Jeremy Corbyn is on the road again for a Labour leadership election. In the second part of his HuffPostUK interview, he talks about his style of leadership, his future after a general election - and his cat.
Apart from the electric shock of the Brexit vote, the other main driver of the move to topple Corbyn has been the allegation that he doesn’t look or sound like a ‘credible’ Prime Minister.
The “credibility” and “electability” issue is a centrepiece of the Owen Smith campaign, hammered home with opinion polls that show Labour has been behind the Tories in nearly every survey since Corbyn became leader.
The party did better than some had expected in the local elections in May, but still lost council seats overall. In the Welsh Assembly, it lost a seat to Plaid Cymru in its Rhondda heartland, and UKIP won an eye-catching 12% of the vote.
All this on top of Ed Miliband’s dire 2015 general election, which saw Labour go backwards too across Wales, losing key seats to the Tories in places like nearby Gower.
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As Smith repeatedly pointed out in the Cardiff hustings, since Theresa May’s coronation as Prime Minister in July, the national polls have been even worse, with some giving the Tories a huge 12-point lead and a possible 100 seat majority in a snap general election.
So if the polls don’t move and Labour continues to lose council seats, was Corbyn prepared at any point to step down before the next general election? Or did he think that party members have elected him to contest a general election and he’s at least got to have a crack at one?
“The party members control what happens,” he replied. “They will decide, one way or another.
“You talked about polls, that’s fair enough. Yesterday there were a number of [council] by-elections. Labour gained in Newcastle-under-Lyme with a 19% swing. We lost one in Nottinghamshire narrowly to UKIP, gained the other from UKIP.
[There was a] big swing to Labour in a by-election in Brighton yesterday, on a pretty substantial turnout for a local election. The results that we have actually achieved, the actual votes that have been cast, are far better than anything the opinion polls say.”
John McDonnell said recently that if Labour loses the next general election, it was ‘inevitable’ that he and Corbyn would step down. But given that Neil Kinnock didn’t resign as leader after the 1987 election, is it again upto the members ultimately?
“Look, nothing is inevitable,” Corbyn replied. “And let’s not start predicting the results of the next general election, which may be four years away. I’m campaigning for the leadership of the party at the moment, again.
“I’m very happy to be doing that. I’ve travelling the whole of the UK but we are also doing it in a slightly different way to last year. We are visiting a lot of places we didn’t go to last year because there wasn’t time. We are also using it to campaign more openly and more publicly on how we bring back in communities that have been left behind by the Tories.
“And the crowds are even bigger than last year.”
Some Corbyn allies believe that even if the party does badly in a general election, the blame will lie not with him but with the Parliamentary Labour Party for making the party look so disunited.
Corbyn’s critics in the PLP frequently criticise his lack of leadership. Some of the most wounding criticism has not come from prominent figures, but from those who were prepared to give him a chance.
Former shadow frontbenchers like Lillian Greenwood and Sharon Hodgson have said they felt undermined or ignored by the leadership on key policies, while others complain about a lack of communication and “competence”.
Even Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP who wrote ‘A Very British Coup – the book and TV series that depicted a leftwing Labour leader undermined by dark forces – has turned against Corbyn.
Having predicted accurately last year that the PLP and the media would pounce on the new leader, Mullin blogged in July that Labour risked “annihilation” at the next election. “Jeremy needs to be replaced by someone capable of offering strong leadership in both the party and the country,” he wrote.
It’s undeniable that Corbyn does not fit the usual model of a party leader. He’s the first to admit he’s not comfortable with autocues, and he doesn’t use PMQs in the same way as previous leaders of the Opposition. But it’s precisely his unorthodox style that appeals to many of his supporters.
In a new book, “Leadership BS”, US academic Jeffrey Pfeffer points out that the ‘leadership industry’ has duped most businesses. Other academics have pointed out that there is little evidence for ‘the CEO effect’, and that a company’s performance has more to do with fundamentals about its place in a market than any decisions taken by its chief executive. Did Corbyn think his own leadership shows there is a parallel in politics?
“The idea of the be all, know all, see all, do all, control all, leader is something that is not very happy or healthy in a democracy,” he replied.
“It is about communities and people. When you meet a community that has got together and converted a bit of wasteland into a park, changed a building that was disused into a nursery, got council housing built, opened up an arts centre, they feel incredibly empowered and strong as a result of it.
“One of the proudest things in my constituency is a little place called Gillespie Park. It was due to be turned into a retail distribution centre. The community stopped that, this is a long time ago, 35 years ago, and it was eventually turned into a park.
“It’s now a park with a big ecological bent to it, which is great. And hundreds if not thousands of children have learned from that, so it’s community empowerment I enjoy and also the way in which our party is empowered with ideas.”
Corbyn says that his model of leadership is more about inspiring and motivating others, representing a movement of people. In answers to questions, he often uses ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. But he stresses that it’s not easy.
“It doesn’t make it simple, that’s for sure. But it isn’t about making things simple. Because if you want to change the way a great administration works, if you want to change the way a civil service does things, or a local authority does things, you’ve got to have that public popular pressure to achieve it.
“So I enjoy that interaction. Yes, of course you do have to take decisions and sometimes they are difficult ones, but that’s the responsibility I’ve been given.”
One person who recently made a detailed critique of Corbyn’s leadership was journalist and author Owen Jones. In a lengthy blog, he pointed to ‘disastrous polling’, the lack of a media strategy, the lack of a strategy to win over Tory, UKIP, SNP and older voters.
The piece sparked a backlash among Corbyn supporters. Did he agree with Manuel Cortes, the TSSA union chief who blogged for HuffPost that Jones was a “back-stabber”?
“No,” he replied. “Owen wrote a piece that I… well quite honestly, I didn’t welcome it. I did read it, I thought it was slightly unfair.
“But I tell you what, the next day he wrote an absolutely brilliant piece about the treatment of migrant workers and the Home Office and you know what I retweeted that to my 603,000 followers immediately, because I was so impressed by that article.” The reference to follow numbers on Twitter was pointed: a reminder that Jones has 110,000 fewer than the Labour leader.
Corbyn smiled. “Listen, Owen is a good friend, I’ve known Owen for a very long time. He is a very committed journalist, people are going to write things that each other don’t agree with. Do they have to fall out as a result? No.”
He certainly has a loyal inner-circle and there’s no one more loyal than his Mexican wife Laura. She’s been travelling the country with him on his leadership campaign tour and, away from the cameras, is often by his side.
But at home, does Corbyn practice what he preaches on equal rights? Do they share the housework, like laundry, cooking and cleaning, 50-50?
“If you add up all the jobs and so on, we share things out quite well, we do work hard together do Laura and I,” he said.
And again he smiles that avuncular smile. “But I do most of the feeding of the cat. I take a very great interest in El Gato’s wellbeing.”
Corbyn certainly seems more confident in his role than when he was last interviewed in December by HuffPost, to mark his first 100 days. He is quicker with a quote, more battle-hardened in the demands of the modern media.
And as the recent ‘coup’ attempt showed, he retains a Zen-like ability to shut out the pressure. On the eve of the ‘vote of no confidence’ in him by Labour MPs, he attended the AGM of his local vegetable allotment society.
Back on the road, and buoyed by the crowds at his campaign events since Parliament took its break, he seems more relaxed than ever. So what is he reading right now?
“I’ve just finished a book called ‘Man Tiger’ which I was given at the Royal Festival Hall. It’s a novel written by an Indonesian writer, which I enjoyed very much. It was about the complications of village life, tensions and stresses, which sadly ended up in a couple of murders, but that’s life – or that’s death actually, in that case.”
“And I was just reading a book about Chernobyl letters and Chernobyl writings [’Voices from Chernobyl’] about a woman describing how her firefighter husband went off to fight at fire at Chernobyl and then got airlifted to Moscow.
“And she’s describing in excruciating detail the collapse of his body systems as she’s trying to keep him going. The dishonesty, the lies and everything else she was told by officialdom about it. So, it’s not easy bedtime reading, I have to say.
“But I always read something that is outside of what I do the rest of the time. I read history, I read poetry, and I’ve just been given a lovely book on Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft by a lovely woman in my constituency, a local councillor, Jenny Kay gave it to me.
“And that is fascinating because Mary Wollstonecraft lived in my constituency. But she also came from Hull, where I’m doing a human rights event about her next year.”
It’s a typically Corbyn-like set of interests. Nuclear disasters, poetry, feminism, combined with campaign events. In a message to HuffPost readers, he added: “Enjoy the summer, read widely, think deeply and profoundly, but be happy.”
Asked to sum up why they should vote for him, he replied: “I hope people understand that what we are doing in this leadership election is empowering people and communities, bringing forward a different economic strategy and economic policy so that nobody, no people and no communities, are left behind. An economy that works for all, everywhere.”
With that, he got ready for his rally. Down in the sports hall, Swansea council’s deputy leader Christine Richards opened the event, declaring “this feels like my Labour party again”.
Welsh miners union veteran Tyrone O’Sullivan added: “Jeremy never wants power for himself, he wants people to empower themselves.” Red flags were waved, the Red Flag was sung. A thousand voices cheered.
Outside, there was no overspill audience in the end. The loud speakers still boomed out the speeches and applause in a live feed from the event, the words drifting across an empty lawn.
Should Jeremy Corbyn win the leadership election again, as his supporters are convinced he will, he knows his next task is to ensure those outside the packed rally halls are listening too.
This is the second part of our Jeremy Corbyn interview. To read the first part, click HERE.