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Last Updated: Monday, 26 March 2007, 10:10 GMT 11:10 UK
Interview: Hilary Benn
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

It's easy to see why Hilary Benn has been described as "tiggerish".

Hilary Benn
Mr Benn believes tackling inequality is Labour's biggest challenge

He bounces into the room to greet you with breathless enthusiasm, before bustling you into his vast office at the Department for International Development.

He does not so much answer a question as demolish it, piling one example of Labour success on top of another, before ending with a defiant flourish - "so that's not the case at all is it?"

On the morning we meet, he is particularly keen to rebut Lord Turnbull's accusation that Gordon Brown - the man he wants to serve under as Labour's deputy leader - displays "Stalinist ruthlessness" in his dealings with colleagues and has a "cynical" view of mankind.

"That's not the Gordon Brown I know," says Mr Benn.

"I have worked with Gordon Brown for the last three and a half years as development secretary. I have found him to be a good colleague.

"I have found him to be very knowledgeable and very passionate and interested in the same things I am interested in."

But perhaps Mr Benn, as a minister with a "good news" department, and with international development being a particular personal passion for Mr Brown, has seen a different side of the chancellor to some of his Cabinet colleagues?

Mr Benn is having none of it.


"He is a politician who likes to make things happen. And I think that's a really good thing and I think that's what you need. You could describe that as leadership qualities."

Age: 53
Family: Married
School: Holland Park School
University: Sussex
Political heroes: Nelson Mandela and Clement Attlee
Good night out/in: Watching several episodes of the West Wing
Hobbies: Gardening, watching sport
Favourite book: Catch 22
Best thing on TV: Match of the Day (especially when Spurs are winning)
Favourite film: Casablanca
Bad habits: Excessive reliance on Sherbet lemons
Something we don't know about you: I once scored a goal at Craven Cottage against a team of Russian chess players

He adds: "I think the country owes Gordon Brown a great deal."

Despite being among the last of the six Labour deputy leadership contenders to declare his hand, Mr Benn is favourite at the bookmakers to land the job.

The fourth generation of the Benn family to sit in Parliament, he is seen as a moderate, mainstream figure capable of uniting the Brownite and Blairite wings of the party.

He is a moderniser to his fingertips but his background - father Tony remains one of the left's most energetic campaigners - earns him valuable Old Labour points. Dennis Skinner is a fan.

A former local councillor in Ealing, Mr Benn has risen rapidly through the ministerial ranks since winning a by-election in Leeds in 1999, serving first as prisons minister at the home office before entering the Cabinet in his current role.

'Honest leadership'

He says he wants to be the deputy leader of the Labour Party - who, if anyone, will be deputy prime minister is up to the prime minister, he insists.

Setting out his pitch for the deputy's job, he says: "We need a deputy leader who is good at listening and working with others. We need someone who is going to offer strong advice and honest leadership.

"We need someone who is passionate about social justice, we need a deputy leader who will ensure the voice of the party gets heard in the upper reaches of government."

Tony Benn at Labour conference in 1976
Tony Benn has always been on the left of the party

He wants to reform the party to give members more of a say over big policy decisions and allow them to elect their own party chairman - a post currently selected by the leader.

But he also believes Labour needs to "look outwards" to reflect more closely the concerns of voters.


On foreign policy, he acknowledges mistakes have been in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq but believes it was still "right" to remove Saddam Hussein.

"The one thing the Iraqis have now that they didn't have under 30 years of dictatorship is the means to resolve their problems and build a better country, if they want, to using their fragile democracy.

Cash for honours has been extremely damaging, there is no doubt about that whatsoever
Hilary Benn

"I don't think we should apologise for the fact that the Iraqis now have that chance."

He says he wants to strengthen the United Nations.

"I want an effective multilateralism, because the more we can achieve that, the stronger the argument we would have against those who would seek to act unilaterally. That question isn't going to go away."

Restoring trust in politics is another key theme, although he has little time for the argument that New Labour is responsible for destroying it in the first place.

"I don't think this government has destroyed trust at all. We should be judged on whether we have done the things we said we were going to do."


He says the party has honoured all of its promises - on the minimum wage, child poverty, devolved power in Scotland and Wales - and should be "judged in the round".

"Now there have been a few issues - cash for honours has been extremely damaging, there is no doubt about that whatsoever - but I just believe that we need a politics that is straightforward, tells it like it is.

"Because the truth is, is that if we look at the challenges of the future, governments can't deal with them on their own.

"You can't legislate for community spirit. If we are going to deal with climate change it's about the leadership the government gives, which we are giving with the new bill, but it's also about the choices we make as individuals."

Like most of his deputy leadership rivals, Mr Benn believes tackling inequality should be a top priority for a fourth term Labour government.

"The gap between those who have and those who have not is the single biggest challenge that we face."

'Changing attitudes'

He appears to share his rivals' unease with the rapid growth of salaries and bonuses in the City of London, but, like them, he does not think taxation is the answer, putting his faith instead in the rich developing more of a social conscience.

"Britain has been pretty successful so far in enabling the country to earn a living in a globalised economy but I do not believe that that is incompatible with people also making a contribution to the society of which they are a part.

"And I think those that have been very fortunate in life have a particular obligation to make a contribution.

"And I think that if we talked about that more and there was a greater expectation that that's what people ought to do I think society would benefit.

"Do not underestimate the power of changing social attitudes to help change the nature of our society."


He argues that society should "value and praise those who make a contribution - and look askance at those who don't".

This all sounds very much like the sort of language Conservative leader David Cameron has been using of late.

The "fundamental difference", argues Mr Benn, is that Labour has been willing to legislate to combat inequality, whereas with Mr Cameron, who Mr Benn says voted against Labour policies aimed at helping the poor, it is just "warm words".

Nevertheless, Mr Benn's stance is a far cry from the sort of Labour politics espoused by his father, who bitterly opposed the liberalisation of the stock market in the 1980s, which paved the way for today's financial services boom, describing it in his diaries as the triumph of international capitalism over democracy.

Is Hilary Benn a socialist?

"Yes I am. But for the Labour Party the task has always been to take our socialist values, our Labour values and beliefs, and apply them to the world as we find it, as we seek to change it into the world we would like it to be.

"I have been a Labour Party member all of my life and the investment we have seen in health and education, more teachers, more nurses, falling inequality, helping the very poorest pensioners, the minimum wage, trade union recognition, the right to paid holiday, including an entitlement to statutory bank holidays, well if that isn't keeping faith with socialism that inspired all of us to join the Labour Party I don't know what is."

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