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I believe we can change things for the better
Hilary Benn has been the Labour MP for Leeds Central since 1999. When Labour was in power, he was a member of the government, working in the Home Office and as International Development Secretary, amongst other roles. He was in the shadow cabinet for many years, though he’s currently a backbencher.
Hilary was born in London 1953 to Tony and Caroline Benn. He’s been involved with Labour politics all his life, at home as much as at work. Hilary’s father was an MP – and so were his grandfather and two of his great-grandfathers! The family business extends to his niece Emily, who stood for parliament several times.
Hilary is married to Sally and the couple have 4 children. He’s a teetotaller, a vegetarian and has a degree in Russian and east European Studies. Now 67, Hilary continues to support his constituents with energy and enthusiasm. “We all have a responsibility to play our part, to make it better,” he says. “That is part of the purpose of life.”
Hilary took time out of his busy schedule to talk on Zoom to Shine writer Ruth Steinberg.
You've got this proud
sense of history
and astonishing diversity of things happening in Leeds
I wanted to start with you being a ‘Benn’. Give an insight into growing up in such a well-known political family. What was good about it and what do you think you missed out on?
It was a very, very happy childhood. I've got two brothers and a sister. We talked about what was going on in the world all the time. When you're little, you assume that all families are like your own, because it's the only one you know. When I got a bit older, I began to realise what it was that my father did and why people took an interest in what he did. I was never terribly keen on school, I have to confess, but we enjoyed family holidays and you know, all the interests that children and young people have. But what did I miss out on? Dad was away a lot because he was in Parliament, he was busy. But when he was at home he would be working in the basement and I’d go down either to say, “can you help me with my homework?” or “can I borrow the scissors or a bit of Sellotape?” Our mum organised our lives. Even though I followed my father and grandfather’s footsteps I had to find my own way in the world.
Why did you decide to become an MP?
Well, when I was ten, I wanted to be a firefighter, because my grandfather took me to a display. I watched men from the London Fire Brigade running up ladders and reeling out hoses and that made a great impression on me - and I thought being a firefighter would be good. But then when that wore off, what I do now is all I ever wanted. Politics is a very uncertain business. The first two times I stood for parliament I lost. The first time I stood for the Council I lost. Luck plays a bit of a part. My father became an MP because Stafford Cripps died. I became an MP after my wonderful predecessor Derek Fatchett died and therefore there was a by-election.
Could you say something, as we're now getting older, about age versus youth in politics?
You have more experience. You've made more mistakes. And hopefully, I think that's the purpose of making mistakes, you learn from them. Being a politician is partly about being a problem solver, and sometimes the problems are very difficult, deep seated, and appear irreconcilable. I grew up in the 60s and the 70s. I remember the night I heard an IRA bomb go off, a sound that will always remain with me. I thought it was so close, I got up. It was actually in Chelsea, two or three miles away. But if you'd said to me then, “don't worry Hilary, one day Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness will sit side-by-side at the table as the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for power sharing government in Northern Ireland” I might have said, “I don't think I'm going to see that in my lifetime”. But I did and that shows the power of political leadership and courage. But, of course, youths have greater energy and you know the old saying of older people: “If only I had the knowledge I have now and the youth that I had then, oh, what might have been possible”.
You’ve been an MP for over 20 years, what's changed over those 20 years?
Ah well, the way people communicate with us has changed. I suppose when I was first elected, a large pile of post would come, and emails weren't quite so many. Now the post is down here and email up to the ceiling and beyond. I suppose it’s easy for a lot of people to contact their Member of Parliament, but of course not everyone is able to write an email or letter and that's why I worry about the absence of in person advice surgeries.
Obviously, Brexit has come along. There really wasn't much debate about leaving the European Union in 1999, when I was first elected. And it's changed a lot of things. It has bitterly divided the nation. I worry about our ability, in the words of Barack Obama, “to disagree agreeably”. But I've also learned that Parliament is in many ways the clash of the parties. You vote for some things, against some things.
Legislation often underpins a change that is taking place in society anyway. You can't just legislate out of the blue for something if that isn't where society is. You know, when we were born, the idea that people would have been told you can't smoke on the bus ... there would be outrage. Then it changed to: if you wanted to smoke on the bus you had to move to the upper deck. Now there is no smoking in any public place.
Why can’t Labour and Conservatives work together more on Covid?
I think in fairness that Keir Starmer has been doing a great job. He said throughout, “Look, where we agree with what the government is doing, we will support it.” Keir is not interested in opposition for opposition’s stake. And therefore, we have supported a number of measures and expressed our support. But Keir also says where we think the government got it wrong. Accountability and scrutiny are really important. The vaccination programme has been an astonishing success. I pay tribute to the government for taking a punt on loads of different vaccines by putting in advance purchase orders, having no idea whether anyone of them would produce anything of any use.
I’ve had my first jab. It was a really uplifting experience, joyful, welcoming. It made me feel very emotional because this is our National Health Service. This is another example of the power of politics to transform people’s lives, which, being a Labour MP, I am very, very proud of. I think back to Nye Bevan and Clement Atlee. When I was 12, my dad took me to a Labour rally at the Albert Hall and he took me up to a frail old man. He said, “Hilary, this is Clement Atlee.” I remember fleetingly meeting this man. He died, I think, the following year. He was the Prime Minister of an extraordinary post war Labour Government, which does tell you what you can do in a crisis. It makes governments do things that they might not do in ordinary circumstances. If someone said to Rishi Sunak prior to the pandemic, that you're going to pay the wages of nine million people, he might have thought “I can’t see any circumstances in which this would happen”, but it did. And rightly so.
You're a Londoner, talk to me about your connection with Leeds.
I should tell you that my great, great, great grandfather William was born in Hunslet in 1799, and his parents were married three years earlier in 1796 at the old Leeds Parish Church. William eventually moved to Manchester, met a woman and they had a child called Julius. The family eventually moved to East London where Julius ran a home for boys. He had a number of children, but my direct descendant was John, who was elected to the London County Council and was briefly an MP, as was my grandfather William and then my father and then me. When I was elected my aunt said to me, “Hilary, you ought to look in the phone directory because there are more Benns in Leeds than there are Benns in the phone directory in London”. I did look, and it was indeed true.
Leeds is a magical place. Last Saturday afternoon, for our exercise, my wife and I took a walk round Holbeck because I spend a lot of time in my little car whizzing around from appointment to appointment. We passed Marshall’s Mill, the flax mill which shows Leeds’s adaptability. About 700 people worked in that mill when it was a flax mill and about 700 people work in it today, but now they work in tech businesses. So, we have evolved and adapted. It has the same physical fabric, but it houses new industries. We walked past Temple Works, the wonderful Egyptian-fronted building with the glass skylights, and I hope that we're going to be able to do something with that as a city. So, you've got this proud sense of history and astonishing diversity of things happening in Leeds. Because unlike some other places, we, as a city, weren't wholly dependent or greatly dependent on one industrial sector. You got everything. When businesses think about moving to Leeds they see all that is on offer and what surrounds us in the glorious countryside of Yorkshire - what a wonderful place to be. It's a great city. A great, great city. Now I'm probably still regarded as a West Londoner by birth. It probably would be another 50 years before I finally am given local status. It's a great privilege to be the Member of Parliament for the heart of the city, but also for the inner city because of the contrast between rich and poor, prosperity and lack of opportunity. That is the greatest challenge we face in Leeds. It's the greatest challenge facing the country. It's the greatest challenge we face in the world. It's the same issue.
What do you think are the important issues for older people?
I support a number of organisations as a patron of, for example, Caring Together in Woodhouse and Little London, and as the patron of Holbeck Together. This used to be called Holbeck Elderly Aid, but changed its name because it's spreading out the range of activities. I see the work that they, and lots of other organisations working with older people, do in Leeds. Part of what they do is to provide friendship and to combat loneliness. We know that there's an epidemic of loneliness in society.
Leeds and the voluntary sector and the Council have done a fantastic job. They have responded to people's needs to make sure that people don't go hungry, it’s been positively inspirational. That's down to community spirit, community organisation. I think the biggest challenge we face is, of course, social care. There are three aspects of our health. There's our physical health, mental health, and that universal process known as ageing. Today I may be well, tomorrow may break my leg, the day after that I may be depressed and the day after that I will be old and I'm still the same person, but my needs have changed. I long for a time when we have a National Health and Social Care Service. There are older people who are in hospital beds in the LGI, or Jimmies, who don't need to be there for medical reasons, but they're there for want of somewhere suitable to discharge them to. We need to support the voluntary organisations working with older people because they provide this astonishing and wonderful range throughout the city, providing opportunity and hope. But we need to fix the system because it isn't working.
How has this pandemic affected you personally?
Well, not being able to do the job I’ve done for the last 21 years in the way that I've done it. As I mentioned earlier, to be able to get out and about, seeing people, meeting constituents. I do online surgeries now. But I worry about those who don't connect to that who would walk through the door because they knew that's where I would be found seven times a month in different locations around the constituency. It's obviously affected the way Parliament works. Parliament is otherwise deserted. At a personal level, it is not being able to see and hold our children, and grandchildren. Although we did have one grandchild and her mum and dad living with us for a while and that was a great joy.
What else brings you joy?
My family, reading, music, and being inspired by people. We talked about hope earlier and it's the most important thing we have to hang on to. Sometimes people ask me “how do you do this job?” and I say, “because I'm an optimist”. I believe we can change things for the better. It's like climbing a mountain. You huff and you puff and then you stop, because you have to catch your breath - and every so often it pays just to look over your shoulder to see from whence you have come, because it gives you, and it gives each other encouragement, on to the next, on to the next.
If you are one of Hilary’s constituents and wish to contact him, phone 0113 2441097 or
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