Jeremy Corbyn interview: ‘There are not 300,000 sectarian extremists at large’

Jeremy Corbyn Global Justice

What is your reaction to the news that the high court decision to allow new party members to vote in the leadership election has been overturned (Corbyn was informed of the decision minutes before the interview was due to start)?

I have just heard the result. Very disappointed. People joined the Labour party in order to take part in the party and were specifically told that they were able to vote in the leadership election and that was decided by the high court that they could. The appeal court has said they can’t and I would imagine that those who brought the case will be considering whether or not to take it to the supreme court.

Will it affect the result?

Probably not, but I think that people should have the right to take part and that is surely what democracy is about. We now have the biggest membership in our history and I think we should be happy and joyful about that.

Tom Watson has raised fears of entryism in the Labour party. He talked of “old hands twisting young arms” and has sent you a dossier of alleged evidence. How did you react?

I read about his letter to me in the media and it appeared to be a rehash of a book Michael Crick wrote 20 years ago about alleged entryism into the Labour party at that stage. I just ask Tom to do the maths: 300,000 people have joined the Labour party – at no stage in anyone’s most vivid imagination are there 300,000 sectarian extremists at large in the country who have suddenly descended on the Labour party.

Sorry Tom, it is nonsense – and I think he knows it’s nonsense. Let’s get on with campaigning, Tom. Thanks.

I just wish that members of the parliamentary Labour party, including Tom, would recognise that we have a very strong and very large party membership who joined for a reason. They want a different kind of society and a different kind of Britain. They want us to oppose austerity, they want us to oppose inequality, they want us to encourage investment and that kind of society that develops that includes all.

Has there been any entryism?

I haven’t noticed it and I have met very large numbers of new members at lots of events over the past year since I was elected. I have done fundraising events in every part of the country and it strikes me that there is a pleasing diversity of the people that have joined the party in terms of age, gender and ethnic background, ideas. It’s wonderful. I think we should welcome them. I don’t know why people get frightened of lots of new members. I am happy about it.

Is there a problem of people joining from other parties, including those who supported the Socialist Workers party?

I want people to join for good motives. But if they have changed their political views or developed their political views, then surely that is a good thing. We can only win a general election by winning people over from non-voting or voting from another party. If someone has developed their politics to be members of the Labour party even though they were once members of the Lib Dems, or Greens or something, fine. Welcome aboard.

Have you got full confidence in Iain McNicol as general secretary?

We will receive a report from Iain about the process that has gone on over the last few months. And the NEC [national executive council] will no doubt ask him questions and he will give answers on it. But let’s look at that when the new NEC takes over.

Do you think the Labour party HQ has been even-handed in its approach to the leadership contest?

I say this: there will be a report on what has gone on. We’ll have that discussion. As far as I am concerned I am hoping that we can develop as a party where all members are able to take part in activities.

Do you have total confidence in Iain McNicol?

I have been happy to work with Iain McNicol since I became leader.

But do you have full confidence in him?

I have been happy to work with him.

You’re launching a plan for education in Britain. How will this reshape education?

The idea is that we have an educational system that is wraparound and gives everyone opportunities. What we have got in Britain is a commodified education system where university and to some extent college education is concerned.

We have insufficient access to preschool education for the youngest children. And we have a growing mix-up of secondary education between free schools and academies and local authority maintained schools. What we want is a national education concept that moves towards all children getting access to preschool facilities.

We need a guarantee of class sizes of 30 or less in primary schools. There are a considerable number that are over 30, 31, some that are even bigger than that – up to 38 – and that is completely wrong. Therefore, we need more teachers, above all we need to retain more teachers. Sadly too many leave the profession very early because they are over-burdened by workloads and pressure on them. In secondary schools we have an increasing number of free schools and academies outside local authority orbit and the pay and conditions of the nationally agreed system. I am keen to re-establish local authorities as the family of education.

We have also seen the sad demise of the once great adult education service in Britain, which was fantastic. Where local authorities would spend not very much money but get huge return for it. Adults could return to evening classes, night schools, weekend stuff where they could take degrees, study languages, study skills. Sometimes purely out of the joy of doing it. Sometimes for career development. I want to see a return to the levels of that and an extension of it. Then, of course, there is the question of university funding and the levels of fees. The government has finally ended the grant maintenance scheme altogether, which means that no student now gets any public support to go to university whatsoever. They have got to borrow for it and that means debt levels will rise. We have already seen a reduction in the number of students from working class and poor families going to university. I expect that is going to continue because they are raising the university fee cap.

Polling data for Labour and the Conservatives

Would you abolish tuition fees?

That would be the aim, yes. And to bring back maintenance grants for those who need them. It’s going to be expensive, I understand that. But I also understand that as a society it works. A better educated society works for all of us and we will close the productivity gap by doing so. And we can look at countries that don’t charge university fees such as Germany, which has a much higher standard of university level education for the whole population as a result.

How do you fund that level of expenditure?

It is expensive. We fund it through corporate taxation levels. By not reducing taxation and by chasing down tax avoidance and tax evasion.

Tax evasion. That won’t bring in enough to fund it …

It brings in as much as we can get. But it means we have to deal with the system that encourages it. It’s costing us a lot of money not to have a higher level of higher education. If we invest in it we will benefit from it.

The RMT strikes, do you support them?

I understand why they are doing it. Absolutely. Because in the case of Southern the company has not fulfilled its obligations as far as I see it. The people who use Southern on the Brighton line are unbelievably angry about it. I am getting out-lefted by Tory MPs all down the line who want to take back the franchise, take the keys from Southern and give it over to Direct Rail. Direct Rail ran the north-east franchise extremely well. The exchequer got £600m out of it and instead it is now being handed over to Virgin and we have got overcrowding of mega proportions on the trains and we are not getting the same amount of money back.

Do you back the strikes on Southern and Eurostar?

Yes, because I understand why they are doing it.

MPs and other critics have said that your message is too narrow. To get elected you will have to win seats from the SNP in Scotland, from Conservatives in the south and defend seats against Plaid in Wales and Ukip in the north. We are here in Sunderland where you have given a speech to 2,000 supporters which was very well received, and yet one of the local MPs, Sharon Hodgson, in her letter explaining why she was standing down from the shadow frontbench, said: “To win a general election, we need to appeal to not only core Labour voters, but the wider electorate. Sadly, my experience on the doorstep across the country is that crucial swing voters will never vote for a labour government led by Jeremy, and I have experienced this on the doorstep in Washington and Sunderland West.”

How are you going to reach out beyond the core to a wider electorate?

The appeal of our message has to be if you want real opportunities for everybody you have to invest in our society in a way that doesn’t increase inequality, which is what we have got at the moment. Essentially, the Tories have reduced corporate taxation, the top level of taxation, and cut services at the other end. And frozen public sector wages. Every family in Britain is affected in some way or another by the housing issue. At one end it is being homeless … At another level it is being unable to buy your first-time flat or home or anything else and having to stay with your parents until you are 30 or 40. We have a system that does not build or supply the houses that are necessary and, indeed, under the housing act forces councils to sell high-value properties in high cost areas. And so the housing issue affects pretty much everybody. Invest in housing that is good for everybody.

Secondly, the NHS effects everybody. An NHS that is part-privatised, an NHS that is so underfunded that it ends up rationing expensive medicines and mental health services is so underfunded that many people go untreated. So my message is to those who do not consider themselves to be the poorest and vulnerable in society but relatively well off: you actually will benefit from a good health service.

But that messaging is not reflected in polling … no one has ever won an election with polling as poor as yours. The message has not got out to a wide enough number of people.

We have done our best to get our message out. It hasn’t been helped that prominent people in the Labour party – Labour MPs – have spent the last 10 months actively being unsupportive of our policies that have been generally agreed and supported. Now everyone agrees that anti-austerity is the right line to be taking.

And since the resignations in July and the leadership contest, then clearly the public mind has become focused on the leadership contest rather than the future. I’m trying to turn this leadership campaign into a campaign of how we would run a general election. How we would win back those areas of Britain that have become disillusioned – left-behind Britain.

You mentioned the discord in the party. Let’s talk about those MPs, many of whom are peeling away not for ideological reasons but for reasons of competence. Lilian Greenwood MP, in explaining why she was resigning from the shadow cabinet, said in a letter that: “[Jeremy] is not a team player let alone a team leader … he doesn’t understand collective responsibility and he can’t lead a team. This is not about policy or ideology, it is about competence.” She wrote of her frustration and upset that a policy launch on rail fares was undermined by the announcement of a shadow cabinet reshuffle that same day.

I am surprised that Lilian has taken this line. She and I sat down in her office with her team and we had a very good discussion about transport policies and we agreed a programme of activities. Why she should feel it necessary to write a letter like that at this moment she alone would know the answer to that.

But the reasons are in the letter: you announced a reshuffle on the day that the rail strategy that she had worked on for months was also being announced, and as a result it got buried by the reshuffle.

She knew full well that a reshuffle was happening at that time. Listen, choreography of news is not always the easiest thing to achieve. That was actually several months ago and so I have been happy to work with her and others and come the election result I will be happy to work with them again. And I hope that they will recognise that so far over 200 constituency parties have made a nomination for me as a leader of the party. That is far more than nominated me a year ago on a far greater, far higher level of participation by party members by those nominating at meetings. That is surely a sign of something.

But doesn’t this get to the heart of the problems in the Labour party in that some of those MPs will say that they get their mandate from their constituents and there are 9.4 million Labour voters. The MPs … say they don’t see you as an electable PM, so they are privileging loyalty to their constituents, which is a far greater number than the 500,000 or so Labour members.

We all take our mandate from our constituents. I do as well.

So in that case it’s perfectly reasonable for MPs, who are taking soundings from voters, to say they are unwilling to support you as leader because they don’t see you as being electable as a prime minister.

Of course it is perfectly reasonable.

But why do you keep calling them out for their disloyalty? Especially as someone who was a serial disloyal Labour MP under previous Labour governments. You voted 438 times against Labour.

No, I was standing for what I thought were very important principles such as on identity cards, such as on terrorism legislation, such as on the Iraq war, student fees. Those were the points of rebellion. I did not ever take any personal abuse or issues with anybody on the frontbench. I have never done that sort of politics, I never have.

No, but if these MPs feel as though their constituents will not be served by a Labour party that is not electable then it is a principled position for them to take, isn’t it?

They can take a position, and they have done. And they are welcome to make the comments that they do. But I just remind them that we are all members of the Labour party. We are all selected and promoted and supported by members of the Labour party. And recruiting 300,000 people in a year has never ever been achieved before. I think some credit should be given where it is due. I would say to them, let’s understand that the mood out there has changed. People don’t want to live in an unequal society any more. There is thirst for real political change … People have had enough of neo-liberal economics and had enough of the politics of endless inequality.

You seem far more energised by this leadership campaign than by the European Union campaign. You have done 19 rallies in the leadership campaign. You did 10 in the EU referendum campaign. You seem to be enjoying this more than you did campaigning to stay in the EU.

I did more media appearances than the whole of the shadow cabinet put together in the referendum campaign. I made the case for Remain recognising the problems that the EU had on competitive postal services, for example, and there is a debate about a free market direction of Europe and there is a debate about the social Europe – and I obviously choose the social Europe model and I voted against Maastricht. I strongly supported the social chapter, and I supported the workers’ time directive. Presumably Article 50 [of the Lisbon treaty] will be invoked at some point but we have to protect those advances but also ensure that we continue to gain market access. Here, in Sunderland, it relies very heavily on exports to Europe.

What is the right balance between public and private in the economy, do you think?

What I want to see is properly funded public services and recognise the public services role in helping people in employment. There has to be a much greater public role in industry and development. We don’t shy away from the idea of investing in manufacturing industry. This country is very good at inventing things, discovering things, but very bad at developing things … linear motors, jet engines to some extent, tilting trains. We end up exporting the technology to somewhere else. If we had an effective national investment strategy we would be able to develop manufacturing process that goes with it.

If we are to say to people: you invent something good, develop the manufacturing process as well … What happens now is that the banks won’t lend to them because they say it’s too risky, so a hedge fund comes along, buys the idea and then sells it somewhere else. And we end up developing the idea and losing the process. Can we not keep the process instead?

Do you want to take public ownership?

No it’s about participation and partnerships … the straight public ownership we want to look at is the rail system, which these days has universal support in the Labour party.

Any others?

The Royal Mail – it’s a crucial public service, it’s a natural monopoly. It is ludicrous the idea of competition in postal delivery.

This campaign is turning a little nasty. There was a lot of booing at the event last night.

People should treat other with respect. I don’t do abuse and I don’t think that anyone else should. Whoever they are.

The charge is that over the last 10 months a nastiness has grown in the Labour party. Why has it happened over the last 10 months?

Unfortunately there has always been nastiness in politics, There has always been abuse in politics. I regret it and I deplore it. And I deplore it if it has increased. It’s wrong.

Do you think it has increased?

No. I am not sure it has. I know that I have received more abuse than I ever use to. But then maybe I’m better known these days. But I receive more abuse than anybody else. The best way of dealing with abuse is: ignore it.

But MPs are saying they are on the receiving end of abuse and they can’t ignore it.

When there is racist abuse, misogynist abuse, threats against people – that is utterly, totally, completely wrong.

One of the reasons that the Labour party didn’t perform better last time around is that they were marked down on economic competence, and a lot of what you outlined today is seemingly of appeal to a lot of people … better childcare, a better funded NHS, more social housing. But a lot of people will ask, “Where is the money coming from?” How do you win the argument about economic competence?

I think one of the problems that we had was that none of us did enough to explain why the economic crisis came about in 2008-09 and so we allowed the narrative to develop that the crash of 2008-09 was caused by alleged high levels of spending by that Labour government. It was absolutely nothing to do with it. It was much more to do with the subprime mortgage crisis in the USA, over-exposed banks and the lack of banking regulations.

I think now everyone would agree with that but we allowed that narrative to develop that Labour crashed the economy, that it spent too much. The economy crashed because it wasn’t regulated enough.

The other issue about competence is about how you deal with public investment. You either deal with it through very expensive PFI [private finance initiative] type funding – which ends up with a lack of public control and greater costs to the public – or you do it through traditional public investment through a public works loan board or a national investment bank, which gives better services for all.

Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?

Well I can’t be with Trump, can I? I can’t be with Trump so obviously with Hillary.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Daniel Boffey and John Mulholland, for The Observer on Saturday 13th August 2016 23.28 Europe/London

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