In a backroom of the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Jeremy Corbyn is semi-reclining on the end of a tatty sofa. He’s not gone the full Rees-Mogg, but you do get the impression being on an election campaign actually relaxes him.
On the stage outside, a coterie of Labour’s more illustrious supporters are on the stage to help launch the party’s latest spending pledge: a £1bn Cultural Capital Fund for the arts. Rob Delaney hosts. Mark Rylance, Lily Allen, MIA and Maxine Peake appear to address the faithful. Naturally, Billy Bragg and Ken Loach are knocking around, too.
As campaign stops go, this is one of the more glamorous. But I’m here to ask the would-be Prime Minister about an area of public services that rarely makes national headlines, despite the huge cutbacks it has faced in recent years: public libraries.
'The Conservatives know the price of everything and the value of nothing,' he says, maintaining his calm posture but disdain creeping into his voice.
'They’ve closed hundreds of libraries because they don’t recognise, and don’t want to recognise, the lifeline that libraries provide as a free service, open to all regardless of wealth.'
The figures are stark. According to the Local Government Association, funding for local authorities in England and Wales fell 60 per cent between 2010 and 2020, and from the very early days of the “age of austerity”, so-called non-essential services like libraries were first on the chopping block. In the first seven years alone, 478 libraries closed in England, Wales and Scotland, while branches ran by volunteers went from 10 to over 500.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Corbyn sees this as a class issue.
'You take away a library,' he says, 'and you take away the space where children from poorer families go to get information or do their homework. Go into any library around the country around 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon, if it’s open at that time, and you’ll find a lot of school students studying in there because their homes are so small and overcrowded they can’t study at home. Schools, because they are so underfunded, don’t provide after-school facilities for kids like homework clubs, so libraries are very important.'
So what is he going to do about it? Today’s £1bn pledge for art funding is a nice, round figure. But at the time of writing, Labour has not specified how this would be distributed. How much of it will actually go into saving our libraries?
'A fair amount,' says Corbyn, without specifying figures. 'Because the loss of libraries is terrible and the cuts in opening hours are equally bad. The handing over of libraries to voluntary groups to run them is an abdication of public responsibility.'
Labour’s spending pledges this election have already reached £83bn, much of it for public services, raising the usual attack lines about "magic money trees" from the Conservatives and media critics. In response, Corbyn has argued this level of investment would merely serve as a corrective to Tory cuts and bring the UK in line with spending by countries like France and Germany.
Nevertheless, I ask him, where is the money going to come from? It is the only time in our interview Corbyn checks his notes. 'It’s going to come from taxation,' he says. 'Which will fund both schools and libraries.'
Much of the media has been determined to bill this "the Brexit election". But it is also the post-austerity election, with both parties recognising the need for reinvestment in public services after a gruelling decade. Boris Johnson is yet to mention the issue specifically on the campaign trail and at the time of writing CCHQ have not responded to our request for comment on library funding for this article, but there is detail in the Conservative Party manifesto announcing 'the largest cultural capital programme in a century' to 'support local libraries and regional museums.' The figure? £250m, which at a quarter of Labour’s offer is actually higher than the overall disparity between the spending pledges of the two parties (the Conservative total to date is £2.9bn).
What gets promised on the election trail, however, doesn’t always make it into policy. Hospital beds, waiting times, WASPI women, bobbies on the beat, climate change, even your bins: these are the sexy topics, just like musicians and actors on the stage outside have the sexy jobs. Can Corbyn promise that, should he win this election, libraries won’t be forgotten, won’t be deemed “non-essential” yet again?
'I can absolutely give you this guarantee,' he says.
While plenty question whether Corbyn will get the chance to actually deliver any of his promises after 12 December, few dispute his passion to do so. When it comes to libraries – and to books and reading in general – he appears both heartfelt and genuine.
'I’ve got a whole house full of books and I’ve got an emotional connection with each one,' he says. 'My wife wishes I had a smaller emotional connection with about two-thirds of them... That’s just as a question of space, mind.'
'I grew up in a small town in Shropshire. My mum and dad loved books. I became a volunteer librarian at school. I learned the Dewey Decimal System, which I still remember. We also had a branch library across the road and I’d go there after school and look at the great big atlases and it was my way of looking at the world, understanding it. Libraries gave me a fantastic start in life and I want that for everybody.'