Jeremy Corbyn: 'I don't think Tony Blair is endorsing me for Labour leader'
The veteran left winger discusses the Labour leadership contest so far - and insists he is not the one wallowing in a 'comfort zone'
Jeremy Corbyn appears to have a habit of leaving things to the last minute. In early June, the Islington North MP was late for a Labour leadership hustings organised by the Fabian Society because he had been speaking at a Stop the War event. "The other four candidates had already gone onto the platform as I walked through the door,” he recalls.
A couple of weeks later and the Labour leftwinger has secured his place on the party’s leadership ballot paper with just seconds to spare before the midday deadline. After a dramatic morning, it was only as Westminster heard Big Ben strike noon that Corbyn won the nomination of his 35th Labour MP.
“Yes!!!!!” was the reaction on Twitter of fellow Labour MP Jon Trickett as the clock struck twelve. Diane Abbott went for a similarly effusive: “We’ve done it!”
But while Corbyn’s triumph has been welcomed by many Labour party members and supporters keen to see a broad debate, many others would have preferred to see the anti-austerity candidate staying on the sidelines. Over recent weeks there have been repeated warnings that Labour must learns the lessons of Ed Miliband’s defeat and avoid any move leftwards. At the forefront of such warnings has been Tony Blair. As the former prime minister puts it: “If you retreat into your comfort zone, you lose — that’s the lesson of 100 years of our history.”
Speaking to Total Politics in his parliamentary office, Corbyn is not convinced that Blair is on his side of the argument. "I don’t think he’s endorsing me there," he says with a wry smile.
He also resents the suggestion that he is stuck in a comfort zone. "I’ve spent my life representing a very mixed community with a lot of very poor people in it," he says.
“Is it a comfort zone when you’re trying to deal with the problems of families being evicted from their homes because they can’t afford the rent and are being forced to move somewhere else? Is it a comfort zone if you’re representing the homeless and demanding they get somewhere to live? I think the comfort zone is when you start ignoring those on the margins of society on the basis that they’re not likely to take part in the political debate."
Speaking a few days before the deadline for nominations, Corbyn says that since he announced his intention to take part in the leadership contest, he has been inundated with messages of support.
“What I’ve found fascinating in the last week of this process has been the numbers of people – probably not in the Labour party, may not even be Labour voters – who have written to me to say thanks very much for speaking up against austerity and for speaking up against inequality in society,” he says.
“And what Tony seems to forget is that the whole development of the Labour party was always a coalition of the trade union mainstream, which isn’t necessarily left wing…. intellectual socialists who are usually of the left, and an awful lot of people who do work in communities in order to pursue single issue campaigns.
“The Labour party was always quite a clever community of all of those and what Tony succeeded in doing was getting elected with the support of all of them - and then systematically losing that support over the 15 years he was in office.”
Corbyn, 66, attended Adams' Grammar School in Shropshire before moving to London. He chose not to go to university and instead started work as union organiser representing public sector workers in local authorities and the health service. He was elected as the MP for Islington North in 1983 and has been in the same seat ever since, claiming a thundering 21,000-vote majority in the recent election.
Since entering the Commons, Corbyn has defied the Labour whips on hundreds of occasions, including voting against the Iraq war, ID cards and increasing tuition fees. He has also done much work on injustice issues, including campaigning against the wrongful conviction of the Guildford Four.
“It completely changed my view of the world,” he says of the Guildford Four campaign. “The abuse I received was incredible…. But eventually they were released and it was one of the happiest days of my life.”
Some people in Labour’s ranks have been on significant political journeys during their years in politics, but not Corbyn. Rather, he struggles to recall any issues that he has changed his mind on over the 28 years he has been an MP and says his “fundamental principles” have not changed.
He adds: “I believe in a collective society, I believe in a socialist society, and I believe that we have to ensure that the state provides a level of security for everybody, genuine social security, and a level of protection, and that we should pursue that…
“My principles are about human rights, about social justice, about peace. Have I changed over the years? Well, everybody changes a bit. I’ve learnt a lot more… I just take the view that everybody you meet knows something you don’t know, so you can learn something from them.”
Corbyn suggests that Labour’s 2015 manifesto was consistent with many of the principles he holds dear: “I absolutely agreed with the stuff on private rented sector but think he should have gone further including rent regulation. I absolutely agreed with the stuff on zero hours contracts and minimum wage and so on.”
He argues that Labour’s problem in the election was not that its manifesto was too left wing: “I don’t think it was actually that left wing. It certainly didn’t seem particularly left wing to me.”
Rather, he says Labour lost the contest because it “wasn’t sufficiently different to the other two main parties in the economic policy being offered”.
He also points to the party’s failure to put out a coherent message on immigration. “We know that migrant people in Britain work hard, do pay taxes, do contribute to society, and how would we have a health service without them, and many other things,” he says.
“I think it was a shame that the campaign on positive role of migration was run by the Migrants Action Group and others, and not run by the Labour party. So we ended up trying to appease Ukip but not really succeeding in doing that.
“I think you just have to say gently to people that British people migrate around the world, others migrate around the world. We are an ageing population, we need people working.
"And so the issue is one of exploitation and one of housing and supply. Ed dealt with much of that, but by conceding the initial ground to Ukip it became a problem.”
Corbyn now joins Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall in the ballot for the Labour leadership. The four will take part yet more hustings, before facing a vote among Labour members and supporters.
Looking back on the hustings he has taken part in so far, Corbyn is largely positive – even though his rivals often “profoundly disagreed with my analysis that Labour should offer something more radical”.
Referring to the Fabian Society event, he says: “We completely avoided any personal antagonism, rancour or anything like that, and I would never get involved in that. As far as I’m concerned the other four candidates put forward a point of view, I put forward a point of view. Fine. I’m not going to attack people personally or criticise motives. I think that’s a road to nowhere. It’s not about personality, it’s about ideas.”
But he was taken aback at the GMB hustings event when all of the candidates were asked whether they supported the government's plan to lower the annual welfare cap to £23,000. Of the five leadership candidates at the time (Mary Creagh later dropped out), only Corbyn categorically opposed the move, saying it could lead to "social cleansing" in London.
“I was genuinely surprised at the position taken by my other four colleagues on this,” says Corbyn. “The benefit cap came in at £25,000 a year ago and at one level that sounds a lot of money. But if you’re a large family living in the private rented sector in London, in my constituency, you are in a bad way. It does cost more than that to live there because of the rent levels.
“So as a society, either we control the cost of housing or you spend the money on benefits. Essentially that benefit does not go to the individual, most of it goes to most of it goes to the landlord.”
Stressing that he voted against the benefit cap, Corbyn adds: “The numbers of families involved are not that great but most of them are in London and the south east and they are grievously affected by it. And I deal with tearful constituents every week who are being told the council can no longer provide the sufficient housing benefit to cover the rent because it takes them over the cap so therefore they have to move, to Barking, to Luton, and it’s dreadful… I will absolutely oppose it and I was disappointed my colleagues didn’t.”
Corbyn is also adamant that Labour should not be backing welfare cuts to head off the Tory charge that Labour is soft on so-called benefit scroungers.
“I think it’s a sad day when we can’t defend the principle of a welfare state that provides some degree of safety net for everybody… I think we should just be clear about what life is like for those on benefits. Most people don’t voluntarily choose a life on benefits. The vast majority want to work, want to contribute, want to do things. It’s a question of making sure the jobs are there, we should concentrate on that rather than joining in this blame game.”
Over the next few weeks and months, Corbyn will have plenty of opportunities to make his arguments before a new leader is elected. The voting period for the Labour leadership will open in mid-August and close on 10 September, with the winner announced at a special conference two days later.
Few expect the left winger to get anywhere close to winning, but many believe that his presence will help preserve party unity at the same time as forcing some definition on the other candidates. Others take a different view, suggesting that Corbyn’s presence will distort the debate and distract from the question of which candidate is the most electable.
Corbyn acknowledges that many of the MPs who backed him do not agree with his pitch and will not vote for him, but he is adamant that he will play an important role nevertheless.
He says: “My entry into all of this was because a number of us on the left of the party thought there ought to be a debate about the economic strategy and how we deal with the issue of austerity…
"I think we have to have a serious analysis of where we go on economic policy, because if all we’re offering is another five years of austerity-light rather than austerity-heavy it’s not much of a choice."