Halfway through my interview with Jeremy Corbyn, Laura Alvarez, his wife, turns up with a pot of homemade blackberry and apple jam for one of his assistants. “It’s from the allotment,” Corbyn says proudly. “It’s important to have a balance in life. I know my office gets quite irritated because I read lots of other things. I think you have to have an understanding of other things in life, not just the immediacy of politics.”
We’re in a cafe in London’s Finsbury Park, a short walk from Corbyn’s home and in the constituency he has represented for 23 years. His voice is quiet, deep and even, a baritone with limited range. It’s amazing he’s not hoarse. In the past week, he has held two rallies in London and one in Essex, before a short tour of Scotland (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee).
He arrives 20 minutes late, having just been at Notting Hill carnival children’s day. I ask what he’s reading now. “A history of Iceland. I didn’t know much about Iceland,” he concedes, but after a public interview he did with the novelist Ben Okri this summer, he was handed a great stack of tomes and has been going through them. “It’s an old book about the lores of Iceland, and its development on Danish-based Christianity, and the levels of slavery and indebtedness of small farmers in Iceland. I’ve only got 100 pages in, so we’re around the late 18th century.”
Politicians usually confect answers about their cultural input to suggest some untapped creativity, or a hip alter ego. Often the plan unravels. In 2006 Gordon Brown said he loved the Arctic Monkeys, only to prove incapable of naming a single song. David Cameron claimed the Jam’s Eton Rifles was his favourite song, only to have Paul Weller retort, “Which part of it didn’t he get? It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.”
But, for better or worse, Corbyn isn’t like other politicians. He might have said he was reading Elena Ferrante’s novels, to suggest he was in touch with his feminine side, or a book of world war two poetry to connect with older voters (Theresa May has an enormous 105-point lead in favourability among the UK’s eldest voters). Instead, Corbyn just tells you what he’s actually reading. If it sounds weird or boring or both, so be it. He couldn’t be less calculated.
Communication is everything. Could we do things differently? Probably. It’s something I want to develop
Given the performative element to modern political leadership, this does, of course, present a potential liability. Asked if he would use nuclear weapons, Corbyn has said simply: “No.” (He might have said: “The whole point is that if you have them you’ll never use them, but I think the money would be better spent elsewhere.”) Asked before the referendum how passionate he was about the EU on a scale of one to 10, he said, “Seven, seven and a half.” (He might have said: “My passion for staying in is a 10. But there are things we can and should improve.”) The problem, his critics say, isn’t just that he won’t play the game; it’s that he doesn’t even know the rules.
For many of his supporters, this is part of the appeal. They are fed up with the game. For them, his ability to speak his mind unselfconsciously, to be guided by conviction rather than pollsters and spin doctors, gives him an air of authenticity they feel has been lost. Last month I watched Corbyn address a packed auditorium in Chelmsford. “I love acting,” he told the crowd, to laughter and applause. “That’s why I go to the theatre, because I really enjoy drama. But when I’m in parliament I want to see political representation on behalf of ordinary people, not drama.”
Over a cup of tea a few days later, I ask if he entirely rejects the notion that there are certain ways a leader has to perform. “I don’t reject it outright. I’m trying to remould it, because communication is everything. If you can’t communicate your views, you’re not getting anywhere. Could we do things differently? Probably. It’s something I want to develop.”
But he is confident when connecting with voters on a personal level. As we walk through his constituency, he chats to a kebab shop owner he knows by name. A few minutes later, he is confronted by a young man on the street.
“Yo! Corbyn, man. Why you pull us out the EU?”
Corbyn stops. “I didn’t, actually. I wanted to stay in and reform it. I think there were some problems with it, but I wanted to stay in and fix them.”
A little further on, another man approaches. He’s a musician and remembers a time when Corbyn advocated for his band. The area is gentrifying and space is tight; Corbyn helped negotiate with a local landlord to make a room available for them.
The public is something Corbyn clearly feels a part of, not a place he goes for votes and events. “I’m very keen on not spending all my time in Westminster,” he says. “There are any number of meetings you can endlessly have, so I have quite a tough rule that, from Thursday onwards, I’m around the country. And at least one full day a week, I’m here in the constituency. I’ve observed many Labour MPs and leaders over the years who, without really thinking about it, become cut off. You are offered all sorts of opportunities to be separate from the rest of the population, and it can all be very enticing and quite nice. But in reality, it can be very dangerous, because you can be completely removed from the people who put you there in the first place. It’s not an easy balance.”
He has found the shift in pace and profile over the past year a challenge. “You suddenly realise you’re under scrutiny the whole time. You find yourself being cautious about random conversations on the street, because you don’t know where it’s going.” Pointing to Alvarez, he says: “We were in Fort William, having two days off, eating chips in a restaurant, and suddenly it appears in the Sunday Times.” What was the story? “That I was having chips in a restaurant in Fort William!” He laughs. “As though I was not somehow doing my job properly.”
But this is still the part of the job Corbyn does well, meeting supporters and constituents: he has an easy, unaffected manner that escapes many politicians. Of all the gaffes there have been and will, no doubt, continue to be, Corbyn seems unlikely to ensnare himself in a Gillian Duffy “bigoted woman” moment. He does retail politics well: one person, one conversation, one handshake. The bigger issue is whether he can do wholesale.
Clearly Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal goes beyond Finsbury Park. Over the past couple of months, I have attended three leadership campaign meetings. This year’s events have been bigger than the last. There were a thousand at the Hilton in Brighton, with a further 500 outside whom Corbyn addressed in the drizzle; a capacity crowd of around 500 in Chelmsford civic theatre, a town that has had a Tory MP since 1950; a similar number in the Caird Hall complex in Dundee, where Labour has been eclipsed by the SNP.
Meetings aren’t movements. Nor are they necessarily indicators of potential electoral success. But they are not nothing, either. Across the western world, membership of political parties, interest in politics in general and voter turnout in particular are in decline. So when a man rejected by almost all his parliamentary colleagues, leading a party that last year suffered its second election defeat in a row, is packing out venues across the country, it’s noteworthy.
These big meetings are where Corbyn draws much of his political energy. “It’s pretty unprecedented,” he tells me when we meet in London. “It’s never happened in my lifetime and I’ve been in the Labour party since I was 16. And they are not all Labour supporters. In Cornwall, we did a headcount and only half were, but they came – so there is an appeal.”
The PLP don’t want Corbyn to succeed. I was loyal through Brown and Blair. Why can’t they be loyal through this?
These are campaign rallies only in the loosest sense of the word. From the stage, people are asked to join the phone bank; some come wearing Corbyn T-shirts. But in the rallies I went to, the Labour leader never once asked for anyone’s vote. Of more than a dozen speakers, only one, in Dundee – who gave a laundry list as to why Owen Smith was unsuitable to lead a progressive movement – raised the subject of Corbyn’s challenger. Nobody I interviewed in the audience mentioned Smith, either. It wasn’t that they were studiously refusing to talk about him; he just wasn’t on their radar.
At least one speaker will point out, more in sorrow than in anger, that they had a meeting just like this last year to elect Corbyn; now they have to do it again. His supporters tell me how disappointed they are that the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) cannot accept the decision, and complain about the way the media has treated him. “The PLP don’t want him to succeed,” says Anne Pissaridou, a Labour member all her life and until recently a local councillor in Brighton; she lost her seat to the Tories by a couple of hundred votes last year. “I stuck it out through Brown and Blair, and was loyal. I don’t know why they can’t be loyal through this.”
Each rally has its own flavour. In Brighton, where the local party was suspended in July over allegations of abusive behaviour and an improper ballot (those at the rally insist the only thing irregular about the ballot was that so many people turned up, they couldn’t fit them all into the venue), they dwell on democracy; in Chelmsford, the audience cheer a demand for a better rural bus service; in Dundee, a speaker warns of the perils of nationalism north and south of the border.
But while Corbyn’s speech varies slightly, his role is always the same. He is introduced to a standing ovation. Dressed in slacks, tieless shirt and sandals I assumed were Clarks, but Alvarez tells me are from Mexico, Corbyn has the beard of a professor and the pate of a friar. Bookish and ascetic, aesthetically and stylistically he owes more to Labour’s methodist wing than to its union origins.
Oratory is not Corbyn’s strong suit; he employs not a single metaphor. His voice rises and falls to its own logic, but its cadence seems to bear little relation to what he is saying. He often emphasises the word is, as though the verb to be is his point: “Housing is the most important issue.”
By this stage in the campaign, he has spoken at more than 30 rallies, giving more or less the same speech. You’d think he’d have it down by now, but he fluffs his lines a few times every night. There are awkward moments where the crowd aren’t sure if he’s finished his point, or is about to move on, and will either clap in the wrong place or watch him end his point in silence. Still, when he finishes there is another standing ovation. People have not come to be entertained; they have come to be reassured that the language of public ownership, redistribution, of caring and support, has not been retired from the public sphere: to have a basic sense of decency reflected back to them through their politics.
His supporters have been derided as “Corbynistas”, conjuring the image of pamphleteers and paper-sellers, ideologues and didacts – unbiddable devotees to Jude the Apostle, the patron saint of lost causes. But while there is a hard core of fanatics on social media, one struggles to find an archetypal “Corbynista” at any of these rallies. The people I spoke to were far more varied and less easy to caricature. There was the self-employed craftswoman who voted for Andy Burnham in the last leadership election; Pissaridou, who voted for Yvette Cooper (“I was torn, but I regretted it. I think he has the policies we’ve wanted for a long time”); and Simon, the Dundee brewer who backed the SNP at the last general election. “If Corbyn had been leader, I would have voted Labour,” he says. “I still don’t think Labour stands a chance in Scotland at the moment. But they could do eventually, with someone like him.” Others in Dundee felt that the lure of the SNP would soon fade.
Some, like James Ellis, a former Green member in Brighton, joined Labour after the general election in 2015. “Labour was opening up,” he says, “and I needed to be in it, so I was really happy when Jeremy decided to stand.” Others, like Bruce Whitehead, a former journalist and freelance musician from Edinburgh, joined Labour from the small hard left party Left Unity, the day after Corbyn won the leadership. (The day after I spoke to him, Whitehead received a message from the Labour party that he would be purged, citing social media insisting he is still a member of Left Unity; he is appealing.)
Everyone has their own wishlist of what they want Corbyn to do with his mandate. “I’d like him to articulate a simple, concise vision that will attract people who aren’t political nerds like me,” Pissaridou says. “He needs to speak to those 52% of people who voted for Brexit,” Ellis says. Emerging from Corbyn’s rally in Dundee, Danny McDonald was disappointed that he hadn’t given a clearer idea of how he’d fund his policies.
The rallies may be big, but ideologically they are tame. When Bernie Sanders was running for the Democratic nomination in the US, he railed against billionaires, bankers and corporations. Corbyn talks about renationalising the railways, building more houses and reaching out to people with mental health problems. There is no talk of neoliberal globalisation, quoting of Gramsci, or appeals for intersectional thinking. In Dundee, a band sang the Internationale and There Is Power In A Union, and socialism was mentioned several times. That was as radical as it got. In Chelmsford, Anna Wallbank, a primary school teacher, told me: “If someone better came along, I’d vote for them.”
People said: ‘You must make plans for when you win.’ And I said, ‘Don’t talk about it.’ I thought it was tempting fate
When Jeremy Corbyn decided to stand as leader in summer 2015, he didn’t think he would win. Indeed, the fear was that his defeat would reveal just how small the left in the party really was. Older leftwing candidates such as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott had already stood, while younger MPs were considered too inexperienced. He was an accidental candidate.
“Everything sort of took off,” he says now. “I was straight into hustings. Like, the next day. And that week I was on the road travelling. We didn’t have a campaign. We didn’t have an organisation. We didn’t have any money. All we had was my credit card. That lasted about a week. Then we started raising money. We got a loan from Unite. John McDonnell took over as chair of the campaign. Then we started appointing people and getting a campaign together. Time for reflection was very limited because from the moment I was nominated I was on a train.”
More unions came on board. The rallies got bigger. The polling numbers soared. What had been unthinkable became first possible, then likely and finally inevitable. But for all the energy and endorsements, one of the last people to realise Corbyn might win was Corbyn himself. “I was still not convinced by the end of August. I would go into the office and they would say: ‘Look, Jeremy, you have to make plans for when you win.’ And I said, ‘I’m not even going there. Please don’t talk about it.’ I thought it was tempting fate.”
Anyone who thinks the year that followed has been about the failings and foibles of one man simply hasn’t been paying attention. Corbyn emerged from a volatile and fractured political moment, both nationally and globally, a moment accentuated by the financial crisis. In Britain, scandals over phone hacking, MPs’ expenses and Operation Yewtree and its consequences have left many disaffected with both the political and media establishments. Meanwhile, there is a generation that has known only austerity and war, and has a future of debt and work insecurity to look forward to. Throughout the western world, mainstream parties on left and right have lost influence as they drift to the centre, leaving space at the margins for more populist challengers.
“I feel the world as stranger to me than I ever felt before,” said the renowned academic, Stuart Hall in 2007. “It’s when everyone is operating in so many of the same parameters that the only debate you can have is a sort of Swiftian debate - you know, shall we eat the children now or later?”
Few people foresaw Corbyn’s victory. Nobody could have guessed that a range of disparate movements around war, feminism, education, inequality would converge on the Labour party. Nobody could have guessed that this would be the moment when New Labour would lose not only its ideological appeal, but plausible advocates to carry its project forward. Nobody could have guessed that one of the least charismatic, most diffident figures of the British left would emerge as the standard-bearer for a new kind of politics, at 66. His ascendancy did not prompt a crisis in the Labour party; it illustrated it.
Since establishments do not, by definition, radicalise themselves, Corbyn needed a plan to make his leadership work. It soon became clear he didn’t have one. And since insurrectionaries don’t easily give up the power they have acquired, his opponents needed a plan to remove him. It has taken the best part of a year to become clear they didn’t have one, either.
As a result, for the last year Corbyn has been a political piñata, whacked mercilessly from all sides. Mauled by the press, maligned by his own MPs, ridiculed by the government, he has lurched from crisis to crisis and challenge to challenge, with coup threats and mass resignations alongside accusations of bullying, antisemitism and sexism.
Corbyn insists he will do everything in his power to ensure a climate of intimidation and exclusion does not dominate. “I don’t do abuse, I don’t do bullying and I won’t tolerate it from anyone associated with my teams, supporters or anyone else,” he says. “We have to say to everyone in the Labour party that this is a safe place to be. I don’t accept any kind of abuse or intimidation, misogyny, homophobia, racism, antisemitism or Islamophobia, and we are taking action against it as a party.”
Meanwhile, Corbyn’s team feel he is being held to a different standard, pointing to how little interest the press shows in exposing racism within Tory party ranks, for example.
But the anticipated debacle prompted by Corbyn’s leadership has yet to materialise. Labour has won all four of the byelections held since he was elected, upping its share of the vote in three and dipping by just 0.3% in the other. In mayoral elections, Labour has won Bristol and London, key cities it had previously lost; in local elections, it has outpolled the Tories and retained control of key bellwether towns such as Nuneaton and Stevenage. In a poll taken shortly before the EU referendum, Labour was even with the Tories.
But the PLP’s vote of no confidence and subsequent leadership challenge, just as the Tories dusted themselves off and elected a new prime minister, have had an impact. In the most recent YouGov poll, Labour are 14 points behind. A poll last month put the new prime minister’s net favourability rating at +33.6 and Corbyn’s at -30.7. Given the pollsters’ failure to predict the last election, his own election and Brexit, Corbyn can be forgiven for not putting too much store by such figures. Nonetheless, he has a steep hill to climb.
Not all of the parliamentary party was rooting for him to fail. Some members, while sceptical, were prepared to try to make it work. Many criticise not his policies but his leadership style. In a New Statesman article last month, Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah claimed Corbyn had appointed her shadow minister for culture and the digital economy, then given half the job to Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West, without telling either of them – only to then give that portion back to Onwurah without telling Debbonaire. “No one knew what he wanted us to do,” she wrote. “If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors, Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal.” (Asked for comment, a Corbyn spokesperson responded: “It’s not uncommon to have discussions about the delineation of these roles, but at no point was anybody sacked or singled out.”)
Heidi Alexander, former shadow minister for health, has written that she was “excited” to be given that job and tried her best: “A leader who had been willing to engage, support, take difficult decisions and able to build a team might have made it work. But we didn’t have one, and in Jeremy Corbyn, as much as it pains me to say it, we never will.” Alexander said she was repeatedly undermined by John McDonnell. “It wasn’t good enough for the leader to routinely defer to his shadow chancellor when confronted with a difficult decision – a shadow chancellor who on three separate occasions undermined my efforts to agree collective positions on health matters.”
Theresa May's education bill restricts access. Now she wants to repeal our human rights act. We have to be campaigning
But when I raise Alexander’s complaints, Corbyn seems genuinely baffled. “I was particularly surprised at Heidi’s saying that, because Heidi and I had many discussions over the handling of the junior doctors’ dispute, for example, and general health policy,” he says. But you get the sense that the criticism doesn’t come completely from left field. “Did I defer to John McDonnell? John McDonnell is pretty clear in his views and setting them forward. I have an approach that is probably more [one] of listening and less declamatory. She took that as not showing leadership. I try to summarise conversations at the end of them and move on from there. And I hope Heidi will recognise that it’s a style she might be misreading.”
Despite the infighting, Corbyn believes he has managed to shift the national conversation. “Don’t underestimate what’s happened in the past year,” he says. “I was elected in a very surprising set of circumstances, and we challenged fundamentally the economic agenda. Now [our] anti-austerity agenda is almost the norm. Everybody says, well, now you have to invest in the economy rather than cut. There’s been a fundamental change and we will continue in that direction.”
How does he plan to do that? “We’ll reach out and try to be as precise and campaigning as we can in policy areas,” he says. “Take housing policy. Building council housing, providing starter mortgages and regulating the private rented sector: that is something that has a lot of resonance beyond Labour voters. I will also be emphasising the contradictions in Theresa May, who stands on the steps of Downing Street like St Francis of Assisi, and then produces a higher education bill that further restricts access. Now she is proposing a British bill of rights which will repeal our human rights act.”
It is an interesting paradox that pugnacious politics should come in the form of such an unassertive man. When it comes to delivering memorable zingers against the Tories, Corbyn just doesn’t have it in him. The issue isn’t that he doesn’t think quickly on his feet: it’s that, even if he did, he wouldn’t – he just thinks it’s unhelpful.
Does he plan to do prime minister’s questions any differently if he wins? “I find the traditional way of doing it completely off-putting. On one level, it can be quite funny. But it’s remote from everybody’s lives.” Does he think his idea of crowdsourcing questions works? “It gets a very bad press from the Westminster media corps. Quite a lot of the parliamentary Labour party don’t like it. But people I meet around the country quite frankly do like it. They say, you’ve actually changed it in a good way. It makes more sense to us. So I’ll develop it and work on it.
“I’m not a personally combative person,” he adds. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have strong political views. I obviously do. But it’s not my approach, which most people find frustrating. My supporters say, ‘You should be tougher. You should sock it to ’em. Get heavy.’ It’s not my style. I have a point of view. I try to listen a lot, and to be a representative of those who don’t feel represented.”
This frustrates some of his core supporters, too. A publisher friend told me about a boozy London dinner party with a group of leftwing stalwarts, including an academic, campaign organiser and film director. They went around the table giving Corbyn marks out of 10 for his performance so far. The lowest was two; the highest seven; the mean was around three. The only thing they were agreed on was that they would all vote for him again. Having laboured so long for a left insurgency within Labour, they didn’t want to hand the reins back to the Blairites. They would like to see Corbyn translate the energy and optimism of his rallies into something more effective.
The ideological divisions in the party may be deep, Corbyn says, but that should not preclude cooperation on a range of issues. “Read the diaries of certain Labour cabinet ministers: Castle, Crossman, Benn, Chris Mullin and many others. All kinds of people manage to work together. Barbara Castle’s 1975 social security pensions act was a great achievement, and that was done with a whole bunch of people who didn’t particularly like each other, who didn’t agree on most things – but it did get through. So it can be done. But it’s also a question of how you take things forward. If we can be seen to be successfully attacking the Tories, as we did on academisation, then I think we will make a great deal of progress.”
Corbyn has proposed investing £500bn in infrastructure and manufacturing, backed by a publicly owned national investment bank and regional banks. He wants to build at least half a million council houses, to introduce rent controls and a charter of private tenants’ rights.
What would he do differently if he had his year again? “I would be better prepared for the media onslaught. I knew it was going to be difficult. But even I was surprised at the levels of refusal to engage, or to try to understand what we’re trying to achieve.”
If Corbyn is re-elected next week, as seems likely, the key question is: what will change? The PLP is the same; the media is the same; the party is the same. One would hope that his detractors have a more sophisticated plan than they did last year, in which they will engage with the meaning of Corbyn’s victory, if not with him. But one would also hope that he has devised a way to get from where he is – popular in the party, unpopular in the country at large, unworkable in parliament – to where he wants to be.
Corbyn says he plans to take the lead on issues such as housing and education, with policies he thinks most of the party can rally around. But if he leads, will the party follow? “I’ll be saying, in a kindly way, ‘There is an awful lot we can campaign on together. If we do that, we’re going to be effective. If we don’t do that, we won’t.’”
But will that be enough? “If Labour party members and supporters re-elect me, that will be a second mandate in a year. Respect for the mandate is about respect for democracy itself.”
It sounds as if he plans to appeal to MPs’ better nature, even if he may have exhausted their goodwill. “I’m sure they all have better natures,” Corbyn says, with an impish smile. “I’ll rely on the best natures that can come out. A lot of people say lots of things in the heat of the moment. But of course I’ve made mistakes, and of course we need to do better. We certainly can’t carry on as we did.
“I will put it to them that I’ve got a mandate, if I’m elected. I’ll put it to them that the mandate is about the policies I’m trying to put forward. Not every dot and comma and crossed T, or whatever. But it is the general direction of the economy and policy. And I’ll invite them to work with us. Whether they’re going to love me at the end of it? I think the love may be further away.”