Image Credit: Chatham House
Since being elected as the MP for Leeds Central in 1999, Hilary Benn has built a reputation as a Labour Party heavyweight. Having served in the Labour Cabinet under both Blair and Brown, and recently holding positions such as the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee, Benn continues to uphold his commitment to represent his constituents while being a prominent backbencher in today’s opposition. I recently had the opportunity to ask him about issues affecting the whole country, and some closer to home.
Known to many as an extraordinary moment, Benn is well known for his 2015 speech in support of airstrikes against Daesh, and he wasted no time talking of his motivation for such a powerful speech act. Motivated by, “very simply, what Daesh were doing,” Benn received an unprecedented round of applause from all sides of the House.
Seemingly controversial at the time for going against the view of former Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, Benn defended his intervention from the Dispatch Box, admitting honestly that “I felt like the right thing to do was to, in the phrase I used at the end of my speech, to do our bit in Syria'' and while recognising those who held the opposite view, Benn stated honestly that “it’s what I thought was right. And if you think something is right, then that is what you should argue for and support it in the lobbies of the House of Commons.”
While keeping his eye on the international efforts to stop terrorism abroad, Benn moved on to focus on Brexit, a dominating force of politics still making the headlines almost six years after the divisive referendum. Being namechecked in the (potentially) long standing legislation is no mean feat, but to Benn it is all part of the job. With his name on the Benn Act, which prohibited the Government from leaving the European Union without a deal, Benn told me he fundamentally intended for the Benn Act to “simply [hold] the government to the promise that the leave campaign had made.”
Having begun his relationship with Brexit as a dominant force of the Remain campaign, Benn now argues that this label is no longer relevant, as “we have left and we have to move on.” His priority has now become focused on the mission to increase our bonds with Europe, stating that he believes “we need to build that new relationship with the EU bit by bit, step by step and that is the task to which I am devoting my efforts.”
Through his engagement as co-chair of the UK Trade and Business Commission and being a founding force in an upcoming EU/UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, Benn hopes to continue to understand “Labour’s role in trying to start that new conversation” which should be in the interest of forging a mutually beneficial economic relationship between the EU and the UK.
At ground zero of the political action, Benn tells me he has kept a close eye on the national news, and the recent scandalous revelation that Johnson not only attended but hosted illegal gatherings during 2020 lockdowns. “Untenable” is the way Benn describes Johnson’s position, describing the Prime Minister as “humbled for a man who I think has very little acquaintance with the concept of humility” following Johnson’s apology to the House of Commons on 12 January.
Delving deeper into Johnson’s future within the Conservative Party, Benn stated “The calculation now for the Tory party is do we think he can lead us to victory again, and the moment they conclude he cannot” due to the damage to himself and the Conservative brand, “they will pick somebody else.”
But national issues are not the only priority of a politician, with Benn’s first and foremost priority being in the heart of Leeds Central. 2022 brings new opportunities for Benn and he has a clear understanding of his priorities which will best serve his community.
First on the list of priorities is helping those affected by the crippling rise in the cost of living, including the rise in gas prices and the £20 per week reduction in Universal Credit payments, with 2022 looking like an “even more tough year” with “further increase in demand for help from food banks”. No stranger to visiting and supporting charity work within his constituency, Benn told me of the recent visit he undertook to South and East Leeds Food Bank, who were “expecting their busiest year ever”, doing vital work to support vulnerable families and individuals.
One of the most striking aspects of the next year for Benn comes with the accuracies of working poverty where “you’ve got many people working- both mum and dad if you’ve got children- working, maybe doing more than one job and still feel it is really hard to keep your head above water. When you add into that the National Insurance increase that is due in April, this is going to be a huge impact.”
Benn notes that while Labour have proposed measures to try and “ease the impact” they are still awaiting response from the Conservative Government and one of the biggest challenges faced is the “gap in opportunity, wealth, income, health, between one part of the constituency and the other” with differences of ten years life expectancy falling within a two-mile radius within Leeds Central.
The second red flag on his radar takes the form of fire safety measures and cladding, failing to live up to fire safety regulations yet covering buildings across the country. Benn spends his constituency days working with constituents who have discovered that “the home of their dreams, which they saved up hard to buy, has turned into a living nightmare because they have found unsafe cladding” and “other fire safety defects” – with the scandal unfolding far beyond the concerns over external cladding.
Benn explained that “four and a half years on from the Grenfell tragedy, and for so many people, their flats have been rendered worthless, so that means you can’t sell, can’t move, can’t get on with your life, can’t take up a job in another part of the country”, with added costs of insurance and ‘waking watch’ payments due to lack of fire safety measures within their homes. Inspired by the stories of those he represents, Benn has become deeply involved in national campaigns for government action, with recent developments seeing the Government agree to fund replacement of cladding on all buildings over eleven metres.
Benn told me openly that he views this as a “great injustice” in which “we have made real progress” still has further to go, to ensure responsible contractors come forward and claim responsibility and to remedy further fire safety violations which are yet to be rectified. A problem facing hundreds of constituencies nationally, this is an issue which stretches far beyond the boundaries of Leeds Central.
But that isn’t all Benn has on his mind, with his constituency being the first site of a Managed Approach or ‘red light district’, first implemented in Holbeck in 2014. Implemented originally to allow sex workers to operate without prosecution, with the inetntion of allowing those working in the industry to access much needed help and support. Following campaigns by residents, and a 50 percent decrease in activity in comparison to 2017/18, it was announced by Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Police that the Managed Area would now be closed.
Benn expressed his support for the decision to close the area, however raised concern that there will remain challenges as if “you abolish the managed approach tonight, what do you think is going to happen tomorrow?” arguing that even without the Managed Area, “there is still on street sex work taking place.”
While this may not be on the radar of the national agenda, individuals across Leeds remain invested in the outcome of the Managed Approach, but Benn admitted that the full effects of closure “remains to be seen”, explaining that “it had a mixed history, I don’t think there was effective enforcement to start with and there was a problem of cleaning up” with further complications from publicity and observation of the rules in place making it a “long and complicated story”.
Attuned to the issues of students and listening to the concerns of striking staff on the Picket Line in Leeds, when talking to Benn he addressed the developments of industrial action within Higher Education, Benn told Nouse that he hopes “we can see Universities moving away from casualisation, in the sense of fixed term or short-term contracts, because everyone in work is looking for security and prospect for a future but it does have an impact on students. When you add that on top of the impact of Covid, the uncertainty and learning from home, it is a really hard time.”
As May 2022 draws closer and campaigns for local elections are in the forefront of political parties, Benn is “absolutely” looking forward to campaigning for Labour candidates, adding that “it is a great opportunity for the party to be out there, for supporters to come and help our candidates” and a chance to test the often turbulent “political temperature of the country.”
This interview was conducted via Zoom on 13 January 2022.