The Gryphon speak to Labour MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn about Jeremy Corbyn, the future of Syria and the government’s new PREVENT laws.
Since The Gryphon last spoke to you quite a lot has happened within the Labour Party, most notably Jeremy Corbyn being elected as your new leader. It is well documented that despite taking a role in Mr Corbyn’s new shadow cabinet, you did not support him in his leadership campaign. How have things changed since his election and do you think the Labour Party has grown stronger as a result?
Well the Party has certainly got stronger because we have gained a lot more members, registered supporters and affiliated supporters and I think that is a great thing. I think Jeremy’s campaign has enthused a lot of people; we saw that clearly during the campaign and since. People have said they feel he is refreshing, he is as he appears, he’s totally unspun, he says what he thinks, he stands up for what he believes in, and I think people feel this is an opportunity to discuss things that maybe weren’t being discussed before. So, I think the party is in very good heart.
We had an election and different people supported different candidates. I supported Andy Burnham, but the overwhelming view of the Party is that Jeremy was elected. He had a stonking great victory and now it’s up to the rest of us to support him, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.
You’ve recently voiced your opinion against the abolition of Britain’s Nuclear programme, TRIDENT. However, in the past Jeremy Corbyn has been a big campaigner for nuclear disarmament. Could you see this becoming a splitting issue in the Labour Party, and if so, how do you see this issue being resolved?
The policy of the Labour Party remains as it has been for thirty-odd years – we support the maintenance of our nuclear deterrent. Why do I think we should stick with the policy we have got? One, because I, like Jeremy, want a world where there are no nuclear weapons, but that is not the debate. The debate is how we get there, and I think we get there by a multilateral approach. If Britain was to get rid of its nuclear weapons tomorrow, does anyone really think any of the other nuclear states would follow? No they wouldn’t. So would our nuclear disarmament contribute to working towards a nuclear weapons-free world? Sure, there would be one less nuclear state, but it would not achieve the overall goal of a world without nuclear weapons.
The second argument is that we still live in a very dangerous world. You only have to look around you to see that this is the case, and it is obviously the responsibility of government to protect the nation, which I think our nuclear deterrent certainly does.
Finally, the purpose of our nuclear deterrent is not to be used, but to deter. Nobody wants to be in a position where they are faced with that choice, and luckily no British Prime Minister has ever been in that position. Apart from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which taught the world of the awful destructive power of nuclear weapons, they have not been used and therefore I think you can argue that they have successfully deterred.
Having said all of that I absolutely respect those who take a contrary view and as Jeremy and I, and everybody else agrees, the Party need to have a debate and discussion about defence policy more generally, including the place of the nuclear deterrent within that, and the Party Conference will decide.
However, as you may be aware, the future of the deterrent was not one of the issues voted for as a contemporary motion at this year’s Conference, and therefore was not discussed.
What is your opinion on PREVENT, the government’s new anti-terrorism legislation, which is obviously having an effect on students by obliging university staff members to report anything which could be interpreted as a sign of extremism?
This is a really difficult issue for our society. There are a small number of people who wish to do you and me harm, and you only have to look at the plots that have been foiled by the police and other security services to understand that there is a balance that needs to be struck between our individual liberty on the one hand, and government being able to identify who is a threat to us on the other.
When it comes to PREVENT, it raises the question – what do we do about ideology that can lead to this? What causes radicalisation? What causes these young women, completely unbeknown to their parents, to find themselves radicalised at home on the internet and decide at the age of 15 to buy a ticket, travel to Turkey, cross the Syrian border and join Isil Daesh?
As I understand it, guidance is being offered by the government, however, in the end the balance will be decided in the courts, I think. For universities in particular, this is especially challenging, because what do you accept as free speech and where do you challenge people?
Look, if you suspect someone of terrorist activity and you have enough evidence, then they should be prosecuted. The tricky bit for any government is if you suspect someone, but don’t have enough evidence. Do you wait for people to carry out their plot and act afterwards while people have died in the meantime, or should the government act using these preventative measures? So how do you strike this balance? The honest answer is that it is not easy to do, because you get it wrong one way and it appears heavy handed, but on the other hand, you get it wrong the other way and people die.
The last time you spoke to The Gryphon you emphasised the importance of further investment in the north to prevent Leeds graduates from moving to bigger cities such as London in search of work. Do you think the current government’s concept of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ can achieve this?
I am very strongly in favour of devolving powers and in my previous role as Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government I argued for that, and we had a set of commitments at the last General Election that were very clear. I think local authorities look at the current government pretty askance and think ‘Well over here you are cutting our funding enormously’, which is creating increasing problems for local authorities just to keep the basic services on the road. Over here, in the Leeds and Yorkshire region, if there is an offer to devolve further powers then councils are going to take it and I completely understand why.
I’m passionate about this for two reasons. The first is we can make better use of the economic potential of the North. London is a great powerhouse, but so are Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle and we can do better.
The second reason I’m passionate about it is that it helps to deal with the crisis of conflict that is in our politics at the moment. A big theme of British politics at the moment is the great thirst for devolution of power. Look at Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Look at the debate within European countries around this. Where decisions can be made at a lower level, and better taken, we should be supporting it because England remains a really centralised country and that is not good for our politics.
You’ve recently expressed support for airstrikes in Syria. Why is this the case, and how would you ensure they would not worsen issues such as the refugee crisis?
I don’t think that’s correct. I expressed support for a UN Security council resolution to deal with the threat Isil Daesh present. We have absolutely not taken a decision; we don’t know what the proposition is, parliament hasn’t even debated it. What Jeremy Corbyn and I have together said is that we want a UN security council resolution that will address the threat from Isil Daesh, and that will increase humanitarian aid to deal with the refugees.
Yvette Cooper is chairing our taskforce that has been out in Lesbos this week, because we’ve argued that as well as taking refugees from the immediate region, we should also be helping vulnerable refugees who have made that dangerous and perilous journey to Europe, because countries like Greece simply can’t cope.
We want to refer suspected war crimes to the international criminal court. We also want to ask people to look at whether it is possible to establish safe zones in Syria, and I know there’s a whole debate about that. Half the population of Syria are no longer living in the homes they were in before war broke out. Can you just imagine 32 million people in Britain having to flee their homes and find somewhere else to live in the next four years? You realise the scale of it.
Lastly, the only way you’re going to bring the civil war to an end, is by a negotiated agreement involving all of the powers, and Jeremy and I want that to be done through the United Nations. In relation to Isil Daesh, there are 60 nations who are now part of the coalition taking action in one form or another against them. But we have taken no decision about possible UK participation in air strikes in Syria, because the government hasn’t brought a proposition forward, and I think it’s important that we as Britain seek a United Nations resolution.
How would you like to see Leeds, along with the rest of the UK, deal with the refugee crisis in Europe right now? How can we help?
We have a long tradition of giving shelter to people fleeing persecution and civil war. Leeds also has a long tradition of this; those who came from Kosovo in ’99 came to Beeston and people welcomed them. It’s really important we give a warm welcome. If our homes had been bombed, and we had to flee to Syria, what kind of welcome would we like? This is a really important moral question for our society.
Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds City Council, has already looked at the places we can provide, as are all parts of the country. The government has said that funding will be available in the first year out of the international development budget, which is allowable under the rules governing the use of your aid budget. But the unresolved issue is what happens in year two and year three, going back to my earlier point about the huge cuts in funding councils are facing. They will say “Of course we want to help, but we need to know how you as government are going to assist us in paying for it.” We need to just get on with it, because to say to a refugee in a camp in Jordan, we might be able to help you in four and a half years time, is really not much cop is it? So the priority is to get on with bringing the people we have said we’ll take as quickly as possible, with the government working with local authorities and Yvette is leading our taskforce. I attended a meeting with her about a month ago with some representatives of local authorities and other voluntary organisations who are really keen to work together to make this possible.
The Labour party has a commitment to remaining within the EU, but unions have called for the party to join the campaign to quit if workers’ rights are affected by Cameron’s negotiations. How do you see the Labour party responding to this challenge?
I am absolutely with all of our trade union colleagues in saying to David Cameron do not mess with workers rights as part of this renegotiation. After all, the reason we have paid holiday in this country, the fact that agency workers have better protection and the fact we have improved maternity and paternity leave is down to the European Union. Where I take a different view from some of the things being said is, if he were to make the mistake, the answer is not to say, “Right, we’re leaving.” The answer is to say, let’s get a Labour government, and let’s get those rights back by being part of Europe. We want a strong social Europe, that’s what we’ve argued for as a Labour movement, and that’s the difference in view in relation to that.
The reason the Labour party is in favour of staying in the European Union, actually regardless of the outcome of Mr Cameron’s renegotiation, is not because we think Europe is perfect – it isn’t. It’s not because we don’t want to see change in Europe – we do. But what has Europe given us? It’s given us jobs, growth, investment, security and influence in the world. Actually Britain’s voice is louder because we’re part of Europe.
(Image courtesy of Jodie Collins)
Jessica Murray & Greg Whitaker