Jeremy Corbyn: Keir Starmer will win on an anti-Tory vote, not a pro-Labour one

Jeremy Corbyn is standing as an independent candidate in Islington North, where he has been MP for 41 years (Matt Writtle)
Jeremy Corbyn is standing as an independent candidate in Islington North, where he has been MP for 41 years (Matt Writtle)

A dressed-down Jeremy Corbyn walks into Angel’s Cafe near Finsbury Park, and puts his yellow cap on a table. He orders a cappuccino, and cheerfully tells his aide that the Left-wing academic Noam Chomsky is still alive, despite rumours he’d died the night before. It reminds him of a line by Mark Twain: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

A supporter comes over to wish Corbyn good luck in the election in two weeks’ time. He’s standing against the Labour Party he led to humiliating defeat in 2019. Less than five years later, the party looks set to win a majority under new leader Sir Keir Starmer, while Corbyn has been blocked from standing.

It looks like the fight for Islington North, the seat he’s held for over 40 years, will be close. A new poll has Labour and its candidate Praful Nargund on 41 per cent, and the “Independent” vote, which is Corbyn, behind on 36 per cent. The 75-year-old says he’s standing to “make a point” about democracy. “The person who’s been chosen as the candidate was nominated by nobody, selected by nobody, and imposed by the party head office,” he says. He’s prioritising fairer housing. “It’s impossible for people to buy around here, and there’s often overcrowding in the social housing sector,” he says, calling for rent controls.

He says that the rumours that he is splitting the vote and letting in the Lib Dem or Tory candidates in Islington are wrong — both only got about 10 per cent of the vote last time. “It doesn’t let anybody else in,” he says. “It means that democracy has prevailed.” As with all good Left-wing infighting, it has descended a little into farce. Islington North Labour CLP chairwoman Alison McGarry reportedly resigned after being caught campaigning for Corbyn — even after attempting to hide behind a hedge.

Leaving Labour has been a wrench. “It’s been my life,” he says. He’d wanted to stand for the party but couldn’t, having been blocked for saying that antisemitism during his time as Labour leader was exaggerated. After he announced he would run alone, he was told he’s lost his party membership too. That put an end to a more than five-decade journey, as he joined Labour before England won the 1966 World Cup. Old habits die hard: he refers to Nargund as the “official” Labour candidate (you get the sense he feels like the unofficial but real one), and still sometimes says “we” and “us” about the party. Corbyn says a recent door-knocking outing became a therapy session for a group who feel Labour has changed. “Many people around the country whose whole lives have revolved around aspects of the party now find themselves suspended, removed and so on, and they feel quite sad about it,” he says.

Jeremy Corbyn on the campaign trial in Angel’s Cafe near Finsbury Park (Matt Writtle)
Jeremy Corbyn on the campaign trial in Angel’s Cafe near Finsbury Park (Matt Writtle)

For Corbyn, Sir Keir’s Labour is less of a “broad church” even than Sir Tony Blair’s in 1997. He points out that the first Blair cabinet included Robin Cook, Chris Mullin and others, all of the Left wing. “Blair wasn’t as authoritarian,” he says. “I remember arguments with the whips office many times during New Labour… but they didn’t approach the whole thing as a threat.”

Corbyn calls the newly unveiled Labour manifesto “a bit weak” in its “fundamental economic message”. “For reasons that don’t make sense, they’ve boxed themselves into an economic straitjacket, which means they cannot adequately fund housing, health or education,” he says. He thinks that the suggestion that extra spending will come from wealth creation and tax avoiders is unlikely. “It’s a missed opportunity to talk fundamentally about the inequalities, injustice in our society,” he says. “Equality is mentioned, I think, once in the manifesto and business 60 times.”

Despite it all, will Corbyn be glad to see Labour win? “Of course,” he says. ““I’d be happy to see the back of the Tories and see a change... I spent my life fighting Tories. I’m not going to stop doing that.” Should he win, he’d even support Labour from the backbenches, if it does “good stuff” like public ownership. “If they don’t, I’ll be critical,” he says.

Sir Keir once called Corbyn his “friend”, particularly in his campaign to win over the Labour membership in 2020, but they are now in a bitter feud. Sir Keir was a key figure in Corbyn’s team, but now says he “never thought they would win” the 2017 or 2019 elections. What does Corbyn make of this, I ask? “He didn’t say that at the time,” Corbyn says. “He never hinted at that, or intimated that at any stage to me. We did press conferences and events together in the 2019 election. He was part of the shadow cabinet that agreed the manifesto, and part of the Clause V [meeting of top Labour figures] who agreed the manifesto. Own it. I was there, he was there… and there were witnesses,” he says.

Corbyn sits next to Starmer, who was Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, in 2019 (AP)
Corbyn sits next to Starmer, who was Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, in 2019 (AP)

Last week, Corbyn said Sir Keir is rewriting history. Does the change of tune show Sir Keir is untrustworthy? “You have to be honest about what you said, what you did in the past, and carry on from there,” Corbyn says. “I think it’s a bit sad really. Why doesn’t he just say ‘Well, this is what I did at the time’?”

Do you feel that Sir Keir betrayed you? “He wasn’t the only one,” Corbyn replies, explaining how few MPs supported him when he became Labour leader in 2015. In that context, Sir Keir got into the shadow cabinet as “a very competent lawyer”. “I don’t remember him contributing very much in discussions, other than on Brexit, which was his brief, I don’t remember him expressing other views on much else.” He won’t say if he regrets appointing Sir Keir. “The past is a different place. I took decisions on the basis of what I thought would be the best thing at the time. Some worked out well, some didn’t.” Others around Corbyn are more direct in their dislike of Sir Keir. His third wife, Laura Alvarez, wrote “disgusting creature” on a picture of the Labour leader in a Facebook group.

Corbyn still has warm words for deputy leader Angela Rayner, who he says he still chats to, though not during this campaign. “I’ve always found her more amenable to talk to,” he says, bringing up their shared passion for education. He says he also talks to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and relates joking with Gordon Brown about being younger than the US presidential hopefuls (“Jeremy, our time is yet to come”). Corbyn talks of his and Brown’s plans to abolish the House of Lords. He claims that on his last day in Parliament last month, some Labour MPs — who he won’t name — came up to him to say: “Good luck, we want you to do it because they want to show that there is a vote for that sort of effective radical politics.”

His fondest tributes are reserved for his old friend and former flame Diane Abbott. She was suspended from Labour last year for writing a letter to a newspaper that minimised racism against Jewish, Irish and Traveller people. She apologised and was readmitted to the party, but then was nearly blocked by the leadership from standing as a Labour candidate last month. She won the right to stand after a public outcry. “I think she’s a gem,” Corbyn says. Talking of the racist abuse against Abbott he says she’s been through “absolute hell… and she’s still here”. When advisers told him to remove her as shadow home secretary, he says he told them: “Get lost, she stays”.

But others in Labour get shorter shrift. Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy used to back Corbyn, and nominated him for the leadership. Lammy now says he “regrets” that time. “He seems to have a lot of conversions in his life,” Corbyn says archly. He also isn’t keen on Peter Mandelson, the Blair-era guru who became a Starmer adviser. “It’s very much a cynical Mandelson strategy, of assuming that the poorest voters have nowhere else to go,” he says.

A lot has happened since 2019 — the implosions of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have made the Tories much weaker. Last week, Corbyn said he’d “absolutely” beat Rishi Sunak if he were still Labour leader today. “Be honest about it: it’s much more to do with an anti-Tory vote than a pro-Labour vote,” he says. “People are fed up with poverty.” Of course, that doesn’t fully explain why Corbyn lost less than five years ago.

Jeremy Corbyn with his wife Laura at Labour Party conference (Christopher Pledger /eyevine)
Jeremy Corbyn with his wife Laura at Labour Party conference (Christopher Pledger /eyevine)

It’s hard to get Corbyn to admit to mistakes as leader. “What I regret most was trusting in people who clearly were not going to be supportive or loyal,” he says. “I wish now I’d removed far more people from offices within the party… not so much Parliament, I can’t control that so easily — but within the party.”

He defends his legacy. He reminds me that he got Labour’s highest vote this century in 2017, and says they would have won the election if the country wasn’t a “duopoly” at the time. He also pushes back on the idea he was too radical for British voters, saying his policies were similar to those in Sweden. “Things could have been done differently. I made decisions, and I have to live with them, and I do. But I know I took them all honestly.”

The most pervasive criticisms of Corbyn were on antisemitism. He was originally kicked out of the party for saying that antisemitism had been overstated during his time as leader in 2020. Does he regret that, I ask? “One antisemite in the Labour Party is one antisemite too many,” he says. “I’ve spent my life fighting racism. I will die fighting racism of any form.” Saying he was backed up by evidence, Corbyn says he felt he had to “ensure the record was correct”, even if that meant he was kicked out of Labour.

One antisemite in the Labour Party is one antisemite too many. I’ve spent my life fighting racism. I will die fighting racism of any form

Jeremy Corbyn

Despite the widespread accusations that he is antisemitic, his position is unchanging. “It’s wrong, it was simply wrong,” he says. “But if you say something wrong often enough, then people believe it to be the case.” Even if it is wrong, are you kept awake at night by the thought some people think you are antisemitic? “Not at all,” Corbyn says. “I’m absolutely clear of my views on anti-racism.” He says that many Jewish members of the Islington North Labour Party and Jewish people are campaigning in this election with him, and the issue does not come up on the door. He says he’s had “only three conversations” about anti-semitism, “less than I’ve ever had in any other election campaign”.

Corbyn has been a key figure in the pro-Palestinian marches in recent months, calling for a cease fire. What does he think of the accusation that they are antisemitic? “The marches are incredibly diverse, very peaceful, very respectful — a very large number of Jewish people come on those marches.” He hopes that an incoming Labour Government will announce the full recognition of Palestine, but says the current motion has many “caveats”.

Jeremy Corbyn at the 'National March For Palestine' in central London (AFP via Getty Images)
Jeremy Corbyn at the 'National March For Palestine' in central London (AFP via Getty Images)

If he does lose, will he miss being an MP, I ask? “I’m not a House of Commons man,” he says, saying “I don’t obsess with parliament”. He’ll miss some people. “My best friends are those that work in the catering, cleaning, clerical, and library department.” Corbyn says that his main passion has been being a local representative.

He’s recently been writing a book, he tells me, which will analyse his time in office and the 2024 election campaign. He’s quite looking forward to writing after the election is over – uninterrupted by the Labour party conference. But he baulks at the idea that what he’d really like to do is retire, saying “not in the slightest”. “I like thinking of myself as fit… I’m very happy in the community where I live, and very happy with the work that I do… that’s what I’ll do for the rest of my life”. He jokes: “I’m very young as well”.

In a strange period for British politics, Corbyn held a huge cult following among left-wing youth. What was that like, I ask? “Young people are so ignored, so put upon, so stressed and so indebted, what we managed to do is provide a path of hope, and that’s what I carry on doing,” he says. We discuss a famous viral video of Corbyn clapping, and saying; “we’re back and we’re ready for it all over again”. That energy is now slightly dissipated.

We talk about the high point of Corbyn mania, when he spoke to a huge crowd at Glastonbury in 2017. He talks excitedly about the roar of the Pyramid stage audience, and proudly remembers how he ignored advice from advisors and wrote his own speech. On that day he spoke to organiser Michael Eavis about how they were both at the Shepton Mallet folk festival nearby in 1970. I point out that Eavis accepted a knighthood last year. “I was very surprised about that,” Corbyn says. “I didn’t know he wanted it.”

We’re drawing to the end of our chat, and the Scottish National Party are launching their manifesto on a television in the corner. Laughing, Corbyn muses that many in the SNP don’t really want independence — they prefer complaining on the sidelines. I point out that some say that Labour under Corbyn was similar, a party of protest. But he says that’s not true. “I wanted to be there, to bring about change,” he says. Then he puts his cap back on and heads out the door, ready to carry on the campaign.