High Profile

Far Sighted?

Huw Spanner

According to the Spectator, Jeremy Corbyn MP is ‘a
genuinely nice man, hugely liked and admired by his colleagues’,
but his socialist views ‘simply have nothing to offer the average
British voter.’
Third Way looked in on his
constituency office.

Even the Daily Mirror describes you as ‘hard left’,
which for me conjures up an image of an intractable ideologue. How
would you characterise yourself?

I come from a socialist tradition. I believe in a society where
everyone is valued and cared for and included, and if that makes me
‘left-wing’, so be it. On economic and peace issues, obviously I am
on the left of the Lab­our Party; but I don’t apologise for
that.

Do terms such as ‘hard-‘ and ‘far-left’ make you
wince?

What do they mean? I mean, who defines them? They’re an
invention by those in the media that don’t want to engage in the
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But you would use the term ‘far-right’, wouldn’t
you?

I would use the term for somebody who holds racist or neo-Nazi
views, of course, and I think that would be appropriate. But how do
you describe a socialist, somebody who believes in democracy, as
extreme?

On your website,1 there’s a picture of you sporting a
Lenin cap. Is that making a statement? Well, you call it a ‘Lenin
cap’. How about it’s just a cap?

But it’s associated with Lenin, isn’t it? Are beards associated
with Karl Marx? It’s a cap. I like wearing it. There’s a chap on
Stroud Green Road who sells them for £9.

Fair enough! When did you first join the Labour
Party?

When I was 16. I first campaigned in the 1964 [general] election
with my mum and my dad, and I joined the Labour Party afterwards. I
was very active in the Young Socialists, and also in the Campaign
for Nuclear Dis­arm­ament and other peace organisations. If there
was any one event that shaped and informed my views, it was the
Vietnam War; but it was also issues of in­equal­ity and poverty
around the world. I did a lot of stuff with War on Want as a kid.
My parents’ politics had been formed by the rise of Fascism in the
1930s, by their support for the Spanish Republic – that was,
indeed, how they met. They were members of the Labour Party and CND
all their lives.

What did they do for a living?

My dad was an engineer who worked for English Elec­tric, later
GEC; and my mum was a teacher. (She was also a voluntary
archeologist-historian. They were both very interested in history
and culture – and very keen on nature and its preservation.)

You were one of the founders of the Stop the War
Coalition in 2001. Are you actually a pacifist?

I would always try to bring about a peaceful solution to any
conflict, and so I opposed the Gulf War in 1991 and, obviously,
[the invasions of] Afghanistan and Iraq. To say I was a pacifist
would be very absolutist…

If you had been of your parents’ generation, would you
have applauded the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil
War?

My dad wanted to join the International Brigade, but his health
wouldn’t allow it. Would I have supported it? You can’t translate
yourself into a different period; but had the rest of the world
properly recognised and supported the Republican government in
Spain, would the Second World War have happened? We’ll never know.
I do have respect for those people that were conscientious
objectors in the war. Does that make me a pacifist? I can’t really
answer that. I’m not sure.

What other values did your upbringing implant in
you?

Respect for other people’s knowledge, whether they’re academics
or not. A love of reading. My mum gave me a lot of books – indeed,
I’ve got all her Left Book Club books at home.

Were there values you have consciously
rejected?

Selective education. But everybody knows my views on that.

Was there any religion in your family?

Yeah, there was. My mum was a Bible-reading atheist – no,
agnostic, probably. She had been brought up in a religious
environment and her brother was a vicar, and there was quite a lot
of clergy in her family. Going back a lot further, there is a
Jewish element in the family, probably from Germany. My father was
a Christian and attended church; and the school that I went to was
religious – we had hymns and prayers every morning.

The school motto was ‘Serve and Obey’, I
believe.

Was it? I don’t remember that but it sounds about right! So, I
did go to church as a child, yeah.

At what point did you decide that it wasn’t for
you?

I’m not anti-religious at all. Not at all. And I probably go to
more religious services than most people who are very strong
believers. I go to churches, I go to mosques, I go to temples, I go
to synagogues. I find religion very interesting. I find the power
of faith very interesting. I have friends who are very strongly
atheist and wouldn’t have anything to do with any faith; but I take
a much more relaxed view of it. I think the faith community offers
and does a great deal for people. There doesn’t have to be wars
about relig­ion, there has to be honesty about religion. We have
much more in common than separates us.

Everyone thinks of you as very much an inner-London man.
I was really surprised to learn that you grew up in Wiltshire and
went to school in Shropshire.

Yeah, it’s a weird world, isn’t it? I grew up in the country and
I end up representing the most urbanised place in the country! It
makes me acutely aware of the way in which children in a
high-density urban area miss out on so much of the natural world.
Do I miss rural life? Yeah, of course I do. I love cyc­ling in the
countryside when I get the chance, and I do quite a bit of that.
I’ve also had an allotment for years.

You didn’t complete your social-science degree at North
London Poly, is that right?

I barely started it, actually. It wasn’t for me. I used the
opportunity to stay in a bedsit reading African and Am­erican
history. Which wasn’t actually on the curriculum at all but I
thought it was more interesting than what was on it. I knew full
well it wouldn’t last.

In your twenties, you worked for a succession of trades
unions…

I worked initially for the National Union of Tailors and Garment
Workers, based in [the East End of London]. My job was essentially
chasing down companies that had officially gone into liquidation
owing wages and National Insurance on behalf of their employees and
then reopened under a similar name in order to carry on trading. I
also examined company accounts, to find out what the directors were
doing, and attended negotiations with the wages council. I met
Bernard Weatherill there, who later became a Speaker of the House
of Commons. He was actually very nice to me.

Wasn’t he a Tory?

Absolutely! He was a pretty high Tory, but he was a gent.

I thought I’d read that you said you couldn’t be friends
with anyone who was not on the left…

I would never have said that. I can’t remember ever saying that.
Somebody asked me if I’d have a relationship with somebody who was
not on the left – now, that’s different. But any friend, you’re not
going to agree on everything. It would be quite difficult to have
any de­gree of friendship with somebody who holds appalling views –
racist, homophobic or something like that – but with people who
hold politically different views, yeah, of course. Surely, we need
to have a diversity of opinion around us? It’s good for us, is it
not?

Britain was wracked by industrial strife in the
Seventies. What lessons do you think you learnt from that
period?

A great deal. When I was working for the [NUTGW], we were going
through a very rapid process of deindustrialisation and companies
were often outsourcing work, trying to drive down wages and costs,
sending stuff out to ‘outworkers’ running up garments at home on
very low rates. They were also investing more and more in producing
in Bangladesh or, later on, China, and we tried to negotiate with
some of them about the levels of production they would do in
Britain. Marks and Spencer, for example, for a long time had a
policy of selling British-made products. The [NUTGW] had grown out
of the Jewish tailors’ union, which had a fascinating history. I
remember reading at least the English versions of its minute books.
These were guys who had come originally from Russia in the 1890s
and early 1900s and then their families had gone on to be very
active in the union. Benny Birnbaum and people like that – I knew
them all very well. Then, I got a job with the [Amalgamated Union
of Engineering Workers], working with the aircraft and motor
in­dustry. Tony Benn came to see us in ’74, just after he became
Industry Secretary in [Harold Wilson’s] government, to talk about
how the union could help him in preparing an Industry Bill. We did
a lot of work for him, because he felt that we were a better source
of information than some of the official sources. Then we had the
British Leyland crash, in the mid Seventies, and I was one of a
group of people from the AUEW, the Transport & General and the
other unions who drew up a plan for British Leyland, which was
publicly owned, which involved a high level of industrial
democracy. We put a huge amount of work into it. We had enormous
meetings of car workers in Bir­m­ingham, some of whom were quite
sceptical about the idea of industrial democracy – they preferred
the old style, if you like. In the end, British Ley­land was
privatised by the Thatcher government some years later. It was an
interesting time of development of ideas and debate. Britain was
going through a degree of de­in­dustrialisation, but the reality
was that we had not invested en­ough in manufacturing industry:
there had been far too high levels of profit-taking and not enough
investment in product development – they had been relying on easy
markets for a very long time, in the car industry, the motorbike
industry and others. It taught me a great deal and, yes, it did
form my view about the role of government in planning and making
sure that we had a diversity of industrial production. I then
became a full-time organiser for the Nat­ion­al Union of Public
Employees, which I enjoyed very much because it was
people-to-people.

In 1983, you stood for Parliament for the first time.
Why did you decide to do that?

There was a big debate about democracy in the Labour Party and
Islington North’s MP, like a number of others, had joined the new
Social Democratic Party in ’81. I was invited by people in the
constituency to put my name forward and we had a six-month
selection pro­cess and eventually I was very narrowly selected as
the candidate. Then the three old Islington constit­uen­cies were
merged into two and so there was another selection process, and
then came the general election. I was the first and (as far as I’m
aware) only person ever to defeat two sitting MPs, because both of
them stood, one for the SDP, the other as an independent.

The Labour manifesto you stood on was later described by
your fellow MP Gerald Kaufman as ‘the longest suicide note in
history’. Do you think he had a point?

Actually, if you read that manifesto and fast forward to 2008,
where was it wrong? Where was it wrong about in­vestment banking,
about regulation, about industrial investment, about housing
policy? I think there was an awful lot in that manifesto that was
actually very good and quite far-sighted. The issue in that
el­ection campaign was, more than anything else, one of
post-Falklands [Conflict] hysteria.

People on the left are strongly committed to ‘the will
of the people’; but in the last 30 years or more the will of the
people in England at least has always seemed to favour the right.
How do you come to terms with that?

You have to be prepared to engage in debate and try to change
people’s perceptions. You win some and you lose some; but you’ve
got to be true to the democratic principle. We’re not a completely
democratic society even now – no way – but if you look at the
general sweep of history from the Great Reform Act in 1832, what
followed within a very short time was the Factories Act, and what
followed from that was free education, then a second electoral
reform, then the introduction of Nat­ional Insurance, then the
curtailment of the powers of the House of Lords, then votes for
women, then the National Health Service and the welfare state, and
then eventually the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act, which I
think were the two best achievements of the 1997-2010 Labour
government. So, democracy in its own convoluted way does provide
the space in which serious radical reform can take place.

Martin Luther King (among others) said, ‘The arc of the
moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Do you think
that’s true? Are we progressing towards a better world or do you
think it’s often one step forward, two steps back?

I think we are slowly progressing. On a global level, there’s
the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the
European Convention on Hum­an Rights, the Latin American Human
Right Accord, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and so
on. On the negative side, there is the juggernaut of glo­bal
capital and the growth in power of unaccountable corporations that
don’t have much regard for either national governments or
democracy. I remember a very thoughtful discussion I had when I
first met Tony Benn in 1970, when he was recognising the limited
power of a national government to achieve its objectives vis-à-vis
the global power of – in that case, it was Esso Petrol­eum but it
could have been any number of other companies. They are now pushing
their luck with the Trans­atlantic Trade and Investment
Partnership2 and similar agreements, which essentially enfranchise
global corporations at the expense of national governments. And it
doesn’t have to be a socialist government – Australia is now being
dragged through the courts by Philip Mor­ris, and there’s nothing
left-wing about Tony Ab­bott and his government! I think that the
growth of military alliances around the world, and especially the
global expansion of Nato, is also a huge issue. These are real
problem areas. So, is it always an onward march to a better world?
No. I wish it was. But socialist values and a socialist dir­ection
are something people seize on very quickly, so if you’re suffering
from bad-quality housing, or you’re losing your land in India or
Colombia to some global corporation, do you look to the free market
for a solution or do you see that as the cause of your problems? I
think the latter.

Are you fundamentally optimistic?

Yes, absolutely.

What is that optimism grounded in?

In the fundamental good in people, and [a belief] that you can
create a society where people do feel valued, do feel involved and
can make a contribution. What a waste there is in poverty! What a
waste there is in illiteracy! What a waste there is in
unemployment!

In 2004, you were one of only two other MPs to sign Tony
Banks’s Early Day Motion, which declared that ‘humans represent the
most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever
to inhabit the planet and look[ed] forward to the day when the
inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out, thus
giving nature the opportunity to start again.’ I know that Banks
was being droll, but it piqued my interest, because many on the
right would see socialists as having much too rosy a view of human
nature.

Yeah. My mother always said that the problem with the world was
human beings. The most dangerous and ag­gressive an­imal is the
human being, not the wolf, not the tiger, not the shark. Where was
she wrong? But we are also supremely intelligent and supremely
able, and real human values are about co-operation and sharing.

How do green values and red values (if I can put it that
way) sit together in you? Many greens would see old-school
socialists as being too focused on material goods.

Yeah, well, Lenin’s view that socialism plus electricity equals
communism. Well, it doesn’t. You have to sustain the world. You
cannot go on exploiting natural res­our­ces at the rate we are,
destroying ecosystems at the rate we are, without paying a price.
Unless we protect the natural environment, unless we ensure
biodiversity, the implications are very, very serious indeed. So,
yeah, I do spend a lot of time on environmental issues. I do feel
very strongly about these issues. And we can reach out to a lot of
people who think this way.

The Green Party’s manifesto is in many ways a socialist
manifesto –

It has become more so.

How do you see politics on the left
developing?

At a local level, people who are supporters of Labour and the
Green Party actually work together on a lot of issues – probably
with a few Liberal Demo­crats as well as others, because when
you’re doing local campaigns you’re not necessarily that concerned
about other people’s political adherence. Is there going to be a
change in politics in the fut­ure? Yeah, I think there is, because
there is quite a big movement against austerity in Britain, and
quite a big movement for social justice. I think the most
interesting dev­elopment of the past five years or so has been the
growth of organisations like UK Uncut. Essentially, it’s a mor­al
force: they’re saying that people should pay their taxes.

You advocated talking to Sinn Féin long before it
emerged that the Government was actually doing so. You admired
Nelson Mandela when much of the media was still saying he should
have been hanged. You campaigned for justice for the Palestinians
long before that became respectable. You opposed the ‘war on
terror’ long before many other MPs saw the dangers. Do you ever get
credit for being ahead of the political curve?

No – but I don’t mind. It’s not im­portant. The cause is what’s
important.

Looking back, are there major positions you’ve taken
that you think have proved wrong?

Proved wrong…? I don’t think so. [On the subject of Mandela,] there was one of those amazing days, when he came to Westminster,
shortly after he’d been released, be­fore he became president.
Quite a few MPs turned up at the meeting and listened to him for a
bit and then went away because they’d got other things to do.
Mandela’s aide said: ‘Nelson, you can finish now. The meeting’s
virtually over.’ He said: ‘I will stay as long as there are
questions people want to discuss with me.’ It ended up with Tony
Benn, Nelson Mandela and me sitting round a table having a chat –
just the three of us.

Many people would look at the campaigns you’ve been
involved in and see them as predictably ‘trendy’, ‘left-wing’
causes. Can you yourself see a common thread in them all? And why,
for example, don’t you speak out on human-rights abuses in Tibet or
Burma, or Zimbabwe, or Cuba?

Well, I am involved with the Tibet campaign, actually. Ditto
Burma. The common thread is human rights and those values
surrounding human rights. It’s a question of encouraging people if
I recognise what they’re trying to achieve. MPs can’t do everything
themselves – we’re not gods – but if an MP says, ‘I will support
you,’ that is probably a help to the campaign.

Most people seem to drift to the right as they get
older, at least in this country. Why do you think that is, and why
hasn’t it happened to you?

People drift to the right possibly because they become slightly
more conservative with regard to protecting their own wealth and
status, even though those might be relatively modest, and they
become concerned about change and what they might see as departures
into the unknown. But it doesn’t affect everybody. In the election
campaign, I met a boy of 18 who was voting for the first time and a
woman of 100 who had been voting ever since she’d first come to
this country and both of them were extremely radical. I go to quite
a lot of pensioners’ forum meetings and I meet extremely radical
people. I’ve got a lot of time for them.

Given your record as a campaigner, a protester and also,
it has to be said, a rebel in terms of your party, one might see
you as a very effective leader of the Opposition. But do you
seriously aspire to be Prime Minister one day?

I am much too old for personal ambition. I entered this contest
because people asked me to. I entered it in order to put across a
point of view. I don’t know what the out­come is going to be, any
more than you do; but what I do know is that it has given space,
legitimacy and op­portunity to a lot of people who adhere to
perhaps very traditional socialist values in this country and want
the Labour Party to represent those values. The response has been
fascinating. Young people in particular are very interested – more
than older people.

Why do you think that is?

Well, young people feel put down, often: they go to university
and work very hard and then, when they leave university, they’ve
got two problems: one is a debt and the second is an offer of an
unpaid job. And they want some­thing a bit better than that. It’s
up to the political system to ensure that we so run our society and
our economy that they can get it, and can achieve their
pot­ential.

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