Naomi Klein: I’m Naomi Klein, reporting for The Intercept, and I’m here in London at the Houses of Parliament with Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, three weeks after the Labour Party in an historic election won many, many more seats than anybody predicted – except for some of the people in this room, who saw it coming. And it’s just an enormous pleasure to be here with Jeremy and to talk about the importance of a forward-looking, bold agenda to do battle with the right. Hi, Jeremy.
Jeremy Corbyn: Lovely to see you.
NK: So, Jeremy Corbyn, it’s been extraordinary being in the U.K. this week, and seeing the political space that you have opened up, and the fact that now we’re seeing the Tories try to poach some of your policies and scramble to try to appeal to young people by talking about maybe getting rid of tuition fees.
JC: Well, social justice isn’t copyrighted, but it’s a bigger picture than just the individual issues.
NK: I want to talk about this extraordinary moment in which the project that really began under Thatcher in this country, and Reagan in the U.S. — the whole so-called consensus that never really was a consensus, the war on the collective, on the idea that we can do good things when we get together — is crumbling. But it’s also kind of a dangerous moment, when you have a vacuum of ideology, because dangerous ideas are also surging. So what is the plan to make sure that it is progressive, hopeful ideas that enter into this vacuum that has opened up?
JC: It’s been a very interesting two years. We’ve had two leadership elections in the Labour Party, which mobilized very large numbers of people. It’s not about me. It’s about a cause, it’s about people. And then we’ve just come out of a general election campaign in which we started in a very difficult political position and ended up gaining three million more votes than 2015, and the highest Labour vote in England for many, many decades.
There was a big swing to Labour, but not quite enough, unfortunately, to give us a Parliamentary majority. And so, we’re now in a situation where there is a huge confidence amongst those that are campaigning for ending the wage cap in the public sector for investment in public services. And a huge degree of uncertainty by the right and by the Conservatives.
NK: I feel like what your campaign has done, and the boldness of the Labour Manifesto – and this election campaign has proved that when you put the ideas forward, when you put the bold vision of the world we actually want – not just the opposition to austerity, you know, not just the “no,” but also a picture of the world that could be so much better than we have, that’s when people get excited.
JC: The strongest message – indeed. I said this at many, many rallies and events we held: “Look around the crowd. Look at each other. You’re all different. You’re all unique. You’re all individuals. You have different backgrounds, languages. Different ethnic communities. But you’re all united. You’re united in what you actually want in the sense of a collective in society.”
And I think the election campaign was a turning point away from the supreme individualism of the right towards the idea that you’re a better society when you have a collective good about it.
NK: And what about that picture of the world after we win? How important is that?
JC: The picture of the world is a crucial one. It is about what we do to deal with issues of injustice and inequality and poverty, and above all, hope and opportunity for young people. Hope that they can get to college or university, opportunity they can get a decent job. And it’s also about the contribution we make to the rest of the world and the relationship we have with the rest of the world.
I want a foreign policy based on human rights, based on respect for international law, based for recognizing the causes of the refugee flows, the causes of the injustice around the world. And that is something we’re developing. And indeed, there were some awful events during the election campaign. Before the election started there was an attack on Westminster itself and on Parliament. There was then the dreadful bomb in Manchester. And then there was an attack in London on London Bridge.
NK: And you committed kind of political heresy because you talked about some of the root causes. Yet that resonated with people.
JC: I’m not in any way minimizing the horror of what happened or the awful things the individuals did, but I said you’ve got to look at the international context in which there’s been this growth. And I can hear myself like yesterday, on February 15, 2003, saying, “What could be the worst-case scenario if we went to war in Iraq?” I wasn’t defending Saddam Hussein. I was just saying, if you go to war in Iraq and you destabilize the whole country, there are consequences.
NK: I think it’s important for Americans in this moment to understand that you were able to say that, and that it resonated with people because they know it to be true. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen during the Trump administration. But we do know that Donald Trump fully intends to take advantage of any crisis to push forward this incredibly regressive, xenophobic agenda, because he tried to exploit the Manchester attacks to say this is about immigrants flowing across our borders. He tried to take advantage of the London Bridge attack to say this is why we need to Muslim ban.
JC: He also attacked the mayor of London, who’s the first Muslim elected to mayoral office anywhere in Western Europe. People were extremely angry at the language he used toward Sadiq Khan, who is, after all, elected mayor of the city.
NK: Well, what do you say to some of the world leaders who think that they can only go so far in standing up to Trump? You know, like maybe they’ll put out a sassy meme of some kind. But ultimately they’re going to welcome him with open arms. What do you think the stance of other world leaders who claim to stand for progressive values should be in this moment?
JC: Well, I think they’ve got to meet Trump and discuss with him, as one would with any leader. I was shocked by the language he used during his election campaign — about women, about Muslims, and about Mexicans, about other people in society. I was also appalled at the language he used surrounding the Paris Climate Change discussions. I mean, these are serious, serious global issues. What kind of world are we going to leave in the future? What are we doing to this planet? And he seemed to think this was an opportunity for promoting polluting industries.
NK: Well, he actually said he was going to negotiate a better deal.
JC: Well, I’m not sure what he means by a better deal and that would be an interesting discussion. But having worked, like you have, for a very long time on these issues, the fact that finally India and China, in a formal setting, came onboard with the idea there are limits to emissions, there are limits to pollution, there are limits to what you can do. For the USA having come onboard under Obama, then walking away under Trump, is beyond sad.
NK: But certainly because they’re going so rogue on climate, I think there is a responsibility for everybody else to do more in this moment, not to just sort of – okay, he’s lowered the bar so much that everybody looks good in comparison. And we are seeing examples of that. We’re seeing – including in the U.S., we’re seeing cities stepping up and saying, well, we’re going to speed up our transition to renewables. And internationally I think we can see the same thing as well.
JC: I think that the image of the USA is too often presented as the image of what Donald Trump has said day-to-day, whereas the reality, look at the number of jobs in renewables in California alone runs into the hundreds of thousands. Look at the growth of renewable energy systems across the USA, the number of states and cities that are serious about protecting their environment and controlling what they can of climate change.
NK: I want to talk a little bit about the way some of my friends in the United States are feeling right now, who were very inspired by this election campaign and by your leadership bid within the Labour Party.
I have to tell you that people are feeling a little discouraged right now in the United States. They are up against Trump, but they’re also up against a Democratic party that is fighting them on single-payer healthcare, on universal public healthcare, that seems to want to keep charting what they see as a safe, centrist path, but what we’re seeing again and again is it’s not safe because it’s a losing path. It’s not speaking to people’s urgent needs for good jobs, for a free public education and affordable healthcare. What do you say to the people who organized for Bernie and are just feeling really frustrated right now?
JC: Bernie called me the day after our election here. I was half asleep watching something on television. And Bernie comes on to say, well done on the campaign, and I was interested in your campaigning ideas. Where did you get them from? And I said, well, you, actually.
And what I would say to people is: Don’t be discouraged. At the end of the day, human beings want to do things together. They want to do things collectively. And that’s the kind of society all of us are trying to create. We went into an election campaign in a difficult political position, and we put forward a manifesto that was collective in its approach, was specific in what it would do, in the sense of ending university tuition fees, in the sense of raising minimum income, and we gained the biggest increase in vote for our party since the Second World War. And we gained the support and participation of a very large number of people. We didn’t win the election. I wish we had. But in that campaign, we changed the debate in exactly the same way Senator Bernie Sanders’s intervention into Democratic nomination did mobilize a very large number of people.
NK: But you did win the leadership of the Labour Party. That campaign wasn’t ultimately successful within the Democratic Party. Do you think people should keep fighting for the soul of that party?
JC: Well, it’s the soul of the people, isn’t it?
It’s not for me to tell people what specific organizations they should or shouldn’t have in the USA, because the party system in the USA is very different.
What we’ve done is change the terms of debate, but the other key point, and this is what works on both sides of the Atlantic, is a method of campaigning. You knock on doors and you identify voters. That’s key, crucial. But if you’re seen solely through the prism of media that is quite rightwing and quite conservative in its views, then all you’re doing when you knock on the door is hearing an echo of what people have heard on a rightwing television station or through the printed media.
Social media and the technology and techniques that are there through social media give an opportunity that’s never been there before to get that message across. Just think, those people that were campaigning for social justice in Chicago in the 1920s, the best they could do was print their own newspaper if they could afford it, or make a leaflet and take it round and hand it out on bread queues. I grew up in the era when you used to print your own leaflets and go and give them out. You can now send out something on social media, and you can reach potentially millions of people in five minutes. The opportunities are there. And it’s not regulated, it’s not censored, it’s not controlled.
William Randolph Hearst would have hated the Internet.
NK: It seems to me that you have received just about as bad media treatment, smears from elite media, as is possible to receive. And yet it didn’t work. In fact, it seems to have backlashed and contributed to this feeling of loss of faith in many of these elite institutions.
JC: I think there’s something in that. After a while, a high degree of media abuse makes you a figure of interest.
NK: You talk about changing the debate, and that’s clearly happened. One of the places we’ve seen this is in the Grenfell Tower catastrophe crime scene. And the way in which this horrific event has been interpreted, it seems, throughout British society, is as extreme evidence of a failed system that does not value human life, that puts kind of a hierarchy on life.
JC: What it exposed was something about modern urban living. This is the borough in London that is the richest in the whole country. Very, very rich borough. And its council gave a rebate to the top taxpayers last year. Gave them a little gift.
NK: Money back.
JC: That tower had several hundred people living in it, some of whom were tenants of the local council, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Some flats had been bought independently, and they were sub-tenanted or sub-sub-tenanted. Nobody really knew who was in the block. The whole system collapsed. The reality was, it’s a product of insufficient regulation, of deregulation, and it was a towering inferno of the poor being burnt in the richest borough in the country.
And that’s a wakeup call about safety of buildings. It’s a wakeup call about the idea you go forward to this wonderful free market Valhalla of the future by tearing up every regulation like it’s a denial of the opportunities for the private sector. And so the debate has turned full circle on this. I went there the following day and spent quite a lot of time talking to those that escaped from the tower, and talking to traumatized firefighters and paramedics and ambulance workers and police officers who were getting ready to go into the building – to was then cooling from the fire – in order to bring out the bodies. They’re the real heroes in this. It’s a lesson for the whole country. But people are frightened.
NK: There’s a wall now – and I think you’ve probably seen it — where residents have put up questions that they have for the authorities. And you know, these questions are just completely heartbreaking. There’s kids asking, Is my school safe? There’s on question from a ten-year-old child who said, “Why does it take this to bring us together?”
JC: That’s a good question.
NK: I think we learn this lesson again and again during times of crisis, when we’re tested. We can either turn inward and against each other, and we saw a lot of that after 9/11 in the United States, where Muslims were scapegoated, and we lost a lot of liberties in this country and around the world with these draconian laws pushed through. Wars were started in the name of that attack.
And here we are in a time of overlapping crisis. Climate change is one of those crises, and inequality is another, and racial injustice is another. Do you think we can connect the dots and develop an agenda that solves multiple problems at once, multiple crises?
JC: Well, climate change and refugees are linked. Climate change and war is linked. Environmental disaster, not necessarily always associated with climate change, is also linked when you have deforestation and you end up destroying your local environment because of it.
And so, if you look at the war in Darfur, look at the refugee flows into Libya, partly from the war in Syria, also from human rights abuses across the whole region. Also from people who have been driven off their land in sub-Saharan Africa to make way for often very large corporations buying up land to grow various crops, often rice or fruit, to export somewhere else, leaving the local population unemployed and hungry. There is a connection about the need for supporting the living and development rights of everybody, not just yourself at their expense.
NK: I want to ask you if there’s been a moment that really sticks with you during the campaign or since that is the most hopeful moment you’ve seen, where you could see the country that you want to live in, a glimpse of it.
JC: There was a gentleman who came to our rally in Hastings, which is south coast seaside resort fishing town. He was aged 91. I joked with him, because I’d been told he was 92, and he said how dare I call him 92, he was only 91. He joined the Labour Party in 1945, been a party member ever since then. Very active all his life. And he said this was the most hopeful time of his life. And he told me his mother had been a suffragette who campaigned for the women’s right to vote at the time of the First World War. And his grandfather had been in the Chartists in the 1850s, which helped bring about some degree of democracy in Britain. And I just thought, this man has come out to a rally on a Saturday morning at that age because he’s full of hope for young people.
We were characterized as an election campaign that was full of young, idealistic people. Yeah, there were a lot of young people there, and many of them with brilliant ideals and brilliant imagination. There were also a lot of older people there who came there saying, “I want something better for my grandchildren. I want something better for society in the future.” It was a coming together of large numbers of people.
NK: Well, I really want to thank you for your leadership and for your boldness, because it isn’t only inspiring people in this country; I think it’s inspiring people around the world who really do need some inspiration right now, particularly in United States.
JC: Thank you very much. It’s not about you or I as individuals. When people’s minds are opened up, there is no end to the possibilities.