Disclosure: I am an Owen Smith activist; I made no effort to hide this during the interview. The organiser also knew this to be true before the interview
A deluge of applause rushed over the rouge pews of the packed out theatre, the acclamation rolling down to the lectern where John McDonnell stood, in the spirit of the infamous late Bob Crow, rousing the crowd with words of worker’s rights and fair politics. Behind him a trade union banner hung encircled with the words: ‘WE RAISE THE WATCHWORD LIBERTY, WE WILL, WE WILL, WE WILL BE FREE’, draped off a velvet red curtain, to his side a board of trade unionists, activists and a local councillor. A sense of numen floated in the air like a thick humidity. I sat reflecting on the last half-an-hour I had spent with this deity of sorts, I realised that I had just experienced something that 100,000s could only dream of, a one-on-one interview with a key figure in the hard-left revolution.
Sitting amongst this energised crowd who cheered for Jeremy but booed for Owen it was clear that I had entered the church of Corbynism, the 21st century revolution which had swept the previously disenfranchised and detached electorate. Corbynites, the disciples of the rebel MP Jeremy Corbyn, awaited the sermon of equality, social justice and socialism from the pontiff who I had just interviewed.
I started the interview wondering out loud to John whether it was possible to relax during this tumultuous period for the British Left. With a knowing chuckle John admitted, “We’re not relaxing very much at the moment touring all around the country and doing meeting after meeting; but I’m quite disciplined about how much time I spend with my family. I try and make sure that we have one weekend off a month that is completely family. My wife and I about twenty years ago decided that we needed to do something together so we started dinghy sailing. So we sail together, we’re rubbish, people get off the water when they see us coming, but we sail together and we do it often in the Norfolk Broads – it’s only a couple of hours from us. So that’s what we do yeah. It completely takes your mind off of everything because, one, the mobile phone doesn’t work on the boat, second, you’ve got to make sure your hand is on the tiller or the sheet to make sure the thing’s sailing properly.”
From a private passion, passions which politicians rarely open up about, we turned to what gave meaning to his name and his opinions. You can feel the fervour this leadership attracts by just going on social media, I’m sure many of you reading this has at least one friend who shares Jeremy Corbyn posts, yet in person this atmosphere, this feeling is jacked up, the venues are surrounded by a throng of Socialist Worker peddlers, eager activists and trade unionists wearing fluorescent anti-austerity tabards. The ignited passion is undeniable but what is the source?
“We’ll that’s interesting isn’t it? When Jeremy’s campaign started last year I think he reflected the overall mood of what was happening right across Europe. People disillusioned with politics overall, they wanted a new type of politics, a more engaging politics. I think that’s been maintained for the last 12 months and it’s now with the leadership election gives us another opportunity to engage more people in that political debate. And I think people are interested in what’s happening within their communities and in society, they want to make a contribution, and now what we are doing is meeting after meeting, touring around the country meeting people, speaking but more importantly allowing people to speak, listening to them, and I think that’s exciting.”
Yet this passion for Corbyn isn’t seen with the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the majority of which share similar principles yet take a different approach. I wondered whether John thought that this focus was wrong and that they should focus on the same as Corbyn’s supporters.
“The members of the Parliamentary Labour Party are good people”
“It’s interesting; I’ve never completely understood what’s happened over the last month. It’s completely perplexed me. For the last ten months we were working with the Parliamentary Labour Party, the vast bulk of them just want to get on with the job, there’s a small number, a couple of handfuls at best who just haven’t accepted Jeremy’s mandate and haven’t been constructive but we’ve managed to work around them. The bulk of the PLP have been engaged in the political debate about policy, implementation of the opposition and I thought it was going very well and actually if you look at our victories in parliament, in terms of what we did on the Trade Union Bill, on tax credits, on P.I.P for disabled people, we were having real victories. We were combining that by mobilising an opposition in the Commons where we don’t have a majority but linking that up with a Lords strategy. So to defeat them in the Lords we have this ping-pong arrangement between the two Houses where eventually we brought the government down and had some real successes.”
“We also had electoral successes. In all the parliamentary by-elections we increased our majority three out of four times, we’ve won every mayoral contest, in local elections we retained every council people thought we’d lose, and at the same time we matched Ed Miliband when he was at his very highest poll rating. This argument within the PLP that they’ve put to Jeremy for the reason they want to get rid of him, or they have no confidence in him, is not that they disagree with him and his policies but they don’t think they can win elections under him. But, we’ve been winning elections and the bizarre thing was that at the same PLP meeting a few weeks ago where this was all raised individual members of the PLP the first item of the agenda was welcoming the candidate from the Tooting by-election who just tripled her majority, so it was bizarre to then argue that you couldn’t win elections under Jeremy.”
“I’m mystified, but the good thing about it now, you know, is that we’ve got a democratic election on, debate will take place, political discussion will happen and it will bring people in. It will be amicable, comradely, at the end of it we will have a vote and if Jeremy wins he will have a mandate, the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party are good people, they’re democrats, and they’ll accept the mandate.”
the leadership election gives us another opportunity to engage more people in that political debate
An argument that is recited by every Corbynite I’ve debated is that Corbyn is inspiring more people to vote Labour. Yet to me, the evidence and polls just don’t add up to this conclusion. They suggest millions of voters switching to the Tories, they suggest that everything is far from rosy. They suggest a Michael Foot-esque result at best and at worse the end of a party that has spent a century fighting for the everyday, hardworking people who have made this nation great. “…do you really think the Labour Party is electable under Corbyn? If we actually look at those statistics from the local elections, Jeremy lost eighteen seats whereas if we compare it with past politicians: Tony Blair gained 1,807..?”
John cut in, “Different circumstances. Different economic circumstances, different circumstances in the Tory record; if you look at the predictions that were coming forward for our performances in the local and mayoral elections we were told that we were going to lose council after council, we held onto every one of them, in the mayorals we didn’t just win them, we won them with thumping majorities. Not just London, but also the fantastic victory of Marvin Rees in Bristol. Electing a black man in a city which actually gained its wealth through slavery is a huge symbolic demonstration of how far this country has come in terms of equality, so I think that the electoral success have been on course. We said last year ‘we will lay the foundations for electoral success, it will take us time’ and that’s the foundations that we’ve laid.”
“In terms of parliamentary elections, look at the by-elections themselves, increasing a majority in three out of four significantly every time. We were on course. In terms of polls is interesting, we were ten points behind the Tories in September and in one 14 points behind, we overtook the Tories in the polls a month ago then the leadership attack occurred and we fell behind in the polls*, what’s the lesson? The lesson is a united party rises in the polls and wins elections. That’s what I believe. That’s why I think this leadership election is a complete distraction but now it’s happened, we will have the election whoever wins, a democratic vote, and we will unite behind them.”
“Electing a black man in a city which gained its wealth through slavery is a huge symbolic demonstration of how far this country has come”
This view isn’t shared by the PLP, I wanted to know why he thought that. To me “…there must have been something wrong if over 80% of the PLP have no confidence with the leadership?”
“I’m mystified still, I think what happened after the European referendum there was almost a panic because they thought Boris Johnson was going to be elected. They even talked about the day of October 16 as the date of the next election, or whenever it was, and you know what panic set in, absolute panic. And what I saw in the House of Commons across all parties was hysteria at the time. I’m still mystified by it in terms of all the objective evidence which demonstrates that we were exactly on course for where we wanted to be in building up our electoral project. We are where we are, and I think those who voted in the no confidence vote against Jeremy were wrong, but we will be able to argue that out in terms of the debate that we have in Parliament, but more importantly that debate is now with our members. Again, you know, they were critical of Jeremy but under him we are now the biggest political party in Europe, half a million members and still growing. It’s extraordinary. So what objective measure has he failed?”
Conscious of time, the hum of a growing crowd on the other side of the curtain growing louder, I decided we should shift to a topic that presents a worrying future us as a nation. I wanted to know what a successful Brexit would look like to the left’s Shadow Chancellor …
*Editor’s note: Labour has scored higher that the Tories in three polls since September, however, the party has consistently averaged lower poll ratings than the Conservatives before and since the leadership challenge.