Labour must not concede political ground on austerity and immigration, says Jeremy Corbyn
Whatever your politics, it is hard not to like Jeremy Corbyn. Fresh back from the GMB hustings in Dublin, we joke about his alleged Irish heritage. Corbyn recounts where the myth started: ‘It was one of those interesting evenings of contrast. I’d just come from the Pakistan Women’s Welfare Association tea to the Holloway Gaelic football dinner. One had a lot of Guinness and one had a lot of tea … you can guess which!’ ‘Somebody had realised there was a chap in Galway called Corbyn who had a draper’s shop’. Despite Corbyn’s protestations to the contrary, ‘the president finally gets up to make this speech about 11 o’clock at night and well out of it and he said, “Mr Corbyn is very shy, but he’s really a Galway man and, like so many of the third generation, he hasn’t yet quite got round to understanding or accepting his Irish roots.” And I tried to dissuade them of this, but they wouldn’t have it!’
It is hard to imagine one of the most affable figures in politics expressing support for some of the most unsavoury. For example, in March 2012, Corbyn tweeted, ‘Congratulations to George Galloway on astonishing result in Bradford. Big message here on opposition to wars and austerity.’ Clearly the people of Bradford liked their anti-austerity member of parliament so much they booted him out this year. Also in 2012, Corbyn expressed support for Raed Salah – a man found guilty of spreading blood libel and inciting anti-Jewish violence. The Islington North MP’s sympathy for IRA terrorists, and more recently Hamas and Hezbollah, is well documented. It is a paradox that a politician who is so universally liked could lend credence to some of the most pernicious individuals and ideologies in the world.
So how does Corbyn think we can win parliament back next time? He answers, ‘I think we don’t promise to pay off the debt in five years. We don’t promise to balance within one parliament. We promise instead to try and reduce inequality during the time we’re in parliament.’ Given that the public seemed to signal an anti-austerity platform was not what they wanted in May and gave the Tories a small majority, how does he analyse what happened in this year’s election? ‘Well, we gained a million votes in England. We lost a very large number in Scotland for a combination of reasons … and we gained votes in urban areas, particularly multi-ethnic urban areas like mine.’ ‘We lost in other areas where we might have expected to gain. Croydon Central, for example, Harrow East.’
I think that we have to think about English devolution as well and what we mean by it
‘Why did we lose? Obviously we didn’t get enough votes. Why not? Because we lost some to the Greens who were putting forward an anti-austerity message.’ Despite the fact that, even if all the Green vote had gone Labour, it still would not have helped Labour beat the Tories, Corbyn continues: ‘We had a problem of mobilising people and appeal and, because we were offering a degree of austerity for five years, I think we naffed off quite a lot of people as well.’
Research by Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabian Society, suggests that four out of five of the votes we need to win are from people who voted Tory at the last election. So how does Corbyn think his message will appeal to those voters? Initially his answer almost suggests they can be ignored: ‘Part of it is mobilising others. Part of it is also better electoral registration amongst young people, which there was a lot done at the last minute by the Electoral Commission, but it was quite late.’ Then he adds, ‘Do you convince people who voted Tory to vote for us? Yeah, because I think at the end of five years, if the health service has been largely atomised into private profit centres and the local government services are going to be really cut apart … But we’ve got to be seen to oppose what they’re doing.’
Corbyn is not short of ideas about what he would do differently. ‘I would want to see priority [to] building council houses, priority [to] regulating the private rented sector and a benefits system that reflects that. At the moment we spend £11bn a year on in-work benefits and we spend even more than that on housing benefits, which could be reduced remarkably if you lowered rents and increased wages.’ On wages, we probe his comment at the GMB hustings that we needed to increase the minimum wage to a fair living wage. Would he legislate for it? ‘Logically you have to. How quickly you do it, I’m not sure, but you logically have to, because if we say the minimum wage is not a living wage, then what are we saying about the minimum wage?’
What of Andy Burnham’s comments also to the GMB about English not being spoken in the workplace, isolating British workers? Corbyn replies, ‘I thought it was a slightly odd thing to say and I think we have to stand up for a multicultural, multilingual society.’ ‘I don’t pretend it’s easy, it’s not … but if we start conceding that somehow or other speaking different languages is not acceptable, I think that’s a very, very bad message and if we’d say ultimately, as Ukip do, they would like to reduce the number of foreign workers in Britain, then what happens to the several million British people working all over Europe?’ Speaking for many, Corbyn says, ‘Frankly I cringed when I saw the pledges, which said immigration controls and that mug’.
Recounting an experience on the doorstep in Thanet (one of the 10 or so constituencies Corbyn says he campaigned in during the general election), he illustrates the difficulties with discussing immigration: ‘Some guy got onto me about all these immigrants and so on. I said, “OK. By the way, who’s your doctor?” He said, “Oh, Dr Patel, he’s a fine man.” I said, “Oh, OK. Where’s he come from?” “Oh, India.” I said, “Any thoughts about that?” He said, “Well he’s all right.” And then we sort of got into this discussion that some immigrants are all right and the rest aren’t and he started off on some rant about Romanians.’
‘I think you have to say two things [to win back voters who supported Ukip]. One is: are Ukip going to build any houses, provide new teachers, improve any hospitals, build any schools? No, they’re not going to do any of that, because all they’re going to do is blame migrants for the problems.’ ‘You win people over by saying you organise society in a more collective way, you tax the very wealthy to the level they should be taxed.’ ‘The Labour party came about, because it challenged orthodoxy.’ Corbyn refers to Labour’s lowest ebb in the 1930s and how it ‘fought back by opposing the means test, arguing for a collective society, arguing for a National Health Service.’ ‘Fifteen, 20 years later, all of that was achieved. I don’t think we achieve things by conceding the whole political ground [on] austerity to the right.’
In Dublin and subsequently, leadership rival Burnham declared that this year’s manifesto was the best he had stood on. Which is Corbyn’s favourite? ‘I stood on the ’83 manifesto, which was very long. [The 2015] one was quite long as well actually.’ ‘The ’83 one was scuppered by the Falklands war and the nationalism that went with it more than anything else.’ As for Labour’s most recent manifesto, he remarks he was disappointed that ‘there was no obvious policy development role that involved thousands of party members’ though he thought there ‘was an awful lot in that, it was very good’. As for whether Labour should have a separate party in Scotland, Corbyn prefers to leave that to Scottish colleagues, but he adds, ‘I think that we have to think about English devolution as well and what we mean by it. So, are we just going to end up with a sort of patchwork of rights across the UK or are we going to move in the direction of a federal government? I think it’s looking very much like we move into a much more formal federal arrangement.’
Finally, we ask what his view would be if elected leader of the Labour party on those voices who call for Progress to be banned. He laughs, ‘I would never be so intolerant’. ‘I don’t believe a party gets very far by bans and expulsions. We’ve got to be an open house.’ Nothing shows just how much of an open house the Labour party is as Corbyn’s inclusion on the leadership ballot.