To mark his first 100 days as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn talks to HuffPostUK. In our third and final instalment of his interview, he discusses the ‘new economy’, the housing crisis, media plurality, climate change, religion and his love of Bolivia. And reveals what he really thinks of the term ‘Corbynista’.
As well as a new foreign policy and new politics, Corbyn’s third ‘pillar’ is his ‘new economy’. And he’s had no regrets about installing his old friend John McDonnell as his Shadow Chancellor, complete with a string of economic advisers from Thomas Piketty to Joseph Stiglitz.
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But what does he say to those who argue that the British public have for a long time been contradictory on tax and spend, wanting European style public services with US levels of taxation?
“I don’t think people think that. I think they do get the combination of ‘you pay in to get a good pay-out’. That’s in the sense of a payout through a social wage, the social wage being a health service, local government, education, social care, mental health services, all those things.
“You pay in and you do get out as a result of it. We’ve had a debate which is essentially the Tory party is trying to shrink the state initially by privatising services, on the belief that somehow or other it is going to be cheaper, it isn’t. And another attempt was PFI, I think most hospital deficits are connected to PFI.
“We then look at the government’s current proposals which are essentially tax cuts through corporation tax, inheritance tax and underfunding of public services as a result. We don’t deal with the problem of the debt and deficit by cuts.
“You grow your way to prosperity, you don’t cut your way to it. John’s proposals is essentially that we invest in an expanding economy, but don’t set an arbitrary date for a budget surplus.”
But to pay for the NHS and more housing shouldn’t he be straight with the public that he’s going to have to put up taxes in some way? “There’s three ways of raising money,” Corbyn replies.
“One is you raise everybody’s income tax, I don’t want to do that. You tax the very wealthiest and the corporations, I think that’s reasonable to look at those areas. The other is to expand the economy and cut down on tax avoidance and tax evasion.
“Inequality is a terrible waste of time, a waste of people’s resources. Low ages are counter-intuitive to an expanding economy, inefficient. You pay more in wages, get more in in tax, you get people living a higher standard, you get more money. It’s a kind of circle.”
Corbyn at a rally in Nuneaton, exactly the kind of Tory-held marginal Labour needs to win power
Yet while that message may work with a Labour audience, as does his anti-austerity campaigning, how is he going to appeal to the Tory voters in the south and in marginal seats that he needs to win an election? Is he going to appeal to their self-interest or will he just tell them Labour cares more than the other parties?
“There is a self interest in voting for a society where there is health care for all, where there’s a mental health service for all, where there is education service for all,” he replies.
“And above all a housing policy that doesn’t end up with young people staying in their parents’ home until their 30s or 40s because they can’t afford to rent, they can’t have a council place, they can’t afford to buy.
“So my message to them is: think about the kind of world the Conservatives are creating where the disposing of state assets, shrinking the state and in the end you and your children are going to have problems. And adult social care may not be available for those that desperately need it. If we want to live in the kind of decent, cohesive society that I think everybody aspires to, then listen to what we are saying and think about it. Osborne selling off public assets, cutting taxation for the very richest isn’t going to bring that about.”
Given that housing has risen up the political agenda in recent years, how will a Corbyn Labour party convince voters that it will do something radical about the shortages affecting young people and others?
“I absolutely get it on housing. I represent a community that is being socially cleansed. Socially cleansed of people who rely, often in work, on housing benefit to survive. The benefit cap prevents them staying they have to move out and the whole area churns, children leave school they have to go somewhere else.
“So what do we do about housing? One, recognise there is a huge housing shortage. Two, recognise that there a lot of deliberately empty properties through land banking. Three, that the sale of council housing and housing association properties is creating a crisis as deep as created by Right to Buy by Margaret Thatcher.
"In the borough we are in the moment, if the Conservative proposals go through on forced sale, we will be forced to sell 6,000 properties when there are probably 10 to 15,000 families in desperate housing need, it makes no sense at all.”
Those are the problems, but what are the solutions? Corbyn points out that Shadow Communities Secretary John Healey is drafting a set of detailed policies but he already has his own thoughts.
“My priorities are one, invest in council housing with lifetime tenancies. Two, regulate the private rented sector on quality on length of tenure and in areas of high rent levels like London there has to be maximum rent levels put in by region or by income level there’s got to be an affordability there. Germany has a very large private rented sector, it has long term investment, it is fully regulated.”
As for the way young people are priced out of the property market, for sale and rent, Corbyn says it’s a sign of what’s wrong with the economy, away from the growth figures.
“We are running an economy where we pretend that rising property values equals economic growth. It’s nonsense. The rise in value of a stack of bricks and mortar, steel and wood and glass is just that, bricks and mortar, steel and wood and glass. It has the same intrinsic value.
“Instead we have this house price inflation which is claimed to be a good thing. It’s not actually. But there is of course a buy-in to those who own a place.
“I own a house, well it’s a shared ownership,” he says. A twinkle in his eye, he then says: “Me and the bank share it – a mortgage it’s called…I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
There’s often a twinkle in Corbyn’s eye. During the interview, two women who have been sitting at a nearby table get up to leave, but not before wishing their MP well. They give him the thumbs up and he asks “You’re alright? Lovely to see you.”
One of the women notes the size of the Corbyn crew present in the small cafe - his fellow party canvassers, his communications director Seumas Milne, his wife Laura Alvarez, the HuffPost photographer. “How do you cope with this pressure?” the woman asks. “That’s your bodyguard is it?”
Corbyn laughs and replies: “Laura is the Number One bodyguard. And the other two ladies behind her they’re all bodyguards. They’re my protection.”
When it comes to the media, Corbyn sounds like he’s preparing some further protection. Some in his party want fresh curbs on media ownership in the 2020 manifesto, does he agree?
“I’m a member of the NUJ, I fully understand the importance of an independent media, an investigative media, I get all that,” he begins. “What I don’t get is the way in which the media, particularly the print media, can be routinely abusive and feel that that is perfectly OK.
“I think there does need to be multiplicity of ownership. There does need to be a wide variety of it, and no crossover between broadcast and print media. That’s what I’d want to see. So I am looking at those issues and we will put forward something on it.
“But I also recognise that media has changed a great deal. Social media and internet have completely changed the whole game. We have a 24 hour media age which has it’s ups and downs. The upside is that you can find things out very quickly, the downside is it can be completely inaccurate and gets a life of its own very quickly.”
Some critics point out that three families own more than 60% of Britain’s national newspapers, would he do anything about that? “I would want a divestment of some of that, so share that out a bit more,” he says.
“Also local papers do play an important part in communities. There’s a monopoly. If you look at every region, the local papers have often all but disappeared and become some regional editorial function that lives off press releases. I’m an obsessive buyer of local papers. Wherever I go I buy a local paper, I read them on the train. Sometimes they’re great.
Theresa May seems to have shelved ‘Leveson 2’ - the second part of the media inquiry which was meant to cover illegal practices and police corruption. What does he think of that?
“I’m concerned that they are delaying on it. It’s got to be done. We cannot have this degree of practice going on. What was exposed was utterly appalling practices, intrusion on individuals and it’s got to stop.”
As for new media, Corbyn, like many around him in his senior team, believe that they can bypass some of the newspaper criticism by utilising Facebook, Twitter and other tools. The extent of the changes doesn’t daunt him, he says.
“When I was 18 I was in Jamaica as a volunteer, I was there for two years. Then I went round Latin America on my own, I was away from home for a long time. I made one phone call the whole time I was away. And when I phoned my home, they were out. We communicated by letter. They had no idea, where I was going, I didn’t have much idea where I was going. I thought it was all perfectly OK.
“The idea now that you would go travelling around Bolivia or Peru on your own and have no contact with anybody for months on end, they’d be Facebooking and Facetimeing the whole time. In my own lifetime, it’s changed and it’s good, it’s great.”
Corbyn’s brother Piers preferred the ‘old media’ of television recently to talk about his views on climate change. Piers, a meteorologist who believes that global warming is down to the sun rather than man-made emissions, appeared on BBC’s This Week programme to say Jeremy was ‘very much in favour of debate’ on the issue but had to toe the Labour line.
What’s Corbyn’s view of his brother’s argument? Is he an eccentric? “I have the debate with him almost every day. And Christmas lunch can be very long with him.” So he is a firm believer that climate change is man-made, that all the evidence shows it? “We have been throwing a lot of stuff into the atmosphere, all of us human beings, for the past 200 years, particularly in the United States, Western Europe, now China and India,” Corbyn replies. “Does anybody seriously believe that all that air pollution hasn’t had an effect?”
Well, his brother seems to seriously believe that. “Piers and I have a debate about it. He’s brilliant at weather forecasting. And he does do solar activity as a way of predicting weather, he’s brilliant at that. I get that, I understand that. He’s a very brilliant guy, I just don’t agree with him that there is no human factor in climate change. He says there is a natural process.
“That is true, you look at historical records take Antarctic ice cores and all that, there’s clearly changes in temperature and so on over geological time and other time, but I cannot believe that [it’s not man-made too]. I was in Paris and I was fascinated by the process, we held a public meeting with Naomi Klein and myself speaking, 700 people came, we had a great time.
“My views are strongly that we’ve got to act. The fact that we’ve managed to reduce carbon emissions during a period of some degree of economic expansion, by regulation, has got to be a good thing.”
David Cameron in early 2014 suggested there was now an evidence based link between flooding and climate change. Will the extreme weather events we’ve seen in recent years change the debate?
“I hope so. The effects of climate change globally are very serious. I was in Cumbria for the floods there and the effects of them. There has to be an approach which is both flood defensive and holistic. Globally, there’s a very large number of environmental refugees as well as political refugees.”
The need to act to save the planet from global warming is held with an almost religious fervour among some environmentalists. But when it comes to religion itself, it is unclear where Corbyn lies on the spectrum of belief and non-belief.
Some people think he is an atheist, others think he’s an agnostic, so where is he on the issue? “I don’t want us to move into religious politics in Britain,” he replies.
“I respect all faiths, I probably spend more time going to religious services than most people, of all types. I go to synagogues, I go to mosques, I go to temples, I go to churches, and I have many humanistic friends and I have many atheist friends. I respect them all. “
But is he a believer, is there a God for him, or is that a private thing? “It’s a private thing.” Is there a spiritualism that appeals to him? “I like looking and thinking at the natural process in this world, how we survive on this planet.”
And to those who say he’d make the perfect Buddhist? “None of us do perfection, do we really?” he smiles.
“I suppose I am interested in sustainability of the natural world. And that actually becomes a question of belief. You see my view on environment is it’s as much a mentality, as much as a physical thing.
“It’s a mentality of the limits of what we can do to this planet and the sustainability of it, reuse it, recycle it. If the generation ten on, when you and I are long gone, is going to have a life, then we’ve got to do something about it now.”
So, to put this to rest, if someone writes Jeremy Corbyn is an atheist, is that untrue? “There are so many things about me written that are unfair, unjust and ill-searched that it would be wrong,” he says. “I’m not going any further than that, belief is a private thing.”
How about his sleep regime? Does he get eight hours or does he survive on a punishing Thatcher-style four-hours-a-night as many politicians seem to? “I don’t get eight hours, I never have done. Maybe six. I sleep fine but not very long,” he says.
He then delivers his most chilled-out response of all. “I’m not a stressed person. I believe you’ve got to look at things, you’ve got to do your work, you’ve got to be responsible about it, you’ve got to listen to people about it. But stressing isn’t going to make it better.”
Corbyn is certainly relaxed in Cafe Metro. After a morning’s canvassing and Christmas carolling at his community centre, he’s in good spirits. At one point, he reveals that his party piece is being able to wiggle his ears, hands-free. “Can you move your ears?” he asks his comms chief. “‘I wouldn’t even know where to begin with the ear movement,” is the reply.
Undaunted, Corbyn says to his wife: “Did you know that Laura, I can move my ears?” She replies that her father used to be able to do it. Corbyn smiles: “If you see me moving my ears, there’s something very special happening.” HuffPost tried to capture the wiggle on video, but didn’t quite succeed.
Corbyn’s supporters say that much of his appeal stems from his authenticity and his ‘straight talking’. He’s indeed famous for his principled stances on issues, but the public also like politicians who occasionally put up their hand and admit they got something wrong. So has he ever changed his mind on any policy?
There’s a pause. “Hmm. Fracking?” he says, briefly, without elaborating. “In some cases, I’ve taken a kind of agnostic view on something and then realised it’s either good or bad.
“I don’t jump to conclusions on things, yes I have strong principles on democracy, on human rights, on sustainability, on equality in our society. Does it mean you never develop a policy? You do. I was a trade union organiser, I was a councillor, I think you have to listen to people.”
So compromise is not a dirty word? It’s part of politics? “Yes,” he replies, before adding swiftly: “It doesn’t mean you avoid your principles.”
Corbyn has long been seen as an internationalist who supports other political leaders, from Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to name but one. So, which country would he live in if it wasn't Britain?
"I have travelled in my life a great deal. I've been to probably 70 countries in my life. Everywhere I go, I think 'could I live here?' And you look around, wherever you end up living you make the best of it,” he says.
Pointing to those in the cafe, he says: “There’s people in this very place here…he’s [the cafe owner] from Palestine, she's [his local councillor and fellow canvasser Michelline] from Congo, people have made their homes here.
“It's different from where they've come from, they've adapted and made a contribution. If I end up living in the Congo where Michelline's parents are from, I'm sure I would adapt and be fine.
“The most interesting experience in my life was being sent to Jamaica at the age of 18 and being told to work with young people. I was only about two years older than most of the kids I was working with. It was pretty hard going actually, but it was wonderful. I didn't go to university, I did that instead."
But was there any country whose economic and social policies you most admire. Is there one country? Norway, Sweden, Latin America?
“Scandinavian countries I admire. I admire what Bolivia has achieved particularly in the elimination of poverty, sustainability on the environment and sharing out its mineral wealth.
“It’s very interesting what’s happening in Bolivia, it’s a re-flowering of the indigenous cultures in Bolivia which I find absolutely fascinating. I went to Bolivia first when I was 19. I went back two years ago, very interesting.”
One thing Corbyn would miss if he lived overseas would be his local football team, Arsenal. His son Ben works as a coach with the youth team at Watford. Yet Watford are flying high in the Premiership. When Arsenal play Watford, who should win? "I love Ben dearly, but I'm a Gooner,” Corbyn replies.
Asked if Arsene Wenger inspires his own leadership, he admits he does. "He's great manager, he's a very thoughtful man, he's a deeply intellectual man, I've huge time and huge respect for Arsene Wenger.
“I had a good chat with him before the England-France game [after the Paris attacks]. And - can we keep it to ourselves? - he assured me that Arsenal are really in the hunt for the Premiership this season. And I gave him a hug. And I said 'Arsene I hope you're right this time.'
“I've got a lot of time for Arsene Wenger. I think he's very interesting because of his management style and all that. I think he's fascinating.”
Thoughtful, patient, and with a unique man-management style is just how many Corbyn supporters view their party leader. Which brings us to one final question, not least given his penchant for Latin America.
Does he like the word ‘Corbynista’? “No,” he replies, firmly. “It’s not about me, it’s about people.” And then he beams broadly: “I prefer Jez”.