“if you’re given the opportunity to vote, I would say to people ‘for heaven’s sake, use it.'”
Campaign Agent (now Editor in Chief), Cameron Broome, met with Chair of the Brexit Select Committee and senior Labour MP, Hilary Benn, to discuss growing up in the Benn family, life as an MP, Brexit and the Labour Party.
Listen to the interview here:
Life as an MP: 0:00
Labour Party: 8:57
Quick-fire round: 39:23
Final thoughts: 43:26
Background: life as an MP
In your 17 years as MP for Leeds Central, what have you enjoyed most about being a Member of Parliament?
“Well it’s a great privilege to represent people. I love my job; it has its moments. I think helping people locally with the assistance of Judy and Olivia sitting behind you, and we do make a difference to people’s lives. When they come with their problems we’re able to help them; we can’t sort out every problem but we can always try and we do. Leeds is a fantastic city and I do my best to stand up for its interests and argue its corner and proclaim its many virtues to those who don’t know what a great city it is. And then of course, the other (and very crucial) part of the job which is as a legislator, a parliamentarian, bringing that experience and views and values and beliefs and being part of a political party as a proud Labour member of Parliament to Parliament. When you’re in government you can do things, when you’re not in government you can’t. But you can try and persuade the government of the day to respond to the pressure and the problems that they face. Try to make a difference, I think that’s why I do this job.”
Your father, Tony Benn, was a hugely influential figure in the Labour party. But your mother, Caroline, was also incredibly politically active in her own right as an author and educationalist. What was it like growing up in a household so embedded in politics?
“When you’re little, you assume that all families are like your own because it’s the only one you know. Early memories: being taken on demonstrations. You know, ‘are we there yet Mum’? ‘Where we going? Why are we walking so far?’ And you’d turn up in Trafalgar Square or outside South Africa house. And people would come to visit my parents at home. I remember… I think the first TV crew I can remember arrived and came into the back garden and in those days you would have (I think they were all men) a cameraman, an assistant camera-man, a sound recorder, a producer and an assistant producer so five people would walk through the door. Nowadays, you’d probably be interviewed by one person who is asking the questions and operating the camera so it’s changed. We talked about what was going on in the world, that’s the thing, were encouraged to and we were interested. And of course, they were both a huge influence on me and my life and that of my two brothers and my sister.
Have you ever envisaged having a career outside of politics?
“Not really. When I was 10, I wanted to be a firefighter so I must confess to that. But broadly speaking, no, this is what I wanted to do”
MPs have to spend time in both Westminster and in their consistencies, as well frequently attending events up and down the country. How difficult is it to juggle politics with your social life, particularly as a Dad and a husband?
“Social life? [laughs]. It involves a lot of juggling, a lot of travelling; it’s not easy; it’s not easy for families because as a member of Parliament you have to live and work in two places and that’s quite unusual. People will work in different places but tend to generally live in one. MPs find different arrangements that work for them depending on if they have children: their age when they’re very little. My colleague Karl Turner had his daughter in the chamber in the division lobby this week. I think that’s the 3rd time she’s been in before. We’ve had a bit of a breakthrough in the last week because I think the first ever baby in the chamber was Chloe Smith (the Tory MP who has just come back from maternity leave) brought her baby in and Karl walked through the chamber holding his daughter this week. So that’s how he is juggling family and political life. The hours are marginally less civilised than when they were when parliament went to 10 every night; those hours were created originally so that MPs who had other jobs (lawyers, doctors) could go off and do that in the morning and do a bit of legislating in the afternoon. It’s completely different now. But there are a lot of demands on your time, that’s the truth, and lots of things to do and I suppose if your MPs who are conscientious (and the vast majority are) will think now how I’m going to do this and that and meet all of the expectations that they are off me.
Would you say it’s worth it knowing that you’re making a difference?
“It’s a very important job but it’s a wonderful opportunity. In life, whatever job you do, you have to do your best and as long as you do your best, you can’t ask anymore of yourself and no (reasonably) can others. But not everyone is reasonable, always, in relation to what they think about and say to members of parliament; that’s part of the job.”
Although looking from the outside in Parliament can seem incredibly divided (particularly at the moment with Brexit) as you know from personal experience, there is lots of great cross-party work that goes on behind the scenes. Bearing that in mind, which Conservative MP do you admire most and why?
“A lot goes on: all party groups. I mean the work on Syria, for example, the partnership there was between Andrew Mitchell, former International Development Secretary who is a Conservative, and the late and much missed Jo Cox, and they worked absolutely as a team and Alison McGovern has now taken Jo’s place in that group.
But I have to say and it’s quite topical, he was elected originally as a Conservative MP, he’s now the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow; I have a great deal of admiration for him. I know he is the subject of some criticism at the moment, in my view unfairly. I think both because he’s clearly an individual who has been on a political journey through his life. He started out by his own admission as quite a… I was going to say right-wing conservative; now labels are not always a fantastic guide to actually the complexity of people’s political beliefs. But he made a famous speech in the commons where he got up and talked about why he’d changed his mind on the equalisation of the age of consent and why he was going to vote for it; he had previously been opposed. And since he became speaker, he has been a fantastic guardian of the rights of backbenchers. In the old days, you’d have a statement, lots of MPs would want to ask questions of the minister and often the speaker would the speaker would say ‘I’m really sorry we’ve run out of time’ and there’d still be 15-20 people all standing. John makes the point of almost always getting every single person in and so he’d get up and say ‘now there’s many others still standing; if you keep the questions short and the answers short, I can get you all in’. So he wants to make sure that backbenchers make their voice heard. He is very willing to grant urgent questions; they used to be very rare in the House of Commons. Now you’ll have urgent questions, once, twice, three sometimes four times a week.
So, for example, yesterday, I wasn’t in the house because I was in Cornwall on a Brexit select committee visit, but Yvette Cooper put down an urgent question on this announcement that the scheme for bringing refugee children was coming to an end: the speaker granted it. And I think he takes the view: if the rest of the world is discussing something, then you know what, Parliament should be discussing it too now; not saying ‘yes that’s a very important issue, let’s wait til home affairs questions come round in three weeks time or ’til the government schedules a debate’. This is the issue of the moment; let’s talk about it. Let’s be a voice for our constituents. He’s been a truly radical speaker of the House of Commons and I admire that enormously.
When TalkPolitics asked Conservative MP for Bath, Ben Howlett, which Labour MP he admired most and why, he said yourself because you spoke so inspirationally during the Syria debate. How important was it for you to speak out on that issue, even if it meant highlighting the internal divisions of the Labour frontbench?
“Well, it was a slightly unusual situation to have the leader of the party and the shadow foreign secretary speaking in the same debate from the same dispatch box on different sides. But, and people forget this, sometimes, it had been decided that there would be a free vote of Labour MPs. So there wasn’t a Labour policy; there was not a whip, so MPs were free to say and vote in the way that they wanted.
I’d thought very, very long and hard about this. I’d looked at what Daesh were doing, the part we were already playing in trying to combat them in Iraq, as parliament had voted the previous year to respond to the request from the Iraqi government for help because one day 40% of Iraq was suddenly invaded by Daesh; they were not far from Baghdad and the Iraqi government said ‘help’. So we decided we were going to do that and I read out towards the end of my speech a quote from the London representative of the Kurdistan regional government who made the point that the border in respective of Daesh between Iraq and Syria, he described it as a fictional frontier. And therefore, if you were trying to defeat them there, what was the logical in not trying to defeat them the other side of the border, bearing in mind we were already flying oversight missions, providing intelligence and so on; we just weren’t participating in trying to defeat them militarily and of course I’d reached the view that Daesh, as I call them, a bunch of fascists with whom there is, in my view, no possibility of negotiation. It’s not as if you’re going to sit down with them and say well can you murder slightly fewer people because their whole philosophy and outlook is to think that if you are not with them, and their pervasion of the great world religion that is Islam then they can kill, murder, maim, torture whoever they like. And the United Nations has said that they have committed genocide against the Yazidis and other minority groups.
Now, in the face of that, what do you do? Now, it’s complicated, it’s difficult, nothing is certain but I felt that we had an obligation, in the phrase I used at the very end of my speech, to do our bit, because I didn’t think it was good enough to say “well it’s all rather tricky, not our problem, sorry you’re having a hard time but good luck, I’ve got other things to do’. I just don’t think that that is right. And I talked about Labour’s internationalist tradition. So, for all of those reasons, I think it was important to get up and say what I said. And some people agreed and some people didn’t agree. And it was quite a difficult time thereafter. Here in this office, in London, a lot of emails, a lot of abuse because people disagreed and people are entitled to disagree, but there is a difference between disagreeing with what someone has done and abusing them for the views that they hold.
Although you’ve had specific policy disagreements with Jeremy Corbyn, what was your relationship like with him on a personal level?
Well, I’ve known Jeremy for a long time. He was a very good friend and colleague of my Dad’s, and he is a good and a decent man, and in politics and in life, especially in politics, just because you have disagreements with someone then it’s generally wise not to let that get in the way of whatever personal relationship you have got. Because on different issues you may be in agreement with something over here and you find yourself at one, then on something else, people will have a very different view to you. And politics in parties is about managing that and respecting the fact that someone else has a different view to you and hoping that there will be respect in return, and I think that is the best way to deal with it but some issues provoke a lot of heat and feeling and anger and that is part of life and it is certainly part of politics.
What were your thoughts on some of the language that was used by individuals like John McDonnell?
Well I don’t want to talk about individuals but as you will know, because the labour party has been through a difficult period, I think some of what has gone on has clearly been absolutely unacceptable. If we are meant to be members of the same political party, and when you find party members and having a go in a very unpleasant way, well I would regard as unpleasant terms, well I don’t think in portrays the Labour party in a terribly good light, because the public looks and thinks there seems to be more infighting going on and winning the next election, winning any election, is about persuading the public to put their trust and confidence in you and you need above all to be talking about them and their concerns, not about internal disagreements. And we have been through that before in the 1980’s and I am old enough to have lived through it, so we have been there and done that and it was not fantastically successful then and we should learn that lesson.
Political commentators are forever quoting and analysing polling data. How much attention do MPs pay to the polls?
Well, I think quite a lot because until you get to a general election or referendum, you don’t actually know what people are thinking and it’s the best guide that we have got. Along with what we hear people saying, knocking on doors, people writing, all of those things. I suppose they are a guide to how things are going but they are not the determinant of everything that we do. So it’s not politics in which politicians are elected and say ‘well I have no thoughts of my own, now let’s go find out what the public wants and I’ll stand up and say that’, because we have principles and values and so on, and sometimes you take a stand which isn’t fantastically popular.
Now in the past, polls would have shown a majority of people in favour of the return of capital punishment. Well anyone who’s ever asked me as the MP: will you vote for it? I said I’ll never vote for it and if you want someone who will, please don’t vote for me at the next election. But of course we look at them because it’s an indicator of how we’re doing relative to other parties.
In relation to the polls, Labour are currently polling at around 26%-28%. What do you think the party should do between now and 2020 to win over public confidence?
“Yeah, we’re in a difficult position; we have a huge task on our hands. I think we have to find a way of coming together; that’s the point I’ve already made. I think we have to talk about the future, not about ourselves but we have to talk about the future and not about the past or returning to things from the past which may make us feel comfortable. People will often reflect, especially as they get older, ‘yeah it was nice when it was like that’. But the world moves on and change happens. And so I would, to take specific examples…. what are the things that as a society we need to do?
We’ve got a social care crisis, absolute crisis; We’ve lost care homes places in Leeds. We’ve a got a growing elderly population; the council doesn’t have enough money to provide social care. As a result, people can’t come out of hospital when there’s no longer any need for them to be in hospital. About 15% of the hospital beds in the LGI, Jimmys, currently have people in them who don’t need to be there for medical reasons but for want of someone for them to come out to be cared for in their own home or some kind of intermediate accommodation or a care home if they can’t live independently with staff support. And then that backs up into what’s happening in A and E, operations get cancelled because you can’t start operating on someone if there’s not a bed available for them to go into once the operations over. So it affects all areas of the system. So this is the biggest social challenge we face as a society. Now I think we’ve got to find a way of creating a National Care Service in the same way that we created the National Health Service at the end of the second world war. And we’ve put proposals forward in the place. As you probably know, when we tried to do that when we were in government, the Tories published those posters saying Labour’s “death tax” which I have to say I think was a very irresponsible way of responding to a proposal to try and deal with what is going to be a universal experience for every single one of us, which is we’re going to get old and we’re going to need caring for. So that’s one.
Two: how do we build sufficient homes for the next generation, to buy or to rent. We have an absolute chronic housing crisis. Thirdly, how’s the next generation going to save for a pension in a world that is very different.
Political parties that say ‘we’ve got this challenge; here’s our proposal’. We won in 97, our most recent experience, because people could see…. They’d had enough (what I called at the time) private affluence and public squalor. You’d go into the building society or the bank and it was nice and shiny and new. And then children in schools with leaky roofs, outside toilets, sharing scruffy textbooks between two or more of them. And the public said…. the health service was in difficulty. People were waiting two years to get their hips and knees replaced: those were letters I used to get when I was first elected. By the time we left office in 2010, we didn’t get any letters saying that because nobody was waiting for two years, nobody. And I remember the time John Reed was the Health Secretary came into a meeting at the cabinet waving a newspaper article and he said “look, look” and it said ‘BUPA, the private healthcare provider, is having to cut the fees it charges’ because the NHS is now got…. The waiting lists are so short that the one competitive advantage BUPA had – come to us and we’ll do your hip and knee next week – was being eroded because we got those waiting times for those operations down dramatically.
Now, that’s what you do when you win in an election and you’ve got a plan and you apply your mind to it. And the public I think in 97 said ‘the Tories had been in a long time; we want a change; this is a party that is talking about education and the health service’ and we won. And we have to do the same again. But the challenges of the Health Service: we’re heading back to where we were before, with the social care crisis added on top. And these are big, big questions facing our society and the public understands that. And a party that stands up and says “well here’s our proposal’ then people think right ‘they’re thinking about what’s facing me, my family, our society’ and I think you are in a much better position to have a chance of winning then if you’re not talking about the challenges of the future. So that’s the way I’d summarise it myself.
According to polling data, 16 and 17 year olds were more likely to vote Remain than Leave in the EU referendum. And when I speak to lots of young people, they do feel quite angry that Brexit is going to have ramifications for years to come and they were denied a vote. Should David Cameron have lowered the voting age for the EU referendum?
“Of course he should; I’m angry too. We moved it in the House of Commons. We moved it in the House of Lords and the Tories voted it down. I’m in favour of lowering the voting age to 16 for all elections. Indeed, that’s what we fought the last election on as the Labour opposition. I think 16 and 17 year olds are just as capable as 18 year olds and 80 year olds of casting a vote. I wish the Government hadn’t stood out against it; maybe David Cameron now probably hadn’t stood out against it too given the outcome of the referendum. I think it’s right in principle but particularly that decision in the referendum because yes it’s your generation who’ll live with the consequences longer than anyone else.
In October 2016, you were elected as the Chair of the new Exiting the European Union Select Committee. Could you tell us a little bit about what your role involves and the sort of work the committee does?
“The position that it was allocated to the Labour party, the way select committee chairs are divided up, there’s a sort of balance… and certain select committees, the chair has to be Labour or Tory or Lib Dem or SNP but it’s voted on by all MPs. So for the first time in my life, I had to get Conservatives to vote for me. Anyway, that was a novel experience.
What do we do: we hold the Government to account on Brexit. We scrutinise what it’s doing; we seek to influence the path that the government is taking. We are made up of 21 members. As it so happens 11 campaigned for Remain in the referendum; 9 campaigned for Leave. We’ve got Michael Gove and Dominic Raab and Peter Lilley on it, John Whittingdale. On the Labour side, Seema Malhotra, Stephen Timms, Emma Reynolds, Pat McFadden.
So it’s a good, strong committee and we’ve produced one report already. We called on the government to publish a white paper. To concede, well not concede agree, that of course Parliament should have a vote at the end of the process. We said the government needed to seek transitional arrangements in any deal and we’ve had an impact, along with others, because the government has now agreed to all of those things and the white paper has been published.
So select committees seek to influence the work of Government. And so we’ve been looking at how this whole this is going to work, the process and the structure and the timing. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at free movement; what happens to the 3 million Europeans here; the 1.2 million Brits who are in the other EU countries exercising their free movement rights, how are we going to work that out. I’m sure we’ll look at the white paper; we’ve got the Great Repeal Bill coming which is going to be as long and complex as the Article 50 Bill was short and spare: two very short paragraphs, and we’ll have to scrutinise that. And, of course, we’ll be keeping track of the negotiations and seeking to influence what Government is doing. But I have to say the more you look at this, the more complex it is. And there are people who say we’ve had the referendum: just get on with it. But our economies, our lives, our rules, our laws have become intertwined over 43 years. And it’s not as simple as just going…. pulling it apart because…. I’m thinking….
We went to Cornwall yesterday. So the farmers in Cornwall will say in the fields at this moment are workers from Eastern Europe in the main who are picking the Daffodils that will be in the supermarkets in Leeds tomorrow. Now, how’s that going to work if free movement comes to an end? We’ll have to decide as a country what immigration control to apply to EU nationals afterwards. The government has said there doesn’t want to be shortages of labour or skill- well how’s that going to work? So there’s uncertainty for those industries.
Cornwall has been a very large reciprocate of European Regional Development Funding and Social Fund money which has helped improve their infrastructure, put in good broadband, built new facilities. Now beyond 2020, what’s going to replace that? Because Cornwall is less economically advantaged; wages are low in Cornwall than other parts of the country. It needs that support, it’s why we have a regional development policy, it’s why Europe had one. Well, we’re leaving so what is that going to look like? How do we ensure that we hang on to trade with our biggest single market, the EU, that doesn’t involve tariffs, obstacles to trade, paperwork delay, rules of origin because almost every business that’s given evidence to us has said ‘whatever happens, do not end up with that’. But if we fall out with deal, we end up on WTO terms and that is exactly what it would involve.
So everywhere you look, there is a whole host of issues. On the radio this morning driving up, the European Medicines Agency, we’re part of that, now someone has spoken today and said it may mean that medicines come later to the British market because when companies are developing new medicines, they apply to first trial or market it in America or Japan or the EU market, and maybe the British market will be in the second list of countries. Whereas now, we’re part of it. Now can we continue to co-operate with the European Medicines Agency even though we’ve left, so that we bring new medicines safely to our patients in Britain. And there’s loads and loads and loads of things where people who understand life as it is, the way it’s worked, look at it’s other and say ‘we’re not quite sure how it’s going to work when you pull the plug out’. And the government’s job is to clarify that, to try and negotiate it.
But the final point I’d make about the negotiation is we can ask for whatever we want. What in the end is agreed will depend upon what the other 27 member states prepare to consent to and that’s really important in a negotiation like that. So it’s really important that we get this right; get the best for Britain.
So you’ve illustrated there the complexity but another layer of complexity is representative democracy. Particularly Labour MPs, campaigned majority for Remain and yet a lot of their constituents voted for Leave. Do you believe the job of MPs is simply to reflect the views of their constituents, or do you think they should vote based on their best interests regardless of if there is a conflict between their view and the view of their constituents?
“This is a really important and interesting question that MPs have forever wrestled with and will continue to do so; Edmund Burke makes this famous speech. We are representatives and not delegates; I think that’s the first point I’d want to make. As I said earlier, the idea that an MP would get elected and say ‘I have no views, my brain is empty, just programme me, tell me what to think’. No, that’s not what we’re about. We take account of what our constituents have got to say, our party, the public in general, the issue, our own personal views. And the referendum has thrown that into very sharp relief, and I have great sympathy with colleagues who represented areas that voted heavily to Remain and therefore voted against the Article 50 bill. But the decision I reached, a passionate Remain campaigner, and in Leeds as a whole it was 50.5% for Remain and 49.5% for Leave but we don’t actually have the constituency breakdown in Leeds; we just have the city wide. So people say you’re constituent’s seat voted for, when actually Leeds as a whole voted for. But anyway, leave that on one side.
I think we didn’t…. the referendum wasn’t held to say to people: what do you reckon, we’ll decide but any views? No, Parliament said to the people, and this was David Cameron’s wish to do this, I wouldn’t have held this referendum but once he was elected with a commitment to do so he had to get on with it…. the idea that we would turn around as Parliament and say now ‘you know what, we don’t think you knew what you were doing, we think you really aren’t up to taking this decision, we know better than you, just go back and be quite and we’ll decide we’re going to remain in the EU’. The fact is we have a bit of a crisis of confidence in our politics already. My view is that would be nothing compared to the crisis of confidence we’d have in our politics if that’s what Parliament did. So in the speech I gave in the second reading debate last week, I talked about this and I said ‘if you say I respect the result of the referendum, then it seems to me inevitable that you should consent to giving effect to that’. Because if you don’t vote for the Article 50 Bill, you say you respect it but actually you haven’t because the process doesn’t start. And since the courts ruled that it was for Parliament to initiate the triggering of Article 50, that was a responsibility that fell upon us, and that’s why I voted in the way that I did.
But I have many constituents who are very unhappy about that and say it was an advisory referendum but in my view, I think that misses the point: it wasn’t technically, technically that may be true but politically it is not true. And fundamentally, this was a political decision and the reason I gave you the answer earlier on capital punishment, say there was a referendum on capital punishment, well I’d oppose the referendum on capital punishment and even if it was 99% in favour of restoring it, I’d vote against it in Parliament because I would regard that as a moral issue. Whereas, personally, I think it’s hard to describe our decision about membership of the European Union as a moral issue; it is a political issue on which people have views. I’m sorry about the outcome but I do respect it and that’s why I voted to trigger the Bill.
So as you said previously, there are currently 2.8 to 3 million EU nationals living in the UK. And Theresa May has refused to guarantee their rights now until we get the reciprocal for the British expats living elsewhere in the EU. Is she right to use those people as political bargaining chips?
“No is the answer. Now this needs to be sorted out really quickly because there is uncertainty on both sides, and we’ve taken evidence from representatives of the 3 million here and Brits living abroad. And they’re all in a state of anxiety about what’s going to happen. And the government in fairness has said we want them to stay but we need to get an agreement because we’ve got to sort it all out both ways.
But practically…. I tell you it’s really interesting, when the Brits abroad came to give evidence, you might have thought they may make the argument: ‘don’t give away our position by guaranteeing the EU citizens’ rights before you’ve secured ours’. They didn’t; they took the same view the government should unilaterally say ‘yep, we’re going to guarantee the rights of the Europeans that are here’. And their argument was this will create the right atmosphere in the negotiations to make sure that we do secure both.
The second practical point is does the government seriously think that anyone would say to 3 million people, nurses, doctors about to do an operation at the LGI today, a university lecturer about to deliver a Geography lecturer to somebody, one of the 40 people I saw yesterday in the field in Cornwall who’s leaning down to pick up another Daffodil, ‘stop what you’re doing, go’. Well of course not, so I think they might as well get on with it is my view.
And finally, on the theme of Brexit, this week we’ve had the resignation of Clive Lewis. I was wondering what your view on his positon was?
“Well, Clive represents a constituency where there was strong remain support and decided that for him it was more important to vote in line with the feelings of his constituents than remain a member of the Shadow Cabinet. And as I said earlier, I have great respect for colleagues who across the house who decided to do that, especially for those represent strongly Remain constituencies. And, I suppose it provides an answer to your earlier question: how do you balance the competing considerations of a member of Parliament in determining how you vote and Clive provided a very clear demonstration in his view on this issue that that was the right thing to do”
And do you think it’s going to affect the by-elections in Copeland and Stoke-Central?
“Well, those are… we’re fighting really hard to win both of those. When people have said to me, in interviews “Labour are hopefully split on Europe” my answer is to say well you know actually, the country was split. The referendum result revealed split almost identically down the middle. And therefore, to have a political party in which members of Parliament are reflecting both of those views, speaking about those views in the second reading debate and the consideration of the bill in committee and then reflecting it in their vote, well that shows that we’re representing both. And the decision having been made and it has, the task now is to respect the decision of the 52% that say we’re leaving. But all the referendum decided, it’s very big and important, was that we’re leaving the institutions of the European Union; we’re not leaving Europe and the terms on which we live and the relationship, the new relationship, we will need to forge with Europe, how do we co-operate on medicines, on security, on terrorism, on trade, on services, on aviation safety. How do we ensure that when… This was a point made a couple of weeks ago: the lead singer in Don Giovani at the Royal Opera house gets meningitis today; at the moment, you can bring a singer over from Europe like that. Now, whatever system we have for controlling migration thereafter, that person would come for 48 hours; there’s probably 6 people in the world that can sing the part. A system in which the home office takes 6 weeks to tell you they could come is no good when you had to cancel the performance 5 weeks and 6 days ago because you didn’t know you were going to get anybody. So, those are all examples, and that’s why these negotiations, how we handle it, is so important. And that’s honouring and reflecting the concerns of the 48%. And because it has been such a divisive issue, part of our responsibility is to try and bring both together. The decision has been made and it’s very hard for the 48% but it doesn’t mean we aren’t going to pursue a lot of the concerns people have got.
Universities, now: the free flow of academic ideas, co-operating on research, horizon 2020, the Erasmus programme that enables young people to be able to study elsewhere in Europe when they come from backgrounds where they wouldn’t have the money to be able to afford to do that themselves. I was lobbied by Leeds University Union on that just before Christmas so…. That’s a way of showing that we’re not just saying ‘nevermind what happens, the decisions been made’. We’ve got a responsibility to make sure we get the best we can to deliver the 52% voted for, we respect it but 48% are really unhappy about’. Sorry that’s a long answer but that is the task we’re engaging with it the moment”
Do you have time to watch TV and if so, what sort of TV do you enjoy watch?
“Well I do occasionally slump on the sofa. I’m a regular Newsnight watcher and Marr, so that’s the kind of political stuff. I enjoy watching sport. Scandinavian crime: Wallander; The Bridge; The Killing. Yeah but quite a lot of sport I think.”
Favourite football team?
“I’m very proud to represent Leeds United because Elland Road is in the middle of my constituency and they’re doing okay at the moment; we need Leeds back in the Premiership. But I have to be truthful and honest: I have a lifelong affliction which is support for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. And at the moment, we’re doing very well and we’re above Arsenal and we’re second in the Premiership. Fingers crossed: that’s what I’d said.
What was the best book that you read during 2016?
“Now I was thinking about this and its entirely fortuitous given that you’re studying Geography but Tim Marshall who was Sky’s Diplomatic correspondent has written Prisoners of Geography. (Have you read it? [replies yes]). Now I thought it was really, really interesting because, for those who haven’t read it, he makes the point of the relationship between geography and politics. To take an example, if we hadn’t had accession island, it would be really hard to see how we could have taken the Falkland’s in 1982 without being able to refuel and stock up.
What is part of the motivation, sadly, for what Russia has done in Syria. Well, a warm-water port at Tartus in Syria is very important to Russia because there are no other ports… that’s partly to do with Crimea though with Crimea it’s a bit more difficult because whoever controls the straits can determine whether you can get out of the Black Sea and the other Russia ports in winter freeze up. So in one sense it’s an obvious point but it’s not always recognised that geography, mountains…. Look at a country like Afghanistan, one of the first times I went there someone said ‘never has a country that old saying that has been more true ‘the mountains are high and the emperor is far away’. Therefore, it’s a society in which you’ve got a very localised system because travelling in the old days, it was a long day. And the emperor may say something over here but whether his or her rite runs in another part of the kingdom is entirely a different matter.
What sort of music do you enjoy listening to?
“Oh Lord well, I think like all people of my age our music tastes have sort of stuck in the past because I don’t have much time… there’s a whole market for people who have their large LP collections when they were your age, and then when things came out on CDs then people went and bought them again so they could listen to them in the car and that sort of thing or stick them on their iPod.
So I have this argument with my son who is a product of his era and will look me in the eye and he’ll say ‘Oasis: the finest group in human existence’ and I’ll say ‘they’re jolly good but I’m afraid they’re not as good as The Beatles’. So I am a child of The Beatles era. I am”
Final summary message
Why should young people care about politics and how can they get involved?
“Because it’s about the future of the world that you’re going to be running when people like me are dust in the ground. Politics is the means by which we resolve problems; politics brought the Northern Ireland conflict to an end in a way that would have seen fanciful to me when I was your age. People said then it would be going on for another 400 years and will never change. It was politics; it was leadership; it was courageous political leadership that made the difference because in the case of Northern Ireland, David Trimble said to the Unionists ‘you know what, they’re nearly half the population, we’re going to have to share power with them’. And Jerry Adams and Martin McGuiness said to the IRA ‘you know what lads, we’re not going to be able to bomb Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland’. Now that requires courage because the easiest thing in a conflict like that is to continue to say ‘I’m the victim and you’re the oppressor’. And then you reserve the roles and say ‘no, no , no, no, I’m the victim and you’re the oppressor’. So that’s one example.
The creation of the National Health Service, the greatest achievement by Labour in government bar none: well that was politics. In the wake of the second world war, we had a huge deficit; there was extra rationing to help feed Germany, all sorts of things. And Labour politics made that happen, but it was the involvement. Why have we got a Health Service? Because the three most powerful weapons in democracy- an idea, a pencil and a piece of paper- came together. And people came back from the war, including my Dad, returned on a troopship and they would discuss the post-war world and help to organise those meetings having got permission from the commanding officer who was probably afraid there was going to be a lot of subversion going on in the boat but anyway…. And people looked at what the parties were standing for and they wanted better and the idea was free healthcare at the point of use, paid for by general taxation: what a radical idea. And millions of people put a cross on a piece of paper. And that’s why we have a National Health Service.
So if you want to influence the world, you want to change the world, whether it’s something small, something big, whatever it is, get involved, get stuck in. Because it’s not going to happen by itself and the things that we value didn’t arrive out of the sky one morning; they came into being because people worked for them, believed in them and campaigned for them. Sometimes over very, very long spaces of time and the thing about politics and campaigns is when you finally achieve something and it’s a moment when you can pause and look back from where they came and say ‘remember what it was like there?’. The Hillsborough campaigners: they never ever, ever, gave up, and that’s the other thing: never ever, ever, give up. Now they’ve reached the point where they feel they are about to get justice for what happened to their sons and their daughters and their loved ones. So yeah, get involved: what do you think; what do you believe; because we’ve all got values and ideas. I hope people join the Labour party but I would say that and yeah, get stuck in, it matters. And it’s a big responsibility running the world but I’m sure you’re going to do it very well: you and your generation. But give us a can because we’ll be looking out for you as I’m sure you’ll take the right decisions”
You mentioned earlier about your support for votes for 16 year olds. Do you think that would help politicise young people more and help tackle political apathy amongst young people?
“Well this question of political ‘apathy’. Now clearly if you look at voting, propensity to vote, the over 65s have the greater propensity to vote and 18-24 year olds have the least propensity to vote. But I don’t find that young people are ‘apathetic’ about the world; I think they’re just as interested in the world but they may express it in different ways. The era of mass party membership, although one of Jeremy’s achievements is to hugely increase the membership of the Labour Party which is a wonderful thing, but if you compare political parties in general to the1940s/50s, a lot more people joined than is the case now.
I think our politics and society has become more fractured, not in a bad sense, but people will pursue their interests in ways that are not part of formal political parties. So, for example, this afternoon I’m going to Leeds University to meet the StopAids society where there is a group of students working on the fight against AIDS globally and here in the UK. Now they’re really interested in the state of the world but they’re pursuing it through that particular means or environmental organisations; you’ve got huge membership of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and the National Trust and the Wildlife Trust when you think about protecting the environment so there’s lots of different ways in which people can get involved.
But clearly, if you’re given the opportunity to vote, I would say to people ‘for heaven’s sake, use it’. Use it. It’s precious; people fought hard so everyone would have the right to vote. Don’t leave your vote wasting away on a shelf. Use it. And I think the evidence is: one you start using it, then people will carry on. And we have a responsibility as parents towards our young people ‘now then come on, you’ve got the vote now, let’s go down, now you decide how you’re going to vote but we’re going to go and vote’.