The continuing adventures of Mr Benn: Hilary Benn interview
by Jess Bowie / 04 Jul 2014 [first published in Total Politics Magazine, Issue 71 July 2014]
Few Labour ministers have made the transition from Blair to Brown to Miliband as seamlessly as Hilary Benn, an MP proud of his late father’s political legacy and determined to create his own. Jess Bowie meets the shadow communities secretary.
Under the canopy of indoor trees in Portcullis House, Hilary Benn looks intently at the dictaphone on the table.
“So the fact that bit is going up and down shows you’re picking up sound?” he asks politely, even though he knows the answer. “The thing is, if you have an attachment to spooling capstans in old tape recorders…” he adds wistfully.
Few are better acquainted with the mechanics of old tape recorders than Hilary Benn. They were a constant presence during his childhood – alongside the cassettes and piles of papers that littered his father’s basement study in Holland Park. Not content with simply recording his famous diaries onto tape at the end of each day, Tony Benn also took a small tape recorder with him wherever he went so he could capture the political events of the day even as they were happening.
“Have you ever seen a wire recorder?” Benn asks, warming to the theme. “It’s a big machine like this, and it has two capstans that would go up and down, and a very thin wire would pass between them, and it recorded sound. Dad had one or two recordings that we’d ask him to play to us when we wanted to have a good laugh. One was him attempting to commentate at Wimbledon. You know he worked as a BBC producer?”
Benn then describes how, just before being elected to Parliament in 1950, his father had gone along to Wimbledon to try his hand at commentating a match between a Mr Oakley and a Mr Spicala.
“All he could do was mention one or other of the tennis players’ names, and of course the rally would be over. I don’t think tennis quite lends itself to radio in the way football does, but it made you realise, if you listen to my beloved dad trying to commentate, that Max Robertson, the great doyen of radio commentators, really was good.”
Benn still doesn’t know whether his father made the recording for fun or for some more serious purpose. “All we knew was that there was this tape recording, and we could laugh at it,” he says with a grin.
When Tony Benn died in March at the age of 88, political figures from across the spectrum paid their respects, and crowds of mourners gathered at Westminster to watch as his coffin was carried into St Margaret’s Church. Thousands more across the country grieved for the loss of one of the towering figures of twentieth-century politics.
“As a family of course we were profoundly moved,” says his son, when asked about the huge volume of tributes to his father – and what Tony himself might have made of them.
“I am near finishing replying to every letter anyone wrote to me, and that has been a big task. What really comes across to us as a family is the way in which he touched so many people’s lives, either by his reputation, his belief, his argument, his character, his warmth – particular interactions he had with people. People who said ‘I profoundly disagreed with his politics but I admired…’ – all of those things. As he said before he died, if you’re looking for an epitaph, use ‘he encouraged us’. And it is very clear to us from what people have said, and what we have read, that he encouraged an awful lot of people.”
No one more so than his son. When Benn talks about the “enormous influence” that his father – and his mother, a celebrated educationalist and remarkable figure in her own right – had on him and his siblings, the word “encouraged” crops up several times.
Benn also cites some advice from his grandfather William which has stood him in good stead: in life and in politics never wrestle with a chimney sweep.
“He basically meant: your opponents may be down in the gutter playing low, but that is absolutely no reason to join them and get covered in soot. Take on the argument, not the person,” Benn explains.
The grandfather Benn is referring to is William Wedgwood Benn, 1st Viscount Stansgate, who served as Secretary of State for India in the early 30s. Hilary may be part of one of Britain’s most famous political dynasties – the Benn lineage spans three centuries – but his modest reference to “my dad’s dad” is also fitting for the son of a man who was so committed to democracy that he got the law changed so he could renounce his hereditary peerage and return to parliament as an elected MP.
Although they have been noted many times before, the physical similarities between father and son remain striking. (Peter Mandelson once suggested an image change for the younger, more centrist Benn to soften the association – a piece of advice Hilary duly ignored). There is also something of his father in Benn’s style of speaking; Tony’s gift for oratory has clearly been passed down, too.
One particular flourish is Benn’s use of numbered points to make his arguments, which typically come in three parts. There are, for example, three reasons why Labour’s commitment to localism is “clear and strong”, the shadow communities secretary explains. The first of these draws on the party’s time in government. “At its peak we had 1,200 performance indicators for local government,” Benn says. Although this was slimmed down to 200 towards the end of Labour’s tenure, it was a useful lesson “that you can’t run everything from the centre”.
“The second reason why things are changing, and will have to change, is that there isn’t the same amount of money about. The pressure to bring the money that is about – the Whitehall pound and the local pound – and apply it at the local level to get the most effective outcome, is now overwhelmingly strong.”
The recent European election results provide the third reason. UKIP’s success, Benn argues, demonstrates that “a lot of people feel that too many decisions are taken too far away from them”. “There is a debate about Europe, but there is also a real thirst for more power to be devolved locally”.
If people have greater opportunities to take decisions for themselves, they have to participate in the political process, and for Benn, this will be “fundamental to restoring confidence in our democracy and our politics”.
Benn has been shadowing communities secretary Eric Pickles since 2011, and seems to be firmly on top of a sprawling DCLG brief. Indeed, the transcript of his interview frequently reads like a meticulously detailed policy document, covering everything from his party’s plans for further devolution to both city and county regions (“I’m really strong on devolving powers to county regions, not just cities – something the government hasn’t done”), to Ed Miliband’s ‘use it or lose it’ warning to developers who fail to build houses on land for which they have planning permission.
Unsurprisingly, Benn doesn’t have much truck with his Tory counterpart. Pickles, he says, talks a lot about localism, but “isn’t really much of a localist”.
“For example, he spent a quarter of a billion pounds on trying to persuade councils to change their rubbish collection arrangements because he was obsessed with weekly collections. And do you know how many councils he persuaded with the offer of quarter of a billion pounds to change their policy? One. I mean that was a terrible waste of money in our current financial circumstances. Or look at the power he has taken over local authority publications, which is an act of centralisation.”
There are two things that really make Benn see red, however. One is “the fundamentally unfair way in which the coalition has applied the cuts to local authorities, with the most deprived authorities losing much more in terms of spending power per household than the least deprived.” The other is Pickles’s “strong support for the bedroom tax”.
“Two thousand and eight of my constituents are affected by the bedroom tax, and what do they have in common? They are all on the very lowest incomes – that is why they get housing benefit – and because they’ve got so-called spare bedrooms they are affected by the bedroom tax.”
A note of real anger creeps into Benn’s normally measured tone as he declares that the coalition’s spare room subsidy is “a total scandal”.
“The government knew that most people would actually stay in their homes, and they knew that in part because there aren’t sufficient smaller properties for people to move to,” he says, citing an example from his own constituency. “In Leeds, if you look at all the people who, under the bedroom tax system, should be living in a one bedroom property, if Leeds were to do nothing else from this moment onwards, but allocate all one bedroom properties as they become available to those folk, it would take just under 10 years for them all to move. That is why, quite rightly, we call it a tax. Because even if you wanted to move, you can’t. First point.
“Secondly, the government is saying to families, every time your circumstances change, just move house. Let’s say there’s a mum, dad, and two kids, who have a three bedroom property. The son goes to university and then off to work in another part of the country. The government says, ‘move house’. Same thing happens to the daughter two years later, and the government says, ‘oh just move into a one bedroom flat’. Another two years later, the mum of the father becomes ill and has to come and live with them, and the government says ‘well it’s simple, just move into a two bedroom property’.
“How can you have family life, a sense of neighbourliness, community, when, because you’re a social tenant receiving housing benefit, you have to live an itinerant life. It is immoral, which is why we are so committed to getting rid of it,” Benn concludes.
Another subject Benn is clearly passionate about is the proliferation of betting shops in poor areas. When asked whether Labour would change planning laws to stop their spread, he refrains from giving one of his usual three-part answers, simply saying: “Yes we would.”
A Labour government, Benn explains, would enable councils to deploy something called a ‘use class’. Anyone wanting to open a betting shop, or, say, a payday loans shop, would have to apply for planning permission, because there would be a separate use class for these outlets.
This is not a puritan approach to betting shops, he says – all it means is that the community, through the council, can decide whether they have got enough of one thing. Benn recalls a debate on the topic in the House, and a speech made by his Labour colleague Joan Ruddock. “She just read out the addresses of the betting shops, and I think the pay day lenders, on Deptford High Street. The House listened in complete silence because the whole argument about an excess proliferation was being made just as the addresses fell from her mouth.”
While Blairites like James Purnell, Alan Milburn, Alan Johnson and Liam Byrne may all have vanished from the Labour front bench, Benn – who held cabinet posts under Blair and Brown – has quietly and successfully crossed over to Milibandism. Some commentators have even said he would make a good leader for his party. Would he relish the opportunity one day?
“I learned a long time ago: I’m getting on with the job that I’ve got, and a really important part of that is making sure that Ed Miliband is our next prime minister. So there you go.”
The answer is hardly a surprise: Benn would be a rare species of politician if he divulged his career ambitions to a journalist. But what about much further down the line, after he eventually retires? Does he harbour any aspirations to do the festival circuit in his old age in the same way his father did?
“The first time dad did Glastonbury, he came back and we said, ‘How was it?’ He said, ‘It was really interesting. Mind you, there was a lot of very loud music,’” Benn recalls. “But he very much enjoyed going to Glastonbury. Are you familiar with the Left Field Tower? They built a tower to help people as they were wandering round the site to find out where the Left Field was, as something to look out for. Well, there has been a proposal to rename it after him, which I know would tickle him pink.”