Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Development, gave a talk and interview to the University of York’s Labour Club on June 1 in a bid to secure the support of students in his campaign for the deputy leadership.
Mr. Benn, who is the favourite to take over from John Prescott, answered questions regarding his campaign as well as Labour policy at home and abroad. The son of left-wing ex-Minister Tony Benn, Hilary has built a reputation for progressive views which place him firmly at the centre of the political spectrum, and his campaign has seen him backed by prolific Labour MPs such as David Blunkett and Baroness Amos who said of him in an open letter to the Guardian: “We come from different traditions in the labour movement but we are united in believing Hilary Benn should be the next deputy leader of the Labour party. What makes Hilary stand out is his ability to unite the party; to work with everyone; and to win people’s trust.”
Benn began by fielding questions about his campaign, claiming that the current situation in politics was “a great opportunity for the Labour party”, and describing Gordon Brown as “a very serious politician” with “strong moral purpose”. He believes that “the job of deputy leader is about more than coherence…it should be a ministerial job”, perhaps a criticism of John Prescott, who siphoned work to Ruth Kelly so he could fully concentrate on other matters.
He is “relishing” the prospect of meeting David Cameron in the next general election, because “politics is not about PR and spin, it’s about substance”. This line of thinking seems to be dominant in post-Blair Labour, that the “politics of image” were evicted from No. 10 the moment the PM announced his intention to step down. Benn is adverse to superficiality, stating that “if you want to have any influence… you have got to be part of policy arguments,” which again is something that John Prescott avoided.
Questions about Labour policy soon veered towards education, Benn opposing David Cameron’s recent stance on grammar schools. He stated that “Grammar schools entrench division,” and went as far as asking “why we don’t start a discussion about whether we want to keep selection”. Conversely, Benn thinks that tuition fees “aren’t that bad” and that “politics is about priorities”, his priority being on putting children from poorer backgrounds into higher education.
When asked how the government would try to regain public support for Europe after the negative views largely prevalent in the media, Benn described the press as “pragmatic”, and attributed the hostility towards the EU to the fact that Britain has never been ruled by fascists, and could not therefore understand the need for a united Europe. He stated that Europe should stick to “practical purposeful policy” for people to see it in a better light.
Benn supported the war in Iraq, and still stands by his decision, arguing that unilateralism was necessary in the same way it was in Kosovo, the UN being ineffectual. “I want the UN to acquire the means of effectively combating these crimes. The one thing the Iraqi people have now is the right to express a view. They have a federal democracy now”. He acknowledged that the operation was mismanaged, but that the supposed principles behind it, democracy and the deposition of Saddam Hussein, were enough to warrant the damage to Iraqi life and infrastructure.
Benn commented “politics isn’t a weird profession done by strange people.” Certainly, his amicable manner and pragmatic policies must appeal to a public often alienated from politicians. His ability to listen and speak his mind should stand him in good stead in the Deputy Leadership campaign.