The right-wing press hate him, as do many of his own party, but Jeremy Corbyn has become an almost messianic figure of hope to his followers. With only days to go until the general election, NME Editor-in-Chief Mike Williams sits down with the Labour leader to ask him your questions, plus a few of his own, to find out whether his promises of a fairer society and more opportunities for young people are legit, and whether – whisper it – he could actually win.
When Theresa May called a snap general election in April, a landslide victory was predicted for the Conservatives. The Prime Minister’s main rival, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, was seen as not fit for purpose. Unpopular within his own party, unelectable in the eyes of the public, it wasn’t a case of whether Labour would lose, but how brutal the defeat would be.
Top of May’s agenda was securing a mandate to deliver the hard Brexit that she’s banged the drum for since becoming PM last July – this despite saying a month before the referendum: “I believe it is clearly in our national interest to remain a member of the European Union… Remaining inside the European Union makes us more secure, it makes us more prosperous.” On a mantra of “strong and stable”, May and her advisors believed that the only thing the country was interested in was a steady hand and stiff upper lip at the EU negotiating table, something they claimed that she would guarantee.
Then came the manifestos.
Labour’s arrived first with a promise of more funding for the NHS, more funding for schools, an end to zero-hours contracts and the abolishment of university tuition fees. The Tories followed with promises to honour David Cameron’s minimum wage and tax threshold pledges, scrapping free school lunches and replacing them with breakfast, creating more grammar schools and, most controversially, the so-called ‘dementia tax’ that would see pensioners asked to contribute more to the cost of their care with no cap on how much they might pay.
The reaction to the ‘dementia tax’ was outrage. Within 48 hours, the Prime Minister had flip-flopped again, saying there would be a cap and that less fortunate people wouldn’t be worse off. But the damage was done. The election wasn’t about Brexit any more but the kind of country we want to live in, the kind of values we want to hold, the way we want to treat our old people and the future we want to create for our youth.
Which explains how the unassuming and decidedly un-politician-looking fella with a neat white beard, loose trousers and comfy shoes sat next to me in the quiet room of a restaurant in east London has captured the imagination of young Britain – and a good percentage of everyone else – to surge in the polls and turn a forgone conclusion into an exciting and unpredictable two-horse race. As he tells me later on, “I can’t really think when I’ve changed my mind on the basic principles of what I want in life, which is social justice, which is a more equal society, which is peace and human rights around the world. Does that mean I always win every decision or win every vote within my party? Obviously I haven’t, but I do believe that if you stick to your fundamental beliefs and say what they are, then you get a hearing. If you say, ‘Well, I’ve got all these principles, but if you don’t like them, I’ve got some more,’ that’s not very effective.”
So can Jeremy Corbyn actually win? And if he does (or doesn’t), what will it mean for young Britain? As the only leader to have made a point of putting young people at the heart of his policies and campaigning, we figured he’d be interested in what you had to say, so I took a few of your questions and put them to him…
Jeremy Corbyn answers your questions
James 29, Newcastle
“Why do you think that it’s the youth who are getting behind you so much in this general election?”
Jeremy Corbyn: “I think they’re engaged because our manifesto offers them hope. It offers them hope that their schools will be properly funded, that their youth clubs will be properly funded, that they’ll get maintenance grants, they’ll get an opportunity to go to university without incurring massive debts at the end of it. But it’s also about investing in our culture industries and our society for the future. I want our children in schools to learn music as well as all the subjects they learn at the present time, I want them to have the opportunities for the future. That means we have to invest, that means we’ve got to share the wealth more fairly. That means we don’t cut corporation tax, we don’t give tax breaks to very rich. Instead we invest in the rest, and I’m really excited by the way in which young people have become engaged in this election and around two million have registered to vote who’ve never voted before and not been registered to vote before. The future belongs to the youth – let’s go with it.”
NME: Why do you think that the other mainstream parties, and specifically the Conservatives, don’t seem to have focused on young people in the way you have?
JC: “I think they’ve relied on the fact that in the last election, less than half of young people who were registered turned out to vote, and that they will therefore not register and not turn out to vote in this election. The whole story is actually very, very different: more than two million, mainly young people, have registered to vote since the election was announced. The registration period has now closed, and I hope that large numbers of young people are going to vote in this election. After all, it’s about their future.”
Lowri (left), Foundation Year 2 doctor, Liverpool
“Traditionally at this point in our careers we’d be progressing towards specialty, but come August neither Jen nor I will be doing so. I’m moving to Australia to work as a doctor and Jen’s taking a year out before committing to specialty training. In a cohort of 40-plus foundation doctors that work at our hospital, fewer than 10 of them are progressing to specialty training next year and I think this is reflective of what’s happening right across the UK right now.”
Jen (right), Foundation Year 2 doctor, Liverpool
“I think it’s fair to say it’s not been a great year for junior doctors on the front line of an increasingly stretched health service and this is almost certainly reflected in the morale of doctors, but also the whole of the NHS workforce. If Labour were to be elected, how would you address these issues?”
JC: “I’m very, very sad about this. When a young person goes to university to study medicine, it’s a very long course. We treat them so badly, we pay them so badly, we put excessive demands and conditions upon them, their morale is low and they end up leaving the NHS altogether. What I’m determined to do is support the junior doctors. They’re not the cause of the problem in the NHS; the cause of the problem is the lack of government funding for the NHS. So, we will put the money that’s necessary in the NHS, and we will treat our doctors properly and not treat them as enemies. I joined the demonstrations of junior doctors. I got criticised by just about everybody for doing that, but do you know what? We learnt a lot by talking to them. I want doctors to stay in our NHS. Their calling is medicine; their calling is the community. Let’s invest in them.”
NME: What do you predict will happen to the NHS if we don’t see change in this election? How close, actually, is it to collapse?
JC: “I think it’s very close to collapse. The A&E departments are grotesquely overcrowded. Social care is in serious crisis. The debt and underfunding levels of every health authority are huge. If we don’t put a lot more money into the NHS, then it will become not the first port of call for all of us [but] a health service of last resort. Those that can afford it will then buy private medicine, those that couldn’t… We’d end up as a sort of American emergency room system. I’m utterly appalled by that very prospect. If you and I were sitting in the USA now and had a coffee with a group of people, we might say, “How’s your health? You OK?” We would talk about our health, we’d talk about our wellbeing, we’d talk about our lives. I sat down with a group of friends in the States over Christmas. I was listening to their conversation. What do they talk about? The levels of health insurance they had, whether they were covered for this, covered for that, covered for the other, or whether their partner was, and so on. That’s appalling. So if somebody suddenly realised, “Hang on, if I get cancer I’m not covered,” is that the kind of world we want?”
Callen, 20, Enfield
“With the rise in stabbings that have taken place in the capital this year, how would a Labour government tackle the problem of knife crime?”
JC: “I live in and represent a community where we’ve had tragedy upon tragedy of stabbings and deaths and I’ve been to the funerals of the victims on a number of occasions, and they’re unbelievably tragic. And, talking to those young people… Some have a misplaced sense of security that by carrying a knife they’re somehow or other going to be safer; they’re not. They’re more likely to be killed by their own knife than they are protected by it. We’ve supported all the counter-knife measures such as knife arches in schools and colleges, such as searching shrubberies and flower beds and parks where people have been stashing knives in order to use them. But it’s also a question of dealing with the cultural idea that somehow or other carrying a knife is cool and going to protect you. It’s not.”
NME: You’ve pledged to scrap tuition fees, which has gone down well. But it’s also kicked up a question for people who already have that debt, or people who are currently in university. What does it mean for people who’ve already been paying £9,000 a year?
JC: “First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”
Fleur, 27, Student at the Open University
“You’ve said you’re going to be getting rid of student tuition fees straight away, which is great, but I’d like to know what your plans are for mature students like me.”
JC: “The Open University is the most incredible institution we have, one of the best in this country. I think it’s absolutely fantastic and I want to properly fund the Open University as I want to make sure that other adult education colleges are properly funded. I’ve spent time in Ruskin [college specialising in opportunities for adults with few or no qualifications] and I know a number of others. And so, our manifesto includes a clear pledge that we will put funding into it and we’ll also be supporting mature students in doing degrees online, doing degrees by evening classes, doing degrees while at work. We’re going to establish a National Education Service, which will oversee the funding of all aspects of our education.”
Harry, 14, Devon
“What’s your favourite band or singer? What music do you enjoy listening to?”
JC: “I’ve got to ’fess up here: I’m not very musical but I love music. When I’m at home late in the evening I have Classic FM on or I have Radio 3 on or I put some music on of other sorts. I listen to a whole range of things. I do love much classical music; I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Mahler, actually. I think this is going to get groans all round the room as I speak now, but I also like folk music, I like listening to some jazz, I like listening to world music as well. Because, essentially, music is very interesting history. Think of the history of popular music – where does it go to? It goes back to the USA, it goes back to Elvis, it goes back to the black music of the southern states. Listen to the music of Latin America, you get Andean pipe music… Its origins go way back before the Spanish conquest of Latin America in the 15th century. And you see a history of social movements through music and I love all of that. So I love listening to iconic singers – Joan Armatrading, Joan Baez I really admire – and all the popular music that we have in this country. Do I have an all-time favourite song, tune, singer? Well, I do, and it’s got to be John Lennon and ‘Imagine’.”
NME: As a music lover, can you help us answer the quintessential NME question that people have been asking for over 20 years? Who was the best: Blur or Oasis?
JC: “I’m going to plump for Oasis, but I know this will immediately divide the audience, so what I should have said was, ‘I’ll refer it to a focus group to decide,’ but I’m not keen on focus groups…”
Rosie, 25, Manchester
“I’m a recently qualified teacher and I’m seeing a lot of recently qualified teachers already leaving the profession. How do you intend to address the recruitment and retention crisis within education?”
JC: “I’ve met the teaching unions and many teachers of course, and I spoke at the recent National Association of Head Teachers conference on this. A number of things need to happen. One is, students should be supported in getting teaching qualifications as well as supported in getting the degree that precedes the teaching qualification. Secondly, it’s the burden that’s placed on teachers in schools. Teachers usually work a 12 to 14-hour day during term time – leave home very early, go into school, prepare for lessons, and all this. And they’ve got to pick up all the pieces of the problems in society. They’ve almost become social workers as well as everything else. Most teachers dip into their own wallets and handbags to ensure the children get something to eat if they’re very hungry and very poor. So I want to thank all teachers for everything they do. And I want to say this to them: we will properly fund education so the schools won’t have to collect from their parents.
“Teaching, at its best, is the most wonderful job in the world. You see young people developing, their attitudes developing, their culture developing, but if you’re so weighed down by bureaucracy, weighed down by the lack of funding, weighed down by all those pressures, you lose the spirit to do your job properly.”
NME: What happens if you don’t win? You’ve got all this momentum, all these people who believe in you – where does all this go if you don’t win this election?
JC: “Well, I think we’re going to win it. We have that huge opportunity to fundamentally change the way politics is done in Britain, and I’m very excited by it. I’ve spent all my life working on causes, representing my community and I’m very excited by this opportunity.”
NME: As a final message to NME readers, why should they vote for change?
JC: “If we continue the way we’re going, young people are going to have more debt, less opportunity for housing. Some will do very well, but the majority will not get the wages, the opportunities or the society they deserve. Let’s look at things a bit differently. We can afford lots of things in this country, but we cannot afford the levels of inequality that we’ve got, and that’s why this document here, ‘For The Many, Not The Few’ [Labour’s manifesto], is… it does what it says. It actually says, ‘Let’s redistribute, let’s invest in people for the future, and invest in the economy that grows for the future and bring people together.’ Don’t blame each other, bring people together. We can achieve things together and I’m very excited by it.”
What he says is compelling. It feels genuine and thought out. Theresa May attacked Corbyn’s manifesto as being full of “fantastical promises” and being a “utopian vision”. She wants to dampen expectations; he’s telling us we should expect more. That we deserve more. Who you vote for on June 8 is entirely up to you. Differences of opinions are what make us interesting, and whether it’s about Blur and Oasis, the credibility of Lady Gaga, the best new band on the planet right now, or political ideologies, NME readers have always disagreed and we’ll continue to do so and all still be friends. But do think about this: we know what the UK looks like right now if we don’t vote for change. Whether you think that’s the country you want to live in or not will ultimately decide which box you put your cross in.
With the polls narrowing, June 8’s result is looking increasingly up in the air. NME’s ‘plus one’ campaign wants you to take a mate to the polls. We know you’re a great person and you’ve already registered. But next Thursday, make sure your mates are up to speed.
• Thanks to Beagle in Hoxton