America has elected an egomaniac television personality, we’ve left the EU, and oh yes – there’s a looming possibility of World War Three. As our society begins to fracture into the righteous left and the leering alt-right and logic descends into alternative facts, we got the chance to interview one of the politicians attempting to navigate the UK through these turbulent times – Hilary Benn, member of the Labour Party for 40 years, MP and current Chair of the Select Committee for exiting the EU.
He is known as the bespectacled man who, for many, was simply a watered-down shadow of his far-left father, Tony Benn. That is, until his famous 2015 speech in favour of the air strikes in Syria, where he was accused of defecting from his liberal background whilst simultaneously proving himself to be quite the orator. After the EU referendum, he openly admitted he didn’t think Corbyn could lead the party – and was subsequently removed from the shadow cabinet. Also a remain campaigner, he is currently causing headlines for his ‘gloomy Brexit report’ which made several Eurosceptic MPs walk out of a meeting in the Commons. Benn is becoming known as the mild maverick who sticks to his own policies. There is even a murmur – although one which he certainly denies - about him taking over as Labour Party leader. So what ideas does this enigma actually have about the increasingly complex world we live in?
Striding in without an entourage, but with an intimidating assertiveness (and unblinking eye contact), he appeared formal, a little posh but relatable. His glasses are even almost on trend – gold-rimmed and a little hipster. Perhaps he put them on just for Bristol.
We opened with the question which divided the country last summer – Brexit. As he chairs the committee which scrutinizes our EU exit process, what are his opinions on the fact that the elder generation has effectively decided the future of the younger generations? How the elder generations had free healthcare, pensions, university and yet our generation will have to pay off our university debts, work into our 70s and probably pay for healthcare? He launched straight in with an answer - ‘Well, I wouldn’t seek to divide our society by age’ – although we all know that Brexit divided us more than ever– but ‘there does need to be a new system put in place’. Obviously, he said, there are great difficulties with that, since our generation now lives longer – the original pension was put in place for those who only lived for five years, instead of thirty years, in retirement, so presumable there are more old people to vote. As for us, suffering the consequences of Brexit, I said ‘we will live longer but we will be poorer?’ He shrugged, nodded and said ‘yes...that does create a political challenge.’ Whilst he appeared to give no consolation for our generation, he did remind me that the Labour Party ‘believe in moving the voting age to 16’. One solution offered to the imbalance brought about by Brexit.
But what about the Budget? He recently uploaded a video to social media claiming that it didn’t ‘really address the problems that the country is facing.’ So I asked, ‘What do you think of the fact that universities will be able to raise their tuition fees further, based on their rankings in the TEF and NSS scores?’ (see here for the national NUS boycott). A mock TEF result shows many of the classic red brick universities (including Bristol) would fall down in the tables. ‘I’m not in favour of that’, Benn stated clearly, projecting his articulated rhetoric around the room. ‘I think I personally would favour a graduate tax, because I think it is not unreasonable, given that those who go to university (if you look at the figures) end up with better earnings than those who don’t go. What is really important is that you don’t put people off going to university.’ Essentially, he wants to rename income tax as a graduate tax instead, as he sees it as ‘a pretty fair way of dealing with it.’ Again, another positive which seemed to appeal to the student masses as he doesn’t advocate the TEF. No mention of cancelling the tuition fees altogether though, which was a shame.
But what about our increasingly worrying global situation? As evidenced by Brexit, Scottish pressure for independence, nationalism in other countries with Marine Le Pen – how much longer can we keep international cooperation a reality rather than a pipe dream crushed by Trump and Putin? I asked if there was a general move away from internationalism back towards narrower self-interest. He paused – this was a delicate question. ‘I think there’s a balance to be struck.’ Pause. ‘There are two great forces in the world at the moment and one is the recognition of the need for international cooperation to deal with the challenges that we face as a world. The other is a natural human thirst for self-determination’. Indeed. ‘We need to stand against those who advocate an isolationist view, those who would undermine what people called the international rule based system.’ He then mentioned human interdependence, which he later claimed in his lecture is ‘the nature of being a human being’ – precisely the opposite of what Trump appears to want with his previous negative comments about the Paris climate agreement. But as Benn said during the interview, ‘we need the largest economy in the world to play an enthusiastic part in fighting the threat of dangerous climate change. Don’t we? Well I do.’ Unfortunately, we could only talk to Benn before the chemical attacks on Syria – yet, Benn’s pursuit of interdependence appears to be exactly what Trump now also pursues, after his condemnation and retaliation of the Syria chemical attacks. Trump’s first international act that appears to unite more countries than it divides. Benn simply tweeted ‘Let's hope Syria will now think twice before deciding to gas its own people again.’ Interestingly, Benn overlooked that there was no second authority put in place to ensure that Trump’s actions were benevolent – but, Benn’s determination for cooperation and morality appears to counterbalance any long-term fear of impulsive leadership.
A mindset which contradicts Jeremy Corbyn’s; Labour Party leader, he and Benn have an element of animosity. The prime example of this being when Benn told Corbyn that he had lost confidence in Corbyn’s ability to lead the party after the failed ‘remain’ campaign that Labour led in the summer. So, we asked the tense question: ‘what specific characteristics do you think Corbyn lacks?’ He visibly bristled, and broke his intense eye contact for the first time in the interview - ‘to be perfectly honest, I don’t wish to add to what I said at the time. You can watch what I said on the Andrew Marr show. But, ‘there was then another leadership election where Jeremy was re-elected.’ Which Benn claimed, caused him to congratulate Jeremy and to tweet three words: ‘Time For Unity’. Not the time to bring up his aggravating air strikes speech in 2015 and the whereabouts of the division between his own morals and the unity of the party, then?
Even if Benn is now advocating party unity, Labour’s popularity is falling. Is Labour’s lurch to the left making it unelectable? He immediately launched in with an admission: ‘we are 18-19 points behind in the opinion polls. That is not a good place for any political party to be when you are seeking to get elected.’ A party usually requires a maximum gap of 10 points of disparity between different political parties in order to be able to swing the next election – not the best of news for Labour supporters. But Benn claimed that ‘Labour needs to show they have ideas to offer which can deal with the pensions of the future, technological change, deal with insecurity in work, enable you and your generation to buy a home, or to rent a home. If we turn our attention to that, then we show that we have a chance of winning.’ Perhaps – but this is a requirement necessary of any political party hoping to come into power in the next election – not one specific to Labour’s failing areas.
Finally, we asked ‘how would you describe the last year in 3 words?’ He sat thoughtfully and said, ‘Like no other I’ve experienced in my lifetime.’ A little longer than three words, but it has been an eventful year after all.
So there you have it. Hilary Benn is charismatic, an engaging, powerful orator with skills Gordon Brown would most definitely envy. Whilst he may not have a perfect solution to every political problem we have, his moral compass probably exceeds Theresa May’s and he has a decisive character that the Labour Party is lacking. Who knows? Maybe he could become the new, inspiring face of the left that this country needs.
Although, I must say that his most winning moment throughout the interview was at the end. He shook my hand again, stood up, straightened his suit and turning to the group of anticipative student journalists, said:
‘Now. Who wants some pics with me?’
Finally – the selfie I’ve been waiting for.