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A Young Radical Interviews Jeremy Corbyn

We sent a young socialist to meet the Labour left's ageing hope-monger.

by Michael Segalov
06 August 2015, 12:40pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Photo by Matthew Francey)

With just over a month to go until the Labour leadership election comes to an unpredictable close, it's beginning to feel like more is riding on this internal contest than the general election just a few months ago.

At least, that's how Jeremy Corbyn sees it. "Had Labour won the election, there would still have been cuts in local government, central government spending, loss of public sector jobs," the Labour leadership race's field leader tells me. The door slams shut in the corner of a sparsely furnished, temporary office in the TSSA union building behind Euston station, an ad hoc HQ for team Corbyn, lent by one of the many trade unions which is backing his campaign. An aide had rushed in with a pile of emails and some water, touching base with the Islington MP during a gap in his relentless interview schedule, before rushing back out. Corbyn's placid speaking tone is at odds with his frantic base of operations.

Corbyn-mania is sweeping the nation – whether that's the mania of disaffected left-wingers feeling they've finally found someone to represent them, or the mania of the Labour right and most of the press having a fit at the thought of him getting in. Full disclosure: I'm the kind of lefty who watches anti-austerity activists crack open squats, gets annoyed when drag bars close and despairs at the state of the Tory cabinet, and I haven't been immune.

As I meet Corbyn, I'm toying with the idea of spending £3 to sign up to Labour and vote for him. The prospect of a radical shake up of the party is an ever more likely prospect, but what his premiership might look like has been a generally neglected subject. What would Labour actually look like if Corbyn won? Could Jez really give the party a last-minute mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?

When I meet Corbyn he seems an unlikely saviour. He's visibly tired, with a chest infection to boot, but he remains undeterred. "I'm enjoying it, if I'm allowed to," he says. Last time I met him, he was understandably more relaxed. Then we were in a small room in Parliament, discussing how he and other rebel MPs might try to stop a Miliband government from implementing austerity. The fact that this maverick could now lead the party is surely a testament to the party establishment's crisis of confidence.

Should he win, wrestling control from that Westminster elite would be a priority. "I want there to be a much more collective approach to leadership, a much more accountable approach, and a much more inclusive one," he tells me, laying out the plans for a series of policy debates, led by the membership on issues spanning education, economics and the environment. He wants the supremacy of the leader cut back, giving decision-making powers to the members; Corbyn reckons Labour members are to the left of their parliamentary representatives. An example? Iraq, he says. "The people said no."

With the majority of British people, not just Labour voters, up for nationalising the railways, energy and Royal Mail, you can see why Corbyn believes he's more in tune with public opinion than his opponents. That Andy Burnham is now also pledging to re-nationalise the railways is perhaps evidence that Corbyn is setting the agenda.

But what happens to his party come September? With the rift between Labour's left and right more visible than ever, can it continue in its current incarnation? Even if he wins over the Labour electorate, he'll command a band of MPs who disagree with his politics, and have made that perfectly clear from the outset. While Burnham got 68 MP nominations, and Cooper 59, Corbyn hit just 36. A chunk of his nominators made it clear they hate his politics.

In any case, he says, "parliament ought to be a product of the people's views, not the people's views the product of parliament".

"This election is about electing a leader and deputy leader, on the widest franchise that there's ever been, and the longest election debate there's ever been in the history of the party, and I'm sure that MPs will accept that they no longer choose who leads us."

This seems optimistic, given the torrent of abuse the right of the party is currently giving him, not to mention the threats to split, and the refusal of some – including Shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie – to serve in any future Corbyn cabinet.

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Then again when you look at leadership rival Andy Burnham's flip flop on the Welfare Bill – saying "we can't simply abstain" before abstaining from the vote on the cuts – maybe another U-turn is possible.

"I'm interested in ideas and how we go forward, and I want hope and excitement. Once they understand that, these MPs, they'll be happier," he says. It seems like a classic Corbyn answer – it's conciliatory to the point of sounding almost naïve, but underlying it is the need to make the right noises to a side of the party that makes no secret of hating him.

Jeremy Corbyn (right) with his political ally John McDonnell (Photo by Jack Pasco)

A victory for Corbyn might put him at odds with his parliamentary party, but losing would have the reverse effect – setting a newly energised party against a leader who didn't generate the same levels of enthusiasm.

It seems clear that he is commanding the largest proportion of first preferences, but a victory for his opposition would see these views all but side-lined, destined for five more years of backbench rebellions on the fringes of Westminster. But that new movement, he says, "won't just disappear".

It's more of the hopey-changey stuff that makes him sound unlike any other politician, but at the same time it comes across as a slightly rehearsed line – something he feels he ought to say. You have to wonder if – maybe after a couple of drinks – he'd admit to the possibility that a new Blairite leader would move to crush Corbyn and his nasty "communist" fans once and for all.

But Corbyn won't split. "We'll stay in because we know our foundations," says Corbyn. "It's also the only thing we've got to bring around progressive change in the UK, and that's not going to change. The idea that someone can rush off, and everyone will come with, is nonsensical."

But if there is no such split, does that mean newly impassioned and invigorated young socialists will be toiling under a party led by a leader that views them as dangerous entryists? Corbyn doesn't think so, suggesting I'm cynical beyond my years.

"The numbers, the support and the hope," he says. "These are the people who do the door knocking, deliver leaflets, campaign while in touch with their local communities. These people are doing this with open eyes, they know what society they want to live in, they won't forget that or give up on their ideals."

Corbyn in 2012 making a speech against chucking foreign students out of Britain (Photo by Henry Langston)

Should Corbyn make it, and then win the next election in 2020, he'd be walking into number 10 at 70; the British public won't have elected someone that old since 1855. Is he really up to it? "If that happens, then of course. I'm up for changing things, I've spent my life in politics, social movements, unions; it's not a bad experience to start from."

At this point, an aide, until now sat quietly in the corner keeping an eye on proceedings, pointed out that my 25 minutes was up, despite the whole meeting running well over an hour late. Corbyn was rushed off to film an interview before another hustings and a campaign team curry to relax.

As I was hurried away, I was left uncertain as to whether he's truly up for the challenge of kicking off his retirement years at Downing Street. But the most significant part of Corbyn's offering seems not to be the prospect of cheering socialist shots fired across the dispatch box at David Cameron, but a pledge to democratise Labour and give its members more sway. Beyond his policies, that seems to be what marks him out from the Kendall/Cooper/Burnham blur.

Can Corbyn really resurrect the corpse that is the Parliamentary Labour Party? I'm still not sure, but I reckon it's probably worth a £3 punt to find out.

@MikeSegalov

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