I meetJeremy Corbynon Remembrance Day at the delightful Acoustic Brasserie on Newington Green where he’s been coming for years and is friends with the owner.
It’s all very low key – no security that I can see and two friendly young women to act as press minders. Corbyn arrives on time, chats to the owner then comes through to join me. He has a poppy in his lapel but takes it off because, he says, it will date the photographs.
‘Coo, you’re media trained!’ I tell him, but he laughs. ‘Actually I’ve never been trained in anything in my life.’
He tells me about the café and various other cafés he frequents in the area. He likes hanging out in cafés because it’s a good way of meeting his constituents.
I tell him about the sad case of a 75 – year-old widow who has lived in his constituency for 35 years and is disappointed that she has never once had a visit from her MP. He looks concerned and reaches for his notebook until I tell him it’s me. (MPs are always banging on about what they learn on the doorstep and I’ve always wondered, where are these doorsteps? Certainly not in my street.) On the other hand, Corbyn did write two very thoughtful letters to my elder daughter when, as a student, she wrote to him about Free Tibet.
Anyway, he very charmingly says he will make up for his neglect by inviting me to PMQs sometime. Apparently David Cameron confided to him at the Remembrance Day service that he always feared and dreaded PMQs, and ‘I was surprised because he always looked so confident but he said,“ Well, I wasn’t. I wouldn’t say it was hell but it’s not easy. ”’I tell Corbyn he seems to have got better at PMQs – he was awful at the beginning when he kept reading out questions from his constituents but he seems to have got less doddery now. ‘Not doddery,’ he says quickly. No – that was a bad choice of word because there was a blatant slur story put out at one stage that he was going doddery, and he patently isn’t. I meant tentative.
He takes great pride in his fitness regime, and he always has done. He runs and cycles, both in the gym and on the streets, two or three times a week as well as digging his allotment on Sundays. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke ‘obviously’ and has been vegetarian since he was 20. Recently, he’s been thinking of going vegan because ‘I do now eat quite a lot of vegan food and it’s got better, it’s really tasty. There used to be a time when being vegan was like a punishment. ’Were his children allowed to eat meat growing up? ‘Yes, they could eat what they like. I don’t impose my views on others. ’Is that true? I read that his second wife, the mother of the children, left him because she wanted to send the children to selective schools and he refused on principle – which certainly sounds like imposing his ideas.
He is courteous and friendly, but also terribly discursive because he loves imparting eclectic facts. He tells me about a type of manhole cover he particularly looks out for because it says Vestry of St Mary Light Company, and the Vestry of St Mary was the predecessor of Islington Council. He adds that ‘it’s kind of overdone, my interest in manhole covers, but the reality is they’re a sort of indication of the social and economic history of an area, so you see all this in the streets.’ He also tells me about a war memorial in Manor Gardens, and the Remembrance Sunday service that’s held there – this year he read out a poem by the Jewish war poet, Isaac Rosenberg. He shows me the book he is reading, The Inheritors, by Aruna Chakravarti, which is the diary of a farm worker growing up in Calcutta in the late l9th and early 20 th century. ‘Some of it is very brutal, about the treatment of young girls and women, and some of it quite depressing.’ Later, he wants to tell me the history of anti-Semitism in Britain and Europe starting from the 17 th century, but I cut him off.
This is the trouble with auto-didacts, I find – they’re always so excited by their hard -won knowledge they want to show it off, and he is an auto-didact par excellence having left school with only two Es at A level. How did he manage to do so badly? ‘I was more interested in the subjects – history and geography – than the exams. I spent a lot of time reading probably way beyond the syllabus. Also, my mother, who was a very generous lady, said they probably couldn’t read my writing! ’But does he regret not going to university? ‘Sometimes, sometimes not. I think the university of life is a good place to learn. I went to Jamaica as a volunteer when I left school and that gave me a thirst for historical knowledge, so I started learning the history of the Caribbean and Africa and European expansion. I’ve always read very widely. But I do want everyone to have a chance to go to college or university. ’
I ask if being Labor leader means working longer hours and he says no, he’s always worked long hours. He normally leaves home between 8 and 9am and gets home around 10 or 11 PM. What does his wife do all day? ‘Well, she sometimes comes to Parliament. We sometimes meet up during the day as well. ’She also buys him clothes, including the shiny brown suit he is wearing that she bought him in Mexico (she is Mexican). He shows me the label, Hidalgo, and tells me that Hidalgo was one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Mexico. And a tailor? I ask doubtfully. ‘I don’t know if he was a tailor.’ Do they have a cleaner? ‘Not regularly, no. We have someone who helps sometimes. ’(He once said it was‘ bourgeois ’to have a cleaner.) Does he do the cooking? ‘Some. Laura does more. I make the jam. I make very nice coddled eggs – do you want some? I can’t pretend I do all the cooking, but remember we’re not at home that much so there’s not much cooking to do. ’
Doesn’t sound much fun for his wife – do he and Laura ever sit down and watch a box set? ‘No. I like to listen to music at night so I go to my study late in the evening and play Radio 3 or Radio 6 Music and sometimes Classic FM. Laura gets quite annoyed with me sometimes because I’ve got three things on at the same time: my computer, Radio 3 and my iPad playing something else on headphones and she says, “What are you doing?” And obviously I have a great deal to read for my job, but I also read novels and history as well. I have a vast number of books at home – more books than shelves. ’
How did he celebrate his 70 th birthday back in May? ‘I didn’t want to celebrate it at all but others had other plans, so there was a surprise party for me at Caxton House [a community centre]. One of the ward councillors said local residents needed to talk to me about something – she was a bit vague – so I went there and found all my life, family and friends in front of me. ’His children? ‘Yes of course. And grandson. And two of my brothers; one unfortunately passed on. ’Ex-wives (he has two)? ‘No. But I’m on good terms with them. ’
His present wife is rarely seen in public. Does she hate being in the spotlight? ‘She’s her own person, has her own life to lead. She’s very active, very political and very knowledgeable, does a lot of work on human rights and other issues. ‘Is she okay about moving into No 10? ‘She’s very interested in the idea!’ He laughs. ‘But there’s the question of what happens to the cat, of course.’ Surely you can take it to No 10? ‘Yes, but cats tend to be very territorial.’
In theory he could be moving there in a month, but it doesn’t sound as if he’s raring to go. ‘We’re ready for great upheavals and the challenge of what we’ve got to do. But I take nothing for granted. ’Actually I get the strong impression he doesn’t expect to be moving into No l0 next month and maybe doesn’t even want to. I bet Boris didn’t worry about whether the cat would be happy.
Was he very hurt by Ian Austin’s remarks that he was not fit to be PM? ‘Not really. Ian Austin was elected as a Labor MP on the same manifesto as I was elected; he then decided to leave theLabor partyand made these remarks, and got an enormous amount of coverage for it. But I think he should be more honest with his constituents who voted for him as a Labor candidate. ’
What about Tom Watson’s resignation? ‘Despite what the press say, I get on personally very well with Tom. We had a good conversation about two weeks ago when he told me he’d decided that he wants to do different things in his life but that he would strongly support us in theelectioncampaign. On what turned out to be the last day of Parliament I made my speech saying we’d decided to call an election, and he said “Well that’s about it then?” And I said yes and he gave me a big hug and said, “Thanks for everything.” So, in life we have to sometimes go beyond political differences. Politics is very passionate, you can fall out with people massively on political issues but don’t let that color everything else. ’
Right. So what about the question of anti-Semitism? ‘There is nothing, nothing, nothing in my life that has ever been racist or anti-Semitic in any way.’ What about the mural he approved of (it showed a group of hook-nosed bankers playing a game of Monopoly on the backs of huddled dark-skinned people, and could have come straight from Nazi Germany)?
‘I didn’t approve of the mural. I simply asked the question – why is this mural being removed? The following day, the council decided to remove it and I looked at it and said yes you’re right. ’How long had it been there? ‘Not long. A few weeks. Look. It’s been removed and I’m glad it was. ’But there are new anti-Semitic stories almost every day, one last weekend about Dan Carden singing‘ Hey Jews ’on the bus. ‘What’s that got to do with me?’ Well he’s a Labor candidate isn’t he? ‘It was alleged the song was sung. I was asked about it and said if this is true, it is appalling, and no way would I condone it. He denies it and I await the evidence. ’Waiting seems to be his default position on everything. Why can’t he just call the bloke into his office and sack him?
At this point his minders, who have been fidgeting nervously in the background, intervene to say my hour is up and it’s time to take photographs. Corbyn resumes his interrupted friendliness and says I can ask one more question so I ask the obvious: are you in favor of Remain or Leave?
‘I’m in favor of coming to the end of this debate, and that means within three months negotiating a credible relationship with the EU, and putting it to the public vote alongside Remain so we don’t crash out into a no-deal exit. And that is a way of bringing the party and the country together. ’In other words, he just wants to prolong the agony. He’s a nice bloke but I don’t believe he’ll ever be prime minister. But then I said the same about Boris Johnson when I interviewed him in 2003, so what do I know?
Watch Jeremy Corbyn’s quick-fire, ‘This or That ‘interview on@ eveningstandardmagazine