An interview with Hilary Benn, MP

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

Sacked from his post of Shadow Foreign Secretary by Corbyn in June and now reportedly having to contend with the elections to his Leeds Central constituency Labour party (CLP) being dominated by Corbyn’s supporters, Hilary Benn is not experiencing his smoothest spell as the Member of Parliament for Leeds Central.

Despite these difficulties, Benn’s demeanour seems completely at odds with the political wilderness that he now struggles through. A picture of himself and Corbyn talking earnestly with Obama during the President’s April visit to the UK hangs on his office wall, an image that shows just how quickly things can change in politics.

As we talk it becomes clear, like it has every time I have heard him speak, that he is an effortless orator. At times this results in his answers becoming lost in historical preamble, yet his ability to persuade through emotive evidence is something that Labour leaders since the Blair years have lacked.

Despite advocating a degree of immigration control, Benn provides a polemical criticism of Theresa May’s attitude towards foreign students and immigrants. “You see things like 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 asked about Trump’s election victory, he seems as bemused as most by the result. “Internationally, it could have enormous consequences” Benn admits, giving an uncharacteristically concise answer. When pushed for analysis of the cause, Benn displays conflicting thoughts on the factors behind the victory of the political outsider, stating a combination of an urban/rural divide, the women who voted for Trump, and the unexpected backing of those with above average income.

Perhaps more significant than his statistical breakdown is Benn’s admiration for the defeated Hillary Clinton, which seemed to epitomise the slow death of liberalism across Western democracies. “I’m very sorry because Hillary Clinton would have made a very good president”, he muses, before adding: “For the first black president to be followed by the first female president would have been truly historic”.

Reiterating that the American people had spoken, the conversation segued to the topic of Brexit. Amid his sacking as Shadow Foreign Secretary and the stalemate between the PLP and the Labour Party 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, Benn 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. Benn justifies this stance on the non-binding referendum by relating it to the wider disillusion with the political establishment that is unfolding across the world. “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 and the forces that gave rise to Trump, Le Pen, the AfD in Germany, and Golden Dawn in Greece.”

The only time I see a crack in what some have compared to a kind, vicar-like manner was when I pushed him on the topic of the summer coup against Corbyn. Benn laments that because the government was elected on a mandate to hold an EU referendum he was not in favour of, we must democratically respect this mandate. When then asked why he thought a challenge to Corbyn would succeed given the mandate he was elected on, he abruptly fell silent whilst maintaining a fixed gaze with me, 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. “Well…. 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” Benn 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.”

This was Benn’s most concise answer of the interview, and 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 depicted a man that has become isolated during a period of political upheaval, with a divided Labour party exacerbated by a decision to leave the European Union and the arrival of an increasingly right-wing Conservative government.

As courteous and earnest as ever, Hilary Benn may be trapped in party that has changed utterly, but he is ever still the pragmatist. Fighting the prospect of hard Brexit (a phrasing he does not approve of, as its “all about practicalities”) from his new role of the chair of the Brexit select committee, one can see the clear difference between Benn and Corbyn – a parliamentarian in limbo and an activist as leader.

Regardless of which faction’s aims for the direction of the party would suit Labour best in such strange political times, it is heartening to see that in an era of divisive and post-truth politics, the integrity of those such as Hilary Benn remains.

Dominic Johnson and Jessica Murray

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