Jeremy Corbyn isn't going anywhere

Jeremy Corbyn isn't going anywhere

“I was elected to do a job" – The veteran MP talks Labour leadership, Parliament, the left and the future in a wide-ranging interview with Ben Smoke.

Jeremy Corbyn’s staff are getting antsy.

It’s the end of January and the former leader of the Labour Party has just finished addressing a packed out rally in his constituency of Islington North. Jointly organised by Islington Trades Council and Corbyn’s own Peace and Justice Project, the event comes ahead of a month of historic industrial action by teachers, rail staff, NHS staff and more. The room is hot. The air dense after two hours of speeches and applause. Jeremy sits next to the stage, resting his head on his hand thoughtfully as a striking bus driver addresses the room.

“I’ve tried to get him to leave, but he wants to listen to all the speakers,” one of his staff members tells me, exasperation laced with acceptance. If you can say nothing else of Jeremy Corbyn, you cannot deny that the man loves a rally. A crowd begins to form around him as the speeches wrap up. “If he misses the vote…” his comms manager exhales.

The rally changed focus somewhat after the announcement of the Government’s Minimum Service Levels Bill, which gives the Secretary of State wide ranging powers to prevent specific named workers from striking. Ostensibly this is to ensure minimum levels of service in sectors like health, transport and education, but it bears particular resemblance to the policies implemented by the Italian fascist dictator Mussolini during the 30s and 40s. Earlier in the evening Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT, had told those gathered that the legislation is nothing short of “the conscription of labour.” The rally happened to fall on the evening of the third reading of the rushed legislation, and Corbyn’s staff are very keen that he gets back to Parliament to vote against it. 

It’s a good 30 minutes before Corbyn leaves, having spoken to every person who waited, a tranche of leaflets stuffed in his hands (“He’ll read every single one!”). There’s a sparkle in his eye as he wishes his now very stressed comms manager a good evening before disappearing into the night.

The next evening, we meet at the Finsbury Park headquarters of the Peace and Justice Project, a few streets over from Corbyn’s constituency office and roughly 10 minutes from his beloved Arsenal. “And you made the vote ok?” I ask. “Well, it’s a journey I’ve done once or twice,” the veteran MP replies, that same sparkle from the night before in his eyes. “It’s all about your positioning. From here you need to walk all the way to the end of the platform to be at the Jubilee line entrance. Then once you’re on the Jubilee platform, you need to walk about 15 metres down to be at the exit once you get to Westminster.” The Corbyn Method™, he assures me, will take me from Finsbury Park to Parliament in exactly 23 and a half minutes. 

Talk quickly moves to Parliament, where the Minimum Service Levels Bill passed with 315 votes to 246. “Grant Shapps [who spearheaded the bill] is, in a sense, legislating for a problem that doesn’t exist,” Corbyn explains. Before entering Parliament, the veteran MP worked for trade unions, spending innumerable hours on picket lines with striking workers – including the most recent round of historic strike action. He stresses that, back then as now, unions always worked with hospitals to ensure a basic level of care was provided to those who needed it. At a picket of ambulance workers he attended in late January, those on strike had one ear on the radio throughout, jumping to action to help those in need of critical care.

Corbyn joined the Labour party in 1965 when he was 16. During his school years, he spent time organising for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, against the war in Vietnam, as well as various other socialist causes. When he left school, famously with two E’s at A level, he travelled around Latin America. It was there, attending student demonstrations in Brasil and Chile, that he witnessed the transformative power of people first hand.

“The anti-strike legislation is just a power grab by the Secretary of State, and he’ll have enormous power,” Corbyn says, comparing it to the actions of Henry VIII. “I always talk about Henry VIII,” he admits, “I think that’s to get the interest of Jacob Rees-Mogg, as he gets excited about anything Tudor or earlier.” A smile curls the edges of his lips as he adds: “It’s a period of time he relates to, so he can feel part of it.”

It’s fair to say that Parliament has not been a place of progress of late. The Minimum Service Level Bill is just one in a series of legislative moves that have dramatically rolled back rights. From last year’s Policing Act to the Public Order Bill, the Illegal Migration Bill to the proposed British Bill of Rights, alongside a whole raft of other draconian policies, it’s a dark time in British history. With Keir Starmer’s Labour Party offering only milquetoast opposition against a huge Conservative majority, Westminster is not the place to find hope for a brighter future. 

“There’s always a weird contrast between going to an event in my constituency, which is full of people with hope, with ideas and optimism, who are determined to do something good,” Corbyn muses. “And then going into Parliament, which is deeply cynical and self-satisfied.”

The spectre of Jeremy Corbyn looms large in Parliament. By his own admission, he lives “rent free” in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s head. He is consistently cast as the boogey man. The most dangerous man in Britain. A threat to the very foundations of our society. In truth, he is none of those things. Throughout our hour long chat, we amble through a whole host of topics – from the need for decent education, homes and security. They should be inoffensive. Common sense. And yet, as Corbyn tells me, “sometimes the most simple and basic demands are the most controversial.”

“Look at the Peasants’ Revolt, look at the Chartists. What was it that John Ball was condemned for?” he asks before repeating the 14th century English priest’s famous adage. “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’”

“The couple were working,” he continues, “And in asking who was the gentleman, Ball was actually saying very basic truths about inequality, in which you had a gentleman doing absolutely sod all but owning the land and coining in the rents and you’ve got the others all working. He just asked a very basic question. I just asked a few basic questions, and people didn’t want to come up with the answers.”

For years Corbyn has been asking the same questions that many now find themselves asking every day. Questions such as: why aren’t people paid a fair wage? Where is the affordable housing? Why are bosses profiting whilst communities suffer? How can we take care of the most vulnerable people in our society? And, for a time, he was in the unexpected position of being able to offer some answers to those questions at a Governmental level. When asked by Lewis Goodall on The News Agents podcast what he had planned to say on the steps in Downing Street had he won in December 2019, Corbyn replied: “Today rough sleeping ends. There will be no more homeless people in this country.”

When posted to Twitter, the clip was met with a chorus of people picking holes in the policy. Explaining why it couldn’t work, or why it wasn’t realistic. It was just a small insight into the kind of pushback a Corbyn Government might have faced as they grappled with seismic social, economic and international issues. 

“I recognised that an incoming Labour government would face huge problems immediately,” he recollects, his calm tone at odds with the gravity of what he was saying. “One would be the role of the City of London, on investment and value, the pound exchange rate, which obviously has a huge effect immediately on food prices and everything else. So [former Shadow Chancellor] John McDonnell spent a lot of time gaming that out, what would happen and how we would deal with it.”

In stark contrast to, for example, the Liz Truss administration’s ‘fuck around and find out’ approach to governance, Corbyn’s top team spent years war-gaming things like public ownership and a radical overhaul of the tax system. They were also open about their plans, which perhaps partly explains the all-out assault faced by Corbyn from large sections of the media and political establishment.

“We looked at all the other areas where there was likely to be resistance, but wanted to achieve,” he explains. “We knew public ownership would be controversial to the water companies and to Royal Mail and so on, but I was very open about what we were going to take into public ownership. I went to the Confederation of British Industry and made a speech and set it out and said, ‘oh, and by the way, you’re going to have to pay more tax’.”

That would, of course, not come to be, and Labour, particularly the Labour left, would suffer a seismic defeat. For many of us who were involved in organising for that election, it would take weeks, months or even years to recover. The burnout, the hopelessness, the chaos that rippled through the left scattered lots of people or saw them drop away from organising altogether. Starmer’s election as leader and slow but steady reneging on every pledge he made during the campaign has seen  Labour membership drop massively, with the young and unionised voters that flocked to the party under Corbyn suffering a sense of betrayal.

Under the circumstances, I ask Corbyn how he finds the strength to keep going back. It took me three attempts to get the question out as he dodged and dived away from talking about himself. Eventually we got there and he answered very simply: “I was elected to do a job.” 

It’s almost two months to the day until the 40th anniversary of Corbyn entering Parliament. He has represented Islington North continuously since June 9th 1983, winning the seat in all nine elections since. Despite that crushing defeat in the 2019 general election, Corbyn remains unrelentingly popular in his constituency. Walk more than 20 seconds around the neighbourhood with him  and he’ll be stopped by someone  he’s helped, or whose parents or grandparents he’s advocated for. Islington is peppered with restaurants and takeaways proudly plastered with pictures of Corbyn enjoying their fare. Almost all community centres, projects and spaces proudly boast a connection to him, no matter how tenuous. Through the fire and fury of the last eight years, and a rapid ascent and descent from the top of British politics, Corbyn has remained dedicated to representing the people of this little enclave of North London as a Labour MP. The plan was for that to continue. 

On 28th March 2023, Starmer brought forward a controversial motion to Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to formally block Corbyn’s candidacy for the party in Islington North at the next general election. The motion came despite protestations of the local Labour party, many Labour MPs and, in private, even moderate members of the Parliamentary Labour Party. 

In many ways, the latest developments should not come as a shock. Corbyn has not had the Labour whip for almost three years. He was briefly suspended from the party entirely, before this suspension was revoked by the NEC. The reasons for this suspension are well run in the media – though interestingly the main accusation of failing to handle antisemitic incidents in the party or remove a specific Facebook post of offensive street art, was entirely absent from the motion which disbarred him from candidacy. 

Despite all this, you get the sense that Corbyn had, perhaps naively, believed there was a route back. Though he personally hadn’t spoken to the chief whip for two years (a silence only broken moments before news of the NEC disbarring motion broke in the media) his parliamentary office remained in communication with Labour – receiving Labour lines and organising with them for Parliament’s pairing system. He was biding his time, hoping for it to all blow over. That hope now has been undeniably quashed. 

Despite rampant speculation, Corbyn’s team remain tight-lipped about future plans, refusing to comment publicly about what comes next. But with a statement released in the aftermath of the NEC vote, in which Corbyn said “I have spent my life fighting for a fairer society on behalf of the people of Islington North, and I have no intention of stopping now,” it seems the writing is on the wall. 

Much will be made of the battle for Islington North over the coming weeks and months, with the overwhelming expectation being that Jeremy Corbyn will run as an independent. Despite the inherent bias of the First Past the Post system towards the two major parties, it’s hard to see how he won’t win. The furore around it, however, will miss the most important question about Corbyn and the movement he spearheaded:

What comes next? 

Here’s where Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project comes in. Launched in 2021, the project seeks to carry on what he started as leader of the Labour Party: to pull together the often fragmented parts of the left to continue the fight for a fair and equal society.

The project runs news clubs across the country, providing a space for members to hold critical discussions about news stories in the mainstream media, unpicking the bias and the vested interests buried within them. Elsewhere, the project is actively engaged in solidarity campaigns, whether that’s working with the bakers union to organise workers at Samworth brothers, to being part of a landmark campaign seeking to unionise baristas. The project was actively involved in organising against anti-strike legislation and fighting for  right to clothing. It recently launched its Music for the Many campaign, seeking to address inequality within the music industry and highlight the plight of small venues up and down the country.

The Corbyn years of the Labour party saw mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of particularly young people around the project. It would be fair to say that Starmer’s Labour does not seek to speak to or for these same people. Across the country, particularly as the cost of living crisis continues to bite, there are communities crying out for hope. It’s those people that Corbyn hopes the Peace and Justice project can begin to bring back together. “It’s about providing a home for people,” he says, “but also addressing some of the very fundamental issues that we face.”

As the interview draws to an end, I pose two questions about the concept of hope.

On the first, about Arsenal’s prospects for winning the league, he refuses to be drawn. “I’m very pleased and very, very confident. But that’s as far as I go. I don’t want to bring in bad karma”. The second, about where he draws hope from, is a much easier answer to extract. He replies before I barely finish asking the question. “People, ideas and inspiration from those that have made enormous sacrifices to achieve change, sometimes against utterly impossible odds,” he says, listing inspirations from across the world – from environmental campaigners and civil rights activists, to those who have dealt with miscarriages of justice cases and more.

The day after our interview I arrive in Westminster in a timely fashion, utilising the Corbyn Method™ to full effect. As I walk up from Parliament Square along Whitehall, I’m met with a roar of noise as thousands of teachers march on Downing Street during a day of national strike action. At the front, surrounded by people snapping selfies and excitedly talking, is Jeremy Corbyn. Whether it’s a picket line or a demonstration against immigration policy, his appearance generally sparks the same reaction. This has fuelled accusations of a cult of personality that continue to be levelled at Corbyn and his supporters to this day, but these rest on wilful ignorance of what is really happening. 

As much as Corbyn draws his hope from people, many continue to draw theirs from him. Unlike former party leaders like David Cameron, who called a controversial Brexit vote and then retreated “to Nice with his trotters up” as Danny Dyer once put it, Corbyn continues to show up. Four years on from a brutal election defeat, in the midst of a campaign to oust him permanently from Parliament, he’s still here, standing alongside people whose day-to-day lives aren’t improved by election wins alone. Indeed, as the corridors of Westminster were awash with noise around the NEC motion, Corbyn was to be found across the road at a demo in support of refugees and those seeking asylum. To paint him as infallible or someone who hasn’t made mistakes would be wrong, but it’s an irrefutable fact that he represents the idea that things could be different. That people, not profit, should be sacrosanct in a society run for the many, not the few.

Whatever happens in the coming months and years, it’s clear that Jeremy Corbyn – and the hope he represents – isn’t going anywhere.

Follow Ben on Twitter.

All photographs by Marc Sethi.

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