‘It was a difficult summer for the Labour Party’: an interview with Hilary Benn, MP

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The Gryphon’s Associate Editor, Dominic Johnson, sat down with Hilary Benn, Member of Parliament for Leeds Central, to discuss Trump, Brexit, and the state of the Labour Party.

Sacked as Shadow Foreign Secretary in June for his role in the attempted coup against the Labour leader and now having to contend with the election of Corbyn supporters to the Leeds CLP, Hilary Benn is not experiencing his smoothest spell as MP for Leeds Central.

Despite these difficulties, his demeanour is completely at odds with the difficult situation in which he finds himself. A picture hangs on his office wall of himself and Corbyn chatting earnestly with President Barack Obama during his April visit to the UK, an image of a very different political time for all three men.

In terms of policy, Benn is keen to draw attention to the government attitude towards foreign students and immigrants. ‘You see that headline at the Tory conference: “crackdown on overseas students”. Well, when I last looked, I wasn’t aware that they were a problem that needed to be cracked down on. It’s similar to the way the government has said “well, foreign doctors, you can stay in the meantime until we train our own.” I will no longer be alive by the time we get round to doing that.’

When discussing Trump’s election victory, Benn seems as bemused as most British MPs at the result. ‘Internationally, it could have enormous consequences’ he admits, giving an uncharacteristically concise answer. When pushed for analysis of its cause, he muses on the political advantage of being the anti-system candidate, the surprising number of women who voted for Trump, and the unexpected support from people of above average income.

More acute than his explanation of the result, Benn’s admiration for the defeated Hillary Clinton is explicit: ‘I’m very sorry because Hillary Clinton would have made a very good president’, he admits, before adding: ‘for the first black president to be followed by the first female president would have been truly historic’.

After his sacking as Shadow Foreign Secretary and the divergence between the PLP and Labour members, Benn has managed to find alternative ways of holding the government to account, having been elected by MPs to chair the Brexit Select Committee. On the topic of the current status of negotiation, he speaks passionately: ‘the government are saying they can’t reveal their hand or give a running commentary, but I’m not looking for that. I simply want to know their plan and aims, what are they seeking?’

Although he criticises the government’s negotiations, he is keen to underline that the vote will be honoured and Brexit will happen. ‘I think it’s the wrong decision [to leave], but the British people made their choice. If you think we’ve got a crisis of confidence in our political system now, imagine the idea that parliament could turn around and say “no we think you got it wrong so we’re going to ignore the decision” – then you would see a crisis of confidence.’

The only change in his calm, vicar-like manner occurs when we broach the topic of the summer coup against Corbyn. After Benn asserted that because the government was elected on a mandate to hold an in-out referendum, Leave’s victory must also be democratically respected, I then asked why he thought a challenge to Corbyn would succeed given the mandate he was elected on. Benn abruptly fell silent while maintaining a fixed gaze, claiming he did not understand the question.

I tried to clarify that if he were saying that in a democracy you should respect the majority’s decision, then in relation to Corbyn’s landslide leadership victory, I was asking why he thought that a coup would succeed: ‘Look, I don’t really want to revisit the past in great detail because Jeremy has been re-elected, I’ve congratulated him, and its time for unity and the party to get on with being an effective opposition’ he said after a long pause, slowly regaining his relaxed manner.

‘It was a difficult summer for the Labour Party, and you can see what happened and what people said. It’s a bit of a problem when 80% of the team you’re leading in parliament votes in the way that it did. But look, under our rules, people can challenge, and that’s happened in the past with other Labour leaders who were elected by overwhelming majorities which were challenged by people – including Jeremy.’

Things soon revert back to an explanation that you need to win an election to get things done in politics. Nevertheless, this small glimpse at exasperation revealed a seasoned politician isolated in a period of political upheaval.

Fighting the prospect of hard Brexit from his new role as Chair of the Brexit Select Committee, Hilary Benn may have been removed from the inner-circle of a changing Labour Party, but it is clear that this established parliamentarian is not content to watch politics unfold the sidelines.

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