Tony Benn talks to JMU Journalism

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Tony Benn   © Trinity Mirror

With the Labour annual conference coming to Liverpool this week, JMU Journalism turned to one of the party’s most respected figures for his verdict on the visit to the city.

Politician and peace campaigner Tony Benn, who is the second-longest serving MPs in the party’s history, has been a dominant force in Labour politics for more than 60 years. His life and career have given him access to everyone from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi to Sir Winston Churchill, and a personal TV interview with Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Iraq war.

Speaking exclusively to JMU Journalism about the conference coming to town, Mr Benn said: “I love Liverpool, I think it is a wonderful city. I was really pleased that it should be held in Liverpool. The city has shown a lot of guts and the dockers are very good. I’ve always enjoyed coming. It has been a great inspiration to the Labour movement.”

Mr Benn, who became an MP at the age of 26 before his retirement 50 years later, was always known – and often vilified in the national press – for his radical left-wing views, most notably opposing the Conservative government in the 1980s.

Margaret Thatcher is still a hated figure for some on Merseyside for the way Liverpool suffered economically and with unemployment in the 80s, even among people who were not yet born when she was forced out as Prime Minister in 1990.

However, 86-year-old veteran Benn told JMU Journalism: “I don’t believe in hate. Mrs Thatcher’s policies were very unfair and very wrong and had to be defeated. Tory policies which Mrs Thatcher supported, such as privatisation, still exist and there is still a lot to fight against, but I don’t want to make it too personal to Mrs Thatcher.”

When asked how he thinks that the city is faring these days, he said: “Like everywhere Liverpool is facing cuts, but I think Liverpool is strong at the moment.”

Mr Benn, who served in the RAF and lost a brother during World War II, is one of the foremost figures in the peace movement, and he vigorously opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which brought him into conflict with the Labour Party under then Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Tony Benn   © Trinity Mirror

Speaking about Iraq, Mr Benn said: “It was an illegal war and thousands of people were killed. I disagreed very strongly, but it didn’t alter my support for the party.”

As for the current Labour leader Ed Miliband, Mr Benn said: “I think he is a good man and he worked in my office as a student. I don’t agree with everything he does but I think he’d be a good Prime Minister.”

Mr Benn was one of the most charismatic politicians of his time, serving in several ministerial posts. He told JMU Journalism how he thinks optimism should be restored in the public.

He said: “In the elections, right-wing Conservatives and Liberals always try to suggest that we can’t make any progress, so why then make the effort? If they can persuade us not to make the effort then of course things go wrong. What we have to do is to be optimistic and be positive ourselves, and if we do that people will follow.”

Following the MPs expenses scandal, and students in particular becoming disillusioned after the steep rise in university tuition fees, some may have decided to give up on politics and politicians, but Mr Benn spoke of the importance of voting.

He said: “If you look at history, great progress has been made when people have voted. That’s how we have the National Health Service and the welfare state. People voted for things that they wanted and if you don’t vote people are letting other people run the country.”

Famous for being an outspoken and occasionally deeply unpopular politician in his heyday, Mr Benn reflected: “When you are saying controversial things you’re badly attacked but then with the passage of time people consider what you say and then they realise that you were right. Mean what you say and say what you mean.”

He is now held in the regard of being a national treasure. He has had eight volumes of his immensely popular diaries published, and he is also known affectionately for his pipe-smoking.

But how has he coped since the public smoking ban came into force? “I started smoking pipes when I was perhaps about 15 or 16 and those days’ lots of young people smoked pipes,” he said. “People are very kind about it. I never say: ‘Can I smoke?’ I always say: ‘Would it worry you very much if I quietly puff my pipe?’ People always say: ‘Oh, you go ahead. My grandfather smoked his pipe,’ so I’m indebted to the grandfathers of the world.”

You may catch a glimpse of Mr Benn puffing on his trademark pipe when he visits the city for two days during the Labour party conference, which starts on Sunday. He said: “Whenever I get the opportunity to come to Liverpool I always take it because I get so much from it… people are so strong and positive.”








About Helen Dodd, Managing Editor