Jeremy Corbyn is the man of the moment. To mark his first 100 days as Labour leader, he talks to HuffPostUK about the learning curve of being in the top job, his plans for foreign policy and his take on the United States Presidential race.
Jeremy Corbyn is late, but he has a pretty good excuse. A one-man selfie-magnet these days, the leader of the Labour Party can’t get more than a yard down the road without someone stopping to shake his hand, request a phone photo or just have a chat.
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He’s been out canvassing for two hours on a council estate in his north London constituency and was waylaid by voters, some of whom were pleasantly surprised that the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was still diligently tending his local patch.
Arriving on his bicycle at Café Metro, a favourite greasy spoon of his next to Archway tube, Corbyn again can’t move without well-wishers wanting a brief catch-up. Finally, he sits down for a cup of coffee, placing on the table a sheaf of newspapers that say everything about his reading habits: the Morning Star and at least three Irish newspapers.
Interviewed by the HuffPost UK to mark his first 100 days as party leader, the veteran leftwing MP is very much on home ground in his Islington North seat. And away from the cameras and the Westminster hoopla of his new post, what has he been most affected by so far?
“The change of life,” he says, instantly. “In the sense that I’m under far more scrutiny than I’ve ever been in my life before. At one level, I feel irritated by it because nobody really likes it when you’re under scrutiny 24/7, but I’ve learned to live with that.
“The highlight for me is the sheer warmth of ordinary people. I’ve just been to a community centre up the road here. Everybody was saying ‘thank you for being here, it’s nice you’re still with us’, and of course I’m still with them I always will be. So I was delayed singing carols and we sang ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ with great gusto.
“I was just talking to a lady just down here who said she’s only come back into politics because of what we’ve done with the Labour party. She said ‘I see hope’. And it’s that sort of thing that’s such an antidote to the scrappiness, negativity of Westminster politics and what a lot of print media do to me.”
As for that print media, he retains a sense of humour, despite the barbs. “When I was buying a paper just now, this guy said to me, ‘you don’t need to buy any of those, they’re all going to be attacking you’. So I said, ‘no, no, I’ve got no problems with the Irish Post or the Leinster Leader. Or the Morning Star.’”
He keeps his feet on the ground by visiting not just his own constituency, but also by getting out of London altogether. Corbyn has built into his new routine a strict edict that nearly every week he only spends three and a half days at Westminster and that the rest of the time he’s out on the road, away from the Parliamentary bubble.
“There is a sort of relentless demand on one, so every week Prime Minister’s Question Time comes round, every week there’s a whole lot of things that have to be done.
“And it’s balancing that with the need to not spend one’s whole time in one’s office, dealing with whatever crisis appears. I find if you are in an office, the crisis finds you. If you’re not in the office, the crisis finds somebody else.
“And so I’m very insistent on doing my constituency work and constituency surgery. I had to cancel two interviews yesterday because so many people came. I was there for five hours [which is two and a half hours longer than he’d put in his diary].”
Corbyn has been MP for Islington North for 32 years and at the last general election secured a huge 21,000 vote majority. Asked to list the main lessons he’s learned about the difference between being a backbench MP and being party leader, he is swift to reply.
“The media is one issue. And the levels of hostility I’ve faced are unbelievable. Frankly some of it is just plain abuse. I took a vow a long time ago that I don’t respond to personal attacks, I don’t make personal attacks, never have, never will because I think it just demeans politics.
“And if I’d started responding to all this stuff since the leadership campaign had begun, I’d then be in the trench with them arguing about whether my third cousin removed did or didn’t do something bad in 1956. So what? It’s irrelevant to anything.”
But he’s also candid enough to admit that he has found it difficult to express himself clearly when faced with the demands of the media – and of his own MPs, the vast majority of whom didn’t vote for him in the leadership contest.
“The other side of it [leadership] is that decisions come to you and you have to take them. And I make mistakes like anybody else, I will make mistakes. And you have to reflect on it and you have to listen to people. That is the key.”
At a particularly tense Parliamentary Labour Party meeting last month, he came under attack for suggesting in the wake of the ISIL Paris attacks that anti-terror police should not operate a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Backbench MP John Mann pointed out that his niece had been trapped in a Paris café fearing for her life.
Was it a mistake not being clear enough about ‘shoot to kill’ policies? “I thought I had been clear,” Corbyn says. “I obviously had not been clear, that’s one thing. It’s issues like that you have to recognise that people are always looking for one word you say, not the whole sentence. The late, great Tony Banks once said to me in the chamber, he said ‘Mr Speaker, if ever there is a doubt, no MP ever got the benefit of it’.”
As evidenced by the choice of local papers in the newsagent’s, Archway still has a strong Irish community. But one particular sportsman with Irish links, British heavyweight champion boxer Tyson Fury, has been almost as high profile as Corbyn recently.
Fury caused outrage when he claimed in one interview that women should stay ‘on their backs in the kitchen’ and that the legalisation of homosexuality was a form of evil. Fury is of Irish Traveller descent and claims to be an evangelical Christian.
So what does Corbyn think of the fact that Fury is on the shortlist for the BBC’s ‘Sports Personality of the Year’ 2015 Award? “I wish he hadn’t made those remarks,” the Labour leader replies. “I’m very unclear as to what he actually believes. I’d like to meet him and have a chat, if he’s up for it.”
Would he change his mind? “I don’t know him, so I don’t want to make judgements on him. I think there’s good in everybody. So let’s recognise we live in a world where people are gay, people are straight, people are transsexual, it’s OK, it’s not the end of the world, people have different faiths, it’s OK, it’s not the end of the world.
“I’d love to have a chat with him. I don’t know how he’d be with me, but I’m sure we could find something to talk about. I’m not a great boxer, but I have visited the local boxing club and had a chat with them and they do good stuff with bringing degree of order into kids’ lives, I get on OK with them.” But he won’t be voting for him? “No”.
Yet when it comes to controversy over tolerance, Fury is small fry compared to Donald Trump, the frontrunner in the race to become Republican nominee for the US Presidential election.
What does Corbyn make of Trump? “The idea that somehow or other you can deal with all the problems in the world by banning a particular religious group from entering the USA is offensive and absurd.
“I hope the American people will realise that it’s against everything that’s in the US constitution, it’s against everything that’s about freedom of speech, everything that’s about freedom of religion.”
The online Parliamentary petition to ban Trump from the UK, on the grounds of him committing ‘hate crime’, was the fastest growing of any in British history. It has now reached more than half a million signatures.
But Corbyn is clear that barring the tycoon from Britain is the wrong answer. In fact, he extends a personal invitation for him to see British Islam for himself. “I wouldn’t ban him from coming to the UK,” he says. “If Donald Trump wants to come to Britain, absolutely fine, he can come and join me in Finsbury Park mosque.
“And then he can come to the synagogue afterwards. We can have a chat there. We’d go around. We manage to have a coherent, multifaith, multicultural society in London, in Birmingham, in Leicester, all parts of this country. He’s welcome to come and see. He might learn something.”
He points out that local councillor Michelline Safi Ngongo, who is among his entourage on this busy Saturday, is from the Congo. The Café Metro is owned by a Palestinian, and among its staff members today are Ali from Egypt and Shehzad from Pakistan. All are keen Corbyn fans, as evidenced by the Jeremy Corbyn 2015 Calendar hanging behind the counter.
Corbyn is the first Labour leader in decades to be unashamed of calling himself a socialist. As it happens, it emerged recently that ‘Socialism’ was the most searched-for term in 2015 in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Part of the reason for that was public interest in the rise of Bernie Sanders, the contender for the Democratic nomination for US President.
When Corbyn won the Labour leadership in September, Sanders was swift to offer his congratulations. Sanders said at the time that ‘we need leadership in every country in the world which tells the billionaire class that they cannot have it all’.
What sort of hopes does Corbyn have for Sanders in his race for the Democratic nomination? “I don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” he replies, pausing for thought. “I would guess that Hillary will probably win it in the end.
“But participating changes the debate. His challenging of the inequalities in the USA, of the corporate relief and fat cats compared to the working people, he’s standing up for public services as opposed to private services, I think has changed the debate.
“So whoever wins the Democratic nomination, some of what Bernie has been saying is going to end up being incorporated into that Democratic programme. So it might be that there’s going to be a real debate in the Presidential election, which is about the general direction the country takes. I hope that’s the case. And I’m very impressed by the numbers that Bernie is getting to his rallies and meetings and as he apparently was impressed by ours, in a much smaller country.”
Corbyn was considered a rank outsider in the Labour race at first, famously struggling to get enough fellow MPs to put him on the ballot paper. Could Sanders pull off a surprise and win the nomination? “He’s still got a chance, of course he has,” he said.
Clinton has been talking about hiking taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals. “I rest my case,” Corbyn says, smiling.
As for the UK’s government relations with the United States, the Labour leader set out his views in his first big policy speech recently. Crucially, he talked of having a ‘more independent foreign policy’. So would it be fair to say he wants an end to the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US, and that he wants a different relationship?
“I am concerned that for the past 60 years we’ve essentially followed the US foreign policy all around the world,” he replies. “And with the exception of Vietnam war, in most cases we’ve got involved in either overtly or covertly supporting the USA.
“Not all cases, but particularly Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. I think we’ve got to think about this, think about our interventions and think about where we go on these matters.”
He warms to his theme. “I see an active foreign policy as a foreign policy of international law, a foreign policy of human rights, a foreign policy of working with the UN, a foreign policy of looking at fundamental issues facing our planet: environmental degradation, the largest number of displaced people and refugees ever in world history.
“And we are not going to solve the refugee problem by electronic surveillance and razor wire. We’ve got to engage with it.”
But on the key issue of Britain’s alleged subservience to US foreign policy, he would change that? “I would want us to have a more independent foreign policy, a much more focused, human-rights based foreign policy," he replies.
“Because I have spent my life campaigning on human rights and justice, irrespective of the regime concerned. So for example, that’s why I raised Saudi Arabia in my conference speech because we have a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia, their human rights record is not very impressive.”
So, has he seen the British movie ‘Love Actually’, famous for its moment when a fictional British Prime Minister stands up to an American President and tells him ‘a friend who bullies us, is no longer a friend’? And has he run that fantasy through his head, that he is Hugh Grant standing up to Billy Bob Thornton? “I’ll look at it again,” he says, laughing. “I’ll watch it over Christmas. In general you get a lot further if you listen to people, by politeness and respect. I don’t shout, I listen then I talk.”
The UK's recent decision to join the US and other states in bombing ISIL in Syria was fiercely opposed by Corbyn - and still is. The House of Commons voted by a big majority to join the coalition, and 66 Labour MPs backed military action after an impassioned speech by Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn.
But the Labour leader makes clear he unhappy at the reaction on the night. “What I was appalled by was the end of that debate, with mainly Conservative MPs waving their order papers around, clapping and cheering," he says.
"Sorry, we were voting to send bombers in to bomb targets, putting servicemen and women at risk, civilians at risk, you can’t cheer when you’re going to war. That is 1914 Jingoism, that is past.”
Corbyn adds: “I think we rushed into something without enough thought. I made my point in my own speech to Parliament, very carefully. I asked a series of questions and I don’t believe I had proper answers to those questions. Even the Daily Mail said that the questions I’d put – which we thought about very carefully in my office – were relevant questions and have not actually been answered.
The Sun newspaper has reported that not a single one of the RAF's much-hailed Brimstone missiles has been fired in Syria because of a lack of targets. Does that help his own case on Syria?
“It proves something doesn’t it? The Brimstone missiles I was told never miss a target, sorry if you get a target wrong and we all make mistakes."
"I quote in my speech a Syrian family who live in this constituency. They are not lovers of the regime, they are not lovers of the Opposition, they are lovers of their family and life and they said our family is at risk.”
This is the first instalment of our Jeremy Corbyn interview. Read Part 2 HERE.