together to benefit everybody else. Or should we retreat to selfishness and individualism? Retreat to inequality and injustice? I know what I want.”
The problem for Labour is, while the policies are popular, polls tells us Corbyn is less so. As comedian Lloyd Langford put it during a recent episode of Radio 4’s The News Quiz, to some people, it’s like “being offered a trifle by Darth Vader”.
Part of this is the notion that he, and Labour, can’t be trusted with the economy, because they were in government at the time of the global economic crash. Corbyn counters that the Conservatives’ competence record isn’t particularly ‘strong and stable’.
“We’re the only country that claims economic recovery is going on while real-time wages are falling in the public sector,” he says. “We’ve got six million people earning less than the living wage, one million on zero-hour contracts, and some of the worst working conditions in Europe because we have a government more interested in a low-price, low-wage economy than a high-investment economy.
“What we’re proposing is an investment economy. People say it’s anti-business, but actually it’s the opposite of that. People have good ideas for manufacturing but can’t access the capital from the banks, so end up selling to a hedge fund and the manufacturing goes somewhere else. We want them to invest in manufacturing here.”
Corbyn in the flesh (and yes, he is made of flesh) is no Sith Lord. I wanted calm conversation and I’m getting it. I actually have to move my voice recorder closer to him, so soft is his speech. He’s slipped off his navy blazer and is down to his light-blue shirtsleeves. The arms in these sleeves rest either on the table in front of us or, when he leans back, across his chest, folded. Ask him a question and his eyes look away momentarily, betraying a brief pause for thought, before answering.
He’s mostly serious, with occasional outbursts of humour. He’s friendly, but not matey, even though he calls me mate. It’s a far cry from the bonhomie bomb that hit me when I interviewed Nick Clegg ahead of the 2010 election. Slickness is not Corbyn’s thing. As with his fellow north London grandee Arsene Wenger, there is a ‘teacherly’ manner about him, beyond his clothing. This might put some people off. It may also explain his popularity with younger people.
He’s drawn thousands of ‘woke’ 20- and 30-somethings to his movement. A man of pensionable age has garnered support from remarkably credible musicians like Stormzy, JME and Akala, in a less mainstream version of Tony Blair’s Britpop revolution. Indeed, grime artist Novelist once said of him, “the mandem need you”. Quite the testimony.
“Young people are hugely important,” says Corbyn. “At the last election, of under-25s, I think only 47 per cent of those registered to vote turned out to vote – and that’s of those registered. We think there are almost two million young people in Britain who aren’t registered to vote.”
While 2015 saw youthful enthusiasm surrounding the party, we all know that 2016 was lying in wait for the planet – and Labour wasn’t immune. Some Labour MPs decided that they wanted a different leader, and made their views very public. Eventually, a leadership challenge came from Owen Smith. The result was never really in doubt, but the stigma of a disunited party hasn’t washed off.
“I was elected leader of the party twice,” he says, his voice becoming a few degrees cooler. “I stood in 2015. I wasn’t expected to win – the bookies on the Seven Sisters Road gave 200-1 against. Some people made a lot of money on that. Anyway, I got elected leader, some people weren’t happy about that and there was a challenge. A year later, in another leadership election, I got even more votes, so I have a strong mandate from the party. But you have to represent everyone. I’m working with all wings of the party.”
We can’t ignore that other 2016 thing: the ‘B’ word. No, not Bowie. Corbyn jokes that he’d hold the Brexit negotiations in this café, but Brexit, of course, is no joke in this election (remember when it seemed like one in 2015? Cheers, Dave). The next government will negotiate our au revoir to the EU.
And it’s really no joke for Labour. Corbyn was widely criticised for a perceived lack of passion during the referendum (he says his approach was “remain and reform”). Now, as the Lib Dems hitch themselves to the anti-Brexit wagon and the Conservatives vacuum up Ukip supporters, Corbyn must straddle a huge divide. It’s as painful as it sounds.
“From YouGov analysis, we think about 60-65% of Labour voters in 2015 voted remain, which obviously means 35% didn’t,” he says. “We have to represent everyone, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
It also means that a lot of Labour voters will be angry with him, the party and each other.
“You can’t turn around and blame the people who voted; you recognise the concerns of those who voted to leave and the worries of those who voted to remain. It’s not simple. It’d be easy to say we’re going [to choose one side and] to ignore the rest, but we need to work for everybody. We have to have a relationship with Europe in the future: a sensible trading relationship with tariff-free access to the European market. And EU nationals must be given the right to stay here.”
If Corbyn is going to get his message across, you get the sense that he needs to bypass the press. Social media will help, but his biggest strength is what I witnessed earlier today, at Leicester Tigers’ stadium (rugby union, in case you’re wondering). There, around 1,000 people squeezed into a function room, with more in the car park, all waiting to see and hear from the man on whom they’ve pinned great hopes. Outside the room, he pressed his ear against the door, waiting for his cue to enter. He needn’t have bothered; chants of “Corbyn! Corbyn!” gave the game away.
Rugby club stewards parted the red sea as Corbyn made his way to the lectern. He may not shine at Prime Minister’s Questions or enjoy a BBC studio, but give Corbyn a crowd and the man visibly lifts. Whatever you think of what he’s saying, the delivery is impressive. I wonder why he hasn’t managed to translate these performances on to other platforms. He’s like one of those bands where people say, “Yeah, but you really need to see them live.”
It also calls into question the narrative that he’s not ‘a leader’, not ‘strong’. People like strong. Some think strong is aggression: telling the EU that you’re ‘bloody difficult’ or a willingness to consider a nuclear first strike. Corbyn, unsurprisingly, disagrees.
“What is strength?” he says. “Is it an ability to shout loudest, or is it when you stand up for the weakest against the strongest? When I hear politicians say they need to make tough decisions, that often means cuts. Strong decisions are when you say to the wealthiest and most powerful, ‘I’m really sorry, but you’re going to have to do more’, because we cannot tolerate this level of inequality in our society. Strength is when you stand up for your principles and beliefs.”
When our interview finishes, Corbyn instructs his team – and me – to tidy our dirty mugs and plates, to save the café’s staff a job. It’s that teacher thing again. After a lengthy chat and some photos with the three clearly enamoured young women working here, he leaves and I wish him luck.
The next day, Sunday, at 11am, I look out of my window, the sun burning my hungover eyes. Among the merchandise stalls and burger vans setting up for that afternoon’s game, I see Corbyn outside Arsenal station, preparing to canvas in the local area. I have two thoughts: this would have been a far more convenient location for the interview; and can I say hello while wearing shorts, a hoodie and the air of a man who slept in a brewery?
I go for it. He smiles, says hi and calls me mate again. His attention is then taken by a woman, who’s clearly in distress. She tells him about her nuisance neighbours and how they’re triggering mental health issues. He takes out a notepad and scribbles down her details, promising to be in touch.
He then leaves to knock on doors. The odds against Corbyn being prime minister are huge. But if he knocks on enough doors, tours enough towns, who knows? It still wouldn’t be the biggest shock they’ve seen in Leicester.
(Photos: Tom Barnes)