In conversation with former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
“I’ve just been watching some fantasy on television,” Jeremy Corbyn says as he bustles in and sits down to the Zoom call. “It’s called Prime Minister’s questions.”
Corbyn has been incredibly busy since he stepped down as Labour leader in 2019. He is now an independent MP, following his controversial suspension by his successor Keir Starmer in October.
While he was readmitted to Labour membership shortly after, Starmer has yet to restore his whip allowing him to once again return as a Labour MP, but Corbyn's supporters are now working to having him reinstated in a challenge to the current Labour party leader.
The activism goes on
While focusing on his work as MP for Islington North – a constituency he has represented since 1983 – in more local projects and activism, he has been busy setting up a new, more international project: Peace and Justice.
True to Corbyn’s legacy as a campaigner – a strength to many and a point of criticism to some – Peace and Justice focuses on a wide range of issues.
“We're working on campaigning streams of media, economic justice, environmental sustainability and international justice,” he tells The New Arab.
"Labour has to represent an alternative government and that alternative has to be one that is different. That means tackling injustice, poverty, and inequality, it means investment in future services"
Peace and Justice is setting up 'news clubs' around the country to bring people together and “challenge existing news values and media ownership, building up to something much bigger”.
The new organisation has been working around the clock to develop global relationships, stretching across to leftists in India, South Asia and countries in Africa, as well as across the pond in the United States and Latin America.
“Next month I will be addressing the Conference of Democratic Socialists of America which is very influential in supporting the work of Bernie Sanders and the 'Squad' in Congress,” he says.
“We've made a good start, and I'm impatient to go even further, even faster.”
Understanding the plight of Palestinians
A long-standing supporter of the Palestinian cause, Corbyn had continued to reiterate his party's commitment to recognising a Palestinian state as Labour's leader.
Addressing the issue now as an independent MP, he voices his scepticism of the new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – who has repeatedly declared his support for the complete Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
Despite claims that his government is more 'moderate' than that of previous Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Corbyn believes "it appears to be following much the same policies as Netanyahu in respect of settlements, and the way in which they have opposed those people that are trying to protect their homes from being demolished in Jerusalem,” adding that he doesn’t see how Bennett’s government could improve any issues for the Palestinians.
However, Jeremy is heartened by the international backlash faced by Israel after the most recent deadly airstrikes on Gaza and violence in the West Bank, which saw media buildings housing the Associated Press destroyed, and the deaths of 256 Palestinians, including 66 children.
“The worldwide demonstrations condemning the bombing of Gaza, and indeed the attitude of the occupying forces in the West Bank, probably helped to bring about the ceasefire, but a ceasefire is no more than that and it has been breached in any case,” he says.
“I think the one positive that's come out of the last few weeks has been a growing global understanding of the plight of Palestinians and how you will only ever get peace by an end to the occupation and settlement policy, and of course the siege of Gaza.
“There are Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who have been refugees, and parents and grandparents, since 1948, and I think that there has to be an increasing voice in support of Palestinian refugees, as well as in support of Palestinian people living in the West Bank and Gaza,” he continues.
“I've been impressed by the numbers of Israeli human rights groups and indeed, some of the members of the Knesset, that have also spoken out on this.”
Peace and war: Afghanistan and Syria
Talking about Afghanistan, he maintains his position of 20 years – "it’s absolutely right that the troops should leave."
Following a 20-year military presence in the country, American President Joe Biden said last month that the US military would complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan by August 31, adding that the "Afghan people must decide their own future, rather than sacrificing another generation of Americans in an unwinnable war".
But since international troops began their withdrawal in May, the Taliban have taken control of large swathes of territory.
“It's almost strange that I hear the US president saying the future government of Afghanistan has to come to an accommodation with the Taliban,” he says. “When I distinctly remember George Bush and Tony Blair saying we had to go to war and occupy Afghanistan in order to defeat the Taliban – you couldn't make it up, really.”
He believes the future of the Afghan government must be decided by the people and is cautiously hopeful about the talks in Qatar.
“Britain lost 450 lives in Afghanistan, the United States, considerably more, and the Afghan people tens of thousands more,” he says. “The wages of the war have been paid for with the lives of very poor people in Afghanistan, but also soldiers from various countries around the world. Surely it's an object lesson in how dangerous it is to rush into an ill-considered conflict in 2001 and then 20 years later to withdraw.”
Jeremy says he has pushed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to launch a Chilcott-style inquiry into the Afghanistan war to no avail. “So far he has resisted that, but I will keep on with that demand.”
The former Labour leader had been heavily criticised for his political stance on Syria, especially for not openly calling out the Assad regime for its atrocities against its own people. But even today, it seems his position remains the same, maintaining that there must be a renewal of the Geneva peace agreement and ‘confidence building’ among Syrian factions to the aim of a ceasefire.
“If outside forces start making pre-conference demands, then it will not lead to the possibility of a ceasefire, it will not lead to any long term peace process,” he explains.
“Thousands and thousands of people lost their lives in Syria, the country has become dysfunctional in some areas. The bombardment has continued, and any future Syria has to be inclusive of all the peoples within its national borders, and the removal of all foreign forces.”
England's 'horrible degree' of racism
“I wish I could say I was surprised, but sadly I wasn't, because under the surface, particularly where England matches are concerned, there are some horrible, horrible degrees of racism that grow very quickly,” he says.
“The black players were being treated as heroes until the time the very same black players didn't succeed in converting their penalties. Well, it happens in football. It's a game, that's a sport, things like that happen all the time, [but the response was] utterly disgusting and disgraceful.”
Always determined to acknowledge the best in humanity, however, Jeremy says he was heartened by the sheer number of people who came out in support of the three Premier League players, including a demonstration outside the Emirates Stadium – the home ground of Jeremy’s beloved Arsenal – to support them.
“It was of course the whole mood set by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary at the very beginning, saying the England players shouldn't take the knee at the start of the match,” he says of the government.
Jeremy is full of praise for the England team on their decision to take the knee, which was sneeringly dismissed as ‘gesture politics’ by Home Secretary Priti Patel.
“Well done, England team for saying: ‘We're not going to be told what to do by the Prime Minister, and it is our wish to take the knee to show our commitment to oppose racism in any form’, and so I think the England team have shown themselves to be good as a model of anti-racist campaigning.”
Although sad about the result, Jeremy says it’s great that Gareth Southgate got the England squad this far. “To look at it more positively, it's the first final England has got to since the World Cup in 1966. I'm one of the few people, old enough to be able to remember the World Cup final in 1966 and it was actually a very close run thing,” he says.
He fancies the England squad’s chances in the World Cup 2022 in Qatar. “It’s the World Cup next year, maybe it's a good chance for England. It's a younger side with huge skill and an amazing sense of unity and commitment that I've never seen before. I saw a great picture on social media. A picture of the England squad. The legend was quite simple and short, and it said: ‘Where would we be if we hadn't had migration?’”
On the government’s ability to tackle racism, Jeremy is alarmed, and marvels at the spectacular U-turn Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken since his tenure as Mayor of London.
“I think they tend to bow to whatever prejudices they think is around, and so Johnson jumps around on, for example, taking the knee,” Jeremy says. “Yet I remember a time when he was Mayor of London, he promoted the idea of giving residence to all undocumented refugees in London. I supported that, but somewhere along the line he’s completely changed his mind and we now have the most awful, draconian nationality and borders bill being pushed through Parliament.”
The new borders bill will, Jeremy says, essentially criminalise the people who try to save the lives of those drowning at sea (a law already passed by Italian parliament, where would-be heroes would face up to twenty years in jail and a hefty fine of €1 million), and he is unsettled by the dark, rightward turn in rhetoric the government has taken.
“History will judge the Home Secretary and this government for a time when there are unprecedented numbers of refugees around the world.”
He says some of the rhetoric being used by the Conservative government on such issues “could have quite easily come out of the speeches of British National Party or any other far-right organisation in Britain over the past 10 years.”
In regards to the Covid-19 pandemic, Jeremy can see two sides; the “good and the bad” of British society as he calls it. “The good being the number of people in mutual aid groups, the fantastic work of health workers, care workers, delivery workers, and many other groups around the country that have helped people get through it,” he says.
Disappointed in the Labour Party’s reaction to the pandemic, he diplomatically says that Keir Starmer has given a little too much wiggle room to the government. “We should have been much more robust throughout on this. During the initial stage of the pandemic from January to March 2020. Last year, we were successful in forcing the government to introduce the furloughs and business support schemes.”
He is also disappointed that the Labour Party has gone from financially thriving with a large membership to on the breadline, with recent revelations that around 90 redundancies could be made to party staff by Labour’s governing body National Executive Committee (NEC).
“I'm very sad with the recent NEC, which indicated that from a party of 600,000 members with a healthy bank balance, we now are in a position where apparently we are within a month of being unable to pay staff salaries and wages, and there's apparently been a reduction in membership,” he says.
“Labour has to represent an alternative government and that alternative has to be one that is different. That means tackling injustice, poverty, and inequality, it means investment in future services. It means not shying away from public ownership, and public services such as free broadband and public ownership of mail rail and water.”
When asked if he [Jeremy Corbyn] has any regrets about his time as leader, he smiles and says "I’m with Frank Sinatra on this one and Edith Piaf. ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention...'"
“If the idea is to tack Labour towards the centre-ground in order to win support I do not believe it will work or win an election, we are successful when we actually offer an alternative and inspire people.
“I spend my life campaigning with groups. Yesterday I was out with health workers defending the NHS and taking a big petition and message to Downing Street, but it's also about campaigning to the future. And I think a key feature of that has to be campaigning for full public ownership for our NHS but also a National Care Service on the equivalence of the NHS.”
When asked if he has any regrets about his time as leader, he smiles and says “I’m with Frank Sinatra on this one and Edith Piaf. ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention. Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.'”
Amy Addison-Dunne is a freelance digital journalist with an interest in the Middle East and British politics. She has written for the Daily Mirror and The Morning Star.
Follow her on Twitter: @redamylou