- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
In April of this year, Jeremy Corbyn stepped down after almost five years as Labour leader.
It was a tumultuous period, from a shock victory in the 2015 leadership contest through an attempted party coup in 2016, and from a famous electoral comeback in 2017 to a heartbreaking defeat in 2019. None of which is even to mention Brexit and the wider chaos of the political landscape.
In this preview of our new issue, Corbyn sits down with Tribune editor Ronan Burtenshaw to discuss his tenure, its controversies and its lessons.
Don’t forget you can support Tribune by subscribing today – just £10 for an entire year in print.
Your old friend Ralph Miliband argued that turning the Labour Party into a tool for achieving socialism was a hopeless task. Has the last five years proven or disproven that thesis?
I don’t think it’s been conclusive either way. I was elected in 2015 where the party membership and supporters grew rapidly. We more than doubled membership in a short time, and I wanted the party to turn a new page. The basis of our campaign was that in the 2010 and 2015 elections we had offered varying forms of austerity, with wage freezes and continued underfunding of public services. My argument was that the country had to turn a corner and invest for the future, to develop policies accordingly and, crucially, change its environmental and international approach.
I also wanted the party to be a much more democratic and responsible organisation, with a community presence all over the country. The Labour Party cannot win in the long run if all it does is play a media game and pursue a Westminster strategy. It has to be a real presence in the community in order to mobilise people and convince them that things can change and improve. The greatest resistance I had within the party bureaucracy and structures was to the establishment of community organising. They wanted to continue in the old way, which I think is a big mistake.
As everyone knows, I had massive opposition from within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) from the outset. The first year was taken up completely with dealing with pressure from within the PLP, and then you had the second leadership campaign in 2016, where we won with an even bigger majority. That ought to have been a point where the party at least recognised that there was a thirst for change amongst the membership.
The relationship of the PLP to the party as a whole has been subject to debate for as long as I can remember, going back to the establishment of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in the early 1970s, which was about transforming the parliamentary party to make it responsive to the movement as a whole. MPs are only there because our members support them to become candidates, and the communities they represent want them to be there.
How do you assess your own record as leader in terms of party reform? Do you think it went far enough?
We didn’t go far enough. We didn’t go fast enough. We did alter the rules of selections and for the election of the leadership. So it improved a bit in those areas. We managed to get constituency parties that were in special measures taken out of those measures. In the case of the one or two which remain in special measures, those measures are not very significant — so they still can operate and function as normal CLPs.
What I wish we’d gone further on — and obviously this has got to happen anyway — is changing the culture in which local parties operate. They have to be far more responsive to the community. Time and time again, people would contact me who said they’d joined the party following our election in 2015, had gone to a local party meeting, and found it unwelcoming, cold, and boring, and didn’t want to go back. They didn’t feel the least bit welcomed to the party, even though they fully supported the policy direction on the environment, the economy, social justice, and those issues that we put forward.
I think that the party has to recognise that the media hostility to the Labour Party and the labour movement isn’t going to go away. You have some very rich and powerful people who are going to continue attacking the Labour Party whatever its policies are, because they don’t want it to exist at all. The only answer to that is communicating amongst ourselves, through social media and day-to-day action in our communities.
Is it really viable to mount a campaign for a socialist government, let alone to actually run one, with substantial opposition inside your own party to the idea of you as prime minister, to large parts of your programme, and to the politics of a socialist government in general?
Well, it doesn’t make life easy when there are forces, particularly in the PLP, who are totally opposed to almost everything you’re doing, and undermining you the whole time. But it wasn’t the case among the vast majority of party members, and certainly was not the case among most of the trade unions.
I spent a lot of time going to union meetings, conferences, and events. I was always warmly received. I want to thank the labour movement for the support that they gave, and also say that I’m very proud of the link between the Labour Party and the unions. It’s a fundamental and intrinsic part of our movement.
I made the point that we weren’t going to win a general election by pulling levers in an office. So I spent the whole five years travelling around the country, and I did hundreds of visits — factories, schools, colleges, universities, party meetings, union meetings, tenants’ meetings, all kinds of things. It was a way of listening to people and mobilising them, bringing in those who were serious about environmental change, serious about ending the narrative of the ‘scrounger’ society, which had become a bipartisan talking point. Never again — we‘ve got to build for an inclusive society.
We did all of that. Yes, the opposition within the party was wrong. I think those that made personal attacks on others in the party should reflect for a moment on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They’re only MPs because they were put forward by their party and by their community.
I canvassed in many different parts of the country and what I found was that, on the one hand, Labour had a programme which would have radically transformed the lives of millions of working-class people, and yet at the same time a lot of the places that most needed that programme didn’t feel an ownership over it. Would you say that’s a fair characterisation?
I think that’s a bit simplistic. We lost about 300,000 votes from Labour to the Tories in 2019. We lost some to the Liberal Democrats, some to the Greens, and quite a lot to non-voting. But the trend in the constituencies that we lost had been building for a long time. Majorities that were huge in the 1980s and ’90s finally disappeared in 2019 after long declines. There’s been a rebalancing around the country, which isn’t always in our favour.
To give an example, I was first elected to parliament for my own constituency in 1983. Our majority was 5,000 — less than 15 per cent of the vote. At the same time, the majority in most North Eastern and South Wales constituencies was around 20,000. In 2019, the majority in my constituency was 26,000 but that was the mirror image of what happened in the constituencies that we lost.
Inner-city constituencies such as those in London have become much stronger for Labour, and former single-industry towns in the Midlands and the North have generally become weaker. I put that down to a lot of things. One is young people moving away because of deindustrialisation and the lack of jobs. Another is the loss of trade union presence in those towns. Union membership has moved from being heavily based in manufacturing industry and the private sector into largely the public sector.
There are other factors too: local authorities being underfunded, cuts to public services and their funding — and a lack of presence of the party, in many cases. Not all, but in too many areas a vibrant movement campaigning on issues like health and housing investment was absent. I think the lesson has to be that in order for the Left to succeed it must be seen to be effective and active in all communities. It’s not going to be transactional politics that wins us the elections of the future.
You were an unusual leader in Labour’s history, comparable maybe only to George Lansbury or Michael Foot as a socialist at the top of a broadly social-democratic party. Can you give us some insight into how difficult this was, day-to-day, with the challenges and crises you faced?
From day to day, and this goes for any leader in the party, there are enormous pressures on time management and the objectives you’re trying to fulfil. It is easy to become completely bogged down in Westminster and see everything through the lens of whatever is happening there at that moment. While the most politically involved and engaged people around the country do watch parliament, most of the public don’t; they don’t follow it at all. They’re not particularly interested in it, and they find the language used and the style fairly incomprehensible.
You have to use parliament as a way of making your case, putting your arguments forward and challenging the government, because that’s the one opportunity you have to do it. But you also need to take your politics outside. So I had to balance the time I spent in parliamentary spheres with the time I spent travelling around the country, as well as the time I spent in my own constituency. We worked out a sort of a pattern, which was that when parliament was in session, I’d be there until Wednesday evening at the latest — and then Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday morning, I’d be at a combination of my constituency and travelling around the country. The most vociferous arguments in my office were about the allocation of time. I always insisted upon time for my constituency, because I believe that as an MP it’s important that you fulfil your obligations.
Then there was the question of how you establish priorities, because you can’t deal with every issue. Take policy development. It’s not just about disagreeing with climate change, it’s putting forward an alternative strategy for a green industrial revolution. I think that was a huge policy success, which Rebecca Long-Bailey in particular worked hard on. The whole point behind this was that the environment shouldn’t be seen as a niche thing, where you have environmental policies that appeal to environmentalists which you avoid discussing to a wider audience.
It was about saying, ‘We want a green industrial revolution. Unlike other industrial revolutions, we’ll actually redistribute power, improve our environment, and give people confidence in their future.’ Because you can’t go to the people that work in polluting industries now and say, ‘Sorry, this is a polluting industry. We’re going to shut it down.’ You’ve got to develop new industry, new jobs, you’ve got to make things sustainable.
I was confronted with this issue at the GMB hustings in Dublin during the 2015 leadership election. The question was on fracking, which the GMB conference had voted to support the day before because they felt that it would provide them jobs. Clearly, there are jobs involved in both the installation and operation of the fracking process, but also, of course, in the manufacturing. I said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. I don’t agree with you on this policy. I’m opposed to fracking for reasons of damage to the aquifers, pollution of the water table, and the fact that it’s going to become a CO2 emitter. But I am in favour of a very big investment in wind, wave, solar, and geothermal energy production. And actually, there are more jobs to be created in that. It’s sustainable in the long term, fracking is not.’
Likewise, with social justice, one of the turning points in the 2015 leadership election campaign was that the party was going to abstain on the Tories’ welfare reform bill. This was on the grounds that we’d just lost a general election, and that this defeat showed that people were in favour of cuts to benefits. I didn’t think it showed anything of the kind.
I voted against that bill, and I’m absolutely confident that I did the right thing. We should never get into the realm of saying that people on benefits are scroungers, because if we believe in an inclusive society which cares for all, you have to have a social security system that ensures that everyone is cared for. In modern Britain, many are not. There are massive exclusions; huge numbers of people, as the Covid-19 crisis has shown, who lead a marginal existence.
Not five minutes’ walk from my house, there are people hanging around in Finsbury Park who have no recourse to public funds, no income, and cannot get cash-in-hand jobs because of the crisis. They are in a desperate state and are relying on the mosque or the church to eat. That’s modern Britain. So I was determined that we change the course of those kinds of decisions.
I think we also changed the conversation on public ownership and international issues. I have always thought that the privatisation of the rail system was wrong. We poured money into train operating companies, and a lot of people made a lot of money. Essentially, the public has paid for the infrastructure and we’ve privatised the profits. I’ve always strongly supported full public ownership, and indeed was very proud of the document which Andy McDonald produced, ‘GB Rail’, on a publicly-owned railway system.
I also was clear that the public ownership we were fighting for would not be the 1940s model of essentially the government appointing boards of nationalised industries, then those being run on a private-sector model. I wanted a much more democratic form of ownership. We pushed for that in water, with more community and local government involvement, and more river basin-based environmental approaches. There was a great deal of support for that but also opposition, predictably, from the hedge funds that own most of our water companies.
I also wanted to make an impact on international policies. I firmly believe that you achieve a more peaceful world through economic equality and respect for human rights and justice. The speech I made in Hyde Park in opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 warned that if you start a war with Iraq, you do not know what future conflicts you are unleashing, the people you might displace, or the terrorism that might also follow.
I was determined as leader that we would change our policy, and that we would give an apology for the Iraq War. That was the day of the most intense opposition from within the PLP, when I replied to the Chilcot Inquiry and then went to give a full apology to the bereaved military families. It was one of the most poignant moments in the whole five years, standing there in front of a group of people who had lost their family members in Iraq and wanted to know why.
As well as internal questions of managing the party, there were also broader political questions which defined your leadership — maybe Brexit more than any other. How do you feel that issue was handled?
I want to live in a socialist society, and I want to use the best way of getting there that takes everybody with you. You should set everything you do against what you are ultimately trying to achieve. For all of my adult life, the European Union and the Common Market have been a factor in politics. Indeed, in this room, I have leaflets and pamphlets from the 1975 referendum. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get them out!
Anyway, my opposition at that point was to the Common Market, because it was solely a market. There wasn’t very much of a social Europe attached to it. That campaign was an uneasy coalition between nationalist forces and those on the Left that were opposed to the Common Market because they felt it was a free-market policy which would damage the social infrastructure of the country. There were tensions in the No campaign, as there probably were within the Yes campaign in 1975.
The result of the referendum was a majority in favour of remaining in the Common Market, albeit on slightly changed terms. The Common Market changed into the EU, and it developed a much more social element. Margaret Thatcher’s huge opposition to it, in the end, probably did quite a lot to mobilise support for it among the centre-left. Undeniably there is a strong social element to quite a lot of European policies on rights at work, environment protections, consumer protections, as well as, interestingly, the human rights points in EU trade treaties — even though they’ve been ineffective at enforcing those clauses. In any case, support for the principle of staying in the EU grew. And within the party, the party position had become one of remaining.
The party eventually came around to the idea of supporting a referendum, probably in the belief that it would be very easy to win, and that it would shut Nigel Farage up. It didn’t quite work out like that. I campaigned for a ‘Remain and Reform’ agenda within the European Union. I did not want to repeat the mistakes of Better Together in Scotland by joining up with the Tories to do it. We ran a Labour campaign to Remain and Reform and I travelled the whole country.
The result of the referendum was that those communities that had suffered the highest levels of unemployment because of Thatcherite deindustrialisation voted No. Inner-city communities like my own, which had also suffered a great deal from Thatcherite policies, voted Yes. The point I often made was that if you’re on minimum wage, insecure work, or a zero-hour contract, living in the private rented sector in North London or Mansfield, your interests are the same. You might have a different view of whether we should remain in the EU, but your interests in the kind of society you live are the same.
I tried to get that message across after the election too, as the issue became prominent again, but it was difficult. The party inevitably went into a lot of internal debate, particularly within the PLP and Shadow Cabinet. I felt the only way forward was the agreement which was reached pretty unanimously at the 2019 conference. That was to say that we would negotiate a trade and customs arrangement with the EU, and that we would put that deal to a public vote in six months. That would be the end of it, one way or another.
It was put forward as the result of an awful lot of discussion. Unfortunately, after it was agreed, a lot of people simply said, ‘Okay, that’s alright. We now plough on with our own furrow and carry on with debate, exactly as we have before.’ Boris Johnson cynically exploited this in the general election campaign, saying he’d get Brexit done. The Tories put out this incredibly simplistic message and the media went with it.
If everyone had got behind the agreement we reached at the 2019 conference, we could have moved the debate and the agenda onto one of social justice. But they didn’t. There was a constant feeding of the argument one way or the other. I remember a big rally we did in Newcastle where Ian Lavery spoke really well. He said, ‘I don’t want to be in a Remain party; I don’t want to be in a Leave party. I want to be in a socialist party.’
Anyway, the result was what it was. We now have an incompetent, dangerous Tory government in office. They’re going to have to come to some kind of agreement with the EU, but it’s already proving difficult to achieve. We could have done things much better. Was there a better way? Well, obviously the party could have just reiterated the 2017 policy, which was one of respecting the referendum result and working to build a relationship with Europe in the future. But the strength of support within the party for a second referendum was absolutely huge — as was reflected in the pressures of the 2018 conference. The result was the compromise reached in 2019.
Did you enjoy the challenge?
It was fun, every minute of it!
Well, I’m glad.
And I made notes of everybody’s contribution at every Shadow Cabinet meeting.
Alright. And looking back on it now, are there any that you think were not borne out by history?