Interview with Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn 'We Can't Stop Brexit'
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn believes that politics have left young people behind. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, he speaks about Brexit, the crisis of social democracy in Europe and the uphill battle to unite his party.
The man upon whom the hopes of young men and women in Britain rest enjoys taking pictures of drain covers and making jam. He wears baggy blazers and, when necessary, smuggles English cheese into his Mexican vacation lodgings. In other words, he leads the averagely eccentric lifestyle of your standard British retiree.
Except that Jeremy Corbyn, 69, has his sights set on becoming the next prime minister of the United Kingdom. Ever since the man from the London borough of Islington became the surprise Labour leader in 2015, the party has been experiencing an unprecedented boom. Not unlike Bernie Sanders in the United States, Corbyn's decidedly socialist and pacifist positions have been received enthusiastically by mostly young voters. With its 540,000 members, Labour is now the largest political party in the European Union. In the 2017 election, it received 40 percent of the vote, despite significant attacks on the party from the British media and a bitter internal battle. Since then, left-wing and social democratic parties from across Europe have been making pilgrimages to London to learn the secret to Corbyn's unlikely success.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Corbyn, when you look across Europe at the moment, do you fear that social democracy is doomed?
Corbyn: Not at all. Look at Portugal where the Socialist Party has formed a successful left-wing government. Also the Swedish Social Democratic Party did comparatively well in the last election.
DER SPIEGEL: These are the last bastions. In Germany, France, the Netherlands and elsewhere, social democrats are on their way to becoming splinter parties. Why are they doing so poorly?
Corbyn: I think the main point is how you deal with the economic crisis of 2008. Do you continue to allow austerity to dominate and manage an economy which, in effect, is redistributing wealth in the wrong way or do you offer an alternative? I think left parties that are putting forward a coherent anti-austerity alternative will get huge support.
DER SPIEGEL: At the moment, though, it is right-wing populist parties across Europe that are getting significant support.
Corbyn: When communities become disillusioned with politicians and politics, it can be extremely dangerous. And hence, I find the rise of the far right in Austria and Germany very troubling and very concerning. At least the AfD (Germany's right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party) didn't hasn't grown any further in the polls recently, but I do find the rise of this party quite frightening.
DER SPIEGEL: The decline of social democracy started after figures like Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder were in government. Is that just coincidence?
Corbyn: What Tony Blair wanted to do was turn the traditional social democracy into what he called a third way.
DER SPIEGEL: Which led to him winning by a landslide in 1997.
Corbyn: Yes, but he moved the Labour Party to the right. I was never a supporter of this path. I supported the investment in health and education, which was very good. I disagreed on the Iraq War in particular, but also on the idea that you could run public services through private finance.
DER SPIEGEL: Your answer is a sharp turn to the left?
Corbyn: What we're offering here are coherent policies. It's the values behind it that are so important. The values that you work for the entirety of society and don't blame minorities, that you invest in education, but above all, that you give people hope. I really think many people across Europe need the perspective that they will be able to achieve something in their lives because the levels of depression in post-industrial areas is huge. The levels of underemployment, short-term employment and insecure employment are huge. And I think that is very dangerous to society. What we're saying is that there has to be a realignment of wealth within our society.
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DER SPIEGEL: Yet the current level of unemployment in Britain is the lowest it has been since 1975. Despite Brexit, the economy is growing.
Corbyn: That masks the fact that there are 1 million people on zero-hour contracts (Eds. Note: contracts that do not guarantee a minimum amount of work) and that real wages have been frozen now for 10 years. Almost 4 million people accessed food banks last year in the sixth richest country in the world. The Conservatives tend to measure everything by the prosperous parts of London and the southeast. It's simply not the case with the rest of the country. We have the lowest levels of wages paid in the East Midlands, which is less than two hours from London by train. The lowest levels of investment are in the northeast.
DER SPIEGEL: Is that why Labour received 40 percent of the vote in last year's election?
Corbyn: We addressed the worries of the majority in our manifesto, yeah. And we're campaigning in a different way. We're doing community campaigning, we involve our members much more in policy making. Together, we're developing ideas like an overarching national education service. It's a completely novel idea in Britain, where education has traditionally been atomized between school, local authority, quasi-independent universities and so on. And we obviously work to get our message across in any way that we can.
DER SPIEGEL: By bypassing the mainstream media, as you refer to it.
Corbyn: The most hostile area for us is the mainstream print media, which has been unbelievably hostile. Since I became Labour leader three years ago, 86 percent of reporting about my leadership has been negative by the mainstream media. We challenge that in whatever way we can. We do much better on social media and on broadcast media.
DER SPIEGEL: To be fair to the print media, you don't need journalists to badmouth you. Some of your fiercest adversaries can be found among Labour delegates to the House of Commons.
Corbyn: The party is more united than you think. Almost 14,000 people came to our last conference in Liverpool. That's the biggest attendance ever to a political conference in Britain. And the party came to fairly agreed positions on most things. There isn't a huge split.
DER SPIEGEL: Which is why I referred specifically to Labour MPs, a group collectively known as the Parliamentary Labour Party. A significant number of them would like to get rid of you sooner rather than later.
Corbyn: Some members of the Parliamentary Labour Party have been slower to come onboard than others, shall we say?
DER SPIEGEL: Why does the old guard despise your left-wing politics so passionately?
Corbyn: I am afraid you'll have to ask them that question, really. I reach out to all -- all the time.
DER SPIEGEL: Rumor has it that old Blairites and Labour centrists are in the process of forming a new party. Would it be easier for you if your adversaries within the party were to leave?
Corbyn: No, I don't want the party to be split because any split would be dangerous for the future of all of us. I want them to stay together and recognize that, unless we offer an inclusive radical alternative to what this Tory government is doing, we're not going to win the election. We're offering that radical alternative.
DER SPIEGEL: It is one that includes the nationalization of the railways and the electrical grid, more workers' rights and a massive redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom.
Corbyn: Our policies are sensible, inclusive, and they are actually quite mainstream. A majority of Britons support bringing the railway back into public ownership.
DER SPIEGEL: In your 35 years as an MP, you have gained a reputation for being a party rebel. You have voted against your own party 400 times.
Corbyn: Oh, I think much more than that.
DER SPIEGEL: Yet under your leadership, Labour rebels have occasionally been sanctioned quite harshly. Is that not a paradox?
Corbyn: Nobody has been sanctioned for their votes. We are not into sanctioning people for their views. We sanction people for their behavior and for false allegations.
DER SPIEGEL: Members of your own party have also accused you of tolerating anti-Semitism. Do you?
Corbyn: No, absolutely not. Anti-Semitism is a disgusting form of racism. I am implacably opposed to it. There is no place for it in our party and it must be eradicated from society. We will take whatever measures necessary to tackle anti-Semitism head on and guarantee the security of Jewish life in the UK.
DER SPIEGEL: Not just Labour, but the whole country is extremely divided at the moment -- not least because of Brexit. If you could stop Brexit, would you?
Corbyn: We can't stop it. The referendum took place. Article 50 has been triggered. What we can do is recognize the reasons why people voted Leave.
DER SPIEGEL: And they are?
Corbyn: I think a lot of people have been totally angered by the way in which their communities have been left behind. We had high Leave votes in the most left-behind areas of the country. In a lot of deprived areas, working conditions have deteriorated over the decades, protected by European legislation. Indeed, we would enhance workers' rights, where the Conservative Party wants to go in another direction of a largely deregulated economy.
DER SPIEGEL: Wouldn't you face pretty much the same problems as Prime Minister Theresa May if you were in charge of the Brexit negotiations?
Corbyn: No, because we wouldn't be trying to face towards the deregulated economy of the United States, which the one wing of the Tory Party is trying to do all the time. We would want to make a new and comprehensive customs union with the European Union, one that would obviously protect the Irish border -- that's crucial -- but also ensure that our supply chains worked in both directions. People voted Leave, or they voted Remain, but nobody voted to lose their job. Nobody voted to reduce their living standards or working conditions.
DER SPIEGEL: Some people have argued that if Labour had had a pro-EU leader, the result of the Brexit referendum would have been different. What would the EU have to look like for you to support it?
Corbyn: I've been critical of the competitions policy in Europe and the move towards free market, and obviously critical in the past of their treatment of Greece, although that was mostly the eurozone that did that. My idea is of a social Europe with inclusive societies that work for everyone and not just for a few.
DER SPIEGEL: Less neo-liberal?
Corbyn: Well, as you probably gathered from following me, I'm not really in favor of neo-liberal economics.
DER SPIEGEL: Looking at the almost impossible task facing Theresa May, that of sealing a deal not only with Brussels but also with her own party, do you sometimes feel sorry for her?
Corbyn: I am a decent human being, I feel sorry for anyone in distress. But the best way for anyone to alleviate distress is to take yourself away from the source of it.
DER SPIEGEL: No offense intended, but both you and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders are older politicians ...
Corbyn: I can't believe you just said that! (laughs)
DER SPIEGEL: Why is it that so many young people flock to you?
Corbyn: It's not a personal thing. It's about us as parties and movements offering some hope. Young people never turned off politics. Politics turned off young people because it didn't offer anything to them. I grew up in the 1950s and '60s and I always believed that I would probably have a better life than my parents had. And my parents were not poor. The turning point was the politics endorsed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Their message was that the young had to pay for education, pay for health, pay for pensions, that society doesn't really care about them. And that it's all a race.
DER SPIEGEL: And now you want to go back to the future?
Corbyn: What we've been saying on both sides of the Atlantic is about redistribution of wealth and power. Bernie Sanders has quite a good line. He says: "America can afford anything except the inequality it's got."
DER SPIEGEL: You will turn 70 next year. Are you planning to stand in the next general election?
Corbyn: I'm very young. I'm very healthy. I run. I'm a vegetarian. I eat porridge every morning. I don't smoke. I don't drink. I don't do anything bad. I am sorry if that makes me sound boring.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Corbyn, thank you very much for this interview.