In Conversation With: Fabian Hamilton
First running for Leeds North-East in 1992, Fabian Hamilton has held the seat since 1997. For the past twenty years, he’s worked tirelessly for the people of his constituency, earning his place in the shadow cabinet from 2016 with the new position of Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament. Editor-in-Chief Reece Parker, and New Editor Jonny Chard, speak with him about Trident, the Rohingya Crisis, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
You saw your personal majority grow by 15% to 17,000 in the latest election. How did you find the campaign?
The extraordinary thing about the 2017 result comes when you see it in context. North East Leeds was, for nearly 100 years, a Tory seat. In 1987 Labour was in third place, around 12,000 votes, with the Social Democratic Party 1500 votes above us, and the Conservatives with an overall majority of about 22,000 votes. I stood in 1992 and lost by 4000 but established Labour as the main contender in opposition to the Tories. We won in 1997 with a 7000 majority, and people said ‘you’ll hold it for two terms then it will revert to type’. Our majority decreased slightly in 2001, dipped after the Iraq War in 2005 due to our large Muslim population, although I did strongly oppose the war. Labour were damaged, we went down to around a 5300 majority, and people said ‘you’ve lost it, Labour was out, Hamilton was out, end of story’. We won by 4500 votes. That was the low water mark. 2015 was the worst year for us [Labour] in living memory, and we increased our majority to our highest ever, 7250 votes, and a total of 23,000 votes. Move to June 8th this year, and its now just nine short of 17,000, with the majority bigger than the entire Conservative vote of 16000. We are the second safest in Leeds after central Leeds.
It was a personal victory but it was also a party victory and a victory for the workers. We had almost 100 people on the street, almost continuously for the entire campaign, in multiple locations. The Tories couldn’t compete with that, nobody could really compete with that. There were 7 candidates, but it became a very binary election.
Do you believe Jeremy Corbyn is capable of winning the next general election?
Absolutely. The election was declared on April 18th, the day after the Easter holidays and the day we were due back in parliament, everybody was in shock. The first couple of weeks were a bit rocky. For the first couple of weeks we were getting a lot of people saying ‘yes’ in regards to voting for us, but then always ‘but’. People didn’t like Corbyn, or Brexit, or some-other reason. We began to get rumours of the manifesto about 10 days before it was actually launched and people were saying ‘I quite like what you’re putting in the manifesto, I might vote for you because of that… but I don’t like Corbyn’. Then of course it changed, and it changed radically when Corbyn turned up to the Brudenell Social Club and 5000 people were there. They weren’t all students, you look at the pictures, there’s people as far as the eye can see, but actually a lot of them are older people, younger people, children even, it’s a complete mixture. As we got nearer people were saying ‘I’ve never voted labour before but I’m voting labour because of corbyn’, so the complete opposite. ‘I like the manifesto, you’ve got it right’.
Could he [Corbyn] be prime minister? Has he got what it takes? I think he showed we had. We are such a class ridden society that we believe our leaders, whether male or female, have to be kind of superhuman, have to be people up there that we can never touch, that we can never come close to, and we attack them for being like that but actually that’s what we are looking for, someone that is not one of us. Increasingly that’s become something that people are disillusioned with. They don’t want some kind of remote leader who doesn’t have any idea what people go through day in day out. Can Corbyn be prime minister? My answer is not conventionally no, but he’s shown that he’s a man that actually understands what people are going through, that he empathises with people. Look at Grenfell tower after the election, he was straight out there, that could’ve backfired very badly. But the first person he’d met was somebody he’d known for years. He is what we need actually, he’s ordinary, normal, he understands people’s anxieties and pressures.
Do you think the attempts to oust him are now completely over?
Yes. You have to contrast the first PLP meeting in June after the election with the one the year before just after the EU referendum. It was boiling hot and hostile. Corbyn spoke and was heckled, and anyone who tried to support him was shouted down, he sounded robotic and he sounded exhausted. A year on, even those who hated Corbyn admit they only scraped in through a handful of votes due to the ‘Corbyn Effect’. Some thought he was going to lose and that he was going to lose the next ten elections, and he proved the opposite, and that’s all they want. They may not like his brand of politics, and some of the people around him, but they full accept that he’s an election winner not a loser.
You recently called for Labour to change its policy toward renewal of Trident. Why was this?
I’ve always been opposed to our nuclear so-called ‘deterrent.’ My view on Trident is that the matter is decided, we can’t go back on this now. The money’s gone, the submarines have been built, but we don’t have to deploy them and I would rather we didn’t. Can we stop trident? I don’t think we can, but can we get rid of our nuclear weapons? Yes, by treaty. We have the United Nations Band Treaty, and when you change the international norms of a certain type of weaponry, as we did for chemical weapons, you make them illegal. It doesn’t matter if all the countries in the world don’t sign up for it, it the majority of the members of the UN do, then it starts to become rather disreputable to own these weapons. Already more than 50 countries have signed up for it, and once 50 ratify it through the international Parliament, within 90 days of the 50th country signing it, it becomes international law whether we’ve signed it or not.
Every nuclear weapons system is irrelevant in the event of a cyber-attack, and our entire world is dependent on information and communication technologies. You can shut down the NHS, you can shut down traffic systems. We should be concentrating on hybrid warfare, on asymmetric attacks. Your enemies are different now, its not a polarised world where you have the Soviet Bloc vs the Western Bloc, and therefore these weapons are totally outdated. I think we’ve just spent a lot of money on something which will be totally irrelevant.
With the stand-off between North Korea and the United States, and Donald Trump recently dismissing Rex Tillerson’s attempt at diplomatic dialogue and negotiation with ‘Little Rocket Man’ as ‘wasting his time’, peace and disarmament is seemingly unattainable. What is your response to the level of nuclear threat posed by the situation?
It’s very dangerous and it certainly threatens to spiral out of control with someone like Donald trump in the White House. But let’s step back for a minute, Kim Jong-Un may be a dictator but he’s not mad. Gaddafi started to develop a nuclear weapons system, and he was persuaded to dismantle it. In return we [promised] to have diplomatic relations with him again and Libya would be not excluded from the international community. Look what happened to Libya, not only was he deposed and eventually murdered, but it’s a total mess. Kim Jong Un isn’t mad, getting rid of nuclear weapons doesn’t do any good because [to him] you can’t trust the West and the only threat they understand is a nuclear deterrent. It’s an evil wicked regime but you have to see it from his respective. How do we deal with it? We have to talk to these people. The economy of North Korea is less than 2% of that of South Korea, even though they spend a third of their GDP on defence, it is a fraction of what South Korea spends on theirs. I think we need to talk to them. Clearly your people have needs, your economy has needs, how can we help you develop that economy to benefit people you claim to represent.
Speaking of foreign affairs, Boris Johnson claimed earlier this month that ‘Sirte’, a Libyan city, could become a world class tourist destination if it could ‘clear the dead bodies away’. Heidi Allen, a fellow Tory MP has called for him to be sacked. What is your take on the whole situation?
It’s a shocking thing to say. The problem with Boris is that there’s only one thing Boris is interested in, it’s Boris. This is a man who purports to be one of the most brilliant and best educated people who acts as a clown, I think actually he’s a fool, who pretends to be clever and acts as a clown. He only cares about Boris Johnson. He knows what he wants, but he’s not even clever at it.
With the Rohingya crisis, as its not one which receives much mainstream press coverage so do you mind giving us a quick overview of what it is for our readers. Outline the current Conservative policy towards the crisis, and if you were in power, how would yours differ?
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority of Bangladeshi/ Bengali origin who were forcibly moved by the British empire into what we used to know as Burma, but is now known as Myanmar. That was a few generations ago, they’ve never been accepted by the Burmese who are predominantly Buddhists. Burma has been run a group who took over the country thirty years ago and have ruled it with a rod of iron rod ever since. One of the democracy campaigners was Aung San Suu Kyi who won a Nobel prize for her promotion of democracy and her opposition to these appalling people around the country. The problem is, here are a group of fairly poor people, they’ve never been given citizenship to the country and so they are kind of strangers in their own land. So in the frustration of the discrimination they face day in day out, a small number formed a kind of radical terror cell, if you like, and started attacking police stations and military institutions.
What you have to remember and Myanmar is that Aung San Suu Kyi, after nearly 30 years of campaigning for democracy, is now nominally the leader of the country, but the generals are still in control. She doesn’t have any say over the military forces whatsoever under the new constitution. Of source she should be speaking out about this, but she’s quite scared. She’s getting a lot of the opprobrium from the international press and the governments in the world. I’d like to be a bit softer on her, but I’d like her to speak out, don’t get me wrong. In retaliation for the attacks by a small proportion of the Rohingya Muslims, The Burmese forces and police started burning, pillaging, murdering and raping Rohingya people so they fled en-masse to Bangladesh. It’s a terrible, terrible humanitarian situation, it really is a genocide in a way, and two million have turned up on the border of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a very poor country, it does not have the resources to support them, the UN is doing its very best, and people are calling the Nobel prize award of Aung San Suu Kyi to be withdrawn. I feel that’s irrelevant, what we have to do is put pressure on. We raised this in the House of Commons, and the answer that Mark Field, the Minister for State gave was really complacent. It overlooked the fact that the Burmese authorities are not democratically accountable, that it’s not a proper democracy, that they went completely haywire after some pretty serious criminal attacks by people from the Rohingya minority and took it out on all of them. It is disgraceful, and the government are saying it’s not surprising that the authorities are doing this, that we’ll do what we can to help and we’ll put the pressure on.
No, we should be taking the lead in the UN Security Council, we should be saying no, never mind Aung San Suu Kyi, the regime there will never be accepted in the international community if they continue to do things like this, and we will stop all exports of weapons and know-how and assistance to Myanmar as long as this carries on. That we expect them to pay the costs, pay their dues to the people who have been expelled, compensate the people who have been murdered, and bring to justice those who have done the murdering. We need to be much stronger otherwise people get away with it.
When your post of ‘shadow minister for peace and disarmament’, Gerald Howarth, a Conservative MP shunned it as ‘absurd’, and that your job would be ‘What are they going to do, go around and be nice to people’. Your thoughts?
I initially said ‘ [it’s a] strange thing to say’. I spoke to the Bishop of Leeds, who said ‘I thought what’s wrong with that, it’s a good start, why don’t we be nice to people’. There are some people in the world who are so evil and wicked, you can never ever change them, you’ve just got to deal with them. But the vast majority of them are nasty for a reason, and if you attack the underlying reason you might just get some sense out of them. I think, yes let’s be nice to people, that’s a good start.
Claims of anti-Semitism have plagued the Labour Party in recent years. As a Jewish man, yourself, do you feel the Party dealt with the allegations in an appropriate manner and do you feel the Party is doing enough to deal with the problem?
I don’t think we have done a good job and covered ourselves in glory. There are a fringe of people in the Labour Party, as there are in all political parties, that think the cause of all the issues in the world is ‘the Jews’. No, we’ve not dealt with it adequately in my opinion, we could’ve been much stronger. Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite or a racist, he never will be, there isn’t a bone in his body that’s anti-Semitic or racist, and I know that because I know him personally. Still, there are some people around him that like to call themselves Corbynites or Momentum Supporters that believe this lie that the cause of all the problems in the reason is the existence of the state of Israel and the so-called Zionists who are the enemy. You cannot separate Zionism and Israel from the Jewish people. Every Jew in this country will have a relative in Israel. I don’t like what the government of Israel does, that does not mean to say that I think the state of Israel should be abolished or should not exit.
What is your favourite thing about being a Leeds MP?
The city of Leeds of course. Of course I want Leeds United to do well but I’m not a great football fan. I’d say the other thing is what we’ve done in cycling, because that’s my sport. I’m London born but I’ve lived here 38 years now. Leeds has been very good to my family, all my kids were brought up here and have Leeds accents. It’s a great city and I’m so proud of it, it has been a real privilege serving North-East Leeds for 20 years.
Since the interview, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Fabian Hamilton gave the following to statement regarding their success:
As a long-time supporter of ICAN and the work it does to encourage the ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide, I am extremely pleased it has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. This comes in the year that ICAN have made ground-breaking progress towards a comprehensive Nuclear Ban Treaty at the United Nations, after the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was agreed to by 122 member states in July this year. The Labour Party has shown its commitment to peaceful means of negotiation over conflict, and the work IPAC have done in support of this treaty has made an important and real difference to how nuclear weapons are viewed in the international community. Much like chemical and biological weapons, states that choose to use nuclear weapons should be seen on the same terms. Labour will work with IPAC to prevent the use of these horrific weapons that are not only a threat to innocent lives, but also a threat to international peace and stability. The British Government now needs join the other 122 signatories to acknowledge and support the UN Nuclear Ban Treaty, so Britain can lead the way on the banning and eventual abolition of nuclear weapons.
Reece Parker and Jonny Chard