In Britain, the Left Is Standing With Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

In Thursday’s general election, Jeremy Corbyn is defending his seat from a private health care boss backed by Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. The campaign is a fight over the Left’s most basic values — and has stirred an extraordinary activist turnout for Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn stands with supporters before a canvassing session on June 29, 2024, in London. (Mark Kerrison / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Interview by
Owen Dowling

It’s six weeks since Rishi Sunak ran up the white flag, announcing the long-awaited election sure to finish off fourteen years of Conservative rule. Excepting Nigel Farage’s malodorous late entry as new leader of the hard-right Reform, the campaign has unfolded largely without drama. The obligatory televised head-to-heads between party leaders amounted to a bleak ceremonial changing-of-the guard, marking a transfer of power (if not a real break with Tory orthodoxy) that has long seemed a certainty.

This Friday is thus bound to see Keir Starmer anointed as prime minister. He will be lauded by the corporate media, having long since been rubber-stamped by the establishment, as the terminal exhaustion and exhibitionist criminality of this Tory party reached irrecoverable depths. Starmer reaches Downing Street atop an expensively embalmed but thoroughly dead Labour Party, his path carpeted with a torn-down and ritually desecrated red flag.

For socialists, the prevailing outlook nationally might reasonably be one of dejection. Starmer brings with him a rogues’ gallery of management consultants, corporate lobbyists, and neo-Blairite bag carriers. In government, his party looks set to link arms with whatever hard-right rump inhabits the opposition benches in exorcizing any alternative to the UK’s present carnival of reaction.

At the constituency level, however, a handful of green shoots of hope could yet spring. Activists turning to left-of-Labour and more progressive Green candidates are waging a decentralized electoral challenge to the Starmer ascendancy over issues including public investment, the National Health Service, the climate, migrants’ rights, and the Labour leadership’s unforgivable role in legitimating Israel’s genocide in Gaza. But one such candidacy has naturally attracted the lion’s share of headlines: Islington North, where former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn seeks reelection as an independent.

Barred from standing for Labour in the seat he has represented since 1983, the incumbent Corbyn now faces challenge from the party machine’s candidate, Councillor Praful Nargund. As a sign of what Starmer calls Labour’s “new management,” Nargund is a smartly-done-up but press-shy IVF magnate, who was previously filmed opining that “privatization of health care is very, very important.”

I attended the public campaign launch for “Jeremy Corbyn: An Independent Voice for All of Us” at the end of May. Five weeks on, I found a Corbyn campaign mobilizing en masse for victory, as the battle for Islington North enters its climactic final phase.

Arriving at one of the three muster points for the hundreds of canvassers meeting in the midsummer sun this past Saturday, I found a packed crowd of all ages and backgrounds, ringed around a lineup of guest speakers. The crowd was in turn encircled by local kids playing on bikes (some amusing themselves and the candidate in shouting “We love you, Jeremy!”). Corbyn’s ground game locally is stirringly reminiscent of the mass rallies during Labour’s insurgent 2017 election campaign.

Having first stopped by the campaign’s bustling nearby nerve center, I reach the scene just as one orator, Chilean exile activist and former political prisoner Cristina Godoy-Navarrete, is giving way to the Palme d’Or–winning socialist director Ken Loach (who has also been expelled from Labour).

The eighty-eight-year-old Loach, who spoke to Jacobin last year about his recent The Old Oak, told the crowd: “[Islington North] is the most important part of this election. If Jeremy wins, that shows our strength. If Jeremy wins, it shows we can put integrity and principle before shallow opportunism.” Reminding Corbyn’s campaigners of previous Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s “shocking” betrayal of the miners’ strike in 1984–85, and wider concession to the institutionalization of Thatcherism, Loach was excoriating in his denunciation of today’s Starmerism: “When it comes to Starmer’s integrity, I have to quote my old friend Ricky Tomlinson, who under the circumstances would say: ‘Starmer’s integrity? My arse!’”

Counterposing Starmer’s Labour — now “a neoliberal party, up for every exploitative device the ruling class can throw at the working class” — with the party’s former leader, Loach sang Corbyn’s praises: “What we desperately need are integrity and principles. In the match over integrity between Jeremy and Starmer, there’s no contest. . . . I’ve known him for many years, I’d trust him with anything, he’s a wonderful friend, a wonderful comrade, and I’m proud to stand alongside him.”

At the event, I spoke to Corbyn’s campaign director James Schneider (formerly the erstwhile Labour leader’s head of strategic communications). He tells me that this is “almost certainly by some distance the largest campaign in any individual constituency in the country.” But there have also been obstacles for this insurgent, independent bid: “The snap election meant we started with no data — the Labour Party of course has lots of data — and encountered lots of confusion over whether Jeremy was independent or Labour. All that is why it’s been so important to get everybody out knocking on doors to explain to people that Jeremy is running as an independent and why.”

While Labour’s imposed candidate, Nargund, “has been subterranean,” refusing to take part in debates, Corbyn represents “millions of people around the UK whose views and values — which are the mainstream, majority views and values in our country — are shut out from a political process which is extremely antidemocratic and elitist.”

Laura Smith — from 2017 to 2019 Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich and subsequently a Labour councillor before her recent resignation of the party whip — is also supporting Corbyn’s campaign. She tells me that “the saddest thing about this general election is the absolute lack of hope people have.” For Smith, being Labour “was a big part of my identity, but over the issue of Palestine, seeing more and more progressive policies just dissolving, hearing right-wing rhetoric coming out of people who should know better — I just couldn’t support it, really, anymore.” But there are alternatives: “Now, more than ever, we have to have strong voices in Parliament speaking out on Palestine, we have to keep people talking about there being another option to austerity and privatization.”

As the afternoon progressed, I accompanied Corbyn to the vibrant Islington Street Festival, hosted by the Arachne Greek Cypriot Women’s Group. The event was thronged with older-aged and family revelers, folk music and dancing, and grilled cuisine under a suitably near-Mediterranean heat. I spoke to the former Labour leader about issues of multiculturalism, community, and internationalism in this election — both locally and nationally.

“It’s About Democracy, It’s About Peace, It’s About Justice”

Owen Dowling

How important to your experience as MP has the multiculturalism of Islington North been? How would you as an independent MP give voice to these diverse communities in Parliament?

Jeremy Corbyn

The multicultural nature of the constituency is absolutely a massive part of my life. There are probably over seventy languages spoken in Islington North, the biggest would be: Turkish, Greek, Somali, Arabic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, and French for mainly people from West Africa. So, there is a lot of diversity here. I’ve always worked with all of the communities, so that won’t change.

This afternoon we’re at a Greek Cypriot women’s celebration. Arachne is a women’s organization that was set up a long time ago after Cyprus was invaded and the partition of the island. The women’s organization here has been very supportive of all the Cypriot women living here, and in particular with regard to the isolation of many of the older women; many of the younger people can’t afford to stay living round here, so there’s quite a lot of elderly women from the community here, and Arachne is very important for them.

Owen Dowling

Starmer’s Labour has recently courted controversy as it has aired a series of xenophobic dog whistles about refugees, the talked-up “threat” of “the small boats” in the English Channel, and deportations. Labour’s candidate standing against Nigel Farage in Clacton has seemingly been demobilized, and great offense was given in recent days by remarks from Starmer and his shadow cabinet colleague Jonathan Ashworth regarding “people coming from countries like Bangladesh.” What is your response to this?

Jeremy Corbyn

I am disgusted. The Bangladeshi community, like all communities, deserves respect and acknowledgement for their enormous contribution to our society. And the way in which Labour then paraded itself around “stopping the small boats”. . . I’m sorry, but to them I just say: go to Calais [the migrant encampments on the other side of the English Channel] — indeed, Keir Starmer went to Calais some years ago, before he was leader.

They must acknowledge that those people in Calais are utterly desperate. They’re victims of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya; they’re very poor, very hungry, and very disorientated; they’re being brutally treated by the far right in France and the French police. They are victims of all the injustices and inequalities on our planet. Surely to goodness, humanitarian needs come first. A Labour government must support them and grant them safe routes to live in a place of safety.

Owen Dowling

It has now been suggested that Starmer’s prior ostensible commitment to recognize a Palestinian state in office has been “delayed” — we’re told, for fears that it will irritate Washington. With the ongoing US-backed genocide in Gaza, a prospective Israeli assault on Lebanon, and the state of the recent presidential debate, are you concerned about a Starmer Labour government’s deference toward the White House? How as an independent MP will you hold this Labour government to account on foreign policy?

Jeremy Corbyn

Well, it appears that the idea of recognizing a Palestinian state has been put on the back burner for as long as I can remember. There was once a backbench motion vote in Parliament to recognize the state of Palestine, a nonbinding motion, and ever since then we’ve had nothing but prevarication. I made it very clear in our manifesto, when I was Labour leader, that we would recognize the state of Palestine straightaway: unconditionally, unilaterally.

Surely, since the vast majority of the world’s nations have done that, it’s time to get onboard with the rest of the planet, and not allow the US and a small number of Western European states to effectively veto it. I want to support and recognize the state of Palestine, demand a cease-fire in Gaza, and above all see an end to the arms trade with Israel. We’ve just produced a book called Monstrous Anger of the Guns — that title was a reference to Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem For Doomed Youth” — which deals with the power of the global arms trade.

Owen Dowling

You’ve been out on the doorsteps for five weeks now. How do you think it’s going, and what would be your message to our British readers about how best they can make themselves effective for socialist politics in this election?

Jeremy Corbyn

Well, if you’re in Islington North, come and campaign and vote for us. It’s not about me: it’s about democracy, it’s about peace, it’s about justice, it’s about sustainability. We’re getting a huge resonance from people all across the constituency. I make no predictions on the result, all I know is that in less than five weeks we’ve set up a campaign from nothing which has been very, very effective.

We’ve got a lot of support and a lot of enthusiasm, and I’m humbled by the numbers of people that have come out to help us — some of whom I haven’t seen for years, but who remember campaigns we were involved in in the past and say “this is for the campaign we did for a playground,” “against road widening,” “against deportations,” “for peace,” for many different campaigns we’ve organized over the past four decades.

We’ve got a huge enthusiastic base here, they understand why I’m standing as an independent, and what I’ve said to them is that if I win as an independent there’ll be a monthly people’s assembly in Islington that will be their place for them to express their views, and above all to help empower our communities to fight for the social change we need for our future.