Editor Sarah Gough speaks to Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw about his bid for Deputy Leader.
Ben Bradshaw is a man who remains the beacon of hope for many in the South West. Standing strong within a sea of blue, here is one Labour MP utterly determined to change the tide. Off the back of his resounding success in Exeter – beating off Tory rival Dom Morris by an impressive 7,183 votes – he has now declared himself in the running for Deputy Leader. “It’s time the Labour Party listened to someone who knows how to win”, he tells me assuredly. Confidence and charisma exude from the MP, but will Bradshaw’s strategy see Labour sailing further right? And who will he back to steer the ship? I am curious to find out. Turning a safe Conservative seat red 18 years ago, Bradshaw asserts that the secret to his success in Exeter is in his broad appeal. He consistently justifies his “progressive, centre-left approach”.
“Voters that aren’t necessarily Labour voters – Greens, Lib Dems, even past-Tories – vote for me. It’s that big tent approach to politics. If Labour had had the same results elsewhere that we’ve had in Exeter, we’d have a Labour government. The party has lessons to learn from us,” he says. It was the tent that Labour at large were missing, then? Yes, agrees Bradshaw, stating that they desperately needed to shed their reputation as “anti-business”.
Does this mean they should have been more apologetic over that dodgy deficit they ran up? Bradshaw didn’t want to pin it down to just that. With dismay, he attributed Labour’s losses in this election to a number of factors, chiefly Ed and the economy. Not swept along by Milifandom himself, he saw Labour’s political strategy as “fundamentally flawed”. “My assessment of this election is that it wasn’t a huge vote of enthusiasm for a majority Conservative government, but it was more a rejection of us,” he says: “When you’re behind on economic confidence and leadership it’s extremely difficult for any party to win an election. The bet that Ed and his people banked on, that the public would veer left in the global financial crisis just didn’t happen, and hasn’t happened anywhere else. I think we forgot that the Labour Party succeeds, yes when we have a mission to pursue social justice, but also when we have ambition and aspiration. It’s the combination of those things that helped us win three elections in a row in the 1990s and 2000s.”
With this election seeing Lib Dem and safe Labour seats turning blue, not to mention the staggering rise in UKIP support, does Bradshaw think it’s time leftist Labour became more Conservative? He was quick to dismiss labels, referring to left and right distinctions as “old” and “sterile”. He asserts that it’s no longer about left and right, but “sensible centre-left progressionist politics” that win you elections. A subtle confirmation that, in Bradshaw’s view, this Labour campaign was far too socialist. With this in mind, is he comfortable for me to label him a Blairite? “No”, he immediately announces; “People are always keen to attach labels to one, the only labels that I’ve attached to myself have been Labour and loyal.”
This I do not doubt: serving as Exeter’s representative in Parliament since 1997, his commitment was further confirmed as he threw his hat into the Deputy Leader race. Hopefully Paddy Ashdown won’t offer to eat this one. As the only Labour MP in the South West however, Bradshaw is by no means the front-runner. Needing 35 nominations from Labour MPs to even get onto the ballot, he is severely lacking in regional support. “It’ll be a very difficult contest. I may not get anywhere. I wanted to have a go because I think it’s extremely important that voices like mine are heard and the Labour Party learn the right lessons from this defeat. I want to help the Labour Party win in five years time and I believe I can do that.” His own candidacy meant he was reluctant to declare who he would back for the big job. However, he has publicly stated his dismay over Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna’s withdrawal from the ballot: “If I’m successful I’ll have to serve under whoever is chosen, but I was sorry that Chuka pulled out because he’s such a huge talent.” He also admitted Leicester West MP Liz Kendall is the “closest” to his own politics, and praised her as a “breath of fresh air”.
His optimism was palpable, ushering positive sentiments about the sheer talent of all the candidates pushing for the top spot. “What’s very striking and encouraging in my view is that the difference between the candidates is nothing like the ideological gulf that existed within the Labour Party back in the 1970s and 1980s, so we’re talking about relatively small degrees of differences here when it comes to policy. My main priority at the moment is ensuring that there are a broad range of candidates, both for deputy and for leader,” he says.
Concerns remain for Bradshaw with five more years of a Tory government looming large. As an openly gay MP, he was disappointed to hear of Caroline Dinenage’s appointment as Equalities Minister, despite her opposition to gay marriage, and stated his horror over the proposed cuts to the NHS. “The Conservatives now think they’ve got a mandate for a slash and burn, Thatcherite approach to public services. I think they’re in for a rude awakening in terms of the reaction they’ll get from, not just within Parliament, but the rest of the UK.” He remains a fervent supporter of electoral reform, labelling the current system “damaging” to national interest and “simply unsustainable”. “I am now the only opposition Member of Parliament in the whole South West, even though most people didn’t vote Conservative – I’m their only representative. I hope very much that people continue campaigning for it, I certainly will. It’s going to be a big part of my Deputy Leader platform.”
A polished people pleaser, Bradshaw’s alienation seems to have only strengthened his fight. His big tent is pitched – albeit more to the right than Ed’s – all he needs now is for the national party to fuel his fire.
Sarah Gough, Editor