Jeremy Corbyn interview: ‘Before Boris Johnson became leader he could be quite funny’

The former Labour leader on running against his old party as an independent, the ‘brutality’ of party leadership and his friendship with Michael D Higgins

Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of the UK's Labour Party, addresses supporters outside Islington Town Hall earlier this month after handing in his nomination papers to stand as an independent candidate for Islington North in the upcoming elections. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Eleven times in under one hour, or roughly once every five minutes. That is how often Jeremy Corbyn is interrupted by members of the public as he chats to The Irish Times over coffee this week. His time in the Labour Party may be over, but Corbynmania lives on.

There is the older woman pushing a pram with baby Cosmo. She wants a photo. Corbyn’s assistant tries to get the baby to hold an election leaflet – the former Labour leader is running as an independent in Islington North on July 4th. Cosmo is having none of it. Corbyn peers down at him. “We’ll have to recanvass the baby,” he says. “Clearly a floating voter.”

We’re sitting at the open air front of Cafe Metro beside Archway tube station in north London. A man recognises Corbyn and comes over. He is a tube driver going to work. An immigrant from Africa, he is so star-struck he can barely breathe. “I love you so much,” he blurts. He says his son made an “Oh Jer-e-my Cor-byn” video using the trademark chant of left-wing Corbynistas when he was Labour leader between 2015 and 2020. The tube driver hums the tune.

A woman asks Corbyn if he enjoyed the CD she sent him. “Er, oh yes!” he replies, seemingly without a notion what she’s on about. Another woman, whom he clearly does know, shouts hello from the street and says she’s going to see her mother in Birmingham. “Tell your mum to stay off the whiskey,” Corbyn retorts, grinning.

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Men and women, young and old, interrupt incessantly to shake his hand and take selfies. Those who live in the constituency pledge their votes. One young chap who looks barely old enough to vote becomes the second man of the morning to tell Corbyn that he loves him.

Jeremy Corbyn at Navigator Square in Archway, in his north London constituency of Islington North. He led a campaign to get the square named after Irish navvies, even though the place is landlocked. Photograph: Mark Paul

The veteran politician – he celebrated his 75th birthday three weeks ago – takes it all in his stride. He doesn’t unnecessarily prolong these interactions. Nor does he seek them out. Rather, he just glides quietly and politely from each encounter to the next, a smile here, a thank you there. This is simply how it is to be Jeremy Corbyn, the politician in Britain who inspires the most adoration among supporters and, probably, the most scorn among opponents.

Yet now he is in the fight of his political life.

Corbynmania is not dead, but the jury is out on whether it can keep alive his chances of holding on to the seat he first won for Labour in 1983. Detailed constituency-by-constituency polling from YouGov has Islington North down as a Labour win on July 4th. Local businessman and councillor Praful Nargund is running for Labour.

Corbyn’s launch event a couple of weeks ago at the Brickworks Community Centre in Crouch Hill in Islington was a typical cacophony of adoration. But having been around the block, the man himself is wary of how positive bias can skew politics.

Supporters listen to Jeremy Corbyn talk in London this month. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“The danger is optimistic canvassing: that you go around assuming everyone is voting for you because they’re being nice to you,” says the now-independent candidate. He gets in a sup of his cappuccino before the next jubilant interloper arrives.

“That doesn’t always follow. I am very used to the idea that you go after every house and vote and correctly identify how they vote. The team have got that instilled in them.”

Yet never before has he fought a marginal battle – Islington North has been a Labour safe seat for four decades. Corbyn never had to scrap for it. “But I was the election agent in three campaigns for super marginal seats in the 1970s.”

He is happy to meet for coffee and wander around Navigator Square in Archway, which he helped to get named after Irish “navvy” worker emigrants – Corbyn is proud of his long links to London’s Irish community. But his team is unwilling to let him be accompanied as he knocks on voters’ doors.

A sign, perhaps, that he’s not getting it all his own way? “The response is positive towards me personally. I know a lot of people from doing case work. There is some confusion as to why I am an independent and not a Labour candidate, so there are a lot of explanations on the doorstep.”

Whatever about what voters want, Corbyn is not what Labour wants. He has been ruthlessly purged from the party by his successor as leader, Keir Starmer. Officially it is because of the reaction of Corbyn – a longstanding supporter of Palestine – to an independent report on accusations of disturbing levels of anti-Semitism in the party while he was leader. Corbyn has suggested the level of anti-Semitism was exaggerated.

Yet Starmer’s conspicuous excising of Corbyn also serves a political purpose – a personification of the new leader’s declaration that the Labour Party is now “changed” and ready for government, five years after its historic thumping under Corbyn at the general election in 2019.

Corbyn, while furious at not being allowed to run as a Labour candidate, also doesn’t hide the emotional wrench of being cast out of the party that has been his life since he joined aged 16.

“I’ve been in Labour all my life. Culturally it’s a difficult thing [for him to run against it as an independent]. But I am not spending my time attacking people in the party.”

Yet they are having nibbles at him. Starmer this week derided the Conservative party’s manifesto as a “Corbyn-style” unfunded list of flaky promises – Labour claims it has a £71 billion (€84 billion) black hole in the numbers. Critics of the Labour leader pointed out that he endorsed the last Labour manifesto when he sat on the front bench assembled by Corbyn, who he said at the time would make a “great” prime minister.

Corbyn’s retort to Starmer is simple: “Don’t keep rewriting history. I thought [what Starmer said] wasn’t very sensible and was unnecessary.”

He says when he was leader, each shadow minister had to come up with 500 words for the manifesto on what Labour promised for their policy area. “I watched [then shadow chancellor] John McDonnell turn from revolutionary firebrand to accountant. I heard him argue with the other [would be] ministers. If their ideas weren’t properly costed, he wouldn’t allow them in.”

Islington has pockets of deprivation among more salubrious areas. Corbyn’s election pledges this time round include a continuation of his fight against privatisation in the National Health Service, “housing for all” and rent controls, protecting green spaces, and advocating for a wealth tax and for an end to the two-child benefits cap that Labour says it will keep.

Would he be prepared to vote with a Starmer-led Labour government, instead of trying to stymie it with the Tories from the opposition benches? “Absolutely. If an incoming Labour government does good things like public ownership of Royal Mail, I will support it. But if it goes down the road of keeping benefit caps and so on, I will be a critic.”

He is targeting votes from the old Irish community in Islington with which he was worked for decades. Corbyn says he has to “pinch himself” at how much Ireland has liberalised socially from when he used to visit Galway as a boy.

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He is keen to talk about his friend, President Michael D Higgins. When he last saw him a few weeks ago at an arts festival in Dublin, the president told him he was “80 per cent” recovered from his recent stroke. “Such a lovely man,” he says, recalling the time Higgins once received a UK Labour delegation at the Áras, keeping the rest of them waiting for their breakfast for 45 minutes while he chatted privately to Corbyn in an ante room about Seamus Heaney.

Jeremy Corbyn with President Michael D Higgins in Áras an Uachtaráin

How is his other friend, Labour’s Diane Abbott? She was also the subject recently of a perceived Starmer purge of the left wing, but she managed to fight her way back in and will stand again as a Labour candidate next month. “I had a chat with her yesterday. She’s chipper. She won her battle and she’s well up for it all, now.”

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The old war stories flow from his time as leader. He says Theresa May, the prime minister whom he faced in a close election in 2017, was a “bit stiff” in private, but he appears to respect her focus on policy. “She was all right on some things, but the aberration with her was the Windrush [scandal, over the shoddy treatment of Caribbean emigrants by the Home Office].”

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What about Boris Johnson, who defeated him in the 2019 election?

“Rambling, unfocused, unprepared in meetings. But before he became leader he could be quite funny. When he was mayor of London he had an easy hand. He inherited a good capital spending programme from Ken Livingstone. Most of his stuff was Livingstone’s legacy. I don’t think he even noticed that.”

Current prime minister Rishi Sunak? “He doesn’t look very happy. It’s that lack of any type of life experience that shows with him.”

Meanwhile, Corbyn appears to have some regard for former prime minister David Cameron over his “superb” reaction to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, if not for his policies of austerity.

Corbyn says he doesn’t miss the “brutality” of party leadership or the impact on his family, but he enjoys politics too much to walk away. He is also fighting this election on a point of principle following Labour’s attempts to block him.

The race is too close to call. Whatever happens, Corbyn says he has thick skin to cope with it. Then he winks. “One of my ancestors was a rhinoceros.”

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