Ben Bradshaw has been Exeter’s MP for nineteen years; a staggering feat, not just because of Exeter’s past as a traditionally Conservative seat, but also because of the fact that Exeter is the last remaining non-Conservative seat in the South-West. Whilst Liberal fortresses such as Yeovil and former Labour battlegrounds such as Plymouth were swallowed whole by the Conservative Party in 2015, Exeter chose to keep its Red Flag flying.
Nevertheless, this is no time for Labour to rest on its laurels. The party’s lacklustre performance in recent polls has cast doubt on its future electability. Still, Bradshaw’s famous winning smile and firm handshake tempts me to believe otherwise. This is a man who has managed to increase his majority by over 8% in spite of a contrasted national narrative.
Ben Bradshaw is in town in order to encourage students to vote to remain within the European Union. As we sit on a crowded table in the Ram, clutching our drinks, we ditch the smalltalk and delve into what has essentially become an annual occurrence for him.
The Labour-led Council has recently come under fire for its allegedly hard-line approach to homelessness. In lieu of this, I invite him to comment on the matter. “We’ve got a really serious homelessness problem in Exeter” Bradshaw confesses. “It has become much worse under this government for a number of reasons; cuts in benefit sanctions, supported living, especially those who are trying to move into independent living and who are recovering from cases such as drug or alcohol addiction. Growing poverty, and cuts in drug and alcohol service have really contributed to a sharp rise in homelessness, and the City Council is doing what it can with very limited means.”
“THE CITY COUNCIL IS DOING WHAT IT CAN WITH very LIMITED MEANS”
The stress is evident on “limited”, and a tang of disappointment is present in Bradshaw’s voice as he mentions the limits the Council faces. Nonetheless, he hits back with hope. “It’s built more council houses than any other local authority in the South-West in the last few years” he points out, “and this is just one example.”
“But what people people have confused this with is the antisocial behaviour problem. There is a growing problem with cases such as drug-taking in public and aggressive begging, but these people are not homeless, they are the ones who are housed, and it’s that which the city council is trying to deal with, because it’s causing a lot of distress to local residents, to local businesses, and I’m getting a lot of complaints about it. It’s absolutely right that the council are doing what it can to help the homeless, but at the same time it’s absolutely right to keep a handle on antisocial behaviour because it makes the city centre a much safer place to be in.”
In which case, the obvious question must follow: how should we tackle this? Bradshaw chuckles mildly before launching his response. “Well”, he begins, re-igniting the old campaign fires within him, “we were very successful when Labour was in government at reducing homelessness, we saw big reductions in this area, and when I was first elected we were facing this issue, and it’s sadly reverting to that state, unfortunately, thanks to our Conservative Government.”
The solutions are, to Bradshaw, completely obvious: “You have to invest in housing, you have to acknowledge the cost of living, you have to make sure that rents are affordable, and you have to invest in alcohol and drug treatments because a lot of the causes of homelessness are substance related, but if you cut all of those things, then you’ll wind up where we are now.” Bradshaw calls for a “comprehensive homelessness strategy, which Labour had when we were in government. Sadly that was scrapped by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives when they came into power in 2010.”
“You have to invest in housing, you have to acknowledge the cost of living”
Meanwhile, on a national level, the Labour Party is in a state of flux. Its new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is noticeably more left-wing than many of his contemporaries, and in a largely centrist constituency, will it not have some effect? My query is quickly dismissed. “Labour will be fighting the Council Elections based on our record over the last twenty-plus years where we’ve run the city” comes the resounding response.
“Exeter has gone from strength to strength. Our productivity has grown faster than any other city in the UK and we’ve attracted significant inward investment, such as the Met Office, the University has grown very successfully, big chains such as John Lewis, and we’ve attracted a number of highly skilled jobs whilst keeping Exeter as an attractive and green place to work.” Once again Bradshaw’s campaigning furnace is made clear. He’s proud of his work, and he knows his successes.
“The City Council has managed to defend services in spite of the cuts, whereas Tory-controlled Devon County Council has slashed its services. Youth Services, Social Care, all of those things have been slashed. However, because Exeter has been so well managed, it is able to keep supporting things like culture and the arts whilst investing in housing, and that’s a record which the council can be very proud of.” He smiles. “It’s important that we a local authority which defends against the impact of a central government, and if we lose that, then I dread to think of what will happen to Exeter.”
It’s important that we a local authority which defends against the impact of a central government
If one thing is clear, it’s that Bradshaw will be doing what he can whilst in opposition to fight the government where he can.
Nevertheless, Bradshaw has come to talk about the Referendum and talk we will. “We’ll be campaigning alongside the local elections” he explains, :but when the elections are over we’ll still have six or so weeks left of campaigning, and I’ll be doing what I can as the Labour spokesman for the In Campaign for the South-West, not just in Exeter but further afield. I’ll be taking the message around the region to make sure that people are aware of what this decision means for them, and of the potential impact of us leaving, which would be catastrophic.” Again, he smiles. It probably helps when you’re the most powerful left-winger in the South-West.
I pursue him about campaigning plans and he cuts to laughter, “it’s certainly not going to be a quiet year, I was hoping for a rest! I’ll be campaigning right up until the referendum, for the most important political decision or our lives.”
With the Conservatives split in half, many pundits and journalists are looking at Labour to lead the charge to stay in. Bradshaw sees this too. “The significance of the Labour Party” he elaborates, “is that we’re united on a pro-European position, and in places such as Exeter we have good organisation on the ground.”
“we’re [The labour party] united on a pro-European position”
He looks across the benches, “there are also plenty of sensible Conservative MP’s as well who will be campaigning alongside us, but they won’t have the Conservative Party machine helping them, because that machine doesn’t have an official position, so it will be largely up to the Labour Party, the Labour Machine, and the Trade Unions to help and deliver what I hope will be a positive result.”
He pauses briefly, and his expression becomes sterner, “people need to be clear about the choice we face, and the disaster which we face about returning to a state of competing nationalism, a feat which tore our continent apart”. Bradshaw knows this better than many, having acted as witness to one of the defining acts of unionism of the 20th century, that being when the Berlin Wall came down. “In the last few decades, whatever you may think of the European Union, we have enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity in Europe and in Britain.”
“Indeed, if you look at the people who want us to leave, they’re predominantly on the extreme right, and it’s not an accident that they’re the people who want us to leave, because the extreme right is the nationalist right; the neo-fascists in France and the ultra-conservatives here. It’s no surprise that the moderate, sensible members of the political spectrum, who think about it rationally and clearly, and who weigh up the facts, are the one’s who want to stay in, instead of those exploiting our emotions, which both the far right and the far left tend to do.”
if you look at the people who want us to leave, they’re predominantly on the extreme right, and it’s not an accident
Our glasses are nearly empty, and Bradshaw checks his watch. Time for one last question, this time on the local future, opposed to the national. Back to the fire, as he comments that “Exeter’s future is very bright indeed, but it will be seriously set back if we decide to leave the European Union. The University, to take just one example, will be seriously affected as the Vice-Chancellor has made clear.” Indeed, the two of them will be appearing together on the 24th May at a panel discussion on the European Union.
“Exeter has a very bright future” he continues, “and I want to build on that, but it could be all thrown off course if we vote to leave the European Union, so that will be my absolute focus for the next few months. Hopefully, if we decide to stay in, we can focus on Exeter’s success. We want to develop the Science Park, improve the transport links, and we have a very visionary scheme which is to make Exeter a green transport city, and we need to address the housing crisis and make it affordable. This will be much more difficult than if Labour were in power but that won’t stop us trying!”
“it could be all thrown off course if we vote to leave the European Union”
He diverges with his final remarks. “My other goal for the next four years” he remarks, “is to make sure that Labour is electable, and that it is a party of government and that we win the next election. I want to see the good results we have in Exeter be spread across the country.”
Upon finishing these sentences he finishes his drink and says his goodbyes. As he makes his way through the Ram’s crowd, I’m left assured that Exeter’s MP is, even after all these years, still fighting for the best deal for his constituents.