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Sophy Ridge: For all the Conservative party’s divisions over Brexit, Labour has some difficulties of its own. The fundamental problem of having a pro-EU membership but many voters who backed leave has left the party walking a delicate tightrope, which is increasingly looking that it could snap, and the time for choosing a side is fast approaching. To talk about that, and lots more, we’re joined now by Jeremy Corbyn, thank you very much for being with us.
Jeremy Corbyn: My pleasure, thank you for inviting me.
SR: We finally know what the government’s plan for Brexit looks like, is that something that the Labour party could support?
JC: No we can’t support it and it doesn’t meet our tests, we don’t believe it meets the needs of the country. We do think it would be much better if the Labour alternative of access to a market, a guaranteed permanent form of customs union with the European Union and protection of rights in this country would be a better deal for this country as a whole.
SR: So what specifically is it in the text that doesn’t meet those tests that you disagree with?
JC: Well, a number of things in this agreement are simply not acceptable. One is the issue of Northern Ireland is not dealt with because it will mean there will be a border down the Irish Sea unless an agreement is reached within two years.
SR: How do you plan to solve that yourself?
JC: Well you have an agreement with the European Union for a customs union for the whole of the UK.
SR: That is the backstop though, isn’t it?
JC: We have no say in that until such time as a backstop has been agreed and during that period the EU calls the shots, and the EU decides whether we are allowed to change that arrangement or not. It’s a one-way agreement – it’s quite risky.
SR: The issue, of course, is that you know – and I know – how critical the moment is. I understand that you have concerns such as whether or not we can leave the backstop unilaterally. But are those concerns big enough that you are risking no deal? Because that’s the reality of your position, isn’t it?
JC: No, it’s not the reality at all. We would say, we’ll vote against this deal because it doesn’t meet our tests – we do not believe it serves the interests of this country. Therefore, the government would have to go back to the EU and renegotiate rapidly. They’ve had, after all, since the referendum of 2016, to undertake serious negotiations and here we are now – 131 days to go and they’re finally presenting something to parliament. It’s not a very acceptable way of running things.
SR: You know, don’t you, that the likelihood of no deal increases if you don’t support this deal. And we can have a look at what you’ve said recently about the risk of no deal. You’ve said that if we don’t have a Brexit deal “that would be a national disaster”. So, are you risking a national disaster?
JC: Not at all. We’re saying now, to the government, you haven’t got a majority in parliament for this, you don’t have a majority support in the whole country, you have to go back and do something better. Indeed, there are already the Prime Minister’s outriders in her own cabinet who are saying: ‘Actually, we’ll have to go and negotiate something else.
SR: So what specifically do you want? So if, for example, you were talking there about being able to unilaterally leave the backstop. If that was something that the government could negotiate, would you then support it?
JC: What I would say to the government is: ‘You’ve got to get in place a permanent customs arrangement with the European Union, otherwise we lose on jobs, we lose on investment, and we lose on future economic development.’
SR: So it’s the future relationship that you want to see in the change?
JC: Indeed there is that. But we’ve also got to be very, very clear about rights and objectives. Put it two ways – one is, the government has embraced – without any questions whatsoever – EU rules on state aid. It hasn’t embraced – without any question – the issue of workers’ rights. If European workers’ right improve, ours can deteriorate at the same time. What I want to see is, absolutely, an alignment with Europe on workers’ rights or we go further than that. The danger is that we end up with the movement, which many on the Tory right want, which is a deregulated economy moving further and further away from what is our major trading partner, Europe.
SR: I’m just trying to pin you down on exactly what it would be that gets you over the line and to support the deal, as I’m still slightly unclear on what exactly it is that would mean you would come back and say: “OK, Prime Minister, we’ll support.”
JC: There’s 500 pages in this document, much of which is actually quite vague. Where’s the guarantee on environmental protections? Where’s the guarantee on consumer protections? Where’s the guarantee on workers’ rights?
SR: But there are some guarantees – there are the level playing field commitments, for example.
JC: Think of all those people working in the manufacturing industry in Britain and those thousands of jobs in supply chains all across the Midlands and the north, who will be very worried that their companies are going to either disinvest or not invest in the future and will see a continuing rundown of our manufacturing industry. What we want is an expanding economy and a fairer economy.
SR: The level playing field commitments are in that withdrawal agreement. Have you read the 500 pages?
JC: Yes. I’ve read a lot of it, not every last word. I’ve read many summaries and many other analysis, as I’m sure you have as well.
SR: Just to really try and clarify then, is there anything that you can say specifically that, if Theresa May comes back with these points, you will vote for the deal.
JC: We’ve put it to the government many, many times. I believe there is a majority in parliament that would support a permanent customs arrangement with the European Union, I believe there is a majority in parliament that would want to see a guarantee of rights on both sides of the Channel. And there’s absolutely a majority in parliament that does not want to see a deal that brings in, in effect, a financial border across the Irish Sea.
SR: Mr Corbyn, can Brexit be stopped?
JC: As of this moment, the arithmetic in parliament is such that Brexit has been triggered, Article 50, we voted for Article 50 in order to give respect to the referendum. I was asked this question by Der Spiegel and what I said was ‘we couldn’t stop it because we don’t have the votes in parliament to do so’. What I want to do is say to the government: ‘You’ve had all this time to negotiate, you’re not going to get this thing through parliament, don’t waste another two weeks on this – go back now because you must have read the runes in parliament. You can’t get it through.’
SR: I just want to go back to this point and get real clarity on it. We can have a look and see what you said, in the interview you mentioned. When you were asked about Brexit, you said: ‘We can’t stop it.’ Your Brexit secretary then said ‘Brexit can be stopped.’ So who’s right? I’m a bit confused.
JC: I said we can’t stop it, because on our own obviously we can’t. Keir said Brexit can be stopped, clearly a vast majority of people could if they all agreed to do so.
SR: So you say you can’t stop Brexit but at the same time if Labour swung behind the campaign for a People’s Vote, there would be a real possibility of that happening.
JC: A People’s Vote is a second question, isn’t it? Actually. The issue is, there was a referendum in 2016, a majority voted to leave the EU. There are many reasons why people voted. I don’t think you call a referendum and then say you don’t like the result and go away from it. You’ve got to understand why people voted and try to negotiate the best deal that you can. I do not believe this government has negotiated the best deal it can. All options are on the table in the future.
SR: Is no Brexit better than no deal?
JC: I don’t think that’s an option we’re going to get given. The issue is, we’re moving up towards the end of March when Britain will be leaving the EU under the current proposals. This government has failed in negotiations, failed to protect things and at the same time, actually made this country much worse. This is a week where the UN has condemned Britain for unacceptable levels of poverty – what does that say about this government, what does it say about this country?
SR: At the same time though you are the leader of the opposition at this critical moment, you have a responsibility to try and drive the debate. It’s one thing to duck out and say ‘actually, I don’t think we’re going to be given that option and we don’t have the numbers to get it through’. But you are in a position where you have a large number of MPs, you have a large number of party members, you could drive the debate if you wanted to.
JC: We are driving a debate about the kind of society we want in Britain, we are driving a debate about the kind of relationship with Europe in the future. We forced the government onto the whole concept of a transition, we forced them into accepting amendments in parliament on the meaningful vote at the end of it. Labour has been absolutely on this case ever since the referendum.
SR: Do you think there should be a second referendum? What do you think?
JC: I think it’s an option for the future, but it’s not an option for today. If we had a referendum tomorrow, what’s it going to be on? What’s the question going to be?
SR: What would you like the question to be on? Would you like Remain to be on the ballot paper?
JC: I think that the tests against the government have to be put now and that’s what we’re doing. The government must go back and renegotiate and see what it comes back with, and parliament must look at that at that time. I think to do anything else now would be to ignore the reality of the situation which is the government has had all this time to negotiate, and it hasn’t really achieved anything.
SR: I’m keen to talk about your position, we know what you think about the government’s position, I’m just keen to examine Labour’s position as well. How would you vote if there was a second referendum?
JC: I voted in the first referendum to remain, I campaigned for remain and reform. Indeed, I had a debate in this very building to discuss exactly that issue. I think there are reforms needed in the European Union. I think in the future we could have a good, effective relationship with the European Union which would give us a permanent customs union, which would give us a trade agreement and above all would also ensure we fully cooperate with them on environmental protection.
SR: So how would you vote then?
JC: I don’t know how I’m going to vote, and what the options would be at that time. I wanted us to remain in the EU, that was my vote in that referendum.
SR: Now you often said that you want to see a General Election, it’s very hard to see – in many ways – how that would happen. Yesterday, your shadow chancellor John McDonnell admitted because of the fixed-term parliament act, it would be very difficult. It’s very unlikely isn’t it that we’re going to get a General Election, can you admit that now?
JC: No it’s not unlikely at all. This government cannot control parliament, it doesn’t have a majority. The DUP have walked away from their fundamental agreement on the European Union.
SR: So just talk me through how we’d get to a General Election?
JC: We could get to a General Election if the government resigned and called one. We could get to a General Election if two-thirds of MPs voted to have one under the fixed-term. Last time around, no one expected a General Election and the Prime Minister decide to call one because she thought she could win it and do very well. The result was rather different to the one that she expected. I think the country needs stability, it needs to have a say on who it wants to conduct the negotiations with the European Union and who it wants to deal with the chronic social issues facing Britain. I mentioned the UN’s report on poverty, isn’t that pretty damning of our country?
SR: You say that it’s not unlikely that two-thirds of MPs would vote for it. So you can’t really expect the DUP or Conservative MPs to vote to potentially allow you into power, can you? It’s very optimistic.
JC: We will continue to press the whole issues on Europe and on social justice in Britain and we will continue to demand that British people have a say in who their government should be negotiating these arrangements. I don’t believe this government has negotiated fairly or effectively or kept parliament properly informed of it and indeed has now come up with an agreement in which we pay a great deal of money and have very little say in anything for the whole of the transition period and, indeed, give the EU control over arrangements.
SR: In just three months, do you really think you could negotiate a better deal than the government? Is that fantasy politics? It’s taken two years to get to this point.
JC: The EU is very used to 11th-hour stuff. Look at the way the Lisbon Treaty was negotiated, renegotiated and renegotiated again. The issue has to be you go back to Europe and say ‘listen, our parliament doesn’t agree with this and doesn’t accept it, the people of this country don’t.’ There are jobs on both sides of the channel at risk here – we need an agreement, a serious, sensible agreement, and I believe the Labour options are the serious ones that could achieve that.
SR: So just go back to the EU and ask them very nicely if they could give us a better deal? It’s fantasy isn’t it?
JC: They want an agreement just as much as everyone else does, the problem is this government has not negotiated an effective agreement with them.
SR: So you think you could do it in three months?
JC: We would go there straight away, there is a transition period that has been agreed anyway, so there would be some opportunities there. But of course you have to go back and say what’s been agreed, so far, between our government and the EU is not acceptable to the British parliament or I suspect the British people and it hasn’t yet been tested in the EU parliament either.
SR: I want to look at your six tasks, because that’s something you mentioned at the beginning of the interview. It’s something many people just don’t think could be possibly achieved, by anybody, including yourselves perhaps. Do you really think you would be able to get a deal that would meet those six tasks? Including one of them which would be delivering the exact same benefits of being in the single market?
JC: If you have a trade agreement, and a customs union with the EU, then you do get the same benefits in trade and you do get the same benefits of the way in which our manufacturing industries are so inexplicably linked. Where did those words come from? The government themselves.
SR: It came from David Davis. He wasn’t even the last Brexit secretary. You can’t be basing your whole policy around him.
JC: He was the last, but one, Brexit secretary.
SR: Are you saying you’re basing your whole Brexit policy on the last-but-one Brexit secretary?
JC: We’re quoting back at them what they said and we believe it to be possible.
SR: But this is more about playing politics by quoting David Davis’ words back at them, this is more serious stuff.
JC: We’re very serious about this, we’re very serious about our concerns for jobs and investment in trade with the European Union in the future.
SR: The issue that we have, of course, is that you say you want to deliver the exact same benefits of the single market but that goes against what we’ve been hearing from Brussels for months. I mean we can for example at something that Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU’s most senior official, said on this ‘the deal that will…be offered to the UK should not be a deal as advantageous [as membership]’ – so I don’t understand how you can get the exact same benefits?
JC: That was his view and we have a different view.
SR: So he’s wrong?
JC: I don’t want to say Jean Claude Juncker is wrong, what I want to say is we believe we can get the same benefits on trade, on customs union with the European Union.
SR: Why would they give you that?
JC: Because it’s in the interests of people on both sides of the channel.
SR: But isn’t it in their interest to show that we’re better off being in the EU?
JC: I think it’s in their interests to have a very good and close relationship with the countries around the EU as they’re attempting to do with all other neighbouring countries. I think that is the right way forward.
SR: So why aren’t they, in that case, giving the best deal possible to this current government? If it is in their interest as well?
JC: That’s a question you’ll have to put to the EU negotiators. I’ve had many discussions with Michel Barnier, and explained what our position is and explained what we’d wish to do in government and explained, also, that we would not be a government that’s trying to look over our shoulders and do sweetheart deals with somebody else which would result in the lowering of our conditions in this country, workers and consumers, and the lowering of environmental rights and indeed, President Macron joined in this yesterday and said he is very concerned that Britain is reducing its environmental protection measures.
SR: I’m interested in your own personal journey when it comes to the EU. You voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975 referendum, you opposed the creation of the European Union in the Maastricht Treaty…
JR: No I opposed the Maastricht Treaty because it was bringing in an unaccountable central bank and it was moving in the direction of a free market Europe. By parallel I strongly supported the social measures that were brought in by the European Union in which Mrs Thatcher so strongly opposed. I do support a social Europe. And actually I’ve probably spent more time meeting European socialist parties than any other Labour leader ever has.
SR But it’s fair to say that you’ve had your concerns over the years about the EU and the European community. I’m interested in your journey. Have you changed your mind? Do you consider yourself a Eurosceptic? Where are you at?
JC: I’ve always been in favour of social cooperation across Europe, I’ve always been in favour of better workers’ rights. I’ve strongly supported the social chapter agenda that was brought in in the European Union. What I opposed is the element of free market economics in Europe and what I opposed was the state aid rules which limit to differing extents the ability for a government to intervene on its own economy – like we would want to protect the steel industry. I also have concerns to some of the competition rules, particularly in relation to things like the postal services and the rail services.
SR: So would you describe yourself as a Eurosceptic?
JC: I would describe myself as a socialist who wants to see social justice in this country and across Europe. And I will be in Lisbon in December with fellow socialist parties making exactly that message and exactly that case. We have to work with people across Europe.
SR: Do you think that that EU should have learned and listened more when it came to the Brexit referendum? Do you think they’ve taken the right lessons? How about Brussels?
JC: I think they have actually, to some extent, and indeed I’ve discussed this with Michel Barnier and others. And said well actually the communities we have in Britain which have seen no investment since the miners’ strike, that have seen the loss of jobs, the replacement of good jobs with zero-hour contracts, it’s not that different in parts of Northern France it’s not that different eastern Germany. Communities that gain nothing from public investment, nothing from new infrastructure, nothing from any investment in hope for young people are likely to be against the institutions that they believe have failed to deliver it for them. There’s a big lesson for all of us. That’s why, it’s the third time I’ve mentioned it, the UN report on poverty in Britain is devastating, devastating of the economic model which we have adopted in this country.
SR: In all your parliament, you probably haven’t seen many weeks like the one we witnessed in Westminster.
JC: It’s been a pretty unusual week, that’s very fair to say, yes.
SR: You were called in to see the Prime Minister after she had that cabinet meeting. What happened?
JC: We had a quite short discussion solely about parliamentary process in which I made the point that I thought parliament should have sufficient time between the EU council and any vote in parliament for members to digest whatever comes out of the EU council, which of course hasn’t yet been held, and for our select committees to have the chance to examine it. And, whatever statement and resolution the government puts to the house, had to be open to amendments and I sent a letter to the prime minister signed by all opposition parties, except for the DUP, on that.
SR: Was it a cordial meeting?
JC: Yes, it was very short.
SR: No cup of tea, then?
JC: I had a very nice glass of water. I was offered a very nice cup of tea or coffee if I wished to. Since I don’t drink, I don’t know if I was going to be offered drinks or not.
SR: Just for your reflections on the week the Prime Minister has had. She’s faced resignations from her cabinet, she’s faced no-confidence letters from her own MPs. This is something that you may have a bit of empathy for because you of course have struggled to form a front bench before and you have faced a no-confidence motion against you, do you feel sorry for the PM?
JC: Politics is full of thrills and spills. There’s quite a big difference between Labour and Conservative parties in that Labour is largely a member-led organisation and my mandate came from party members and I appealed to them in 2016 and gained an increased level of support.
SR: Do you feel sorry for her?
JC: I don’t do personal attacks and personal abuse, you’ll notice I’ve said nothing personal in criticism. I do understand what people go through and I understand all of that but I do also understand the responsibility of parliament in government to deliver for the people that have put us there in the first place. Those people who are struggling for jobs, poverty, mental health, all those issues where we’re systematically short-changing them, they’re the people we should be thinking about.
SR: Do you respect the Prime Minister?
JC: I respect all politicians.
SR: Jeremy Corbyn, thank you very much.
JC: Thank you.