Independent journalist at Declassified, Matt Kennard, recently sat down with former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to talk about the central role played by the British military and intelligence services, the liberal media – in particular the Guardian and BBC – and the Israel lobby in the undermining his tenure through a coordinated smear campaign.
Jeremy Corbyn also speaks candidly about his successor Keir Starmer, the pushback he received to halting Saudi arms sales, and the ongoing state persecution of Julian Assange.
A full transcript of the interview with relevant links is provided below.
Jeremy Corbyn: Thanks for coming Matt. You like the gaff here?
Matt Kennard: It’s great. It’s lovely. I grew up here incidentally so I know Finsbury Park very well.
First question is about the role of the British security services and the military establishment. The role they played while you were Labour leader from 2015 to 2020. I went through in article written in 2019, all the different instances that they were briefing to the media.
Some very sort of shocking articles to read in hindsight. One, soon after you became leader, was a serving military general saying that the army would take direct action to stop you becoming Prime Minister. Were you aware of all this action by the intelligence and military establishment while you’re a leader, and what do you think it tells you about British democracy?
JC: I was obviously aware of the articles, and we had a daily press briefing from our office which summarised all the articles that were important to us. And I also noticed that it was particularly the Daily Telegraph that often carried leading stories apparently from “sources in the intelligence services” which I was attacked or undermined from. When that story came out shortly after I was elected leader in 2015 – from apparently a serving military officer – we obviously challenged it straight away, and they said it was a rogue element: it didn’t speak for anybody else etc, etc, etc. But I thought it was a sort of shot across the bow as a warning to me saying ‘look, you might have a different view of the world’ – when I’d laid out an international strategy based on peace, based on human rights, based on democracy, based on fair trade rather than the very pro-American defence and foreign policy we’d adopted. So I knew this was going to lead to attacks and it certainly did.
It also served as a warning to a lot of our supporters just what we were up against in challenging the foreign policy establishment, and the up-till-then cosy agreement between both front benches in parliament to support the same foreign policy. So yes, was I shocked? Yes. Was I surprised? No. And I tell you what was going through my mind was Harry Perkins in [A Very] British Coup. [available to watch on Channel 4]
MK: Just to ask specifically about MI5 and MI6 as well, because there was a meeting with each institution that you had – both were leaked. The evidence about the meetings was leaked to the press. Can you talk about those meetings, and talk about the leaks? And did you feel that those two institutions were also trying to undermine your leadership of the Labour Party?
JC: I’ve had some issues with them in the past on, for example, the ‘spy cops’ inquiry that’s going on at the moment. A number of MPs were clearly under police surveillance through the ’70s and ’80s. I wasn’t an MP in the ’70s, but I was clearly under some form of surveillance throughout that time. The ‘spy cops’ inquiry is still going on. Peter Hain was labelled as well because of his activities in the anti-apartheid movement and others.
And at one stage I was offered my police file if I accepted it in its redacted or limited form. They said you can have all the information that we think you should have, but you’ve got to accept that’s all you’re going to get if you receive the file.
MK: When would this be?
JC: This would be long before I became leader. This was when the issue came up of the surveillance that MPs had been put under. I refused. I said I want the whole file or nothing. I’m not prepared to accept your idea that you can edit out what information you’ve got on me.
And the ‘spy cops’ inquiry is still going on and I have a volunteer legal representative at the inquiry on my behalf who’s following everything. And that’s the policing – that’s the police ‘spy cops’ inquiry. Which, is it the same as MI5/MI6? Not exactly, but there’s clearly a link within it.
On the meetings we had, they were obviously private meetings. We obviously prepared for them and went there. We absolutely did not inform or leak about the meeting at all to anybody. And I instructed my office that this meeting had to be treated as completely confidential and it was. It was leaked by them. And it was leaked in a way to undermine that somehow or other I’d been summoned, and given a dressing down. That was not the nature of the meeting at all.
The meeting was a discussion in which they discussed various parts of the world and various issues: none of which was new to me, none of which was a surprise to me. It was about the role of ISIS. It was about the war in Syria. It was about post-Iraq war, Afghanistan and so on. They were well aware of my views on those conflicts and very well aware of what I’d said and acted about it at the time. They acknowledged I had a different view from themselves and the government and the meetings were yeah – they were pretty frank. Were they aggressive? No.
It was an intelligent discussion. Obviously it was all recorded. Obviously it was all then leaked out as a way to be deliberately undermining of me.
The same thing happened with some senior civil servants as well. There was apparently a conference of civil servants of some sort, which a briefing was given to the media by somebody that I was mentally unstable and not fit to hold a senior office. Bear in mind I’ve been an MP for 39 years. It’s abusive. It is nasty. It is obviously completely wrong.
Jon Trickett and I then raised that with the Cabinet Secretary – he [Jon Trickett] was the shadow Cabinet Office Minister – and we had a quite long and very frank discussion with the Cabinet Secretary at the time in which he apologized on behalf of the civil service; said it was nonsense, it was wrong and I was clearly not in any bad state whatsoever, and that they would leave no stone unturned in finding out who had made these comments.
Well there’s obviously a lot of stones! And these stones are still being slowly turned over and no more has been heard of it ever since then.
And so we did challenge all of this stuff, all the time, but I have to say within the totality of political argument and debate this was dramatic, of course, but it wasn’t the only thing because any studies of the print media and the broadcast media from 2015 onwards would show a steady stream of abuse against me, against my family, against the Labour Party, against people in my constituency, and so on. And we obviously challenged as much as we could all the issues that were thrown at us. That’s what we do. But you can spend your whole life rebutting what are actually ludicrous stories.
And, you know, some of my team (Seamus Milne, James Schneider and others) would often spend a whole day rebutting one crazy story about me, after another, after another. And so I always felt that we had to hit back by going round them, hence we developed a very strong social media platform. I have 2.5 million followers on Twitter. We did that through Twitter, through Facebook, through all the other social media outlets.
But it’s also designed to sap the confidence of people who were Labour supporters. And remember, that despite all this Labour Party membership went up from two hundred thousand ultimately to six hundred thousand.
And I made it my business to be travelling the country the whole time. To be putting an alternative point of view. I didn’t make an awful lot of speeches about foreign policy. Most of my work was on social justice, economic issues and environmental issues, and I attended hundreds of events all over the country all the time, as a way of enthusing and keeping our supporters together.
Now, if I may say so, this actually had a very important effect. At the start of the surprise 2017 election. It was a surprise when it was called. I mean anybody who says they knew it was coming is the talking nonsense. Nobody knew was coming. I’m not even sure Theresa May knew it was coming till the day before she announced it. That [meant] we went from 24% in the polls to 41% in the polls during a campaign.
Why? Because of broadcasting rules which meant I had to at least have my voice heard on the media, rather than the media describing what I’d said, or hadn’t said. And we were able to enthuse and mobilise our supporters.
The worst time wasn’t when I was a newly elected leader in 2015. The worst time was the latter part of 2017–2018 when the abuse on me piled on big time. After our unfortunately not quite winning the 2017 election, and then I spoke at Glastonbury, and we had a summer in which I said to the party: ‘you’ve got to be ready for an election [because] we’re demanding an election as soon as possible; the government doesn’t have majority [and] can’t govern’. And I did a whole summer of events all over the country, straight on the back of the 2017 election. It was after that that the abuse piled on and on and on. And the abuse was echoed by some elements within the Parliamentary Labour Party [PLP}.
MK: And also within the military and intelligence establishment. In that article I saw that there was a massive pick up in attacks.
I just wanted to ask one final question on that. You said, you were aware of it – you knew these leaks were happening. What does it say about British democracy that a democratically elected leader of the major opposition party is having MI5, MI6 and the military briefing against him in the media? And that’s what we know about, there might have been other things going on. How worried should we be about the implications of that for British democracy?
JC: We should be very worried about it. First of all, I’m not the only leader that’s ever been briefed against by the intelligence services. Harold Wilson, who had different politics to me in many ways, but nevertheless was under the greatest suspicion by the intelligence services, and I very well remember the open talk about a coup against Harold Wilson in the late 1960s when he was prime minister. It’s recorded both in his book The Governance of Britain and also particularly in the diaries of Tony Benn and Barbara Castle. It’s worth looking at those things. And then Wilson was very different to me. He supported the Americans in Vietnam, probably very reluctantly, but he did, and he kept nuclear weapons, and so on.
The question of the accountability of a security services is always an interesting one. So when the Select Committee system was set up in Britain in 1970, there was a Parliamentary Select Committee appointed for all government departments, and then there was the Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliament. Now all other Select Committees, in those days members were appointed on the basis of party alignment – so there was a mirror of the strength of parties in parliament on each Select Committee – and the Chair of the Select Committee was elected by the members and obviously a Select Committee is quite powerful because it can summon any witnesses; it has quasi-legal powers in doing that, except the Intelligence Committee, which is appointed by the Prime Minister and is chaired by an appointee of the Prime Minister and still is. It’s been excluded from all the democratic processes.
Now I used to do lecturing for the civil service college on parliamentary structures, parliamentary accountability. And I enjoyed doing those lectures because it was very interesting having a discussion, usually with younger newly recruited civil servants, about the concept of democratic accountability, of public services, and where parliament fits into all this. And I’ve made a lot of statements, contributions, and so on, both at those lectures and in debates in parliament and so on, about the need for accountability of the services.
And then the question came up later of a War Powers Act, which – we drafted a War Powers Bill – Shami Chakrabarti wrote it. [It’s] very good. And the immediate question was: would this include special operations? In other words, I was saying that there had to be parliamentary approval for overseas operations by the British military, which is actually pretty normal in most democratic societies; even the USA has a as a War Powers Act. And they said, ‘well would this include special operations?’ I said, ‘yeah, of course, it would.’
Emily Thornbury supported me on that, and she raised the same question. The message I was being given was you’re overstepping the mark: you are an elected politician, but there’s a whole area of the state that you really should not be in charge of and should not be questioning. And I did ask for my own file. I’m still waiting.
MK: It wasn’t just the UK intelligence and military and political establishment that was that was working to stop you becoming Prime Minister. You must have been aware that when Mike Pompeo came in 2019 (US Secretary of State, then formerly the CIA director), he was recorded in a private meeting saying, he would do, or the US would do their quote “level best” to stop you becoming Prime Minister. What did you think when you read that? I mean that is such blatant interference in the democratic process in Britain. Not only that, it was barely covered in the media, compared to interference from other countries.
JC: We have a supine media in this country. The British self-confidence of saying we’ve got the best media in the world, the best broadcasting in the world, the best democracy in the world, is nonsense. Utter complete nonsense.
We have a media that’s supine. That self-censors. That accepts D-notices. Doesn’t challenge them. And, for the vast majority of the mainstream media, haven’t lifted so much as a little finger in support or defence of Julian Assange. And so the idea that we’ve got this brave British media; they’re always exposing the truth: it’s utter nonsense.
Even the liberal supposedly left-leading papers like the Guardian; where are they in all of this? Nowhere. Where were they kicking off about Pompeo’s remarks? Nowhere. We obviously kicked off about it, protested and so on and so on, and we’re just told it was private briefing, etc, etc, etc. It wasn’t. It was a quite deliberate message.
As one that has been a very avid student of political developments around the world – I’ve lived to see Allende elected, I’ve lived to see Allende killed, I’ve lived to see the coup in Chile, but I’ve also lived to see democracy return to Chile thanks to the bravery of the Chilean people.
And so he wasn’t alone – Pompeo in these remarks – Benjamin Netanyahu also waded in on this, and said that I must not become Prime Minister. Sorry, who has been in Benjamin Netanyahu to decide who the British Prime Minister should be?
It’s not for me to decide who the Israeli Prime Minister should be, or the American President, or anybody else for that matter. So who is he to make that kind of comment? Again, the British media just lapped it up.
Frankly many of the so-called investigative reporters in the British media are just pathetic.
MK: I agree with that.
I wanted to just [ask] this final question about this military, intelligence, Pompeo, Netanyahu theme – you mentioned Allende, and that was a CIA-backed coup which overthrew Chilean democracy in 1973. You have examples of the US-Israel killing people around the world that they don’t like.
Were you at any times worried for your safety? You were you were a kind of historic problem for the establishment.
JC: That’s past tense!
MK: [laughing] Yeah, well you obviously still are, but I mean when you were a leader, and especially after 2017 when it became a lot more real for these different interests, you were a threat; a real threat; a historic threat. Were you were you ever worried about your safety and did you have any sort of conversations about that kind of that kind of stuff?
JC: I’m probably a very difficult person to work with, because I hate being put in a silo and been cut off, And so the arguments in my office were constant about my safety.
I was more worried about the safety of my sons, my family, and so on, and my team, than anything else, and I always made sure that they were very well looked after and protected. I think it’s very easy for any public representative to cocoon themselves and cut themselves off from the people that have elected them in the first place. Very easy. You can always say security. I remember Bill Clinton once saying if I listen to all the security advice I’d never get up in the morning. I’d never do anything.
And so I continued with all the travelling and so on that I did, and most of it was by public transport; very few long car journeys, mostly quite short car journeys; and I’d walk around my constituency in the normal way. People in the local Labour Party and others got alarmed if they saw me walking around on my own, so they would spot me and then join me to look after me. Nice solidarity. And then on journeys obviously I had somebody with me. Did I feel for my own safety? Not really because I think if you start deciding that every corner you walk around somebody’s going to attack you, then you know you’re never going to do anything.
Did I receive some physical attacks? Yeah, and there’s been two court cases taken against the individuals. And is it a danger to be in public life? Yeah, I mean you’ve seen the MPs that have been killed, and you’ve seen the dangers that people face. But you cannot just become obsessed with your own safety and security. You’ve got to be out there with people. And so I was never prepared to be cocooned and that was it. I understand the tensions this created for my team around me because they were genuinely very worried for me. They were more worried for me then I was worried for myself, and they kept telling me that. But I’d rather be with ordinary people; chatting to people on the streets, cafes, etc.
I don’t go to pubs because I’m not a drinker, so I’m the world’s worst drinker. I don’t drink so no point. But do I feel under threat? Actually, you’re going around the country the number of people that say hostile comments or abuse is very, very few. On trains we used to sit together at one end of the train, all of us, because we – a small team, would be accompanying me when we’re travelling around the country – and actually there would be a sort of steady stream of people coming up the train saying, ‘can I have a word about this, that, the other’. So train journeys weren’t the least bit relaxing, but it was a nice way of meeting people.
MK: I just wanted to move on now to talk about Israel, because you were the first pro-Palestinian leader of a major party for a long, long time, which was controversial.
JC: Not sure I was the first one.
MK: Actually that’s a good question. Was Michael Foot noticeably…?
JC: I don’t recall Michael Foot ever saying very much about it, so I’m not sure on that one. Harold Wilson was certainly pro-Israel in the sense of supporting Israel in Six Day War and so on. And all others have been that.
My view is that I support the Palestinian people and to end the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. And what we had in our manifestos was full recognition of an independent State of Palestine.
MK: But in 2017, Al Jazeera released an undercover documentary which was quite revelatory about Labour Friends of Israel [LFI] particularly. They’d recorded a senior official in Labour Friends of Israel outside a pub saying that when Israel gets bad press they send us lines to take publicly. So effectively, I mean, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that it’s acting as a front for the Israeli embassy in some ways.
You, your party, the Labour Party took no action against LFI in the aftermath of that. There was action taken against an Israeli diplomat [Shai Masot] who said that he wanted to take down Alan Duncan: he was expelled from the country. Now the Labour Party took no action. Why was that, and do you regret that? And what do you think about the existence of something like LFI within a nominally progressive party?
JC: I’m not opposed to there being ‘friends’ of particular countries, or places all around the world within the party. I think that’s a fair part of the mosaic of democratic politics. What I am concerned about is the funding that goes with it, and the apparently very generous funding that Labour Friends of Israel gets from the, I presume, the Israeli government.
We did actually protest about the contents of the revelations by the Al Jazeera documentary. We did raise this. Interestingly, many of these allegations were then parroted against me by people in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Friends of Israel group within the Parliamentary Labour Party.
But I also got a lot of support from obviously the Palestinian people. One would assume they would support on this and I had meetings with the Palestinian ambassador and so on, as I also met the Israeli ambassador on a number of occasions. And we then kick back against it – but I also got interestingly a lot of support from people in Israel, on the left in Israel, from the peace movement and human rights groups in Israel.
Should the party have taken more robust action against Labour Friends of Israel for its behaviour? Yes. Remember, this was at a time when many of the senior bureaucracy of the Labour Party were actively undermining me, and we now discover through the leaked documents which have been presented to the Forde Inquiry exactly what the extent of that was. And so did we underestimate this before I became leader? Yes, we did. We did underestimate it, and that is obviously something that I think any democratic party needs to think about. If you have officialdom in a party, you expect at the very least the best of civil servant standards in their behaviour. We didn’t get that.
MK: I just wanted to ask one question about the anti-semitism crisis within the Labour Party during your leadership, which was one of the most intense media campaigns I’ve ever witnessed and I’m nearly 40. So I think that probably goes for people who are older than me. How – this is a difficult question – but how much do you think that anti-semitism crisis was a result of your pro-Palestinian political position?
JC: Very largely that is the case.
I have spent my life fighting racism in any form, in any place whatsoever. My parents spent their formative years fighting the rise of Nazism in Britain and that is what I’ve been brought up doing. And when in the 1970s the National Front were on the march in Britain, I was one of the organisers of the big Wood Green demonstration to try to stop the National Front marching through. And I was part of the campaign against racism at the time of the rise the anti-Nazi league and everybody else, and we worked with AJEX, Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. We worked with the Jewish community on that, as we worked with all the other communities: Bengali community, Afro-Caribbean community, all of them on this. We saw the fight against racism as one that affects all communities.
And somehow or other, I was accused of being anti-semitic. The allegations against me were foul, dishonest and utterly disgusting, and appalling from people who should know better and do know better. People that have known me for 40 years never once complained about anything I’d ever said or done in terms of anti-racism until I became leader of the Labour Party; interesting coincidence of timing. Disgusting allegations, which obviously we sought to rebut at all times, and I’ll be forever grateful for the support given by Jewish socialists and many Jewish members of the Labour Party all over the country, and of course, the local Jewish community in my constituency. It was personal. It was vile. It was disgusting, and it remains so. I will always spend my life defending people against racist attacks.
Look, anti-semitism was used historically against the Jewish people: Jewish people expelled from Europe; expelled from Britain; returned during the Cromwellian period; and then the anti-semitism that was written large into literature, into history, into culture, into life in Britain, was then exploited big time in France in Germany, and in Britain, and then in Germany in the worst case, and that ended up with the Holocaust. So we’ve got to be very well aware of where racism leads people to and I am very well aware of that.
MK: I agree, which makes it even more depraved how it’s been instrumentalised as an issue to destroy critics of the Israeli state. And can I just ask you quickly about that, because it was a particularly extreme in your case, but you see it again and again with people who are supporting the Palestinians. That this is a weapon which is used. They’re accused of being anti-semitic and it’s a very hard thing to fight back from because it’s used as a slur. Can you just talk a little bit about that, the tactic…?
JC: The tactic is that you say that somebody is intrinsically anti-semitic and it sticks, and then the media parrot it and repeat it the whole time, and then the abuse appears on social media, the abusive letters appear, the abusive phone calls appear, and all of that. And it’s very horrible and very nasty and is designed to be very isolating, and designed to also take up all of your energies in rebutting these vile allegations, which obviously we did. But it tends to distract away from the fundamental message about peace, about justice, about social justice, about economy, and all of that.
And I have been nine times to Israel and Palestine in my life. I’ve met many people in Israel. I supported Mordecai Vanunu who was put in prison after he’d revealed Israel was making nuclear weapons. And I have many meetings with people in human rights groups, and so on, in Israel.
Am I critical of Israel’s occupation the West Bank? Absolutely. Am I critical of the encirclement of Gaza? Absolutely. Of the settlement policy. And I will continue to hold that position and so some of the allegations then become amazing. I mean I was accused of condoning anti-semitic behaviour because I wrote a forward to the re-publication of a book on imperialism that was first published in 1903.
MK: I think it surprised a lot of people that within the media, the Guardian was at the forefront of the attacks on you. Did that surprise you, and what does it tell us about the Guardian’s role in British society and the British media?
JC: I have absolutely no illusions in the Guardian. None whatsoever. My mum brought me up to read the Guardian. She said it’s a good paper you can trust. You can’t.
After their treatment of me, I do not trust a Guardian. There are good people who work in the Guardian. There are some brilliant writers in the Guardian, but as a paper it is a tool of the British establishment. It’s a mainstream establishment paper. So as long as everyone in the left gets it clear: when you buy the Guardian you’re buying an establishment paper; when you buy the Telegraph you’re buying an establishment paper; Mail and so on. So once you’ve got past that hurdle, you can then develop a critical thinking about anything. There are many articles in the Guardian I like, and agree with, and support, but as a paper I’m not very surprised.
I had a meeting with the Guardian editorial team during the 2015 leadership campaign. It was very interesting. I was invited to the Guardian which has a sort of daily meeting (I think it’s daily may be weekly) of all the staff, who talk about news agendas and what’s going on, and so on; and then a smaller meeting of the senior editorial team. And so the meeting with the entirety of the staff was fine – a lot of young people were there. It was interesting. It was funny. It was zany, very pleasant. I was very well received, and they said, ‘okay what’s your pitch to be leader of the Labour Party?’ and I set out: anti-austerity and social justice and challenging economic inequality, and environmental politics, and international peace, and justice and so on. Some of the questions were quite tough. Fine, that’s okay. It was very respectful. It was very nice meeting.
We then had a meeting with the editorial team – a bit different. It was like I was being warned. Like I was being warned by this team of actually incredibly self-important people. It was a bit like the Today programme, which at its worst thinks it’s running the whole world; at its best is a very investigative programme. Guardian is a bit the same. And so was I surprised? No, and I’ve had to live with the behaviour of the Guardian ever since.
But the Guardian is in a unique position, because it is the paper most read by Labour Party members, is the most important in forming opinion on the centre and left in British politics and they are very well aware of that, which is why I think an analysis of the Guardian’s treatment of the time that I was leader of the party needs to be made. Because they, and the BBC had more unsourced reporting of anti-semitic criticisms surrounding me than any other paper, including the Mail, the Telegraph and The Sun.
The only paper that gave what can really call moderately fair coverage was the Daily Mirror actually. The Daily Mirror didn’t always agree with me, and said so, and would make public criticisms, but also did accept articles from me, and did accept the stuff that we sent them, and they were quite good at reporting the sort of social justice campaigns that that we put forward.
The Daily Express, which is in the same stable as the Mirror now – but I had one let’s just finish on this point – a fascinating evening: I was invited to a randomly-selected invitation-only event of readers of the Express and the Mirror in a room together, where I would take questions from them. Anyway, you could sort of very quickly tell who read the Express and who read the Mirror from the questions that came up. They weren’t seated separately, or anything like that, you could pick it up straight away. But it was actually quite good meeting. It was quite robust. I mean some of the Express questions were a bit, well, I thought slightly off-the-wall actually. But you know it was okay. I don’t mind that kind of – I enjoy that kind of political debate. I’ll take that. That’s okay. I mean MPs should be challenged. Political leaders should be challenged. Accountability is important. You can’t cut yourself off.
MK: I just wanted to ask about Julian Assange, because that also relates to the Guardian. Because obviously he was an early collaborator with the Guardian and then they’ve now turned on him massively – they’ve run a campaign against him effectively for many years now.
Can you just talk about the significance of Julian Assange being in Belmarsh maximum security prison for three years now? We’re on the eve probably of Priti Patel’s decision on whether to extradite him to the US to spend his life in a supermax prison in the desert there. What do you think Julian Assange has given to the world, and why do you think the establishment here, and the establishment in the US, is so keen to silence him forever, or leave him dead?
JC: Nelson Mandela was put into maximum security life imprisonment after Rivonia treason trial of 1964. All through the 60s and the 70s, into much later on – 80s even – Nelson Mandela was a lonely figure supported by a few people around Africa and around the world. He was not a popular iconic figure at all. He became so later on. He became the iconic figure in the fight against apartheid, and when he was released and came to British parliament, there were some amazing speeches from people who had apparently been incredibly active in the apartheid movement, but somehow or other I’d missed their participation in all the anti-apartheid activities I’ve been to. You know how it goes. That’s all right.
Julian Assange. What’s his crime? What is his crime? Julian Assange managed to collect information on what the US was doing; US foreign policy was doing; its illegal activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and much else. In the great traditions of a journalist who never reveals their sources – very important – and he was pursued because of this. And as we know, eventually sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, but was unable to get out of it.
We then discovered that all that time in the Ecuadorian embassy, there were the charges against him from Sweden, which were eventually dropped, and there was the surveillance of him by apparently an independent security company, but in reality, it was working for the Americans.
And he was initially welcomed by the Guardian, supported by the Guardian. The Guardian published all of his stuff, and then dropped him. And have continued to drop him. And I have been on many of the demonstrations outside the courts in Britain over the last few months while he’s been his case has been brought up again and again and again about removal to the USA or not. And there’s huge numbers of media there from all over the world. One day I did interviews for about 15 broadcast medias all over the world. Where were the British? None. Not one, apart from social media. Not one.
So what is it about the British media that they cannot bring themselves to the biggest story about freedom-to-know in the world today, on their very doorstep. They could walk from their offices to the high court and get the story. No. And it says everything about the supine nature of the mainstream media in Britain.
It’s not surprising that mistrust of the print media is the highest in Europe in Britain. That the sales of all newspapers are falling very rapidly, and people make their own news through social media, which has its pitfalls and has its dangers.
And so Julian Assange is now in a maximum security prison. He’s not convicted of anything. There is no unspent conviction that he’s got to serve time in prison for. And in Belmarsh – I’ve been there to see prisoners in the past – is a horrible, horrible place, and he’s there with all the dangers to his health that goes with that. And so, yes, I do support Julian Assange, and I was very pleased when Jean–Luc Mélenchon made a very interesting statement yesterday that should the left candidates win a majority in the French national assembly he’d be welcome there.
Also Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the President of Mexico, raised the voice in support of him. Did try and persuade President Trump, just before he left office, to drop the case against Assange. And when I was in Mexico in January of this year, I took part in the mañaneras, the daily press conference that the President holds, which is quite dramatic affair, it lasts about two hours and there’s videos and films, and chat, and discussion, and so on: it’s a different form of government – and he raised the question again of Julian Assange, and made a very passionate appeal saying that Mexico would welcome Julian Assange, and would give him citizenship if he required it.
MK: Sir Keir Starmer was in your shadow cabinet and then quit during the what’s been called dubs ‘the chicken coup’. He was then reappointed.
JC: He wasn’t in the shadow cabinet at the time of the coup, he came later.
MK: I thought he was.
JC: He was a spokesperson on immigration issues, and then joined later on.
MK: So he was your shadow Brexit Secretary, which was a senior role within your shadow cabinet. Were you aware of his politics which have been evinced since he became leader in 2020, and has his move of the Labour Party to the right shocked you?
JC: I appointed Keir Starmer to the shadow cabinet after my re-election as leader of the party in 2016. Remember I was first elected with 248 thousand votes. I was re-elected less than a year later with over 300 000 votes. And I explained to the Parliamentary Labour Party – not that they wanted to hear it – that I actually had a mandate from the party members. Most of the Parliamentary Labour Party believed the leader of the party should be selected by the Parliamentary Labour Party, as historically it was the case.
I wanted to reach out within the parliamentary party, so I appointed what I believe to be a balanced shadow cabinet, and expected everybody to work together within that shadow cabinet, and to behave in a proper manner. I appointed Keir Starmer to the shadow of Brexit position because of his legal knowledge and skills, and the importance of saying to the parliamentary labour party, ‘look, I understand the makeup of the PLP, this is why I’ve appointed this broad and diverse shadow cabinet.’ Did it make it easy to manage? No. Was there lots of debates within the shadow cabinet? You bet there were.
I didn’t stop those debates. I encouraged those debates and said look we’ve got to move forward on this – and come back to your early question in a second – but I have to say as we developed this very difficult position over Brexit, where we had a 60:40 split of party supporters voting remain to leave, and we had the view that we had to somehow or other bring people together – I tried to unite people around the social and economic message saying if you’re poor and up against it, however you voted, you need a Labour government that’s going to redistribute wealth and power.
Was I close to Keir Starmer? No, I’d never met him before he became a member of parliament. I obviously knew who he was. He’s a neighbouring MP. Had we had much contact? No, not really, and our conversations when he was in the shadow cabinet were largely about the minutiae of Brexit various agreements, and the many meetings that we had in Brussels with officials there including Michel Barnier. We met him on a number of occasions. So beyond that, apart from occasional chats about Arsenal football club, that was about it.
Was I aware of everything about his past? No, not really. Should I have been? Yeah, but then there are so many things one could and should be aware of that one isn’t. I noticed it when he stood for election for leader of the party, he was very clear that he accepted the 2019 manifesto and its contents, and put forward his 10 points there. Those seem to have been parked now, shall we say.
And then, the response to the HRC report, which I gave which I thought was reasonable and balanced, was met with the immediate suspension of my membership, which the media were told before I was. First I heard about it was when a journalist stopped me in the street as I was leaving the Brickworks Community Centre (it’s a community centre just near here) which I’m a trustee of, and I was told my membership been suspended, and I thought the journalist [was playing] a joke; he was winding me up. I said, ‘what?’ He said, ‘no you’ve been suspended.’ I said, ‘No, no, what are you talking about.’ But it was true.
Anyway, I obviously appealed against that and won that appeal unanimously, reinstated unanimously, endorsed by the NEC [Labour’s National Executive Committee] unanimously, and then my membership of the parliamentary party was suspended, and there’s been no process taken against me by the parliamentary party.
It makes my constituents very angry. They say look Jeremy we voted for you as our Labour MP so why…? We’ve got confidence in you. We have no problem with you. We don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, and we welcome your work as our local MP. And I’m very proud to represent the people of this community.
So was I angry about it. Yeah, of course, but I have always in politics tried to keep off the personal attack and so on and so on. It’s very tempting, but I remember saying this during the 2019 election. I said look it’s really tempting for me to have a go at Boris Johnson personally, he had a go at me personally, and it can be quite funny, it can be quite witty for the first time. Second time I think, oh god, here we go again. Third time, nobody’s listening, nobody’s interested. Politicians having to go to each other, calling each other names: it doesn’t get anybody anywhere. It don’t put bread on the table. And so it is important that we campaign on political points and political principles.
MK: Will you stand as an independent at the next election if it doesn’t get resolved?
JC: Look, I am focused on getting the whip back at the present time.
MK: So what should be the major issue in terms of UK foreign policy right now is the critical support we provide to Saudi Arabia as it launches – what it has launched since 2015 – one of the most brutal wars in modern times, which has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It’s a brutal air war, full of war crimes including attacks on hospitals, schools, but also a naval blockade which has strangled the country and pushed millions of children to the brink of starvation.
Interestingly there was a vote in parliament, which was brought by your leadership in 2016, where a hundred of your own MPs either voted against it or abstained in calling for the withdrawal of UK support for Saudi Arabia. So could you just talk a bit about why you think there’s such a consensus across the establishment – and I’m including parts of the Labour Party in that – of support for Saudi Arabia, which is indefensible, not only because of the immediate war, but also it’s an extremist Wahhabi dictatorship which exports terrorism around the world and extremism. Why is there this consensus in the British establishment that we must support Saudi Arabia?
JC: Saudi Arabia and Britain have a very close economic, political and military relationship. It’s not new, it goes right back to the establishment of Saudi Arabia, which was a British invention in the beginning. I mean you need to read the whole history of the whole of the Middle East to realise the malevolent influence of British colonial policies within the whole region. That is well documented, but needs to be better understood. And I might just say, as an aside, one of my passions is to improve history teaching in the totality of our education system to understand the brutality of colonialism and imperialism.
Saudi Arabia is a big recipient of arms from western countries: USA, Britain, France and so on. Massive. Obviously, incredibly wealthy because of historically high oil prices going back to the 70s, and indeed their big time wealth grew over the big hike in oil prices in 73–74; the world oil crisis at that time. Major buyer of British arms. The contract that Tony Blair signed with them was massive. 2 billion, I think is the figure that was total at that time, which was massive at that time and it’s continued ever since.
Some of us have been very concerned about human rights in Saudi Arabia, and as a officer of the all-party human rights group, we’ve had many discussions about Saudi Arabia; about the executions; about discrimination; about treatment of migrant workers; about its export of terrorism around the world; and in particular the war on Yemen. And we are fuelling the war on Yemen, and indeed there are employees of British companies working in Saudi Arabia that are directing the bombing of Yemen. And Yemen is now, along with Afghanistan, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster: cholera, typhus, etc, etc. All these wholly preventable conditions [are] now rife amongst children and people in the Yemen.
And so I thought we had to have a much stronger policy on this, and so I pushed that we as a party make a declaration that we would cease all arms trade to Saudi Arabia, and I intervened to make sure that the Saudi delegation would not be welcomed as observers of the Labour Party conference. There was big pushback against that by a lot of people, and I said, ‘no, whilst they are bombing Yemen and we’re opposed to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, that stands.’
I then propose that we have an opposition day debate, where the opposition gets to choose the subject for debate and on a votable motion. It cannot be binding on a government, because it’s an opposition day motion, but it nevertheless is an important way of MPs being able to express an opinion. So I put this motion forward, which would be to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and I met with the most extraordinary levels of lobbying and opposition from Labour MPs who said, ‘it’s damaging jobs, it’s damaging major British companies: British Aerospace and others, and you cannot go ahead with this, this will cause consternation and damage within our communities and constituencies.’
I said, ‘look, I fully understand the employment implications over a long period on this, but if we’re serious about human rights, and we are, and you all are apparently, then this has to be the policy: we suspend arms sales and we protect those jobs in order to convert those industries something else.’ It does require a very big public intervention, and I made that clear to the unions, to Unite, GMB and others on that – I have to say I got a better reception in Unite than the other unions on this, but nevertheless there were obvious concerns, unions have got to represent their members. I get that. But, I also get that we are killing children in the Yemen, and so I put this policy forward on an opposition day and it was the biggest rebellion ever against my time as leader of the party.
I was appalled, saddened, disappointed by that, and it just shows how deep the pressure is of the arms trade, both on British politics, and it’s the motor force behind it all: the motor force of foreign policy is often driven by the interests of those that export arms. Look at who funds the think tanks; look at who sets up the seminars; look at who places the articles in papers saying there’s a big tension building up here. Yeah, there is a big tension in Yemen. Yes, there is a whole political history in Yemen: South Yemen, etc, Aden and so on. There’s all that there. Is there a tension with Iran? Yes, there is. We all understand that.
How do you resolve these tensions? Do you throw arms at it? Do you start another war somewhere? Do you then promote terrorism around the region knowing full well all that money spent on those arms by any one country is money not spent on schools, not spent on hospitals, not spent on housing, not spent on feeding people? The power of the arms lobby is absolutely massive in this country, in the United States, France, and in Russia, and in China, and so we have to think what kind of world would like to create.
I would have thought covid would have taught us that the danger to all of us is contagious diseases, poverty and hunger, and environmental disaster. That’s what the danger is. So why don’t we wind down the rhetoric, wind up the peace, and start supporting peace initiatives, and peace processes. All wars end in a conference. All wars end in some kind of agreement. Why don’t we cut out the middle phase and go to the end?
MK: We started Declassified in 2019 because we felt there was a lack of serious, rigorous reporting on UK foreign policy. Can you talk about the significance of the burgeoning independent media sector in Britain, and how important this is for the future of progressive politics?
JC: Declassified is very important because what you’re doing is exposing the truths. Exposing the truths about stuff that people don’t want us to know. And I think it’s important that we do that. It’s also important to challenge the way in which the mainstream media form our thinking, and it’s the growth of the technology of independent media that is so valuable to all of us that are more radical, more free-thinking, around the world.
As a young man, I was very politically active; indeed have been all my life. And I would labour the whole night through to hand print on a duplicator maybe 5 000 leaflets, and give them out the next day, and we thought, ‘wow we’re making impact!’ Social media lets you get a message to millions within seconds, or tens of millions within seconds, so everybody becomes a journalist, everybody becomes a reporter. So you then have to sift through the values or otherwise behind that, and some of it can be nonsense, some of it can be abusive and so on. But having an alternative media is very important.
So through the Peace and Justice Project we’ve set up some news clubs around the country, and these news clubs are people coming together who, yeah, they’re sceptical of both their local media regional media and national and international media, and setting up the dynamic of an alternative media. So we now have a lot of actually quite effective, robust independent media sources out on social media. They’re good, interesting. They need to cooperate together as much as they can. So that when we have big events on, we all share the same platform.
And I think it’s the development of this independent media that is so important and so critical because they can mobilise people. They can bring people together at very short notice. And I think had the independent media been as big and successful as it is now in 2003, on the eve of the outbreak of the Iraq War, we would have had even more people on those huge demonstrations. We would have been able to mobilise people in more countries, in a more effective way, particularly in the United States.
Having grown up observing the politics of the USA and this country, and being very much a part of it all, I never thought I’d see the day when somebody who calls himself a socialist would come within a whisker of winning the democrat nomination to the presidency in Bernie Sanders. How did that happen? Activism, social media and a rebirth of the whole idea of socialism.
So if I make just one last word, many people around the world call themselves socialists, and think about it and act in that kind of way. Many people around the world don’t realise they’re socialists and activists in the same way, and so through our project I don’t want us just to be defensive in saving, preventing damage, and so on and so on, to various very important services. I want us to be proactive. So we’re writing a book called Why We Are Socialists and we’re inviting anyone to contribute to it in no more than 500 words. 500 words maximum. Absolutely. 501 words don’t get printed. 500 yes. 499 definitely. And we’ve had hundreds of submissions. They’re really interesting.
People that come at it from their own personal experience. Come at it through industrial disputes, environmental campaigns, international peace campaigns, or come at it from studying history, and a more intellectual way of doing things about a sustainable world, and so on. It’s absolutely fascinating and we’re putting this book together. We’ll publish it later this year and that is, I think, the way forward. Get people to think critically for themselves. We’ve never been in an era but it’s easier to find things out. We’ve never been in an era but it’s harder to know.
Click here to read Matt Kennard’s article based around the same interview and published by Declassified on June 22nd.