From endless wars, militarism, and surges in rightwing “populism” to ceaseless capitalist pillage, neoliberal austerity, and botched international responses to COVID-19 and climate change, the events of recent decades should have galvanized the left much more than they have. Instead of representing and fighting for the interests of working people, however, traditional “left” political parties in the West have focused on appealing mainly to the socially liberal sections of the professional middle classes and managing economic decline. Something needs to change. TRNN contributor Radhika Desai speaks with Jeremy Corbyn about the evolution of the UK’s Labour Party in the era of neoliberalism, and about the need for the left to mobilize communities at the local level while building an international political vision.
Jeremy Corbyn has been a Member of Parliament (MP) representing the Islington North district since 1983, making him among the longest serving MPs in the British House of Commons. He served as Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition from 2015 to 2020.
Pre-Production: Paul Graham
Studio/Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden
Radhika Desai: Never has the need for left politics been greater, and never has it been harder to find. We are in the middle of the most serious public health emergency and economic downturn for decades. In some countries like the UK, it was the most serious ever. Our governments claim to be following strategies that balance the saving of lives and the saving of livelihoods. However, it’s increasingly clear to more and more of us that, in fact, their main priority is saving the wealth and incomes of the wealthiest and giving them further opportunities for enrichment. War profiteering used to be a thing. Now we have pandemic profiteering.
While opposition parties barely oppose, working peoples are losing lives as well as livelihoods, women, the racialized, and the otherwise marginalized the most. How is it that at this grave conjuncture, practically the only people criticizing government responses are right-wing protestors against lockdowns and vaccines? Where is the left critique that demands that governments save lives as well as livelihoods, as much poorer societies have shown is possible? This dire political situation is unfortunately entrenched and has a long history. For 40 years, capitalist ruling classes around the world have waged a class war on working people, deepening inequality, entrenching poverty and marginalization, destroying industry, encouraging predatory and speculative finance, and enriching an ever-narrowing, plundering, and unproductive elite.
For any sensible progressive, these decades should have been the left’s opportunity, its chance to mobilize the ever-growing constituency of discontents of neoliberalism. They should have been, but they were not. Rather than fight neoliberalism, the historic parties of the working class throughout the advanced industrial world threw their political and intellectual towels in and succumbed to neoliberalism. As the historic parties of the right shifted rightwards, led by the likes of Thatcher and Reagan, the historic parties of the left followed them, led by the likes of Blair and Clinton.
In the major capitalist countries, the political spectrum offers voters only a choice between right and left versions of neoliberalism. Rather than fighting neoliberalism, the historic parties of the left have attacked what remains of a genuinely social democratic left in their own ranks. Instead of representing the interests of working people, they appeal only to socially liberal sections of the professional middle class, who today constitute a veritable cross-party political establishment. Instead of marginalizing working people, the historic parties of the left abandoned them to be mobilized by right-wing unscrupulous demagogues such as Trump and Johnson who seek to exploit rather than heal the social inequality and division that ail societies today. How can we build genuinely left politics today? What will it take to do so?
Hello, this is Radhika Desai at The Real News Network. And with me to discuss all this is Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy needs very little introduction, but a few things are relevant to this interview. Having joined the British Labour Party as a boy, he has been continuously reelected as MP for his Islington North constituency since 1983, and is today among the longest-serving MPs in the British House of Commons. More importantly for us, despite the long and bloody battle successive Labour leaderships have conducted against the Labour left since Tony Benn represented the left-wing upsurge of the 1970s, Jeremy has stuck to his radical positions, including by taking the lead in opposing attacks on working people, racism, imperialism, and militarism. So when in 2015 he was elected the leader of the Labour Party, it was as a leftist.
Over the four years of his leadership, Jeremy expanded the party until it became the largest in Western Europe and the most left wing of the major parties. As such, he had to face not just the conservatives but the Blair-right political establishment in his own party, who has waged unrelenting war against him. This included the sabotage that ensured that Labour would not win the 2017 elections, though it nevertheless made historic gains and denied the conservatives the majority. All this gives Jeremy the unique distinction of being the left politician who has come closest to power since the onset of neoliberalism, and he did so on the sort of left wing platform we really sorely need. So Jeremy has a unique vantage point on the possibilities and difficulties of creating a viable left politics. And rumor has it he’s going to start a new party. Welcome to The Real News Network, Jeremy.
Jeremy Corbyn: Thank you very much. And thank you for inviting me onto your program. Absolute pleasure to be with you and to have this discussion about how we advance the whole cause of socialism, of social justice, both within our own countries, but obviously the global issues that go with it. And post-pandemic, this kind of discussion and debate is vital, but it has to be realistic and followed up by action. And tomorrow, I’ll be with many, many others all over the country, one of over 20 demonstrations all across Britain on the issue of the cost of living, of the rising prices, and the falling real wages that people are facing at the present time.
And whilst it’s very easy to get depressed about lots of things, political power doesn’t just belong in the corridors of parliaments or government offices around the world. Political power actually exists wherever you are. Everybody has political power, and they have more power if they’re united. That’s why we move. That’s why we motivate. That’s why we demonstrate. That’s why we take action. And that’s what I’m doing.
Radhika Desai: That’s great, Jeremy. Thank you. I think your continuing commitment from well before you were leader and since you’ve been leader to the cause of building socialism is really what makes this interview so valuable to us. So, let me start with a very general and contextualizing question. How do you see the evolution of the Labour Party in the era of neoliberalism? What were the major milestones in its rightward shift? What forces pushed it to the right? What forces fought this shift? Was the shift inevitable? What broader lessons do you draw from it? And also, what were the key turning points from your point of view, from where you were looking at it?
Jeremy Corbyn: Thanks, Radhika. That’s a really good question. There are so many turning points in Labour history that I’m not quite sure where to begin. I could go back to about 1882 or something like that, but you might not want that length of answer. So I think what I’d like to do is put it in a more modern context. And you’re quite right in your introduction to talk of the economics of Reagan and Thatcher, and of course the experimentation that went into that by Friedman in Chile. And so I would put the argument in the 1970s. In 1973, the Labour Party adopted a quite radical program of public ownership, the redistribution of power and wealth in society, and it was called Labour’s Programme for Britain 1973. It was quite an interesting and very valuable document, and it formed the basis of the election manifestos a year later.
Remember, internationally, 1970 to ’73 was a traumatic period, because that program was adopted only a month after Salvador Allende had been killed in the coup in Chile, and his government obviously removed and replaced by the fascist Pinochet. So, Labour adopted this program. ’74 general election was held during a miner’s strike. And then another general election was held a few months later, and Labour obtained a very small overall majority in Parliament in that election of October ’74. Tony Benn was a very leading and senior figure in that government and his diaries are probably the best record of the government and what it did.
But the government, like so many before it, pursued a fundamentally orthodox economic model despite the changes that Tony Benn and others, Barbara Castle, were trying to bring in. And the government then got into more and more financial difficulties, got under pressure from the international bankers. The value of the pound got under pressure. And so the government basically caved in, invited the International Monetary Fund to come to London. They stayed in Brown’s hotel in the center of London, went in every day to the treasury, went through all the books, and basically proposed a whole period of austerity, which meant wage control and essentially dealing with inflation – Which was massive – By a small amount of price control and a massive amount of wage control.
This then meant Labour lost the majority. There were by-elections. And there was a Lib–Lab pact which carried on until the 1979 motion of no confidence. Government defeated, general election, and Labour lost to Margaret Thatcher. And the campaign of the Tories was saying, Labour isn’t working, and had a picture of a load of actors queuing up to labor exchange, as they were then called, for jobs. That was a fundamental turning point in the Labour Party because the Labour government actually adopted an IMF strategy.
Then in the early ’80s, the Labour Party moved strongly to the left. Under the influence of Tony Benn, we challenged for the deputy leadership against Denis Healey who had been the finance minister. Tony Benn very narrowly lost that election. And the Labour policies didn’t change very much, and we went into the 1983 general election when I was elected, and we lost comprehensively on a very populous message from the Tories, essentially questioning the patriotism of the Labour Party and the Labour leader and the issues of nuclear weapons.
Labour, then, was in opposition for a very long time and gradually moved to the right under Neil Kinnock after Michael Foot resigned in ’83. And then having lost the ’92 elections, surprisingly, on a misrepresentation of Labour’s taxation plans by the Tories, John Smith became leader but sadly died after a year, who was basically a traditional center-right social democrat but did believe in Labour values. Tony Blair became leader, and we then went into new Labour and the third way, the Blair-Clinton idea that somehow or other there was no such thing as socialism, no such thing as capitalism, there was just management, and we had Britain PLC.
And indeed Blair won the election in 1997 and didn’t fundamentally challenge the power structures or inequality in society but did spend more money on health and education, some improvements in housing and minimum wage. And then came George Bush and the Iraq War, and that was devastating for those of us in the left of the party, and we obviously opposed the war.
So I say all that as a way of a preamble to where we go from there. Then Blair resigned in 2007. Gordon Brown became prime minister. The financial crash came. Looking back, the financial crash was inevitable from the subprime mortgage crisis in the USA, from the levels of unsubstantiated borrowing by the private sector, and by the way in which Chinese imports had been underpriced deliberately in order to build up a big market for Chinese goods. That obviously, in a free market economy, damaged the manufacturing industry in Europe, Britain, and the USA, probably more in the free market economies than the slightly more controlled economies of France and Germany. And that in turn led to a rapid process of deindustrialization, and that is the key area where the Rust Belt in the USA, the Silent Northern Towns, silent since the miner’s strike had been defeated by Thatcher in 1985. And we then went into a period of industrial decline.
Radhika Desai: And the 25% contraction that Mrs. Thatcher imposed on British manufacturing. So, in Britain [crosstalk] much earlier.
Jeremy Corbyn: Exactly. She deliberately imposed that by the combination of privatization and just opposition to manufacturing.
So we then had the situation where Labour was defeated in 2010, being blamed for the financial crisis which was global rather than national anyway. The Tories introduced vicious austerity measures in 2010 onwards. And those vicious austerity measures hit living standards, of course, hit local authorities, and everything else. The Liberals supported that government all the way through. Labour, whilst proposing some amelioration of the crisis, didn’t really propose an alternative. And we lost the 2015 election because actually we were committed to a wage freeze in the public sector in that election. Personally, I wasn’t, but the party manifesto said exactly that.
So I was asked to challenge for leadership in 2015. Did so, and we recruited a very large number of members and supporters to the Labour Party, and we won that leadership. And that was the beginning of an opportunity to fundamentally change policy, but also to mobilize a whole new generation that felt disenfranchised during the Blair years. And it wasn’t just in this country. The same thing was happening in the USA and happening across a lot of Europe. So there was a lot happening at that time, and we were able to develop this alternative economic strategy. Which, I remain very proud of the achievements we made in the party on changes of policy, but above all in changes of political culture, the political culture of mobilizing a political party to be a bit like the Workers’ Party of Brazil, active in every community all the time, not just at election time. So the party becomes the community in its activities.
And this is where I received one of the twin areas of the strongest opposition to me came from that policy, and also from my international perspective, which probably we’ll come onto in the interview. A very long answer, I’m sure, Radhika. I hope it’s some help.
Radhika Desai: No, absolutely. But it is still… Okay. So if I may just follow up. Do you think that this shift to the right was inevitable? Do you think there were underlying shifts in Britain in the social basis of the Labour Party or something else that, for instance, with the de-industrialization, that made this inevitable, or was something else possible? Were there people fighting this shift to the right? Of course you were, but why was it not stronger? a fight against this shift towards Blairism, towards the right, et cetera.
Jeremy Corbyn: The Labour Party has always been a disputed territory of philosophy and ideas, and it goes back to the opposition with the idea of a popular front in the 1930s with the Communist Party, when Labour adopted a very [vehemently] anti-communist position, won the election in 1945. Radical, if state-run, social program in 1945 in Britain, an international policy that was indistinguishable from the United States and the Cold War. And so the politics of the Cold War played very heavily in the Labour Party. And indeed members were expelled for supporting a popular front in Italy, for example, when Pietro Nenni led the popular front in Italy in the elections there in 1948.
1950s, big political battleground between a sort of, in shorthand terms, pro US right in the Labour Party, and a left in the Labour Party that wasn’t actually particularly pro Soviet Union, but was pro socialism and social justice. And that battle went on. Wilson became the leader in 1963 as a product of that battle in which he had historically been seen somewhere on the left. And he then won election and was in office as prime minister when there were, again, big disputes in the party. And Wilson was pressed and pressurized a lot by the left to go a lot further and a lot faster, but also there were big arguments over foreign policy, particularly the Vietnam War.
But the economic question is a fundamental one. Because, again, that government obsessed itself from the beginning with maintaining the value of sterling against the dollar. There’s a very interesting book about that called Enemies of Promise that was written at that time, which was about the way in which the government basically destroyed itself on the altar of maintaining a falsely high exchange rate with the dollar, which led to devaluation in ’67 and cuts in the program. So we had, in two successive Labour governments, that one, and the second Wilson government leading into the Callaghan government, where the IMF and the bankers managed to destroy the social program of a Labour government. And so it is a fundamental issue.
Now, does Labour move to the right because it wants to move to the right, or is it under pressure? It’s a bit of both. It is a wish by the establishment to make sure the Labour party is a safe place for them and it’s not going to fundamentally challenge society. And the social class system in Britain fully supports and understands all of that. And the structure of the Labour party played absolutely into that by its empowerment of the Parliamentary Caucus of the Labour Party as opposed to the members. I was elected by the members of the party, not by the Parliamentary Labour Party, and that was the fundamental division from the very beginning.
Radhika Desai: That is a good way to go into the next question, which is do you think that the Labour Party… I mean, the forces that have gone along with the changes are presumably those that are bound up with the change in the Labour Party’s social base. Because one reads about how both the membership and the trade unions increasingly represent more and more of the educated professional middle classes. And of course the Labour Party leadership, which is of course not – Excluding your leadership – But the usual Labour Party leadership we have these days represents those classes even more. So that’s where you get this sort of contest between the sort of the party establishment, which is professional middle class, which has lost touch with the social base of the Labour Party. And you could say in some fashion this has happened to all parties, but certainly this plagues the Labour Party a lot.
Jeremy Corbyn: From the 1980s until the last five years, trade union membership consistently went down in Britain, as it did in many other parts of the world. And the strongest unions have become those in the public sector rather than the private sector, which is a complete reversal of the position in the 1970s. That’s made a difference.
I think it’s wrong to characterize educated people as necessarily being on the right. I personally want everybody to have the opportunity to go to university if it’s for them and it suits them, and that’s why I was very determined to include in our manifesto the end of all university fees as a way of empowering those that wouldn’t be able to afford to go to university to go there. And so the level of university education in the Labour Party is very high. And indeed in the shadow cabinet, I think I was the only member of the shadow cabinet that didn’t have a university degree. I think, that is.
Radhika Desai: That is quite remarkable, but that is also perhaps telling. I mean, I agree with you of course that education is a good thing, but it also has… When it’s considered an entitlement rather than something everybody should have, then it has a different place, different social dynamics.
But anyway, let me continue a little bit further on this. So of course this is the context in which of course you became elected leader of the Labour Party. As you rightly pointed out, you were elected by the membership. And of course your leadership was transformative. There was a vast influx of members into the Labour Party. Your leadership shifted it decisively to the left. And you also showed that this could be electorally successful, because in 2017 you won the biggest increase in the vote share of Labour since 1945. That’s saying something, especially given how everybody talks about how left-wing politics is useless and you can’t… It’s electorally unsuccessful and so on.
So, for you, what did this shift represent? How did it change the Labour Party from what it had been just a few years before, before you became the leader? How was the political ground shifting? And also, what has been its lasting legacy that a British left can build on?
Jeremy Corbyn: I was determined to bring about obviously all the policy changes which we’ve mentioned on environment, economy and so on, but I was also determined to change the culture, hence my point on community organizing. And party membership increased from less than 200,000 to over 600,000 during my leadership. And the party had far more resources as a result from the membership subscriptions.
What didn’t happen, which I wanted to happen, was that the new members or the returning members didn’t all necessarily become totally active in their local parties. They tended to see their political activity as activism in their community, as demonstrations, as campaigns, as solidarity, all excellent things. But the character of the party at a community and constituency level didn’t change as much as I would’ve wanted it to do. Now, I obviously take the blame for everything that went wrong. That’s my responsibility. But I think that was a factor in it.
There was also an issue of political education and political consciousness in different parts of the country. A few minutes ago, you were making the point about deindustrialization. In the heyday of the steel towns of the Great Lakes or the steel towns and coal mining communities in Britain, there was a very high level of union membership in those towns and the union hall was as powerful a place as anything else, and indeed often more powerful than the political parties. With the removal of heavy manufacturing industry or indeed the loss of jobs within surviving industries… I mean, the last time I went into a steelworks, which wasn’t that long ago, the thing that impressed me was how few people that were there, that it was all a process of, basically, automation. There were not the hundreds or thousands of people working there that there used to be. So that meant union influence declined rapidly within those labor parties in those areas, and with it the political consciousness and activism that comes from union membership.
So we are now looking at post industrial towns where employment levels have not gone back to the level they were during heavy industry, but are up quite a bit, usually from small businesses, service economy, and not very secure jobs, non-union jobs. So that union connection with the communities has been reduced. And so I set myself a task as well of supporting, bringing into membership and activism, those people in the gig economy. And so that’s not something you can achieve in six months. That is a longer term project. But I’ll tell you what. For the left to be successful and challenge the simplistic, racist, individualistic, nasty far right message of Trump and Johnson, it can only be done by mobilizing communities. It can only be done by increasing union membership in those areas as well, which is something I’m, whether I’m leader of the party or not, I’m doing. And I’m involved with supporting workers in a number of the new unions that are trying to recruit people in the service sector at the present time. Because that, to me, is the way forward.
Radhika Desai: I think you’re absolutely right. I think you’re expressing the core, I would say, at least from what I can see, of a critically important political truth that we need to know in our times. Because, as you rightly said, in the days when Labour was at its most successful, it was what some people used to call jokingly [inaudible] this great movement of ours. It wasn’t just a political party. There was a dense network of social movements, unions, cooperative societies, neighborhood associations, and [halls] and whatnot. How does one, in the context of the de-industrialization, automation, gig economy, the general individualization of social life that has many, many contributors, how does one recreate that in the present context? It’s so difficult right now.
Jeremy Corbyn: And you should factor into that question, if I may say so, the issue of media and information flows.
Radhika Desai: Yes.
Jeremy Corbyn: You and I all use social media a great deal. We read social media, and we get most of our information from social media. And in a sense, we self-select where our news is coming from, so we tend to get news from the people we like. And the people we don’t like, then we just block them or don’t read their websites or whatever else. And I think that is actually a political issue about the media. And the Project for Peace and Justice is very alive to this. We’re working on that. So, that’s one question.
The second is on mobilization of people. People no longer live so much in geographical communities. They live in a social media head space as well. So you talk to most young people and they obviously live in this street, this town, this neighborhood, this village, whatever, and they know people in that area. But a lot of their social interactions are on social media, which might be people hundreds of miles away or different countries all over the world. I mean, we’re having this wonderful conversation. You are in frozen Winnipeg. I’m in gray London. And it’s great we’re having the conversation. 10 years ago we wouldn’t even have dreamt of doing this. We wouldn’t even have thought of that. We’d have either spent a great deal of money traveling to see each other, or simply wouldn’t have talked to each other. So it is about communication and mobilization. But I go back to the point of bringing people into the context where they will be able to be exposed to different political ideas, and that comes through art, through music, through culture, through work, and through dealing with stress.
COVID, biggest cause of stress there’s been in my lifetime, biggest cause of stress ever in my lifetime. That COVID has caused impoverishment, transfer of power to the wealthiest and wealth to the wealthiest, and has caused a mental health crisis. How do we deal with that? Do we deal with that individually, or do we deal with that collectively? And in your country, just as in mine, there is a whole generation of people that came down as mutual aid, support groups, et cetera, to come together and support each other during COVID. That surely is the fundamental message. You can’t deal with healthcare on your own. You can’t deal with these crises on your own. It’s a collective answer we’re looking for.
Radhika Desai: Yeah. Sure. I mean, of course you rightly point to the importance of social media, but it’s of course a double-edged sword. It, on the one hand, certainly helps to create certain types of communities, but it also isolates people from other communities. And this also is an interesting way also to come to this whole question of Brexit, which so cleared the pitch in both the elections that you fought, both the general elections you fought in ’17 and ’19.
And of course Brexit, as you know, it became a major issue. It was made a major issue by, essentially, careless and unscrupulous politicians, conservative politicians who thought this was the only way they had of winning back votes that they had lost to UKIP and Farage. But at the same time, it has created some dilemmas for the left, and particularly one reads a lot about the red walls and the abandoned working class communities of the North, and the globalizing elite of the South. Theresa May uses the expression, people from nowhere, and people from somewhere, and so on. I mean, how do you negotiate all this? In Britain, this whole phenomenon has taken the peculiar shape of Brexit. But of course in other countries, certainly people are talking about similar phenomena that are relevant to them as well, so your answer will be helpful to people not just in Britain. So, how did you view the whole question of Brexit? How did you try to negotiate it? And how does one move beyond it? How does the left move beyond it today?
Jeremy Corbyn: Thanks. That’s obviously a key factor in so much in Britain, and indeed in Europe, and it was and remains a massive issue and a problem. The relationship with Britain and the EU goes back a long way. Initially, Britain didn’t want to join the EU and felt they’d be stronger outside, then applied several times to join the European Union, or Common Market it was then called, and was rejected, then joined. And then Labour had formally opposed joining, but a Labour rebellion in the Commons supported the government, the Tory government at the time, Ted Heath, in joining. And then Harold Wilson called a referendum on membership on the basis of his renegotiated terms of membership with the European community or Common Market, it was then called. And that resulted in a 60-plus% vote in favor of remaining.
There was always residual opposition to it. And I was one of those that voted against membership with the European… Common Market in 1975 on the basis that it was promoting free market economics and we wanted to have a planned economy and the ability of public intervention in industries. But even at that time, and this is going back to ’75, which is, what almost 50 years ago. I recognized there was an Achilles heel in our campaign, and that was that the right in British politics also opposed membership for reasons of imperial grandeur, for reasons of ethnic and racial identity. And I remember taking a group of people… We’d gone on a demonstration, a march in London in support of a no vote. A whole lot of people from the right turned up. I said to the organizers, they should be kicked off the march. They should have nothing to do with it. The organizers were not keen on doing that, so I took my delegation away and we left it. And I organized a campaign in my own community, which was a more left-wing critique.
Now, the European Union became more powerful and expanded and did develop a sort of social justice model that went alongside its other economic model which I didn’t totally support. And the Labour movement in Britain moved much closer to the European Union, and indeed successive Labour Committees voted in support of the EU.
The Maastricht Treaty was to me a turning point because Maastricht set up the Euro, European Central Bank, a bank based on bankers not nations or not… And no democratic accountability. I voted against Maastricht. And my view was that, whilst I recognized the majority of the party supported EU membership, I thought therefore in the referendum, which was foisted upon us by, basically, David Cameron doing deals with UKIP, was that we should remain and reform. And my reform proposals were about ending the state aid rules and various other things, including European-wide minimum wage and levels of public sector support for people on benefits. The minimum wage was an absolutely crucial issue because of the huge difference in wages between Eastern and Western Europe.
And so we went into the referendum on that campaign. But I have to say that two thirds of the way through the referendum campaign, well, I refused to share any platforms with Tories or anybody else because we had a different message. I thought the no vote was going to win. Win because of the increase in registration and because of the simplistic message and dishonest message being put forward by Farage and Johnson that getting out of the EU will save you lots of money and also stop all immigration and stop all free movement of people and all those arguments. Whereas I said, well look, in or out, we’re going to have a trading relationship with Europe. In or out, there’s going to be people from all over the world coming here, living here, working here. And we depend on them for our economic survival.
We lost the referendum and the Labour Party was in a difficult position. 60% of the Labour voters voted remain. 40% voted leave. Clearly we couldn’t win a general election without the support of both of them, and I tried to characterize it by saying, if you live in London, and you are in private rented accommodation, and you’re on the universal credit, you are in a difficult position even if you voted remain. If you live in Mansfield and you are in exactly the same position and you voted leave, your interests are class interests. Your interests are in a Labour government that will redistribute power and wealth within the UK.
And that got us so far, but fundamentally Johnson was offering an incredibly dishonest, very simplistic message. And when I challenged him, for example, on his deals… Secret deals he was doing with the United States on healthcare companies coming in and taking out the NHS, I was accused of spreading Russian propaganda by the media, all of the media, all of them, even the so-called responsible media spread it. It was complete and utter nonsense. What I said was an absolute truth, and it’s turned out to be the case because the American companies are taking over the NHS. So we have a cultural issue there.
Now Britain is outside the EU and Johnson is using that as an excuse to develop this global Britain strategy, which means increase in arms expenditure, aircraft carriers going around the world, and our now horrendously dangerous situation with our involvement between Ukraine and Russia with NATO forces and so on. So I think there has to be the closest possible relationship with socialists on the left in Europe. And indeed I’ve just come back from Madrid where I was speaking at a big conference organized by one of the partners with the socialist party in government there, Podemos. And we had a big conference on taxation and tax justice and social justice. So, it’s building solidarity with the left across Europe. Because at the end of the day, in or out of the European Union, the economic philosophy of austerity is alive and kicking and doing very well. That is the enemy of the working class. That is the enemy of social justice.
Radhika Desai: Absolutely. I mean, one of the ironies of the British vote for Brexit, Britain became the first country to leave the European Union, but it was also the country that always did its special deals. I mean, it was not in the Euro. It didn’t accept many aspects of the EU treaty, and so on. So really Britain’s neoliberalism, everything that ailed the British people was actually far more homemade than it was made in Europe. But Britain still left the European Union because of the kind of –
Jeremy Corbyn: We often had the peculiar position where we would argue in Parliament for European-wide workers’ rights conditions because they were so under attack by Thatcher. During the whole Brexit negotiations and the three months of negotiations we had with Theresa May, my bottom line was trade deal, workers’ rights, environmental protection, so that we would maintain those jobs, and we would use the European working time initiative, et cetera, all those European regulations as a benchmark base from which we might build, but we would not go below. And I obviously discussed this with unions and socialist parties across Europe. Now, that solidarity has to carry on whether we’re inside the European Union or not because we have to be united. All these companies work on a global basis. The left needs to work on a much more global basis well.
Radhika Desai: Yeah. I know we’re running out of time, so I’m going to confine myself to just two more questions.
Jeremy Corbyn: Sure. And I’ll be quicker with my answers.
Radhika Desai: Okay. I guess the first question, really, is about your relationship with the Labour Party and the Labour Party itself. So let me just pack a couple of them into one. Despite your stellar record against racism, the particular form that the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Labour Party establishments that attack against you took was the accusations of antisemitism. And I’m sure that was horrible, and we know that accusations of antisemitism are used more widely against people who establishments want to discredit, and typically against people who are on the left. So, what role did this civil war that was created in the Labour Party, what role did it play according to you in the 2019 elections? And what is your assessment more generally of the Starmer leadership? And do you think the Labour Party’s worth hanging onto anymore, or are you going to start a new party?
Jeremy Corbyn: Antisemitism is evil and wrong in any form, any place, any time. And I’ve made that absolutely clear all of my life and I will till my dying day that we cannot tolerate that form of racism or, indeed, any other form of racism. Racism is sent to divide us. And the contribution of Jewish communities and intellectuals in the development of left thinking in Britain, in Europe, in Russia, in the United States, in Canada, and everywhere else is a massive one, and I glory in that tradition of those that have made that massive contribution. And the accusations against me were monstrous and wrong, and I challenge them and continue to challenge them. And I’ve made sure that there are processes for dealing with it. And I will never accept any form antisemitism in any shape whatsoever.
The question of the direction of the Labour Party is a key one. To win an election, you have to mobilize a lot of people. And we have a first-past-the-post system in Britain. And in the 2017 election, despite the media attacks on me and on the party, our program turned out to be very popular, and we achieved the highest vote that Labour had had in this century. We achieved almost 13 million votes, which in our country is a lot of votes. And I was proud of the votes we achieved and of the seats we gained. We were within a whisker of gaining a majority which would’ve formed a government, or a minority Labour government, which would’ve handled things so very, very differently. I obviously regret all of that.
But I just say to anyone in the Labour Party that is campaigning to win an election, you cannot go into an election promising to carry out austerity, spend more on arms than you are on anything else, and not challenge the grotesque levels of inequality of economic strength and power within our society. You have to take on what is a very powerful and very well entrenched establishment. Believe me, I’ve met them. I know them. I see them. And I recognize how powerful they are. And so if the Labour Party retreats into some sort of managerialism of how you manage economic decline, then it’s not very exciting, not very interesting, and not very good at mobilizing, particularly young people, because it is young people that will decide our future.
Our young people at the moment get stressed in education, over testing, over pressurized. They get charged astronomically for going to college or university and massive debts that come as a result of that. They don’t get access to social housing, or council housing as we call it in Britain, because there is insufficient of it available, so they go into the private rented sector, where they’re paying… In some cases in London people are paying half of all their income on renting a very small flat. None of that is sustainable.
My whole philosophy and program was about empowering, enthusing, exciting, and mobilizing young people. And that’s exactly what I’m going to be saying at the big rally tomorrow. And that’s what I spend my time and energies doing, traveling around a place, hoping that I can share enthusiasm and hope, particularly with young people. Because I don’t want to live in a world that’s so grotesquely divided and destroying itself environmentally, and then politicians that take us to war to divert from their many other failings in other areas. It can be a different and a better world. I want to build it
Radhika Desai: With or without a new party. Final question. Obviously we read in the newspapers that Keir Starmer has gone rushing off to Brussels in order to underline Britain’s commitment to NATO. And generally he has attacked you on the side as a sort of optional extra bonus he gets for whoever among his own little group. But the fact of the matter is that we live in a world that is rapidly changing, where Western countries are losing their political and economic centrality in the world. Today, for example, China has declared that it supports Argentina’s claim to the Malvinas. The Mauritians are becoming more ambitious about the Chagos Islands.
So, in this very, very rapidly changing context, and of course you rightly mentioned the forces that are irresponsibly heightening tensions over Ukraine. And of course once this is done I’m sure we will see similar situations developing around the South China Sea. So, what do you think should be the outlines of a truly progressive foreign policy for Britain? Particularly in relation, on the one hand to Russia, China, et cetera, and on the other hand to the US, Europe, et cetera? You’ve already said some things about Europe, but if you can complete your answer.
Jeremy Corbyn: Well, fundamentally we should stop pretending that we can afford or sustain a global military role for Britain. We are 65 million people on the Northwest coast of Europe. We have, behind the United States, almost the second highest level of defense expenditure within NATO, and it is absolutely massive. And we have a huge arms industry that is exporting arms. When we export arms, human rights abuses follow. Massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia result in children dying in Yemen and other places. So it is about a reassessment of our role.
Now, Boris Johnson has said he will support NATO unconditionally in its support for Ukraine against Russia. And Liz Truss went off to Russia to tell the Russians as much but then got her geography a bit confused somewhere along the line. It is a dangerous situation. I support human rights in all countries. Russia, China, Ukraine, Europe, USA. They’re human rights. They’re universal, and we should support them.
But I cannot see how supporting a military conflict between Russia and NATO over Ukraine will not result in the loss of thousands and thousands of lives, billions spent on arms expenditure. The only beneficiaries will be the populism of politicians, a small number of them, and of course the arms manufacturers that sell the arms. So there has to be a settlement. The Minsk agreement provides a basis on which I believe a settlement could come, and I think the British government and the Labour front bench that have rushed off in support of all this are in a simply wrong position. It’s very interesting that President Macron, with whom I have many disagreements on many issues, has a more nuanced and more sensible approach on this, as does the German government at the present time. I was at a stop the war rally last night, an online rally. We had a lot of people there, and all these views were expressed there.
So, I’ll just finish with this, really, because we’re running out of time. What is security? What is our security? Is my security having a nuclear weapon that can destroy the rest of the world? Does that make me secure? Does that make me happy? Or is security my ability to eat, my children to be educated, my ability to go to a doctor, my environment being clean and sustainable? Translate that around the world. For millions of people, security to them isn’t nuclear weapons or anything else. Security to them is being able to feed their children tomorrow. And so, can we start looking at the basis of what real security is and how you bring about peace from that? And if the world carries on spending billions and billions on more and more arms, and then blaming refugees for being refugees, and allowing the planet to be destroyed by environmental destruction, it’s a pretty grim future. Surely to goodness, COP26 and COVID should have taught us something in those directions. Let’s bring peace to Ukraine and Russia, and then try and bring security to the rest of the world, real security.
Radhika Desai: Thank you very much, Jeremy. I know you have to go. We’d love to keep you here for much longer with lots of other questions, but I hope very much that that message gets across, because really at the present time, it seems as though… I mean, the message that you are giving, that we agree with it, it’s such a simple message and it’s really astonishing how somehow it doesn’t get understood, it doesn’t get heard, et cetera. But I love your optimism. And thanks very much. I think we should… Other people should share it and act on it. Thank you very –
Jeremy Corbyn: It’s a pleasure to talk to you, Radhika. Thank you very much. And I look forward to the spring here.
Radhika Desai: Okay. Thank you. Bye-bye.