What has Jeremy Corbyn become ? For nearly five years as leader of Labour, from 2015 to 2020, he embodied immense hope for the radical left in the UK and the rest of the world. His openly socialist agenda contrasted with the unanimous adherence to neoliberalism and austerity of the Tories and the Blairite apparatchiks who controlled the opposition party. After an excellent result in 2017 – 40% of the vote – which deprived Theresa May of a majority and almost made him Prime Minister, he lost to Boris Johnson two years later, notably because of his party’s plan for a second referendum on Brexit.
Since then, Corbyn has mostly been in the news when his successor Keir Starmer tried to expel him from the party and the media called him an anti-Semite, a lie used as a pretext to dismiss the threat he poses to the British oligarchy. Despite these relentless attacks, the MP stands firm and continues tirelessly to defend public services, the welfare state, freedoms, the environment, peace and international solidarity, as he has done since he entered politics. Le Vent Se Lève met him in Belgium, during the Manifiesta festival. The former Labour leader gave us his analysis of the resurgence of trade unions in the UK over the last year, argued in favour of nationalising strategic sectors and negotiating peace rather than escalating the war in Ukraine. He also spoke to us about the work of the Peace and Justice Project, a political structure he set up two years ago, and shared his views on the forthcoming General election. Interview by William Bouchardon, with the help of Laëtitia Riss and Amaury Delvaux.
LVSL – It is the first time you come to Manifiesta, which is both a political and musical festival, organised by the Workers Party of Belgium (PTB). What types of links do you have with them and what are some common fights that you share ?
Jeremy Corbyn – I was inspired by the idea of Manifiesta, which, as I see it, is similar to the Fête de l’Humanité in Paris, which I have been to on some occasions. I like the idea of an inclusive festival for left, trade union and working class organisations to come together not looking for divisions and boundaries but looking for opportunities for discussions.
I know the Workers party of Belgium from my membership of the Council of Europe, where I met many of the European left. I have met many of the leaders of the PTB and I am very pleased to be here. I am also here representing the Peace and Justice Project with Laura [Laura Alvarez is Jeremy Corbyn’s wife], who is the international secretary of the Peace and Justice Project and we are promoting our own conference on November the 18th.
LVSL – Yesterday, you appeared on stage alongside the leaders of the FGTB and the CSC, two major Belgian unions, and Chris Smalls, the founder of the first Amazon union in the USA. Since last year, the UK has seen a huge wave of strikes and unions have been at the heart of the news. This level of industrial action had not been seen since the early years of Margaret Thatcher premiership. Do you think that the successive defeats of the labour movement have finally stopped and that a renaissance of unions has started ?
J. C. – I know Chris Smalls very well and I think he is emblematic of what the new generation of labour leaders look like : he is a young, very brave guy, working in a completely anti-union atmosphere and has managed to recruit people and win recognition at some Amazon sites in the USA. This truly is an Herculean struggle and unionising people at other Amazon facilities in the US will also be extremely hard. We have seen similar attempts in the UK, notably at the Amazon centre in Coventry, where the GMB union has tried to organise workers.
I was a trade union organiser before I became a member of Parliament. In the 1970s, I was directly responsible for 40.000 union members, as a negotiating secretary for Great London employees. So I have a lot of experience in trade union work. At that time, union membership in the UK was around 12 million people and there was a very high level of density : roughly half of the working population was unionised. However, they were heavily concentrated in older, heavy industries or the public sector and much less present in small, private companies.
The Conservative government of 1979 led by Thatcher was radically different from any other government Britain had seen since the 1930s. Indeed, in many ways, it was a throwback to the 1930s. Their priorities were to destroy trade union power and to privatise and destroy big manufacturing industries. They did exactly that and privatised everything they could : gas, electricity, steel, coal, motor industry, aircraft and shipbuilding, oil, British Telecom, Royal Mail and so on.
“In the 1970s, public ownership in Britain accounted for 52-53% of GDP. More than half of the economy was in public hands !”
At that time, public ownership in Britain accounted for 52-53% of GDP. More than half of the economy was in public hands ! This destruction of heavy industry caused huge job losses in steel and coal and, as a result, union membership started to decline. This trend continued for a long time but recently, union membership has started to go up again.
LVSL – Would you say that the tide has changed ?
J. C. – The tide has changed because the austerity introduced since 2008 led a lot of people to question their own security in society. Many have seen no real wage rise for 15 years now. In some cases, they even have lost money over this period because their wages haven’t kept pace with inflation. Because of wage demands, union membership has started to increase. For instance the teachers union recruited 60.000 new members during its recent dispute, and similar things have happened in other sectors. So there has been an upsurge in activity.
Most of the settlements that have been reached as a result of recent strikes are not what you would call knock-out victories, but there are not defeats either. It is usually something around inflation-rate wage increase. But significantly, the effort of Royal Mail to turn its staff into self-employees, just like Amazon or others do, was defeated comprehensively. But defeating something nasty isn’t the same as winning, which therefore hasn’t given people an enormous boost. Many fights are still ongoing : the rail dispute, the civil service one or even the teachers one in the long term are far from resolved.
As well as this big increase in union activity, there also is a big increase in people joining unions in the informal sector. Some of the new unions are not affiliated to the TUC, it doesn’t make them bad unions, but it just means people who are trying to represent their coworkers in their own way. It is up to the older unions and the TUC to work with them. I am personally very happy to work with all types of unions.
LVSL – Due to very high inflation in the UK, the political agenda has been mostly focused on bread-and-butter issues recently. But the other big fight of the left is the ecological crisis, as demonstrated again by an extreme summer all across the world. Here at Manifiesta, you took part in a debate on environmental issues and class. Indeed, many left-wing parties are trying to articulate the two together. What advice would you have for them ?
J. C. – During this debate, there was a very good speech by a steelworker from the Netherlands. This union leader has managed to force the company to completely change the production process, by moving to a lower-energy, sustainable production of “green steel”. Instead of blast furnace and open-hearth furnace production, their facility is implementing electric production and using scraps rather than iron ore to manufacture new steel. Bringing about that change was an incredible achievement. To me, that’s the example of trade unions in action, managing to reduce the levels of pollution and CO2 emissions while protecting jobs at the same time. I mention this because I think trade unions have to use their power to force companies to be sustainable.
“The middle class escapism route of moving to the suburbs and the countryside and work from home is not an option for the majority of the population.”
But it is also about working class communities. It is working class kids in Glasgow, London, Paris, Mumbai, Delhi, New York or San Paolo who are suffering the worst effects of air pollution, reducing lung capacity and life expectancy. The middle class escapism route of moving to the suburbs and the countryside and work from home is not an option for the majority of the population. The issue is about cleaning up the air and making the polluters pay for it. That is why I approach this issue from a class angle.
I promoted a Green Industrial Revolution as leader of the Labour Party. It was not about condemning and guilt-tripping people about driving a diesel vehicle for a job or working in a steelworks, but about changing that and protecting jobs at the same time. People are not gonna buy into climate protection issues unless their living standards are protected at the same time. I also talked a lot about education on biodiversity. We have to bring up a generation that understands that we have to live with the natural world, not in opposition to it. I am very determined to achieve all that.
LVSL – You said polluting companies must pay for repairing the damage they caused and that unions are essential to change the way production is organised. I can only agree with you but shouldn’t we also fight for public ownership in order to change the way the economy is run ?
J. C. – Public ownership is essential for major services. Water is an obvious example : we all need water, all day long, every day. It is the most basic necessity of all. Yet, it was privatised in Britain by the Thatcher government for a price that was much lower than the actual value of the industry. The companies that took it other immediately developed or sold the considerable land assets that the publicly-owned water companies had. Then they paid out enormous profits and dividends to shareholders instead of investing in new pipes and protection of nature. As a result, last year, there were 300,000 sewage discharges into English rivers. There is no case but for bringing water companies back into public ownership and putting them under democratic control. They must be controlled by local communities, workers, local authorities and local businesses with a clear remit on environmental protection as well as water production and delivery.
“Public ownership is essential for major services.”
The same applies to energy. The British government paid billions in subsidies to the energy companies on the agreement that they would only raise the price for consumers by 100%. In other words, all of our electricity bills have doubled, the companies have made massive profits out of it and the government has used public money to ensure those profits are maintained. It’s a crazy situation. There is no argument but to bring them into public ownership and we strongly support that. Indeed we work with We Own It and are organising a meeting next week to demand just that.
LVSL – The meeting you mention will be organised by the Peace and Justice Project, an organisation you created recently. Could you tell us more about it ? What is its purpose and what type of campaigns are you working on ?
J. C. – We set it up after the general election of 2019 and finally launched it in January 2021. It has about 60.000 people signed up as followers, who receive regular videos, emails and so on about our different activities. We also have a considerable number who donate money to ensure the project can survive, not vast amounts of money : the average donation is between 5 and 10 pounds a month. We are grateful for this support.
“The Peace and Justice Project is intended to be a political home for those who were homeless.”
The Peace and Justice Project is intended to be a political home for those who were homeless. Therefore, it doesn’t have a very tight set of political principles behind it, but rather multiple campaigns. First of all, we built a platform of five demands, on wages, health, housing, environment and international policy and peace. These were elaborated with unions : we work closely with the CWU [communication], the RMT [transport] and BFAWU [food industry]. We work together against privatisations and on union rights campaigns for people in the gig economy such as Starbucks and Amazon workers.
Secondly we are promoting the ideas of arts and culture as being part of the labour movement, which implies two things. One is doing “Music for the many” concerts around the country, where we defend our live music venues, which are at risk of closure because of austerity and the cost-of-living crisis. We have organised six of these concerts so far and many more are coming. Each time, we give an opportunity for usually young, not very well-known musicians to play and promote our campaigns.
We are also writing a book called Poetry for the Many [a direct reference to his campaign slogan, For the Many, not the Few], which has already received a lot of pre-sale orders. This came out as an idea because I receive a lot of poems from young people. One day, Len McCluskey [former general secretary of Unite] and I were in my office one day talking about economic policies and strategies and he asked me: “Why do you have those poetry books in your office ?”. I was quite offended and I replied “why not ?”, to which he then replied “I haven’t got that one, can I borrow it ?”. So we decided to publish this book, which includes poems from a wide range of countries, and are now preparing another one, called Poetry from the many, which will include the best ones we have received.
Finally, there is the international work we do, with the help of Laura. We are working on union recognition campaigns with foreign organisations, like the international transport workers federation. We are hosting a major conference in London in November with labour leaders from all around the world, from Latin America to Europe, Russia and the Middle East. The goal is to work together on major topics such as climate change and social justice and fight wars.
LVSL – Indeed, the fight against wars has been one of the major themes of this edition of Manifiesta. You have been a lifetime advocate for peace, as demonstrated, for instance, by your opposition to the Iraq War. Even if there are other ongoing conflicts, the Western media focuses on the war between Russia and Ukraine. What would left-wing pacifism look like, according to you, in this specific conflict ?
J. C. – First, I want to emphasise how appalling this war is and how wrong the Russian aggression is. That being said, conflicts end by negotiation and this one will too one day. How many more people are going to die before we get to that point ? The policy of Western countries and Western companies of pouring more and more arms into Ukraine and NATO more and more involved in Ukraine military activities can only make the conflict worse. The UN and the European Union did not, in my opinion, try anything to bring an enhancement of the Minsk agreement in order to maintain relative peace. I say relative because of course the conflict in the Donbass has been going on for nine years already.
“The UN and the European Union did not try anything to enhance the Minsk agreement in order to maintain relative peace.”
There has to be talks for peace. Well done the African Union, well done the Latin American leaders and well done the Pope on trying to bring about ceasefire talks. If they don’t happen now, they will happen at some point. My question is how many more will die in the process ? Ukraine and Russia are capable of talking to each other regarding grain shipments in the Black Sea, so they are perfectly capable of doing the same for reaching a ceasefire. We have got to push for it all the way and support those in Ukraine and in Russia that fight for peace. I also want to use this opportunity to call for the release of Boris Kagarlitsky, he is an old friend, a great thinker, a great peace activist and he should not be in jail.
LVSL – There will be elections next year in the UK. What do you expect to happen and what role are you going to play in them ?
J. C. – The latest possible date for the next elections is January 2025, but I imagine they will be held sooner than that. The government is currently extremely unpopular for its incompetence and the way it handed out billions of pounds of contracts during Covid, many of which were awarded without much oversight to Conservative party donors and friends. Therefore, the Conservative will most probably lose the election.
But Labour has to have an alternative. Merely offering to manage the economy in the same way, refusing to introduce a wealth tax, refusing to follow the policy of public ownership that were put forward in the last two Labour manifestos [when Jeremy Corbyn led the party] will not encourage people to vote Labour. So, what I want to see is a real alternative to the Conservatives being put forward.
There are huge issues of democracy in the Labour Party and Keir Starmer was elected leader on the policy of democratising the party. I don’t quite know what direction he has followed here because shutting down local debate and democracy, imposing candidates and using his majority in the NEC [the National Executive Council is the governing body of Labour] to prevent people from even being a candidate is hardly a democratic process. I have been suspended as a member of the parliamentary party, but not of the Labour Party and I am a member of Islington North Labour Party and I attend branch meetings as anybody else does. I am not going to allow myself to be driven away by this process. There is a huge thirst for radical alternative voices in Britain and I am happy to be one of those many voices.
LVSL – Beside the Peace and Justice Project, could you tell us a bit more about what form your engagement might take ? Will you stand at the next election ?
J. C. – I’m available to serve the people of Islington North if that is what they wish.