The speed everyone walks in Parliament must be at least five times the average pace. Or at least this is what it feels like when three-hundred MPs are thundering past from Portcullis House on their way to the Houses of Parliament to cast their votes for the snap election. It was amongst this hectic flurry that I managed to pin down Ben Bradshaw, Exeter’s former Member of Parliament, now standing to be re-elected, who kindly agreed to an interview.
Having started his career in Exeter as a reporter for the Express and Echo and moved up in the world of journalism, Ben has been the Member of Parliament for Exeter for twenty years. You have probably seen the map of the South, placing Ben’s labour constituency as a red dot in a sea of Conservative MPs. It is quite a remarkable feat, and shows clearly how he has secured the trust and support of the Exeter community. He formerly held the position of Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, having previously been the Secretary in this department between 2009 and 2010 in the last Labour Government. In the past twenty years he has also been in the Department of Health, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Sitting down in the atrium of Portcullis House, I was immediately impressed by how composed Mr Bradshaw appeared. The Snap Election had been announced only twenty-four hours before our meeting, and he had only just cast his vote in Parliament in its favour. My first question addressed just this, as I asked him ‘What are your thoughts with regards to the upcoming general election announcement?’
‘Well I think it is important to note first of all that the Tory’s are only calling this election for the Conservative Party interest not the national interest’. His view is clear, ‘we don’t need an election, Theresa May already has a working majority and we currently have County Council elections coming up in May. This is not something that we have chosen, but now Parliament has approved and voted for an early election I relish the fight in Exeter, where I will be campaigning very hard on my local record. I have been there twenty years and Exeter has done extraordinarily well in that period. I will also be campaigning as the only opposition voice in the whole of the South West outside Bristol, which is very important’.
Bradshaw believes that his seat remaining labour is crucial for the southwest.
It is certainly impressive that Mr Bradshaw has maintained his seat in Exeter through so many Parliamentary terms, as the rest of the South turned blue. I thought this was an important point to question further, asking him ‘how have you managed to maintain that seat?’
‘Well, we have maintained it in a number of ways’ he explained. ‘Both by doing a competent job as a local Labour party, running the city and as MP. We have been delivering for our city, as I have said. Exeter has really gone from strength to strength. We have been addressing and responding to the concerns of local people, and local residents, and have had very good campaigning and organisation’.
He continued to explain why he believes that his seat remaining Labour is important for the country. ‘I think it is really vital to the health of our democracy that we don’t become a one-party state in the South West, and really that is the danger in this coming election’. He paused, ‘I would appeal particularly to University students at this time, who care about the future of our country, particularly about our future relations with Europe, and those who are worried about the Tory’s plan’. He clarified his meaning here and argued that the Conservative Party are going for ‘a hard damaging Brexit which will destroy jobs, and destroy future prospects for the younger generation’. For this reason he proposes it crucial to his campaign for students ‘to register in Exeter to vote so that they can vote somewhere where their vote will make a difference. They may well be from the leafy shires of Surrey or Hampshire where their vote may not make a difference, but in Exeter every vote will really make a difference. Seats like Exeter are at risk, and because I am the only non-Tory MP in the region, the Conservatives will be throwing everything they have at Exeter … I hope that those students who are interested in politics, or agree with me that this is a really important general election and who would like to see me carry on as MP for Exeter, will come out and help in our campaigning as well’.
the conservative party are ‘going for a hard damaging brexit which will destroy jobs’.
With regards to his campaign trail, he explained how ‘we’re out daily from morning to evening, its great fun, and it’s a short campaign. I am not suggesting that anyone ignores their studies or important exams, but they could find an extremely important and rewarding experience, and everything they do will make a difference’.
The Labour Party faces an interesting test at this General Election due to their leader Jeremy Corbyn. The party has seemed increasingly divided between those who do and do not support Mr Corbyn, and after a vote of no confidence that was held for his leadership, many are questioning if he has the potential to lead the country. With the knowledge that Mr Bradshaw has been known for his anti-Corbyn views in the past, I was extremely interested in how he would respond to my next question. ‘How would you address people who might be worried they are voting for the leader of your party in the election, rather than what you could do for Exeter?’
‘Well, let’s be clear,’ he began, ‘in a general election you vote for your local MP, you don’t vote for your party leader or for your government, you vote for your local MP’. His words echoed the manifesto he has put forward to the Exeter residents in an article he wrote for the Express and Echo. ‘The choice in Exeter will be, and seems to have always been me or the Tories, not the Lib Dems or the Greens. If you don’t want a hard Brexiteer as your MP, you need to vote for me. I am the MP for Exeter now and the Tories are in government. So voting for me in this election is not going to affect the outcome. Exeter is not a swing seat that the Tories need to win’.
He pondered the Labour leader. ‘I didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, and my views about him are well known. But if people want a pro-European progressive voice in Exeter, and not a hard-Brexiteer Tory, they need to vote for me. A vote that isn’t either of those two options is a wasted vote’.
‘it is probably the most important general election in any of our lifetimes…’
Throughout the day several Labour MPs had made the announcement that they would not be standing again in the coming election. This total has now risen to 13, including Andy Burnham (now Mayor of Manchester), Michael Dugher, Tom Blenkinsop, Pat Glass, Fiona MacTaggart, and Ian Wright. I felt it was important to ask Mr Bradshaw about this: ‘What are your views on the fact that a handful of Labour MPs have decided not to stand again, and do you think that this will influence Labour’s chances at this election?’
After a brief pause he replied: ‘No, I don’t think so. People make all sorts of decisions about their own futures for different reasons, but I can only speak for myself. I have more fire in my belly now than I have ever had for this general election, because so much is at stake. The future of our country, the future of your generation, and young people’s future job prospects, employment prospects, travel prospects, living standards, and everything is at stake if we go down this hard Tory Brexit route. It is probably the most important General Election in any of our lifetimes, and I just hope that people get involved, get informed, get engaged and get registered to vote in Exeter’, he added, ‘if they want to vote for me’.
I continued to inquire about the significance of Jeremy Corbyn in defining the Labour campaign, and asked ‘Will you be including Jeremy Corbyn’s policies in your campaign?’
The answer was a quick ‘No’, which he expanded on. ‘We will be campaigning on my local record, and on the record of Labour locally and the fantastic things that the Labour Government has delivered. Five new high schools, the Met Office moving to Exeter, the new medical school, all of the flood defences being built, all of the investment in our schools, hospitals. The fantastic growth of the University, and transformed performance of Exeter College and our local schools that has happened under Labour in Exeter, and what I have personally done to help Exeter do well in the past twenty years’.
He also argued that ‘We will be campaigning very hard against what I see as this disastrous hard Tory Brexit’. He explained how he thinks the consequences ‘will destroy jobs, and jobs and investment at the university. It will hit income from overseas students and it will take away research opportunities, and I will be campaigning clearly, for Britain to remain a member of the single market and of the Customs Union. My platform in Exeter is likely to be slightly different from my party’s nationally, but I don’t think you will find that unusual in this General Election’.
With a clear understanding of Mr Bradshaw’s campaign strategy, and his views on Corbyn established, I felt it was important to ask about the significance of student votes and opinions to his plans. ‘How significant are student’s concerns about the area to you, or are you more influenced by the views of local residents?’ I inquired.
Mr Bradshaw stated adamantly: ‘I make absolutely no distinction between voters, whether they are local residents or students’. ‘Students are local residents, and they contribute a huge amount of money to our local economy. Without students and without Exeter University, Exeter would not be the thriving forward, go-ahead city it is. I value the views and concerns as students as much as anybody’. The importance of students to Mr Bradshaw is very clear as he explained to me that ‘I have worked consistently over the last twenty years to support student campaigns and to highlight concerns that students have. Those about housing costs, opposing the disastrous decision of the Liberal Democrat government to treble tuition fees in the 2010 Parliament, on issues of lighting and security, on cyber bullying and sexual harassment. All of the campaigns that the Student’s Guild has ever asked me to support, I have supported, and will continue to do so’.
‘i make absolutely no distinction between voters, whether they are local residents or students’.
As a further message to students Mr Bradshaw stated ‘I also encourage students to get involved in their local community. We are lucky at the University to have a thriving student Labour club, and we even have two current undergraduates who were elected to Exeter Council as Labour Councillors last year. That for me sends out a really good signal about Exeter, and Labour politics in Exeter. We want to include and value the views of students and young people’.
I concluded the interview there, thanking Mr Bradshaw kindly for his time. As he raced back off into the offices of Portcullis House, I admired the fast pace of life in Parliament. The General Election, and the short period of time for candidates to campaign, has put everyone at high speed.
Exeter certainly does seem to be holding an interesting and exciting race, testing the loyalties and values of voters.