Interview with Jeremy Corbyn: 'my whole life has been about opposing racism'
Exclusive interview: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tells Mandy Rhodes he has never thought about giving up, despite the hostility from some within his own party
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn - credit David Anderson/Holyrood magazine
The ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chanting, adapted from the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, may have died down a little but as the polls consistently show Labour edging marginally ahead of the Tories, the cacophony of criticism of Corbyn, coincidently, grows ever louder.
Having beaten the odds and his party’s moderate malcontents to become leader, he has since faced a relentless barrage of media negativity, with academic studies revealing that at least 75 per cent of reporting about his views was false.
A YouGov poll found that an overwhelming 97 per cent of Labour supporters agreed that the “mainstream media as a whole has been deliberately biasing coverage to portray him in a negative manner”. And a report by the London School of Economics concluded that it wasn’t just a case of unbalanced reporting but that Corbyn had been misrepresented, vilified and ridiculed.
The BBC Trust also upheld a complaint against the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, ruling that one of her early reports on Corbyn breached accuracy and impartiality guidelines.
Having endured months of howling outrage over claims of anti-Semitism and scrutiny over his attendance at a wreath-laying ceremony in a Tunis cemetery, Corbyn’s relationship with the media is arguably worse than it has ever been.
And so, with this back-drop, Corbyn and I sit down after a speech about the media he has just given at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in which he was, ironically, very supportive of journalists but nevertheless, one of the first questions asked during the audience Q&A was by the Daily Mail on whether he was a terrorist sympathiser.
He tells me that this is just par for the course.
He says that his armour against the relentless nature of the media attacks is “believing in peace”, “not taking things personally” and having “patience”.
It also strikes me, that one of the things that must be so annoying for Corbyn’s arch critics in the press, is that the torrent of abuse doesn’t appear to faze him. In fact, he seems quite jolly, relishing it, even.
He tells me with a laugh that one of his neighbours in north London placed “a substantial” amount of money on him becoming leader when the odds were at 100 to one and so for him, at least, there is a personal investment in Corbyn staying just where he is.
But having gone from being regarded as a lefty joke to then being a national security risk, albeit with tenuous links to dubious Czechoslovakian spies, Corbyn now faces a real test of not just his political survival but also his personal mettle as he is labelled an anti-Semite and a racist.
The persistent claims of prejudice against him have escalated into hysteria over recent months, with Jewish leaders as well as high-profile members of his own party criticising him for not fully adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism along with all its examples.
A total of 68 rabbis, from various denominations, signed an open letter calling on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to adopt the full IHRA definition. The Jewish Labour Movement threatened to report the party to the Equality and Human Rights Commission over its definition, while the Board of Deputies of British Jews said Labour was “failing British Jews”.
And Dame Margaret Hodge, a senior Labour MP, who describes herself as a secular Jew, faced an investigation from party bosses after she publicly accused Corbyn of being an “anti-Semite and racist”, although the action which she described as being akin to how her relatives must have felt being hounded by the Nazis was later dropped.
And to be fair to Corbyn, he was caught in an impossible sectarian cross-fire which even degenerated into an argument about what constituted a good Jew or a bad Jew. Arguably, he could have handled it better, but the onslaught has been unforgiving.
Meanwhile, however, there are others in the party and beyond who believe the issue is just another manufactured stick being used to batter Corbyn with, and that the anti-Semitic arguments are simply being used to prevent criticism of Israel and to get rid of him.
And as the row showed no signs of abating ahead of the party conference this month, the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks waded in, labelling Corbyn an “anti-Semite” who, he says, has “given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate”.
The salvo, from the man who was chief rabbi from 1991 until 2012, centre on a speech made at the Palestinian Return Centre in London in 2013, when Corbyn reportedly said of a group of British “Zionists”: “They clearly have two problems. One is they don’t want to study history and, secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either.”
Sacks described Corbyn’s words as “the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech”.
And while Corbyn has said the comments were taken out of context, it did nothing to quell the controversy and has personally hit Corbyn where it hurts.
I ask Corbyn if he is an anti-Semite. On this, he is unequivocal: “No.” But like all things Corbyn, he is unable to answer any question without it becoming an echo of some wider discrimination or cause. And while that passion for injustice would normally be something to applaud, in this instance, like many others for Corbyn, some choose to see it as evidence that he doesn’t take their cause seriously enough.
“I oppose any form of racism, including anti-Semitism,” he tells me. “Anti-Semitism is a totally pernicious form of racism, I have and do support the right of Palestinian people to their own self-determination and a Labour government would recognise the state of Palestine, therefore, I am critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the settlement policy, and the encirclement of Gaza.
"That must never be used as an anti-Semitic argument. It’s not. Anti-Semitism is wrong. Period. And you can discuss the behaviour of Israeli governments without being anti-Semitic, as you can with any other government.”
I ask him if he feels that people misrepresented his views on the adoption of the IHRA definition and wilfully ignored the fact that he had already accepted the full definition even before last week’s NEC vote, but had issues with a few of the examples, particularly those to do with Israel. And still does.
“I think that is an issue,” he says, which is about as far as you’ll ever get Corbyn criticising the wilful manipulation of his views. “We have a code of practice which we’ve laid out about how people should behave in the party and we have suspended people who have behaved in an anti-Semitic way.
"We have in place an education programme and we’re determined to deal with it in that way and I think many who’ve indulged in criticism or in media speculation have not actually read any of it, they’ve just decided that I’m refusing to do something I should do.
"I’m not refusing to do anything, I’m just ensuring there is space for that discussion and that debate about the issues of Israel and Palestine. The rights of Palestinian people.”
I ask him if he believes that he will be proven to be on the right side of history?
“I’ve had times when people have been very critical of me, on the Iraq war, on talks with people in Ireland, and so on and you have to ride it out and say, well, actually, I’m doing this for a purpose, the purpose is that ultimately, you only achieve a peace process by talking to everybody.”
But then, hasn’t he been criticised for only talking to one side?
“Well, that’s not the case, I have messaged Israeli politicians, I have visited Israel on eight or nine occasions, something like that, I’ve had lengthy meetings with the Israeli ambassador in London, so that’s just not correct.
“The only way you’re going to have long-term peace is if people can live with dignity, security and respect and a lot of people are not living with that now. That applies in a lot of situations. It applies for the Rohingya people, it applies for many of us…
“I grew up in a rural part of Shropshire and the racism that was then normal in small town Britain was appalling. Appalling. When I left school, I went to Jamaica with VSO and that was an amazing cultural experience, a journey, and it was my education, really.
“I was a volunteer doing stuff in Jamaica, like youth work, teaching, polio rehabilitation and so on. I was actually studying black history, Caribbean history and African history, at the same time, and taking myself off to evening class at the university when I was there.
“I was in Jamaica when Enoch Powell made his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. When the speech came through, there were a lot of people in Jamaica, quite rightly, very, very angry.
"I was teaching in a school where we had facilities to listen to the speech and we read about it, and the reaction was enormous. And that evening I was going home, and I went to the bus stop to get the bus home and a group of boys came up to me, who I’d been teaching that day, who were, frankly, a bit of a nuisance, just kids but quite annoying, and I sort of waved them away.
"They wouldn’t go, and they said, ‘can we take you home, sir?’ I said why, and they said they wanted to make sure I got home alright because a lot of people were very angry, and they didn’t want me blamed, so they took me home.
“They were right to be angry about Powell and when I came back to Britain and I was living again in Shropshire, I became the secretary of the Shropshire campaign against racism and I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement and the ‘Stop the ‘72’ campaign against the then immigration act which was a pernicious piece of legislation.
“Fighting racism, it’s been my life and now I represent, and have done for a very long time, a very multicultural mixed society and I’m very proud to represent it.
“I have found these accusations very painful because my whole life has been about opposing racism and I saw at first-hand in Jamaica the hurt inflicted by Powell’s words.”
This is the third time that I have had an interview arranged with Corbyn. Twice before, I have travelled to London only to have the interview cancelled even before I arrived. He has cost me time and money but for once, this foray is at his expense, I am on home turf and the interview does happen.
As I enter the room, he removes his tie, which is the opposite of what most other politicians do and when I suggest we move from the boardroom table, where his wife Laura [Alvarez, his third wife of five years] sits patiently, alongside members of his press team, to the sofa, he looks like a man grateful for the opportunity to get comfy.
Corbyn takes my hand between his two and apologises that it has taken this long to meet. “At last,” he says, “we meet.”
I tell him that our paths had previously crossed when he was once my MP when I lived in Islington. This naturally takes us into a Corbynesque conversation about the state of the housing market and the wider issues of homelessness. Regardless, we both agree neither of us could probably afford to live on my old street anymore and he offers me a cup of tea.
Corbyn doesn’t speak like a conventional politician. He still wears his causes on his sleeve and doesn’t try and erase the past, no matter how uncomfortable some may portray it to be. He has met with the IRA, has stood on the same stage as Hamas and Hezbollah and may well have attended wreath-laying ceremonies that have been cast back at him many years later as evidence of his terrorist sympathies.
But then he never really set out to be an MP, let alone the prime minister. He was elected in 1983 at the age of 34 and entered the House alongside a 30-year-old Tony Blair. And despite early attempts to get elected onto various committees, he mostly resigned himself to serving the constituents of Islington North and to be engaged in what others would disparagingly describe as the politics of protest for various left-wing causes.
He was never high-profile or any real threat to the party that New Labour became but he did vote against it over 400 times, which wasn’t perhaps the best qualification for becoming its next leader.
But when Ed Miliband stood down after the 2015 general election, John McDonnell, now shadow chancellor, convened a meeting with Corbyn and Diane Abbott. McDonnell, a former deputy leader of the GLC under Ken Livingstone and an MP since 1997, had challenged the party leadership twice before and didn’t believe he would get on the ballot paper third-time around. Abbot had previously thrown her hat in the ring and so they both looked at Corbyn sitting at the end of the table and said: “It’s your turn, mate.”
I ask him if McDonnell is still his ‘mate’?
“Oh, yes, absolutely,” he laughs. “They invited me to sit round that table and then told me that it was my turn and just so there was no danger of anybody changing their mind, I saw Diane’s finger press ‘send’ on her phone and there it was out there in a tweet.
“Seriously, I felt that it was a point where the Labour Party had to look at its own future and we couldn’t go on saying that we’re going to manage austerity which was obviously so damaging to people’s living standards. So fundamentally, my pitch in the leadership election was an austerity one. I also put forward the way in which we would democratise the party and change our campaigning methods.
“We started off being completely written out of it on the basis that people didn’t think we’d get on the ballot paper.
"One of my neighbours in the next street to me put quite a large sum of money, he never told me how much, when I was on at 100 to 1 in the bookies and every time I saw him, he said, ‘you’re going to win, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m going to try,’ and he said, ‘you’ve got to, I’ve got this money on you’…he was a supporter on steroids with a, how should we say, a peculiar interest in us winning!
“I was very honoured to be elected as leader of the party and that leadership election in 2015 was a fascinating experience…and then, of course, we did it all again a year later, that was just two years ago.”
Corbyn makes light of the rebellion in 2016 when his leadership was again contested but at its height, the attacks from both within the party and from the media reached a brutal fever pitch. I want to know how he coped.
“It’s true that the intensity of some of the attacks was great and when the pressure happened in 2016 from within the party, I took the view that I’d been elected by the majority of members and supporters of the party and it was up to them to whom the decision should be made, so we had another campaign and I won.
“I think the ones that have suffered most have been family and friends, not me. They’ve suffered because they can’t reply, they can’t hit back, and the extraordinary intrusion into the lives of my quite wide, extended family have been enormous. If you want to have a go at me, go ahead and I’ll put up with it, but for Laura and my children, it’s just not fair.
“But no, I never thought about giving up because we had decided to do it and they have all supported me in a wonderful way on this journey. Laura has been incredibly supportive, and nobody has ever said, ‘don’t do it’.
"They see there’s a point to what I’m doing, a point to why I’m doing it, and it is to try and ensure that we have the political system in Britain that does take account of the very poorest people, that does take account of those that are marginalised and it does challenge an economic system that diminishes the public wealth.”
Does he understand why he attracts such media criticism?
“It’s hard to know what riles them. I think even they don’t really know. Maybe some don’t like the economic strategy, which is about challenging inequality and the lecture I’ve just given here, the Alternative MacTaggart Lecture, that was about bringing greater accountability into the media, it’s not an attack on the media, it’s about accountability, it’s supporting the media, but I’m not sure they’re going to see it that way.
“My media team, some of whom are here, work incredibly hard, there’s not very many of them, and they deal with an incredible barrage of things. I’m usually trying to persuade them to take a day off, because it’s seven days a week for them, but they’re dealing with often quite ludicrous stories. Did we expect a media barrage? Probably, yes, but we didn’t think it would be quite as intense as it has been but we’re still there, we’re still standing…
“I’ll tell you what, there’s an issue of relevance as well. When, as I said in the lecture, you see a uniformity of front pages on the daily papers, that does not mean that’s what the public, the people, are talking about that. For instance, during the general election campaign, I was being told by these very smart people, very smart academics, journalists and so on, that Labour was absolutely finished, that we had no chance whatsoever and you sit in your office and think, ‘god, this is awful’ and then you go out onto the streets and it’s just not the case.”
As Corbyn prepares for his fourth party conference as leader and only the second without an immediate threat to his leadership, albeit with one rumoured to be bubbling under, I ask him whether he understands those people in the party that say they want their party back?
He shakes his head. “I’ve had plenty of policy differences with people in the party over many years, there are always going to be policy differences in the party, but fundamentally, I’m Labour through and through and I’m proud to be in the Labour Party and I’m very sorry if anyone feels it’s not theirs or that they have to leave, they don’t, the party is there for everyone, not just the few.”
Corbyn faces yet another battle with factions in his party at conference when the democracy review proposals are voted on. And while Corbyn may see the ‘democratic review’ as a way of opening up the party to its members, his opponents, conversely, see it as a Momentum-backed power-grab to secure a far-left leader for the foreseeable future and an opportunity for the hard left to extend its stranglehold. A democracy review that paves the way for autocracy?
He naturally dismisses this.
Three years ago, the idea that an obscure, far-left, backbench MP who was a persistent rebel against his own party line would be Labour leader seemed far-fetched. Yet, now, with a Tory party in disarray and key votes on Brexit coming this way, Corbyn could, if he can get his own party in order, take this government down and be the next prime minister.
I ask him, given his love for his north London allotment, whether he would dig up the garden at No 10 and plant veg. The answer is typically Corbyn – convoluted, compassionate, campaigning and kindly, which takes us on a journey of causes from the Downing Street Rose Garden through to feeding the world’s poor and saving the nation’s bee population.
Can this week get us out of the Brexit limbo where nothing ever changes?
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