For the inaugural event of the Young Fabians Under 19s Advocacy Group, Labour MP and former cabinet minister Hilary Benn was invited to discuss his career, his views on the future of young people, and our place in the struggle for a better world. Here, Ethan Penny recalls what Hilary had to say.
“To listen”, is the first and most important quality of an elected official, Benn says. Throughout the interview, Hilary Benn demonstrates his crowning ability to listen - of being in touch. On several occasions, the former cabinet minister and Labour veteran reaches for stories of interactions with his constituents, his colleagues, and his neighbours to illustrate the ideas he puts before us. Benn speaks of a conversation with a constituent he had had just the day previous, who was campaigning for the legal right for a care home occupant to have a carer who is a member of their family. Benn confessed that the stories he heard ‘angered’ him – leading to a question being raised on the topic during the day’s PMQs. Benn’s anecdotes switch between the corridors of Whitehall and the offices of Downing Street, to the primary schools and care homes in his constituency – he is, as he shows himself to be, both a public servant who has exhibited a remarkable executive influence and a man of his community.
Benn's convictions are polished by a long background of political experience. Serving as a councillor for 20 years of his early political life, his understanding of the role and significance of local government is deeper founded and tested than most. “When I moved to Acton in 1976” Benn recalls, “I went to my first branch meeting in January and by March I was branch secretary”, modestly qualifying that “nobody else wanted to do it”. Despite his admittedly smooth route into the organized Labour party, he is fully aware of the importance of persistence. “You have to be persistent. The people who make it, in the end, are the ones who didn’t give up – it’s like the people who make it to the top of Everest – it's those who are determined who get there”, Benn says. Here lies the answer to the question of youth engagement in politics: determination and persistence. Benn urges young people to engage with organized politics, bringing unique experience and their ability to be “fearless advocates for people”. Benn describes the clear challenges to a route into a political career, challenges which inform his belief in the importance of state schools engaging with politicians, which he believes take place much too infrequently.
Benn regularly visits the politics department of a local sixth form in Leeds but worries that some schools “don’t even think of inviting MPs”, with him receiving “more invitations from private schools to talk to sixth form societies and politics clubs than from state schools”, which he finds “very frustrating”. At this point, Benn flicks his screen into ‘Grid’ view and invites the audience to indicate how many of us have met with a politician through our school, with a show of hands. “How many of you have had an MP or councillor come and talk to you?” – just four raise their hands – “And how many of you think it would be good to cover political topics in citizenship lessons in school” – unanimous approval. For Hilary, and for the Fabians in the audience too, the key to youth engagement lies in cultivating a political literacy as a standard for all our young people. Hilary is, in a similar vein, a passionate advocate for votes at 16. The extension of the franchise to people aged 16 and 17 goes hand in hand with the introduction of effective political education – the two, in order to be successful, are inseparable.
But how can politics reconcile with the younger voters who voted overwhelmingly against our decision to exit the European Union? Again, Hilary’s answer lies in our ability to listen. “If you want to protect your citizens and advance their interests, you do that by building ties, links and relationships with others – which young people can play a very important part in - not least with other young people in Europe and around the world”.
“Shut the door to your room”, Hilary says, “and you can call yourself sovereign”. Young people have the responsibility to overcome Brexit’s efforts to shut Britain’s door to the world, and instead leave it open. The Young Fabians, in concert with international groups like the Young European Socialists and championed by our own groups like the International Network, are at the heart of Hilary’s cause. The Conservative push for faux sovereignty, which Hilary rightly dismantles, cannot be at the expense of our relationship and the relationship of future generations with our international allies. As young people, our task is to listen and to be listened to. We must drive efforts for collaboration that step beyond borders hard and soft and direct the conversation of the political establishment towards matters which affect us most acutely. As Hilary conjectured, our conviction and commitment for a better future cannot be hindered by the “poison of Brexit“. We have been made aware of what we have to lose, and we must fight to keep it.
Young people, as we well know, are not averse to fighting for the things that we hold dear. The last decade of climate policy has been largely driven by campaign efforts from young people, and this will not slow down until our demands are reached. Hilary presided as Environmental Secretary in the closing years of our last Labour government. In this role, he was responsible for introducing the Climate Bill to Parliament, which was later advanced by Ed Miliband as Climate Change Secretary. In more recent years, Hilary co-chaired the IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission, which publishes influential reports on the nation’s progress toward a just transition - Hilary spoke of his work there: “We had a line in a report that we debated long and hard. We said, ‘the public has a veto on net-zero’, and ultimately if the public doesn't vote for politicians and policies and programmes that will tackle it, then we're going to have a problem. You have to take the public with you”. The responsibility of young people, inheriting a climate catastrophe which has been routinely ignored by too many of our predecessors, is to educate – to take the public with us. We will not use our veto on net zero, instead, through an unprecedented collective effort, we will use our veto on climate change.
“I am an optimist-” Benn begins to close, “I couldn’t get up in the morning if I wasn’t an optimist – about our capacity to improve the existence of humankind”. Though there are significant challenges in the political landscape that we have grown up with and now begin to take over, it is the responsibility of us alone, as young people, to solve these problems. We must approach them with vigour and conviction that does not simply offer solutions but inspires renewed confidence in those who worry that our politics is broken. The Under 19s advocacy group is optimistic too. We believe in our generation, and we will always be listening to it.
The Young Fabians Under 19s Advocacy Group thanks Hilary Benn for joining us for our first event. If you are a Fabians member under the age of 19, join us on our journey by getting in touch at [email protected]. If you are not already a Fabian Society member, you can join to automatically become a member of the Young Fabians.
Ethan Penny is the Policy Officer of the Young Fabians Under 19s Advocacy Group, as well as serving as Under 19s Officer of North West Young Fabians and Oldham Young Labour. He tweets at @ethanpennny.