‘What we’re offering young people is hope’: An afternoon with Jeremy Corbyn
We met the Labour leader to talk tuition fees, Love Island and the ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chant
In the lobby of an apprenticeship college in a sleepy North London borough, students and teachers alike wait nervously for an audience with perhaps the most important man in the UK right now. Corbynmania has come to Barnet.
The marginal Tory seat (with a majority of only 353 votes) is Corbyn’s latest stop on a campaign tour which hasn’t slowed down. The Labour leader is already rallying hard for the next election – which he says could be “in a few months, next year, or even further away than that.”
If the uncertainty is bothering him, though, it doesn’t show – as soon as he arrives to whoops and cheers he’s working the room, dancing with teachers and making jokes which are met with generous laughter from adoring fans all around.
Although there’s no sign of the now-famous ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chant. Yet. Is he getting tired of it? “It’s quite nice, actually. It started at Wirral Live at Tranmere Rovers football ground during a music festival, and it’s sort of grown quite a lot since then. I do hear it in pubs and things when I walk past, which is lovely.”
And as for the strangest place he’s heard it? “It was at a Vietnamese restaurant in my constituency. Everybody was ever so quiet, nobody was saying anything to anybody – they were all very polite. We had our food, we were there for about half an hour or so, and then as we left everybody started it up, as if they’d conspired to do so. It was very sweet.”
The real Jeremy Corbyn is more-or-less exactly what you’d expect: charming and quiet with a dry sense of humour, although perhaps slightly shorter than you’d expect. That’s probably due to a towering presence which just two weeks ago rallied thousands from the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, and a charisma which has won over the hearts and minds of more or less every 18-24 year old in the country.
Beyond the ‘Cult of Corbyn,’ though, he believes young people voted for him because they’re looking for genuine change. “We’re offering something different,” he says: “We made it very clear during the election campaign that we didn’t think the next generation should be poorer than this one.”
This is mirrored in one of Labour’s most divisive manifesto pledges – a promise to completely eradicate university tuition fees. “It’s a huge problem,” Jeremy explains. “The average debt now is £57,000 for those coming out of university at the present time, and there is a debt running in student loans running into the past which will probably never be paid.
“We’re in danger of dropping into a situation where young people will not go to college and not go to university because they’re put off by the fees and they’re put off by the debt.”
So what about the sceptics who say the promise was only included to bribe younger voters into choosing Labour? ”We don’t bribe anybody. I’ve always thought bringing in tuition fees was wrong, and as a backbencher I always voted against them. Now they’ve been raised to £9,000 per year, and there are some who’d like to lift the cap on them altogether.
“We made it very clear in our campaign that as a society we should pay more in taxation at the top end. The top five per cent should pay a bit more in taxation and corporate taxation should go up so we have better education for our society in future.
“Yes, a lot of young people were attracted to this, but so were old people. We gained support in every age group, in every demographic, in every region.”
As Corbyn tours the college, it’s clear just how popular he is among the young. A group of bricklaying apprentices interrupt our interview to ask for a signature on a high-vis jacket; he tells a bunch of giggling hairdressing students in the corridor that his day at the college is going well. “They’ve signed me up for the plumbing course upstairs,” he jokes. He even has an opinion on Love Island: “Vote for Marcel!”, he urges.
Interestingly, politics wasn’t always his aim. “When I was 18, I wanted to be a farmer,” he says. “Now look at me. Maybe I should have stuck to farming.” The intricacies of owning fields of wheat aside, farming’s loss has been the Labour Party’s gain – according to new polls this morning, Corbyn currently has an eight point lead over Theresa May.
So: if there was a general election tomorrow, would he win? “I’m very confident we would. We had a huge increase in Labour supporters in the election we’ve just had – the biggest increase since 1945. I’m very proud of that achievement, however I’m very disappointed that we didn’t quite get the majority we needed.
“Still, I cannot see how this government can be called stable, or can be called anything other than an unstable coalition between themselves and the DUP. We’re up for it, and we’re out campaigning already.”
The way Corbyn speaks, especially to young people, is different – a colleague who saw him at Glastonbury says it was the only time he’d felt a politician speak directly to him. There’s an overwhelming feeling of optimism around him, and it’s that attitude of change which has gained him the coveted youth vote.
“Nowadays a young person in their twenties will earn £12,500 less than the generation before them,” he explains. “Those young people often struggle even raising the deposit for a private rented flat, never mind trying to buy somewhere to live.
“I think what we really need to offer young people is some real hope and opportunity.”
Looking around, it seems to be working.