The Labour Party leader talks about visiting Latin America in the 1960s, his admiration for Mexico and Bolivia and the need to build an international movement to challenge the neoliberal agenda.
Arriving at the Houses of Parliament in London, I worried that I would find Jeremy Corbyn downbeat and nervy. The leader of the Labour Party, the official opposition to the British government, has been the victim of fierce attacks over the past six months — the crescendo to a campaign that has been rolling since he was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015.
In a near-universally hostile British media, he is regularly portrayed as an antisemite, a misogynist, a terrorist sympathiser, a communist agent – the list is literally endless. Every day, there is a new line of attack on a politician who for just about his whole political life was a largely unknown, marginalised left-wing voice in British politics.
But, like so much when it comes to Jeremy Corbyn, the opposite is the case. He is upbeat and relaxed. I meet him at his offices where he is surrounded by young and enthusiastic staff buzzing round the office. As he greets me, he hands me a double espresso. Someone has got his order wrong. “Want it?” he asks smiling.
He is quick to crack a joke, is intensely interested in other people, and seems at peace. His aura is one of enviable calm. Considering the storm around him, it’s disorientating. You take a lot of hits, I say. People worry this must have an effect on you: are you happy? “Absolutely,” he cries with his characteristic wry smile, raising his eyebrows. “Absolutely!” he adds again for emphasis. “I’m extremely happy. I do my work in Parliament, I spend a lot of time touring around the country doing campaigning events, meeting people. And I travel when I can, I was in Jordan this summer visiting refugee camps.” He then adds: “I lead a very balanced life. I read quite widely. I have an allotment, which I’m very proud of, and I keep myself fit and healthy. We want people to be able to lead full lives, and I lead a very full life, and I’m very happy doing it.”
As we chat casually — he is disarmingly open — I have to keep reminding myself that I am sitting opposite the biggest threat to the British establishment maybe ever. There have been important anti-imperialist socialist figures throughout Britain’s history, but none has ever got as close to power as Jeremy Corbyn is right now. His rise has been improbable, but, after constant destabilisation campaigns (often by his own party) he is obviously going nowhere.
In the General Election of 2017, when he was roundly predicted to crash and burn, he increased Labour’s seat count and the Tories lost their majority in the Houses of Parliament. Some say it was the most important moment for progressive politics in modern British political history. The left finally proved that its ideas could be popular with the general population. Socialism is back, and many predict that if Britain’s unstable Prime Minister Theresa May falls and a general election is called, Corbyn and Labour would win a landslide.
Corbyn, unlike many in parochial British politics, is and has always been an internationalist. He links struggles for democracy and human rights across the world and has travelled extensively throughout his life. But Latin America, and especially Mexico, has a special place in his heart. I glance over to his desk where a miniature Mexican flag flies above his papers. Further back is a framed picture of his Mexican wife Laura Alvarez at her graduation.
Corbyn has been rereading A History of Mexico in preparation for the interview and he is clearly enthused by the fact Mexico has turned red with the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – the first time, he points out, Mexico has elected a real left-winger since Lazaro Cardenas in the 1930s. In fact, he is so excited by what AMLO represents that he announces he will be travelling to Mexico for the inauguration of AMLO in December. “AMLO has shown amazing personal and political courage over many decades,” he tells me. “He was one of the most reforming of mayors of Mexico City in history. Indeed, it’s quite humbling when you go to the supermarket at the time of the month when the older people get their food vouchers, and they call them AMLOs.”
Does Corbyn sees similarities between himself and AMLO? “I see similarities in the sense that we’re both of about the same age, both been in politics all of our lives, and both have an absolute commitment to human rights and to righting injustice. I support him in the difficulties I know he’s going to face in searching for all the disappeared, as well as dealing with the Ayozinapa 43, and the dreadful case that that is.”
Corbyn first went to Latin America in the late 1960s when he was 20-years-old. He was living in Jamaica working with Voluntary Service Overseas and when he finished he embarked on a solo trip around South America. He fell in love with the region and has since visited nearly every country in Latin America. “There is a huge ethnic diversity across Latin America that’s often not understood by people outside. Understanding the history of Latin America is very limited in the rest of the world. The diversity of Bolivia, for example, with Quechua being actually the dominant language not Spanish. When that diversity is recognized you tend to get more inclusive governments. For example, in Chile the great Salvador Allende recognized the needs of the Mapuche people, which had often been ignored until then. I see the strength of Latin America as bringing people together.”
This is the side of Latin America that has inspired the left across the world in the past century. But there is another, darker, side to the region that, in places like Brazil, is coming back. Corbyn is aware of this too. “I also see elites in Latin America that have often been interlinked with the armed forces and global corporations … hence the problems that Allende suffered. I think an ongoing issue is the question of control of resources, and the economic development of the continent. I was looking recently at my diaries from 1969, and I’ve got an entry from 1 May 1969, in Santiago. That was the time when Popular Unity had been formed which eventually led to the election of President Allende a year later. Remember it was the first past the post system, so Allende got elected on, I think, 36 per cent of the vote. He faced opposition from the very beginning, particularly from the mining companies, and the CIA, much of it led by Kissinger. It’s all very well recorded.”
Corbyn pauses then adds: “There are powerful forces that move around in the world that want to oppose those who want to bring about economic and social justice. The only way to combat it is insertion of democratic values and humans rights, and that is exactly what I’m determined to do.”
Corbyn has been called by some Britain’s answer to Salvador Allende. Except the powerful reactionary forces he mentions will be much more concerned about Britain going red than Chile. No core capitalist country has ever had an anti-imperialist socialist in power. The political and economic system is sick and immoral. It remains to be seen whether such a system will ever allow a decent and principled human being to rise to its apex. Do you worry, I ask, about the forces that brought down Allende doing the same thing to you? “Well, I understand a lot of the media are very unkind towards me here,” he says. “Extremely unkind,” he adds with a wry grin. “I think what we showed in the general election and since then is our ability to communicate with people was critical. Things like social media, and local organizations, have created a confidence amongst a lot of people in Britain that we can bring about political change, we can be a government of social justice and we can have a foreign policy based on human rights and justice. I’m utterly determined to achieve it.”
The Labour Party in Britain is nominally left-wing yet at least since Tony Blair won leadership of the Party in 1994 – and arguably long before – it has allied with reactionary forces across the world, from George W Bush to Silvio Berlusconi to the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia. That meant it showed no solidarity at all with the “pink tide” movement of the late 1990s and 2000s which saw progressive governments come to power in Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay and Brazil. In one of the most exciting times for left politics in history, the Labour Party under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was completely absent – only offering ritual denunciations of “authoritarianism” and “populism” in the liberated countries.
I wonder if that will now change under Corbyn, that the Latin American left can expect solidarity from the Labour Party now. “I’m very clear that we have to build an international movement, which deals with economic injustice and inequality, and challenges the neoliberal agenda. We need governments that think alike to work together on economic justice and we’ll absolutely do that.” He is particularly interested in the progress that Bolivia has seen under the government of Evo Morales and the social movements that catapulted him to power. “I had a very interesting visit to Bolivia some years back when I led a parliamentary delegation there. We were looking at the control of water, and the mining industry, but also the enfranchisement of the diversity of Bolivia. The idea that a non-Spanish speaking woman should be the author of the constitution of Bolivia was amazing and historic in so many ways. I’ve got a lot of respect for what they’ve achieved in Bolivia.”
Before we finish up I ask him if he has a message for Mexicans as AMLO takes power, and he shoots back, in perfect Spanish: “Saludos y buena suerte para el futuro, y paz y justicia para todo el pueblo de Mexico.” He smiles and then says tapping his Mexican history book, and back in English now, “I’m really looking forward to being in Mexico.”