To mark his first 100 days as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn talks to HuffPostUK about war and peace and how to best engage the thousands of new party members. Read our second instalment.
The Syria debate in the House of Commons provoked strong emotions on both sides, not least after Hilary Benn declared that ISIL were “fascists” who had to be defeated by military action.
The word “fascists” inevitably sparked comparisons with the Nazis, though Corbyn has before and since that debate insisted that he is not a pacifist. The Second World War is often described as a ‘moral war’, but can the Labour leader think of any other conflicts that Britain has been involved in that have been ‘moral’?
“The Spanish Civil War, Britain was not involved in it,” he says. “Going back a bit there was the naval blockade to stop the slave trade in the 19th century, that was morally just. Shame they didn’t bother to abolish slavery at the same time.
“I’ve been quite involved in a lot of UN operations over the years, I was a UN observer at the East Timor referendum in 2000. I’ve been very involved in that for a long time.
"There were mistakes made, there were flaws in the programme but fundamentally the UN role in fighting – remember there had been catastrophic deaths by the Indonesian army to suppress the independence movement – the UN did bring about eventually a settlement of sorts.
“I was very pleased to be there as a UN observer and also I’ve been in Congo and Cyprus as a UN observer.”
Dresden after the bombs
As for “moral” acts in wartime, the bombing of Dresden by the RAF near the end of the Second World War proved controversial even at the time. Sir Winston Churchill expressed his own concerns within months of the heavy raids that killed 25,000 people in just a few days. Does Corbyn think that the Dresden bombing was needless or immoral?
“What I read of it, it wasn’t a military target,” he replies. “I think there are obviously huge debates about that and whilst one doesn’t want to necessarily reopen all the old sores all the time, surely bombing civilian targets is never a good idea? You can’t punish a population, you’ve got to win them round in the end.”
Corbyn has long supported the Stop the War Coalition, and he refused calls from some Labour MPs for him not to attend their Christmas fundraiser. But what about the future of a fellow Stop The War supporter, George Galloway?
The former Labour MP was expelled in 2003 and went on to serve as a Respect MP. He is currently running as the Respect candidate for London Mayor. Would Corbyn like at some point in the future to have him back in the Labour party?
“There is a five year rule,” he replies. “If he applies in five years’ time, it goes to the National Executive, they decide. Not me.” Pressed further if he would be unhappy at him being readmitted, Corbyn replies: “Let them decide.”
The Labour leader, on the streets
Of course, Corbyn derives his authority over the Labour party from the huge victory he won in the leadership election in September. Winning nearly 60% of the electorate, he can justifiably claim to have the biggest direct personal mandate of any Labour leader in its history.
And with the party membership having soared from around 200,000 to more than 400,000 since May, nearly every constituency Labour party is having to cope with an influx of new blood.
But is there a danger that unless local Constituency Labour Parties engage with them quickly and in the right way, that all the new members may just drift away? “It’s a good question,” Corbyn replies.
“I was just out campaigning this morning in a nearby ward and we had about 30 people out with me. We are a very active and big local party, we have 3,000 members and 2,000 supporters so it’s a huge party.
“And there were quite a lot of new members there this morning who have never knocked on a door in their lives, never done anything for the Labour party before, completely new to it. And they were sort of nervous.
“Because they were knocking on a door for the first time saying ‘hello, I’m Jack I’m from the Labour party, we’re here to listen to your problems’. Engaging people is difficult and unless local parties all have the same open engaging approach that my own constituency does then of course there will be problems. We don’t want to lose people.”
Corbyn adds that the new members are more likely to stay if they are engaged in street campaigning rather than just turning up to party meetings or leafleting for elections.
“It’s also a question of changing the culture of the Labour party away from purely electoral campaigns and purely business meetings,” he says. “It’s also about engaging in open political discussion.
“That’s often counter-intuitive to politics, people like to do things as a step towards X as a step towards Y and so on. And it’s how you deal with people and campaigns. I want to see popular engagement in politics at all levels, that’s what will bring about the changes.
“It’s much more campaigning on the street. You go out petitioning for example on tax credits and we had a big win on tax credits, that helped three million people. That was a big achievement for the first 100 days. We go out campaigning on the Trade Union Bill, not just because it affects party funding but also because it affects so many other things.
“Michelline [Safi Ngongo] down here, a good local councillor, has been with the local party collecting stuff for Calais [refugee camp]. So it’s that kind of engagement in day to day politics that’s so refreshing and it’s good for the Labour party.”
Angela Eagle, in charge of a review of the National Policy Forum
As part of his shake-up of the party, the National Policy Forum is being reviewed by Angela Eagle with a view to seeing how it can work better. So what does Corbyn want out of the process?
“I haven’t completely made up my mind exactly how we’re going to do it yet. But there’s got to be a system which ordinary party members at all levels feel they can contribute to a serious policy debate.
“One idea Tom Watson and I put forward is the idea of a regional online/video/Skype conference discussing issues facing a whole community. The issue could be low wages and everything else. That would be a way of using social media.”
Ms Eagle has a specific remit to build ‘digital’ engagement as part of the review. But could new members who wanted, for example, to change party policy on Trident have a direct say through an email consultation ahead of conference?
“Yeah. I’ve done that on the Syria vote,” he replies. Several Labour MPs were furious at the email consultation on the free vote because they believed that it was an attempt to get local parties to pressurise them to vote against military action. Some questioned the sample size that was used, while others complained they hadn't been emailed at all.
But the Labour leader is unapologetic. “My views on Syria were very well known, I made them abundantly clear from the very beginning. I don’t resile from them at all. I felt that the party members ought to have voice on this. Some were very annoyed about it, but I sent an email to every party member and we got a very large number of replies.
“In 36 hours we got 80,000 replies. There may have been more later. We sampled them and we got overwhelming opposition to bombing. I hope that had an influence on what Labour MPs were thinking, I hope that had an influence on public opinion. I don’t apologise for that, I think it’s the right thing to do. And it’s something I will do again.”
A Trident submarine
And so could a ‘Yes/No’ vote on something like Trident feed into conference? “Yeah. It could do,” he replies. But he stresses that the party needs to build its capacity to deal with email consultation.
“The problem with it is nuancing replies that come in. Because I’ll be quite honest about it, we have a management problem with dealing with responses.
“Within a week we suddenly found we had a backlog of 100,000 emails. So I invited a team of volunteers to come in for a weekend and they got that down to 10,000 by filing, sending on, sorting, analysing and in some cases replying.”
Yet he is determined to push on with the new approach. “There is a problem of engagement but to have a problem of engagement with those numbers of people is surely a good thing. And that’s what we’re working on,” he says.
“This is what social media unleashes and I think politics better get used to the idea it is here to stay.”
Protests outside Parliament on the day of the Syria vote
As for the vexed issue of mandatory reselection of MPs, Corbyn has told the Parliamentary Labour Party that he has no plans to change the current trigger mechanism. He told the House of Lords Labour group recently that he has ‘no intention’ of changing the rules.
“The process works like this,” Corbyn says. “The boundary review takes place and that will be concluded by 2018. At that point if the sitting MP represents a substantial part of the new constituency a trigger ballot could be on -or not - as is now.
“If it’s a completely new constituency in an area not held at all by Labour then it’s an open selection. If members want an open selection, they have a trigger ballot mechanism to do it. That’s the failsafe system that’s there. I’ve got no proposals to change that.”
But what if party members in large numbers decided that they wanted to use the opportunity of the coming boundary review to overhaul the rules? “It’s not upto me, it’s upto the party to decide,” he replies. “I am not a dictator”.
Pressed further on whether he is agnostic or has a firm view on it, he says: “I think we should all be accountable to our parties but I also think that accountability should be a process of engagement: that MPs do engage with their constituency parties, do engage with their constituents and MPs do change their minds on things because of local opinion.
“That’s not wrong. there’s nothing bad about that and many MPs clearly changed their mind on the Syria vote between what I was picking up when the proposal first came and what happened five days later.” So he’d like to see more of that? “Absolutely, what’s wrong with it?”
Corybn in action in the Commons
The Syria debate, with its free vote, heralded a new era in policy for Labour in Parliament on such a vital issue of peace and war. Many of Corbyn’s critics have pointed to his 500 rebellions against the party whip over the years, so which one was he most proud of - and which one does he perhaps think he should have sided with the Labour Government?
“I could have sided with the Government on some of the anti-terror stuff [renewing the Prevention of Terrorism Act]. I didn’t. Not because of terrorism but it’s hard to explain to people because it was post-7/7 Britain, but I said we are not going to deal with these problems by getting greater levels of unaccountability of security forces.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I voted against the Iraq war. And proud that I voted strongly not for students to be saddled with thousands and thousands of pounds worth of debt.”
He adds: “Somebody asked me during the election campaign, ‘what regrets have you had?’ I was a bit tired and I said “Je ne regrette rien”. But he smiles, and it’s clear that he still sticks by the verdict.