Interview: Hilary Benn

He's made no enemies on his way up but does this would-be deputy leader's inoffensive demeanour mask

As we settle down on the sofa, Hilary Benn launches straight into a story about a recent visit to South Africa, where the Department for International Development is supporting a Church of England-run project in Pretoria for people with HIV/Aids. "We followed a man called Victor around and he was pulling a plastic container full of food up and down the paths in between corrugated iron walls. We knocked on one door and an old lady opened it. She is living in a room, ten foot by ten, with a dirty curtain separating her living space from where she sleeps, and she was blind." Benn explains that Victor gave the blind lady an apple, two rolls and margarine, and that he calls on her most days of the week. The lady told the British dignitary that a man had offered to concrete over her earth floor for 50 rand but had run off with the money.

The bishop and local councillor accompanying Benn prom ised she would get her concrete floor. He draws this conclusion: "Things like that remind all of us why we do this and why a lot of the things that allegedly pass for politics cannot be compared to trying to help people change their lives." It is a classic politician's story, designed to show compassion mixed with a desire to make a practical difference.

Such a response, Benn says, is another expression of the phenomenon eating at the heart of politics: cynicism. His deputy leadership campaign, he claims, is an attempt to re-inject idealism into the Labour Party and a government whose confidence has been undermined by Iraq and cash for honours. "The thing that worries me more than anything else is losing faith in the capacity of politics to change things. I don't mean scepticism, criticism, querying, but I do mean cynicism." We suggest that Labour, with its culture of spin, is at least partly responsible. "The truth is, we are partly to blame, you [the media] are partly to blame, and the culture of excessive expectation followed by inevitable disappointment is to blame," he says. "People are yearning for a politics that tells it straight: that being in government is difficult, that there are tough decisions that we have to make sometimes."

Benn likes to use the phrase "politics is not shopping", and here his political philosophy, as well his voice, resemble his father's. "Politics is not about 'I'll have a bit of this and a bit of that and in about five years' time I might shop with someone else'. Politics is a process, and there has to be a continual conversation between those who govern and those who give their consent to be governed." The Labour leadership should listen more to the members, and the members should listen more to the public. But the only specific proposal he suggests is that the position of party chair should be elected.

Asked what unique qualities he will bring to the job of deputy, he is equally vague. "We need someone who is going to offer honest advice and ensure the voice of the party is heard inside the highest reaches of government. We need someone who's going to listen and is good at working with people. And whoever gets the job, the party has got to demonstrate we are passionate about social justice."

In fact, Benn is vague on just about every policy issue we raise. We ask him about his year as prisons minister. Does he take any responsibility for the overcrowding crisis? He ducks the question, saying that there is a fundamental problem with the public's view of the effectiveness of community punishments. Even in his area of greatest expertise - education - he has no hard policy ideas, or else he is keeping them even closer to his chest than the Chancellor does. He is a champion of comprehensive education, inspired by his mother, the campaigning left-wing educationalist Caroline Benn. Educated at Holland Park Comprehensive in west London, he became education chair at Ealing Council and later worked as special adviser to David Blunkett. It might seem reasonable to expect big new ideas, but he insists on speaking in abstractions. "Like a lot of things in life, in the end it's about getting the balance right - the balance between high expectation, the right support and resources - and making sure that you tap the potential enthusiasm of the next generation."

Foreign dilemmas

Benn has been tipped for the job of foreign secretary in a Gordon Brown cabinet and the Chancellor is known to be an admirer of his work at DfID. So, it seems only right to push him on Iraq and Iran, and the theory and practice of military intervention that have so divided the left.

Benn stands by his decision to back the war in Iraq, though he says he has never thought about anything harder in his life. "In the end I voted in the way I did because I thought it was the right thing to do. I respect those who take a different view. I think if you look back over the history of Iraq - all the resolutions breached, all the slaughter that Saddam was responsible for - one of the questions we have to ask ourselves as a world is: Why weren't we more effective at dealing with it earlier?" Iraq, he says, poses a broader question. "We haven't yet found, as a world, an effective means of protecting human beings who face that kind of treatment." He lists Darfur as the latest of many dilemmas, but points to the joint mission of the UN and African Union as a positive step. Benn talks repeatedly of the need to bolster multilateral institutions, but, like so many who supported the Iraq war, finds it hard to reconcile that view with the events of 2003 in which George Bush and Tony Blair ignored the actions of the very UN inspectors who represented multilateral engagement. He then addresses a point at the heart of the anti-war case - the inconsistency of the way the world applies international norms. "We are hypocritical and inconsistent about when we choose to act, but the fundamental uncomfortable question isn't going to go away, is it?"

So we attack Iraq, but what about that other member of the axis of evil, Iran? With the Americans going down a familiar route of producing "evidence" of malfeasance, and with the British government uncomfortably saying little to deter them, we ask Benn what chances of a US or Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear installations. "You'd have to ask them. I don't think that would be the right thing to do at all. That's my view. I can speak for myself, I can't speak for others."

His answer is curt, but revealing. His awkwardness grows as we press the point. So why would military strikes not be the right thing to do in this case, if it was right against Saddam? "One, because we've got a process in relation to sanctions. Two, because there's clearly a political debate going on in Iran and I'm a very strong believer in trying to resolve those issues by dialogue and debate." But what if the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb continues? Why not intervene? "Because I'm not in favour of military action against Iran."

We give him every opportunity to leave the door open for military action and ask again: Why not intervene? "Because I'm not in favour of it." But what is the difference between Iran in 2007 and Iraq in 2003? "I think we can resolve this in a different way, because of the politics in Iran. I think that's a very, very big difference."

Gordon Brown has let it be known that he wants to develop an independent British foreign policy. He could learn a lot from Benn's work at DfID, which has often been at odds with the Bush administration. On Aids and drugs, the US approach could not be more different from the British. The Americans, influenced by the Christian right, have pursued a policy of drug eradication coupled with sexual abstinence, even influencing the UN to limit funding for needle exchanges and programmes that combine sex education with distribution of condoms. Instead, he has followed a non-moralising, "harm reduction" approach. "You've got to talk about sex, however embarrassing it is. Human beings have sex and they shouldn't die because they have sex - you should make condoms available. And you have to get treatment to people and fight stigma and discrimination because that encourages people then to be open about how to fight the disease."

He is dismissive of the American way. "Abstinence-only programmes are fine if you want to abstain, but not everybody does. Men have sex with other men and we have to work with them. Some people pay for sex: you've got to work with prostitutes. Some people, heaven knows why, inject themselves with drugs: clean needle-exchange programmes reduce the likelihood that the HIV virus is going to be passed on. It's very clear and we've just got to be straight about it."

We ask Benn for his assessment of the Bush administration. "Pretty Republican," is all he will say. Does he agree with Peter Hain's view that it is the most right-wing in living memory? "I'm not going to comment on that." Why not? "Because I don't want to. What I would say is where we agree, we work together, and where we don't agree then we say what we think." On climate change, he says the UK has opposed US scepticism about the existence of global warming. He threatens to wrestle us to the ground (metaphorically speaking) if we can come up with "a world leader who has done more to argue the case for a global agreement to tackle climate change than the Prime Minister". "It is a caricature that America just has to say, 'Britain, we want to do the following' and we say, 'Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.' It's just not true."

Hilary Benn came to parliament late, but his rise has been swift. He has made no enemies, and caused no offence. He has yet, however, to be fully tested. International Development is a good-news department. Now he is the bookies' joint fav ourite, with Alan Johnson, to succeed John Prescott as deputy prime minister. The public seems to buy his pitch that he is "a pretty straight guy". There's little reason to suggest that he would not do a good job, but if he could be persuaded to take the bold policies he developed at DfID into a wider international arena, Gordon Brown might start hoping that Benn will lose, so that he can make him foreign secretary.

Hilary Benn: The CV
Research by Sophie Pearce

Born 26 November 1953. Son of Tony and Caroline Benn
1979 Elected to Ealing Council
1983 and 1987 Unsuccessfully contests the Ealing North constituency
1986 Becomes youngest chair of Ealing's education committee
1997 Appointed special adviser to David Blunkett , Education Secretary
June 1999 Elected MP for Leeds Central. The turnout of 19.5 per cent is a postwar low
June 2001 Appointed under-secretary at the Department for International Development
May 2002 Appointed under-secretary at the Home Office
May 2003 Appointed minister of state for international development
October 2003 Promoted to Secretary of State for International Development
January 2004 George Monbiot accuses Benn's department of doing "more harm than good", for allegedly giving more "aid" to the Adam Smith Institute than to Liberia or Somalia
May 2005 Re-elected MP for Leeds Central
March 2006 Disowns parliamentary aide Ashok Kumar after Kumar calls for Tony Blair to stand down
September 2006 Withholds £50m payment to World Bank in protest at conditions attached to aid for poorer countries
October 2006 Announces candidacy for deputy leadership 25 years after his father, Tony, fought and lost the same contest

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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