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A Magazine for Sheffield

Jeremy Corbyn "I think Sheffield as a city is fascinating"

Ahead of his appearance this Monday at the Festival of Debate, the former Labour leader talks to Now Then about Ukraine, community socialism, and why children in Chile have Sheffield accents.

Tsering Lhamo on Wikimedia Commons.

On Monday 16 May, former Sheffield Lord Mayor Magid Magid interviews Jeremy Corbyn at the Festival of Debate. Tickets are available now.

Happening every spring, the Festival of Debate provides fertile ground for new ideas to take root, providing a space for communities to push for social change together, across experiences and struggles. The Festival brings some of the biggest names in contemporary politics together in dialogue – so it’s no great surprise, then, to find lifelong social justice campaigner and former leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn’s name on the programme. Ahead of his appearance in Sheffield, I met Jeremy under the auspices of finding out what he’s been up to in the years – months, more accurately – he’s been largely spared from the mainstream media’s unflinching scrutiny.

I don’t know what I expected of our conversation, but I do know that when I was shuffling around south Sheffield on biting cold evenings in November 2019, trying to cajole unimpressed homeowners into conversations about Labour’s election manifesto, I never envisioned that three years later I’d be talking to Jeremy Corbyn over Zoom. Even less so, that one of the most enriching conversations I’ve ever had would unfold in a soulless Travelodge suite, my laptop balanced precariously on a stack of pillows. Speaking to Jeremy, though, his vision for a more caring, equitable society (expressed so compassionately and articulately even at 5pm on a Monday) feels like a galvanising force in this otherwise drab political moment. Now, more so than ever, we need to follow that call to action – and Jeremy explains some of the ways we can do so.

You’re at this year’s Festival of Debate in your capacity as founder of the Peace and Justice Project, which fights for social, economic, and climate justice. At a time when a lot of people are disillusioned with politics, and with so many widespread failures of leadership, how can we feel empowered?

Community socialism. It’s about how people recognise that their socialist values are played out day-to-day, in what they do. Think about the example of the National Health Service – with all its imperfections, the reality is that it’s healthcare free at the point of need for everybody. The community takes care of your health. To me that's important, and that's why I wanted to extend [the NHS] to include a National Care Service because of the terrible cost of care on poor or middle-income families when you've got an older or disabled relative who needs a lot of care. Community socialism is all about people’s empowerment to change and improve their lives. I think the experience of mutual aid groups at the height of Covid was an interesting one, because it brought about a whole network of groups around the country, and the people that got involved in them will always remember that sense of community and fraternity, working together to achieve things.

So it’s about mobilising people for the common good around principles of humanity. The far right are rising across Europe – look at the vote Marine Le Pen got in France – and elsewhere, but it's not necessarily a done deal. There are also very large numbers of people who are equally mobilised in support of refugees and feel that refugees should not be demonised or criminalised, but should get help, security, safety, and the right to contribute to society. Somehow, though, we’ve ended up with the idea that you’re a marginal person if you express a decent humanitarian interest, and you’re a really strong, powerful person if you express a repressive interest against others. Well, I'm hoping that the Festival of Debate will be an opportunity to change that, to let people think through an issue and develop their own views.

We’re hot on the heels of the local elections, and although Labour have had some successes in Sheffield, it’s been a mixed bag for the party nationally. What do you think of the outcome? Does it point towards an appetite for coalition between Labour and other parties like the Greens, as has happened locally here?

I think Sheffield as a city is fascinating – it’s essentially based on coal and steel, on working-class solidarity, and this long historical tradition of nonconformist Christianity – and all of this has shaped the city’s politics. The combination of socialist ideas and environmental sustainability (which to me are one and the same) has made a very big difference, and the number of Labour councillors elected who, broadly speaking, pursue the same agenda as the Greens, is significant and interesting. In my own area in Islington, Labour hold 48 of the 51 council seats in my constituency. Our manifesto was explicitly focused on environmental issues such as renewable energy schemes – this is imaginative thinking, combining high technology with environmental sustainability.

I think what’s happening is very healthy, and it’s why I was so keen on promoting the Green Industrial Revolution in 2019 – it’s not about punishing people for working in polluting industries, rather it’s about protecting their skills and jobs, and making those industries cleaner and more sustainable. At a global level, we’ve got a huge amount to do – COP26 was a lot of greenwashing, and there’s mass deforestation in the DRC, as well as Brazil and Indonesia. You can’t deal with any of these issues unless you have an economy that produces for need rather than surplus gain and profit.

Since you’ve stepped down from the Labour leadership you’ve had a lot of time to reflect on your time as leader. In the time that’s elapsed since, how do you think some of the structural issues within the party have been handled?

I’m not very happy with the structural changes within Labour. I think the economic strategy is moving in the wrong direction, focusing too much on being business-friendly and management-orientated. If we’d have gotten into government in 2019, we would have had to work with big business, I understand that. I made a speech to business leaders at the Confederation of British Industry in which I proposed bringing key services – particularly those that are natural monopolies, like mail, rail water, and energy – into public ownership, but at the same time bringing in worker-directors and much better training programmes, so you’d have a much more skilled workforce. But if you just present yourself as the pro-business party, well, what is that message? Surely the message should be: we are the pro-democracy party, pro-social justice, pro-workers, we recognise the role that trade unions play in the workplace and society as a whole. I’m proud of them, and I’m proud of that history.

And how do you see the future of electoral politics?

The future of electoral politics has to be rooted in community action and community strength. It’s no good turning up three weeks before an election with a glossy pamphlet and some people wearing nice suits and saying, “Vote for us! We’ll manage things better!” People aren’t buying into that; they want to know that there’s going to be some real progress to change our society.

Corbyn obama

Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party meeting President Obama in 2016.

The White House.

And democracy isn’t just about elections. It’s about your role in society. It’s about your right to speak, your right to know, your right to demonstrate, your right to have zany ideas. For young people particularly, it’s about their right to be able to express themselves, not just through key academic subjects, but through music and art and everything else. It’s all about our right to be effective human beings.

Anti-war activism has always been front and centre of your politics, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is weighing heavy on many people’s minds right now. Given Russia’s apparent disregard for international economic embargo, do you think it’s still possible to negotiate a ceasefire?

Well, firstly, the invasion is plain wrong. There's no justification for it, it’s wrong. Secondly, there has to be a negotiated ceasefire in some way. At some point, this situation will end up with a negotiation about the military presence in the region, about the identity of Donbas, about Ukraine, about Russia. The longer negotiations are delayed, the more people die. And the more people die, the deeper the hatred and bitterness becomes. I’m disappointed that António Guterres didn't get onto things much quicker and much sooner, but there has to be really assertive UN involvement in this and an effort to rapidly find a way out of it, possibly involving other governments – South Africa, for instance – as interlocutors.

As the government steps up its strategic hostility towards refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, how can we as citizens advocate for a secure, supportive environment for those seeking safety here?

Well, there are big double standards at play. I absolutely agree with welcoming Ukrainian refugees – indeed, I was at a welcome picnic for Ukrainian refugees in my community last week, and I was talking to some people who have been through some horrible circumstances and other lovely people who are housing them.

It is absolutely right that they’re given the right to remain, to work, and to access health and education services. The same should apply to refugees from Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, and elsewhere. The idea of relocating people that arrive on our shores to Rwanda holds an important lesson about humanity. Think about it: would you or I willingly get into an inflatable dinghy to try to cross the Channel in winter, in order to reach what we believe to be a place of safety? Nobody’s going to do that unless they are desperate. This idea of no safe routes for refugees, of displacing them to Rwanda where they may be pushed out to conflict zones in eastern Congo, just creates another problem elsewhere in the world. It’s completely wrong, and it'll be legally challenged.

And are official designations, like Sheffield’s City of Sanctuary status, helpful?

Yes, they are. I was in Chile last month for the inauguration of President Boric, and while I was there, I saw a lot of Chilean people I’ve known for years, many of whom had lived in Britain as exiles – you’d be amazed at how many had lived in Sheffield! And they said what a wonderful city Sheffield was, that their children all had Yorkshire accents. Long before it was named as a City of Sanctuary, Sheffield had this reputation, and that’s in part because the labour movement opened their arms and their hearts to Chilean refugees and many, many others. That’s a great tradition and something you should be very, very proud of.

As we come back together after a turbulent couple of years, the Peace and Justice Project’s campaigns push for a better and fairer world. How can people get involved?

The easiest way to do so is through our website. We’re building and sustaining mutual aid through the Pandemic Solidarity project, we’re supporting food and clothing cooperatives, and we’re working hard on building solidarity groups locally. We’re setting up News Clubs around the UK, which challenge the ways in which the mainstream media’s values invade their news reporting. We’re also working on a book of personal narratives about what socialism means to people. We’ve been building international solidarity by organising for Lula in the Brazilian presidential election and helping those campaigning for Petro in the Colombian election.

The PJP is a home for people, whatever political organisation they may be in, to develop radical ideas and radical action. We’ve got around 50,000 supporters so far, we’ve been going for under two years, and I’m very excited and enthused by how things are continually developing and changing.

It sounds like you have a lot keeping you busy these days?

To me, the past few years have been very interesting, reflective in many ways. I’m finally writing about it all now, when perhaps I should have written a bit more at the time… Well, that's because there are so many other things I have to do all the time! I spend a lot of time doing different forms of political activity, and very proudly representing the area that's good enough to elect me. It’s fantastic. And it keeps me healthy and happy.

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On Monday 16 May, former Sheffield Lord Mayor Magid Magid interviews Jeremy Corbyn at the Festival of Debate.

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