An interview with Jeremy Corbyn
Dec. 13, 2020
When the pandemic started, many hoped that it would prompt widespread political change — and international cooperation. But a report this week said something quite different has happened: the wealthiest countries are hoarding the vaccines, while in much of the world under one in ten people will get a jab in 2021. What can be done to force an effective response?
The way the vaccine rollout is happening is disappointing. When the World Health Organization announced the pandemic, it required all states to take appropriate action. Some did, some didn’t. Many people lost their lives because the testing regime the WHO wanted was not put in place — including in Britain and the USA.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights includes access to health care. And the search for a vaccine should have been an opportunity for international cooperation and sharing scientific resources. Instead, it’s become a competition between big pharma; and I suspect companies like Pfizer are going to make a mint out of this.
Joe Biden is promising vaccines for about a third of the US population in one hundred days — and Britain something similar over a bit of a longer period. But Pakistan, Nigeria, and countries across Africa and South Asia will get nowhere near that level of vaccination.
This crisis has exposed all the inequalities in the world. And there’s going to be more of these kinds of novel viruses. So, we’ve got to get real about the need for a World Health Program.
The WHO have been talking for years about the need for access to universal health care. If the world can get together and give support to deal with Ebola, it could do the same with coronavirus. Many seem more interested in self-protection than global protection. But ultimately, there’s no hiding from mass contagion.
Since Biden’s election, he’s talked about restoring US “leadership” in the world. He has said he’ll return to the Paris environmental agreement, but also criticized Trump for dropping the ball on NATO and his supposed softness on China. Do you see a Biden presidency as more susceptible to pressure on climate action and the COVID-19 response, or is this just about reasserting US hegemony?
It’s quite contradictory. Even after he’d already won the nomination, Biden moved further away from much of Bernie Sanders’s agenda. It’s good that he’s said he’ll rejoin Paris and be more involved in international climate action — it’s hard to get near to net-zero without the US, China, and India being closely involved.
Where I become concerned is when he talks about reasserting American leadership in Asia-Pacific and NATO. He’s proposing to maintain or increase defense spending. Meanwhile, the British government has already announced a very substantial increase in defense spending while also cutting its aid budget below what had been agreed as a legal requirement.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown that what brings security is respect for the health needs of the entire world. Instead, we’ve got a growth of Cold War rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic, and I suspect a reassertion of NATO versus Russia. I have many criticisms of the Russian government — I’m realistic about the situation there. But there is no secure future for anybody if we get into a war of rhetoric between the US and Russia or China.
There has to be a process looking at the real issues the world faces: the huge environmental crisis, global poverty and inequality, systematic abuses of human rights, and the wars fought for minerals or as proxy wars between the big powers. When UN secretary-general António Guterres called for a global cease-fire in January, the General Assembly and Security Council said, “what a splendid idea” — and then did precisely the opposite. Particularly over Yemen: arms sales to Saudi Arabia have grown, and the Abraham Accords are increasing arms sales to the UAE and Bahrain.
So, we need a very strong peace, justice, and fair-globe movement in the USA as in Europe. Over the last ten years, I’ve been encouraged by how the US left has begun to assert itself through the Sanders campaign, through the socialist grouping within the Democrats and many trade unions. There are obviously huge issues to face. But the Black Lives Matter movement is fantastic and has led to a re-understanding of both US history and European colonialism. If the next generation has a better understanding of the past than this one, then I’m hopeful for the world.
As Labour leader, you changed the discussion about foreign policy, notably with your speech after the terrible terrorist attack in Manchester during the 2017 election. There was media uproar that you’d linked foreign policy to terrorism — though what you actually said was measured and chimed with many people’s thinking. But since you stepped down in April 2020, Labour has swung toward accepting Boris Johnson’s militarism and “great power” outlook. How can that critical approach be kept alive even without the institutional platform you had as leader?
The bombing in Manchester was horrific — young people’s lives were taken in an absolutely horrible and brutal way. It hit during the election, and there was an agreement to suspend campaigning for a few days, which I think was right.
When I returned, I wanted to make a statement about foreign policy, and the effects of past wars on our own security. I was very strongly advised by many people not to do it: they said it would destroy the campaign, destroy our chances. I said no — we have to face up to the reality of the foreign policy that we’ve followed all these years. It’s not condoning bombing, it’s not condoning terrorism, it’s not condoning murder — obviously not. But you’ve got to face up to the reality of what Western strategy has done.
So, I made the statement. In the first few minutes afterward, it was widely objected to by very prominent people — but not as widely as I expected. And a lot of people said that it was measured and a sensible way of presenting things. A few hours later, YouGov produced a poll which showed 60 percent support for what I had said. I think it was a turning point in the election. Because it showed a thought process among the public that was interested in looking differently at our foreign policy.
I’d already made clear that we were changing direction. In 2016 I issued, as promised, an apology for Labour’s role in the war on Iraq, in front of military families who’d lost loved ones there. This was the same day the Chilcot report into the Iraq War came out and also the day of most intense pressure from the Parliamentary Labour Party for me to resign.
They’d already passed a motion of no confidence — all day long, I got a stream of people demanding my immediate resignation, because they didn’t want me to give the apology and my reply to the inquiry. They were well aware that my leadership represented the antiwar movement, especially over Iraq. But giving that apology was one of the most poignant occasions of my life, with the absolute silence in the room. I just felt for all those people sitting in front of me, who had lost loved ones in Iraq.
I hope what we put forward in 2017 and 2019 remains party policy — it’s important that it does. But the direction in which the British government is taking us, with increasing arms expenditure and decreasing foreign aid — and the Labour front bench in parliament accepting the increased arms spending, at least — is not necessarily the best of signs.
The Project for Peace and Justice is about ensuring that attitude toward international affairs is there in public debate, in research, in activism. But it’s also linked to the effects on the economy and life in this country. If we’re going to spend increasing amounts on armaments, don’t raise taxation at the top end, and pursue an economic strategy of repaying the debts incurred during coronavirus, then the only way forward for this government is wage freezes, cuts in health, education, housing, and all the other crucial budgets, and even more intense austerity than we had after 2010.
This isn’t a new political party, but a space in which people can come together. On January 17 we’ll be holding a big virtual global seminar. There’ll be speakers from the US, Latin America, South Asia, as well as from communities in Britain that have suffered grievously from job losses and deindustrialization. And so, too, young people determined to fight for the Green Industrial Revolution.
Some of the accounts of your leadership have a certain derisive attitude toward international issues — “Jeremy’s only interested in what’s happening in West Papua” rather than supposed “ordinary people’s concerns.” But for many people of my generation, the war in Iraq was itself a political awakening. How can we link these different levels of issues?
Some of what’s been written is interesting, but some is extremely patronizing and doesn’t seem to be rooted in the reality of people’s lives in this country. The amount of poverty and dislocation that exists is absolutely huge, the amount of people accessing food banks is growing, as is the number of people living in insecure housing.
Everything in our manifestos was designed to redistribute power and wealth, to democratize our economy, and to recognize the need for a Green Industrial Revolution, to provide jobs and the environmental sustainability we all need. So, our manifestos were designed to meet ordinary people’s needs.
But as I said in the 2017 campaign, the security in our lives also depends on our foreign policy. Do nuclear weapons and a huge buildup of arms expenditure actually make us more secure, or more vulnerable? Aren’t the global effects of the pandemic, of environmental degradation, of massive flows of finance capital and global corporate power around the world, damaging to us?
The idea that we can immunize ourselves from what’s happening around the world is complete nonsense, as even Boris Johnson is discovering. He’s got to do some kind of trade deal with the EU by December 31 or hope for a sweetheart deal from the USA even without his friend Trump in the White House — which I don’t think he’ll manage.
But there’s also an important moral point in all this. The Iraq War cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. It was based on an absolute lie. People in Britain and around the world could see it for what it was. At the Hyde Park protest in 2003, I said, if the Iraq War goes ahead it will be the wars of tomorrow, the terrorism of tomorrow, and the refugee flows of tomorrow. Was I wrong?
There are now more refugees around the world than at any point in recorded history — over seventy million people and rising. They’re all people who want to live, to make their mark, to make their contribution. Are we going to move toward a security state that sends the Navy against refugees, or do something politically, economically, and environmentally to deal with the core problem of global inequality and injustice?
I’m prepared to argue that case anywhere. And don’t think that the young generation, working-class youth growing up in Britain and America, aren’t fully aware of this. Black Lives Matter spread around the world so quickly because people saw something of their situation in the way the police behaved toward black people in the USA.
Your life has been especially shaped by Latin American politics: recently, you spoke to Jacobin about your journey to Chile in 1969, shortly before Salvador Allende’s election, when you also visited Bolivia. This year, amid all the gloomy circumstances and defeats, one bright spot was the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) winning that country’s elections. Do you think the current experiences in Latin America also have lessons for how we do politics here?
Yes, because the resilience of the message of social justice is very strong.
I was in Chile in 1969 at the time that Popular Unity had just been formed. I was nineteen; I was just observing things, listened to wonderful folk music, saw people coming together from different political strands including the Mapuche community with the Left.
That resulted in the Popular Unity victory in 1970, though on under 40 percent of the vote. Allende formed the administration which did so much to try to improve living conditions, education, housing, and cultural opportunities for the poor. He was overthrown by the CIA in conjunction with the Chilean military, in a brutal coup. But his spirit lives on.
Who remembers Pinochet with affection, who remembers Allende with affection? I think we know the answer. The legacy is huge: in the protests in Chile last year which brought about the referendum and the public discussion on the new constitution — what names kept coming up? It was Allende, Victor Jara, Pablo Neruda…
Likewise, in Brazil: Lula led the foundation of the Workers’ Party (PT). It increasingly became a powerful political force, it won the elections, but then Lula was removed by what can only be called lawfare, as was Dilma Rousseff. Yet today, the PT’s strength is coming back, because of the measures they introduced to reduce the worst levels of poverty. The resilience of the message is huge.
Again, in Bolivia — MAS partly came into existence on the back of a very long tradition of radical politics going back many, many decades. Bolivia also has a much stronger sense of non-Spanish hegemony compared to other Latin American countries, and the greatest linguistic diversity. The opposition to water privatization fed the growth of a movement which eventually made Evo president. He was removed — and went to Mexico, Argentina, and now back to Bolivia. But his place in history is absolutely secure. I wish Bolivia’s new government well — and I hope it can continue the redistribution of power and wealth that Evo’s government achieved.
You’ve devoted five decades to international solidarity work, most often in direct opposition to the British governments of the day. Without getting into the details of your suspension, these last few months have brought a particular McCarthyism. Is there something new in this — is it different from what the Left suffered in the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher?
There’s always individual pressure on people that speak out. Last night we did a discussion about Tony Benn. His daughter Melissa gave a lovely message about him, and spoke of the abuse their family had from the right-wing media. Hostility toward the Left by very powerful, very right-wing media sources is not new.
In 1907, Keir Hardie did a world tour. He went to the USA, Australia, India, South Africa, then he reported back on it at a massive rally in the Albert Hall. His tour was followed by the Daily Mail, which condemned him for supporting Indian people over the British Raj, and for opposing the racism in South Africa. He was roundly abused. The Left in the 1930s, when George Lansbury was Labour leader, was roundly abused; Nye Bevan was abused.
But the reality is, if you get a message across which challenges the undemocratic power of some media sources, and the injustice and inequalities within our society, then they’re going to kick back. I know that. I’ve suffered all this nonsense for quite a while and no doubt will continue to do so.
But it’s a price worth paying, if it gets out a message of social justice that gives people hope and optimism. At the meetings I do, I say: power exists in lots of places; it’s partly about holding elected positions. But it’s also about the power of communities to change things, to prevent factory closures, to develop schools and nurseries and parks and community centers, to get clean air where there’s foul air, to get clean water where there’s dirty water. All those things empower people, and that’s what our political mission has to be about — empowering people in the face of elites that don’t want them empowered.
On my suspension, obviously I deeply regret it, and I’m very grateful for all the support I’ve received from within the party and within the community. And I’m urging people to fight back against it, because the labor movement belongs to all of us.
To end on the Project for Peace and Justice — what can people do to get involved?
It’s a new and exciting project — and unknown territory for all of us.
We will be looking to analyze issues; to organize with, connect, and empower groups that exist already, and to support big campaigns for change. We want to cooperate, not compete, with others. For example, we’ve had messages of support for the launch so far from the Orgreave Truth and Justice campaign in Yorkshire as well as trade unionists in Bolivia and the USA. And connecting up those campaigns, seeing the big and small pictures at the same time, is so important.
We will work with unions and social movements to build a network of campaigners, grassroots activists, thinkers, and leaders, to share experiences and generate ideas about solutions to our common problems. Whether it’s Rolls-Royce workers defending their jobs in Barnoldswick, or the huge protests in India, whether it’s children going hungry here in one of the world’s richest countries, or languishing as refugees from war and crises.
We will combine research and analysis with campaigning and organizing. And we can build on the popular socialist policies developed in the Labour Party over the past five years.
I hope we’re going to build something important together. This year, many of us have felt powerless in the face of forces beyond our control. It doesn’t have to be like that.
We’ll have a global launch on January 17, hopefully with a very big global audience on it. We’ll have figures from all over the world and across generations there. I’m very excited and very enthusiastic about it, and I hope you’ll be joining us.
Published at jacobinmag.com