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Jeremy Corbyn speaks to NME: “The priority is to end university fees”

We talked to the Labour leader about creativity, culture, student debt and Jimi Hendrix at his Arts for All charter launch

The General Election on December 12 is set to be the most significant in a generation. In the most obvious terms, it will determine which way the Brexit pendulum finally swings, but there’s much more at stake, including the future of the NHS, affordable housing, taxation, immigration and the environment.

Culture and creativity are also in the mix, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pledging to invest £1 billion in arts spending if elected. Yesterday (November 24) he launched his Arts for All charter at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East with a few friends – including M.I.A., Emeli Sandé, Billy Bragg, Ken Loach, Clean Bandit, comedian Rob Delaney and a video-linked Lily Allen. It’s big. It’s bold. It’s hugely ambitious. Does he really think he can pull it off?

NME speaks to the man hoping to end nine years of Conservative rule to find out.

What drives you to invest so heavily in music and creative pursuits in the UK? 

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Jeremy Corbyn: “It strengthens communities, it brings that sense of creativity and inclusion in the community, and it also gives children at school a chance to explore their artistic selves. The number of schools that no longer teach any music at all is growing all the time; the number of schools who do hardly any painted art of any sort, because they haven’t got the materials to do it, is growing. That so many kids never get to see a theatre or an art gallery or a museum, because either the school can’t afford it or they can’t afford it, is unacceptable.

Our money going in will help to ensure there is musical education in all schools. But it also helps to create that sense of inclusion. If you go to theatres around the country the audiences are predominantly middle class, because theatre tickets are expensive – but also because other communities feel left out.

If you look at the spread of Arts Council funding, it has to be made fairer across the whole country, and you have to invest in areas where there aren’t any theatres, where there aren’t any music venues at the present time, and try and get them there. It’s about how the Arts Council operates as well – I’m not having a go at them, what they do is very good. But it has to be more fairly spent. I’ve met the Arts Council to discuss this, and they’re not totally hostile to everything we’re saying; they just point out that they’ve been cut very heavily under austerity, and that is true.”

When you last spoke to NME in 2017, you said you were working on a plan to eliminate student debt – not only for present and future students, but those who had already paid and graduated. Do you have a plan in place for that now?

“John McDonnell [Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer] is looking at ways it can be dealt with. The issues is that a lot of the debt is never collected, and never likely to be collected. But some students have paid off their debt, so one doesn’t want to be unfair towards those that have already paid it off.

The priority at the moment is to end university fees for the generation coming, and to bring back maintenance grants, because of the debt that so many young people are getting into through going to uni.”

Labour bring together a host of big names to their Charter for the Arts launch in Stratford, November 24

Earlier this month NME exclusively published a letter signed by high-profile names pledging their support to your campaign. That letter partially came in response to another open letter about a perceived unresolved issue with antisemitism in Labour. Do you feel you’ve addressed those concerns adequately?

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“Antisemitism is an evil in our society. Racism in any form is an evil in our society. I’ve spent my life fighting against racism in any form, and I will die fighting against racism in any form. Anyone who looks at the history of 20th century Europe can see the way in which antisemitism was used by the Nazis to build up hatred against the Jewish people, which descended into the Holocaust.

Let’s never allow any form of racism to rise. There are the far-right on the rise in some parts of Europe, and we have to build an inclusive society to work against that. I do not tolerate any racism in any form in any part of my life or my party, and never will.”

I know you’ve spoken before about your love of classical music. Do any other records sneak onto your stereo?

“I actually really like BBC Radio 6Music. When I’m on trains, coming back home from a long trip somewhere, I fiddle about on my iPad and look for bits of music. Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is fantastic. A bit of Jimi Hendrix, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, I like that. I listen to Mozart and Tchaikovksy a lot, but it’s a mix of popular and classical music. I think you have to have a wide range of choice in music.”

And presumably a diversity of new musical talent is what you’re aiming to achieve with this billion-pound arts policy?

“Absolutely. It’s about musical opportunities. Young people who write fantastic music need a venue in which to perform. So many pubs now don’t do live music, they just play recorded music. I think we need to encourage pubs, clubs and cafes to have live music in them. The pub at the end of my road’s brought back live music, they have various folk singers in, all different types of music. It’s lovely.

We’re looking forward to changing the whole scene so that it’s arts for all. That’s the principle.”

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