Jeremy Corbyn Interview: On Owen Smith, Trident, Brexit, The Housing Crisis And A 'Universal Basic Income'

'We have to think radically about how we bring about a more just and more equal society'

Jeremy Corbyn is facing his second Labour leadership election in two years. As he takes in the Welsh leg of his marathon tour of the country, he talked to HuffPostUK about just why he believes he will cross the finish line first.

Two and a half hours before his rally had even started, the queue to see Jeremy Corbyn had already begun. The line of supporters snaked around Swansea’s LC2 leisure complex, a mix of young and old, parents and teenagers.

All were waiting patiently on a warm summer’s evening to hear the Labour party leader on his re-election tour. “He’s in the building,” one volunteer said, excitedly, and the message spread like a Mexican wave through the crowd.

Makeshift tables had been erected, draped with ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Refugees Welcome’ leaflets. A Socialist Party stall had a poster with the headline “Defend Corbyn: Deselect the Blairites NOW!” Copies of Socialist Worker and The Socialist were gladly bought and red flags were handed out by PCS union officials wearing hi-vis tabards.

Yet the sheer numbers attending the event underlined that Corbyn’s appeal reaches beyond the traditional left-wing activists who felt sidelined under previous leaders. Staff at the leisure centre gathered round him, and proudly posed for a photo to put on their official Facebook page.

James, one of the LC2 employees, explained that this was the biggest event the venue had ever seen, with its main sports hall packed to its 1,600 capacity. “He’s captivating, isn’t he?” he said. “My mum’s a huge fan. He’s the first Labour leader in a long time to really speak up for the working class.” An amp and speakers were being rigged up outside, in case the hall got overcrowded and an overspill area was needed on the adjacent lawns.


Corbyn’s image as a political rockstar among his supporters has certainly been underlined by the crowds he’s attracted in recent weeks. From his opener in Manchester’s Lowry Centre, through Leeds, Hull and Liverpool, he’s drawing audiences unheard of since the mass-meetings of a generation ago.

Today his focus is south Wales, speaking to hundreds in a square in Merthyr Tydfil, before arriving at Swansea’s waterfront. The day after a heated first hustings with rival Owen Smith in Cardiff, it was clear that Corbyn wanted to take the fight to his opponent, on the Welshman’s home turf. Both local Swansea MPs, Geraint Davies and Carolyn Harris, have backed Smith.

In the LC2’s basketball hall, the scoreboard for ‘Home’ and ‘Guests’ was blank, but there was no doubt about who was ahead in the view of this crowd. On the night of the 2016 Rio Olympics opening ceremony, it was apt that Corbyn was in a sporting venue as he continues the re-run race that is Labour’s leadership election. And, after 30 years as an MP, it’s clear that he sees his political career – like this contest - as a marathon, not a sprint.

In an interview with The Huffington Post UK before he went on stage, Corbyn seemed unfazed by Smith’s challenge. Some of his supporters believe the leadership contest is like a choice between Coca Cola and Coke Zero: given their policies are similar, why not stick with the one whose taste you really like? Smith supporters counter that Coke Zero has just as much flavour, but is better for your electoral health. Does Corbyn see the race that way, that his main appeal is that he’s ‘The Real Thing’?

“I never touch Coke myself,” he smiles. “The real comparison is I was elected a year ago. I’ve carried out as best I can the mandate I was given a year ago. I had a series of resignations after the European referendum and eventually Owen Smith joined in those resignations and then claimed the party was divided.” He adds, deadpan: “Well, cause-effect, QED?”

Corbyn's 'true Labour'
Corbyn's 'true Labour'

Corbyn supporters believe that one of Smith’s big weaknesses is the way he’s changed his mind. In 2006, when he was a candidate in the Blaneau Gwent by-election, he said of the NHS “if PFI works, let’s do it”, and added that city academies “have made great inroads” in turning round failing schools. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances that get read into some of these things” he said at the time.

Corbyn points out that he has himself always been consistent on such issues. “My own view has always been that PFI is an expensive waste and indeed I recall arguing with Labour in Opposition before the 1997 election against private finance initiatives as a way of funding public services,” he said.

“Because I said they will be expensive, we won’t control them in the end and it will be a runaway cost on the public sector. Where was I wrong?”

Reversing new Labour and Tory orthodoxy on private provision in the NHS, as well as returning schools to council oversight, are both key planks of his new 10-point ‘plan to transform Britain’. Gone is ‘new Labour’, it its place is what his supporters call ‘true Labour’.

“On academies and education, academies are taking schools away from the family of local education authorities. They destroy teachers’ wages and conditions. But also they destroy the principle that the community as a whole is part of education,” he said.

“An effective local education authority that gives the add-on support in music, drama, art, sport, camping trips, all that kind of thing which is a nice add-on which gives that sense of community, so when a city or a town or a borough brings all its schools together for a music festival, that’s the whole town celebrating the achievements of its young. That’s a good thing. Let’s bring our children up with the idea of community and not that everything has to be a competition between schools.

Swansea's LC2 leisure centre
Swansea's LC2 leisure centre

“I want to restore LEA control so the existing academies and Free Schools would then come within the overall management of local authorities. As to the individual school structure, I’m not that bothered, provided we actually have that principle of teachers on agreed terms and conditions.

“Some of the Free Schools actually do that. I have a Free School in my constituency. I didn’t want a Free School, there is one, I have met them, they do observe national wages and conditions.”

One of the biggest cheers Corbyn received in the Cardiff hustings came when he restated his opposition to nuclear weapons in general and the renewal of Trident in particular.

“It was a Labour government in the 60s that promoted the nuclear non-proliferation treaty which has a requirement of taking steps towards disarmament, building a new generation of nuclear weapons is hardly taking steps towards disarmament, albeit there are discussions about the number of nuclear warheads,” he said.

“Tomorrow is Hiroshima Day, the anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki a few days later. Surely it’s a time for reflection on these matters. Also, what crisis we’ve had in recent years would have been solved by nuclear weapons? 9/11 was appalling at every level, nuclear weapons were no help there. Nuclear weapons aren’t going to solve the issues in Libya or Syria or Iraq. It has to be politics.”

HMS Vigilant, one of four nuclear warhead-carrying submarines
HMS Vigilant, one of four nuclear warhead-carrying submarines
Danny Lawson/PA Wire

He has said he would not personally authorise the use of nuclear weapons if he became Prime Minister. But given that it is still Labour’s official policy to have a deterrent, would that mean he would pass to another member of his Government the responsibility for the ‘button’? How would that work in practice in a Corbyn government?

“How it’s going to work is I asked Emily Thornberry when she was Shadow Defence secretary to undertake a review on this which she started,” he replies. “And then she was promoted to Shadow Foreign Secretary and Clive Lewis has taken over that review.

“It will go to a party policy-making review and conference and we will then make our views known on it. My position is well known on nuclear weapons, my position is that I want a Labour government that will carry out our obligations under the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] and will encourage the other declared nuclear weapons states to do the same.”

As the cheers showed on Thursday night, many party members are passionately anti-Trident. One poll this year showed 40% to be against renewal, with 29% in favour (almost an exact reverse of what the wider public believe, with 49% in favour and 28% against). Is this one area where Corbyn would like to see party members given more of a say over policy, similar to his email consultation over the Syria vote?

“I’m not going to do referenda on a lot of issues,” he said. “I felt in the case of Syria, it was immediate, it was urgent, it was a huge problem politically and I felt the right thing to do was ask party members for their views and they came in overwhelmingly, 80% I think, were against the bombing. And that obviously had an influence as well because at the end of it a majority of Labour MPs and a majority of the Shadow Cabinet voted against the bombing, as of course I did.”

One of the many grassroots member groups powering the Corbyn leadership
One of the many grassroots member groups powering the Corbyn leadership

What does he say to those party members who feel that the trade unions effectively have a veto over Trident policy, because of the power they wield at party conference?

“I want a policy-making process that needs to be carefully thought through because you can’t do everything by referendum, there isn’t a simply binary choice on every issue, so I would rather we have a more participatory policy making system.

“I haven’t finally worked out how we are going to do this yet. I’m honest about that. The policy forum idea is one, but you can’t do it all by consensus, occasionally there has to be votes on things and the conference has to have the final say on that.

“But I’m impressed with the number of new members we’ve got, impressed with their ideas and I have sympathies with their frustrations that they want their voices heard and they are not.”

So he’s not planning to change the way party conference decides policy? “Not as yet, no.” That one word, ‘yet’, may make his critics nervous, but it will cheer his supporters. Not for nothing is his leadership campaign slogan ‘People Powered Politics’.

Tata's steelworks in Port Talbot
Tata's steelworks in Port Talbot
Ben Birchall/PA Wire

South Wales has a history of radicalism, from Merthyr’s 1831 ‘uprising’ against wages cuts, through Nye Bevan’s foundation of the NHS. But the deep coal mines that once made it the powerhouse of the industrial revolution have all closed.

Now the steelworks in Port Talbot are threatened too. On the train to Swansea, the huge scale of the plant is obvious, as well as the number of jobs it supports. For now, steam still billows over the site, floating over the logo of Indian owners Tata. An enormous hangar boasts a slogan that has a bitter taste to many of the 4,000 steelworkers worried about closure: ‘Our People Make The Difference’.

Corbyn says he’s strongly in favour of a “public stake” taken in the steelworks, but knows that the sale of the plant to new bidders has been delayed by post-Brexit jitters about the UK economy.

The Labour leader was accused by his MPs of not doing enough to campaign for a Remain vote, and there’s no doubt that the coup against him stemmed in part from the Brexit result.

On the day of his Swansea rally, new figures showed that the permanent jobs market had been in ‘freefall’ in the month after the EU referendum result. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said that despite his monetary stimulus, unemployment would rise, with hundreds of thousands more people jobless as a result of Brexit uncertainty.

Bank of England governor Mark Carney
Bank of England governor Mark Carney
JUSTIN TALLIS via Getty Images

Don’t those figures prove that George Osborne had been right to warn of the jobs threat? That ‘Project Fear’ , once ridiculed by Corbyn himself, was turning into Project Fact?

“He did say that, indeed we all said that there was going to be difficulties, those of us that were supporting the Remain campaign said that,” Corbyn replied.

“It has happened: the Remain campaign didn’t get the majority, the Leave campaign did so we’ve got to work our way round that. And that means crucially speeding up the negotiations for future market access for manufacturing industries particularly in Britain and if we don’t speed up that discussion to give some degree of certainty for future market access, then I’d get very worried about industries in Britain that cannot easily switch to another market. And also what kind of trade structure we are going to have in the future.”

Corbyn points out that he has set up a Shadow Brexit group of ministers led by Emily Thornberry. “I’ve met with the European Socialist Parties on the same issue and also Barry Gardiner is looking at the whole trade issue and trade policies that go with it.

“Because if there’s not going to be trade agreements made through the European Union then presumably we either do them through the European Economic Area or more likely we have to do them ourselves and this is long and complicated.

“And I would hope that we would be able to develop trade agreements which actually have a positive impact on human rights, environmental quality, the quality of goods we import and as a way of encouraging our own manufacturing industry.”

Corbyn v Smith in the first hustings in Cardiff
Corbyn v Smith in the first hustings in Cardiff
Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Does he think it would be undemocratic to reverse the referendum decision either in a second referendum or in a general election as Owen Smith is suggesting?

“I think we’ve had a referendum, a decision has been made, you have to respect the decision people made. We were given the choice, we after all supported holding a referendum so we must abide by the decision.

“Does that mean that we don’t have a future relationship with the European Union? No, it means the opposite. There has to be a very strong relationship so I think there has to be a question of access to the single European market.”

But there’s no question of a new membership of the European Union? That’s done, that’s settled?

“They clearly have said ‘no’. Is there a way of having a European Economic Area agreement, possibly via Norway and other countries? Yeah there probably is.

“So I’m meeting the Norwegian Labour party in September, they are bringing a delegation to Britain. The idea being we have a discussion with them about their experience, what they do and how they relate to the European Union. It’s a serious effort to try to work out how we do things in the future.

“In the meantime, there has to be a defence of jobs and there has to be a preparedness by our Government to intervene where necessary, such as in the steel industry.”

House prices fell 1% in July
House prices fell 1% in July
Anthony Devlin/PA Archive

It’s not just economic growth, sterling and jobs that have been affected by the Brexit vote. House prices have fallen by 1%, a new Halifax report revealed. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has predicted a slump in property transactions. Economists at the French bank Société Générale have said London prices could fall 30% and by 50% in the most expensive boroughs.

But was it a good thing or a bad thing that house prices had fallen? Corbyn saw an upside.

“It will make it easier for people trying to buy, it will make it very unlikely that those who want to sell will go ahead with the sale, unless they are terrified that the price is going to fall very rapidly and then they will get worse off,” he said.

“But it does give the opportunity for government intervention to buy properties as well, to convert into social housing and council housing. And I’m very serious that a Labour government would do a number of things.

“One is invest massively in housing. I’ve just been to a ‘passive’ [zero carbon] house development that is going on with Swansea City Council just up the road, I’m very impressed with it. Built by direct labour, in fact. They are providing an example of what we can do.

“I want to see investment in council housing. I want to see regulation of the private rented sector. I also want to see the ability of local authorities to manage first time buyers’ mortgages particularly for young first time buyers so there is some investment going on there. All these things can be done, but it cannot be done by a hands-off free market.”

A Corbyn supporter outside the Cardiff hustings
A Corbyn supporter outside the Cardiff hustings
Matthew Horwood via Getty Images

But what does he think of the way Britons view their houses as financial assets?

“It’s a problem that Britain has always had compared to the rest of Europe. We are brought up with the idea that your house is the biggest asset that you’ve got. In most cases, it is because you’ve spent the most on it.

“Other societies don’t. They see housing as more of something everybody needs and have actually a lower level of owner-occupation in than Britain. Britain is higher than most of Europe but is falling quite rapidly. And so we’ve got to work our way through this. The crucial thing is the housing crisis of homelessness, overcrowding and insecurity has to be addressed.

“The Tory policy of selling off high value homes, of ‘pay-to-stay’, and preventing local authorities being involved in ensuring social housing where a permitted development takes place, where a commercial building is transferred to housing without planning permission, all those things have got to be reversed. We want intervention to solve the housing crisis.”

Corbyn’s ‘plan to transform Britain’ has many radical promises. But what does he think of one of the most radical ideas circulating right now: a universal basic income? In a major change in the way welfare works, the state would hand out money to all adults, which would be topped up by any earnings. It would guarantee a basic income for everyone, including those who look after children.

First suggested in the 1970s, a basic income is now in vogue. Ontario in Canada and Norway both plan pilot schemes. The RSA think tank has suggested a state-provided income of £308 per month for every adult between 25 and 65.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell
Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has said he will look at the idea as part of a wider rethink of economic policy. And Corbyn sounds keen.

“I’m instinctively looking at it along with John. I am looking forward to discussing it with our colleagues from Norway because we have to think radically about how we bring about a more just and more equal society in Britain, how we develop policies that achieve that.

“Because what we are doing is heading in absolutely the wrong direction with a growing wealth inequality and an opportunity inequality for communities, as well as poorer families. It’s got to change and it will.

“I can see the headline attraction to it. I don’t want to commit to it until I’ve had a chance to look at it very seriously and very carefully because this would be a major, major change in social policy and it’s something I would invite the whole party and the whole movement to have a serious discussion about.

“What I want to do is develop policymaking through to 2020, where it’s very obvious what the general direction is we are going, on environmental policy, on housing policy, and health policy.”

This is the first part of HuffPostUK’s interview with Jeremy Corbyn. Read the second instalment below:

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