With the General Elections looming, I decided to have a chat with Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP who represents Exeter in Westminster.
One.// You’ve been in office since 1997?
I was elected in 1997 in the Labour landslide there, I mean Exeter was always a Conservative seat before then as you probably know. Before that, I started my working life in Exeter on the Express and Echo, the local paper, and I worked for BBC Radio Devon. I then worked for the BBC as their correspondent in Berlin, covering the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany, then worked for a while for the BBC as a sort of roving correspondent in al parts of the world and also back in Britain, and then I went for the Exeter selection for the Labour party in 1996, September, and was elected in the following year.
Two.// So what made you decide to become a politician after doing so much journalism work?
Well, I’d always been interested in politics and current affairs, I was brought up in the kind of family that discussed things, you know, politics, what was going on around the world, around the kitchen table… one of my older brothers had once stood for parliament, not very successfully [laughs]. I’d always been very sympathetic to the Labour party, and I joined the Labour party when I first moved to Exeter in 1984 and started working on the Express and Echo because I was very impressed at the work the local Labour party and Labour councils were doing for Exeter. I thought they were doing a good job, and I thought Exeter was doing very well under their stewardship.
I mean I’ve had a fantastic career with the BBC and was privileged to be in Berlin when the wall came down and I also covered both of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, so I had amazing experiences. In a way, though, I think by the time I got into my mid-thirties I was asking myself if I wanted to do that for the rest of my life, and a couple of old friends from Exeter called me up and said you should put your name forward for the Labour nomination here and it made me think about it. And I thought, well given the opportunity to actually be part of the decision-making process, be part of government – and it was a very exciting time, everyone was expecting a big Labour landslide – so the opportunity to be part of that instead of as a commentator or bystander or critic was quite appealing. I was never particularly confident that I would be selected, certainly not that I would still be here after 18 years, so it’s been a huge privilege.
Three.// Leading on from that, what would you consider your biggest success as the MP for Exeter?
I think there’ve been a number of things really, I mean over 18 years there’s obviously been quite a lot going. I think one of the most significant things that we achieved in the first term was getting the Met Office to relocate from Bracknell, I mean that’s been a huge boost to the city both in terms of jobs, but also in terms of spinoff jobs and development with the university; all of the high-tech industries and companies we’ve now attracted to Exeter has made a huge difference.
Also getting the investments for all the new high schools. You won’t remember but when I was elected in 1997 Exeter’s high schools were performing pretty badly and they were really really dilapidated. I got the investments for every single one of them to be rebuilt, brand new. Educational achievement in Exeter has been improving steadily ever since and that’s made a huge difference.
One other thing I’d mention, I mean there are others, but one other thing that has been a real boon to the city is the setting up of the new medical school. The labour government, because we were so short of doctors and nurses – in fact we are again now of course, but back then it was really critical – we set up two new medical schools, the first two new medical schools to be set up in England since the 1960s, and we lobbied hard and successfully for Exeter to be the location of one of those and that again has been a huge boost to the city but also to the quality of healthcare and the performance of our local health service as well.
Four.// And what would you like to say your biggest success will be, adding on from what you’ve already done, in 5 years’ time?
For Exeter, what we’re really missing is the power over our own affairs. Because we have a two tier local government system in Exeter where Devon County Council is ersponsible for managing most of our services, it means that all too often the needs of Exeter as a city are not taken seriously into account. One of the classic examples recently has been the county council switching off our street lights as if we’re some little village or market town. But there are countless other areas – we don’t have control over transport or planning infrastructure, we don’t have control over skills and employment, so one of the really exciting pledges of the Labour party if we get into government in May is to allow cities like Exeter not only much more resources from the centre – so not only devolve more resources from Whitehall down to cities like Exeter – but also give them the power over decision making. We could do so much more in Exeter with those powers; the city regions that you may have heard people talking about, and I think that would be a huge boost for Exeter, at last to have the financial and political clout that meets our economic potential, would be my main thing as far as Exeter is concerned.
I think nationally, in the bigger picture, if there was going to be one priority for me for the next 5 years, it’s reversing the terrible increase we’ve seen in inequality under the conservative-liberal democrat government, with you know very few people at the top just getting richer and richer and everybody else either getting poorer or standing still. One of the reasons I joined the Labour party is because I believe in having a system in which everyone has the ability to reach their full potential and so many people are being held back at the moment. I know that’s quite a big one but unless we get inequality reversed then we’re going to store up so many problems for ourselves in so many different areas in the future.
Five.// Something I have to ask, as a student is that the under 24 group was the lowest demographic turnout, with only 44% voting. How do you propose to tackle this political apathy, do you think it’s going to be a higher turnout this year?
I hope very much it will be a higher turnout, but of course the government’s move to individual registration has been calamitous in terms of the number of young people on the electoral role. In Exeter alone we’ve lost over 7000 people from the electoral role and a lot of those people are students, it’s an absolute scandal. So not only has this government really hammered young people by abolishing the Educational Maintenance Allowance, by trebling fees although the LDs promised to abolish them, time and again young people have been clobbered and now thousands of them around the country including in Exeter are being disenfranchised by disappearing from the electoral role. It’s really important that young people register, and that they vote, otherwise you’ll get cynical politicians like the current government formulating lots of policies to help better-off pensioners because better-off pensioners tend to vote, while ignoring the needs of young people because they can feel confident that young people don’t vote. And that’s a real problem, so it’s really important that young people make their voices heard because young people are the future of the country and if young people don’t make their voices heard then politicians are going to get away with treating them as badly as this government has in the years to come.
Six.// Another topic which is important at the moment, especially with the young people I know at the university and others around the country. What is your opinion on the UK’s relationship with the European Union?
I’m a strong supporter for UK membership of the European Union. We have millions of jobs in Britain and thousands of jobs in Exeter dependent on our ability to trade within the single market. We have benefited enormously in the last few decades, in the year that we remember the carnage of the First World War, from the peace and prosperity and stability that the European union has helped ensure that we have enjoyed in Europe. I think it’s completely crazy to be flirting with Britain’s exit from the European Union. The ASmericans think it would be mad, all our main allies think it would be mad and certainly all the local business people I speak to think it would be a crazy idea. Yes, the European Union needs reforming, there’s always room to improve. But at a time when you have President Putin in Russia running rings around the international community, the idea that Britain would do better all on our own, somewhere in the middle of the atlantic, isolated, is just an abnegation of our responsibility and a betrayal of our national interest. I strongly support our membership of the European Union and I think Cameron’s bonkers idea of promising a referendum on an artificial timetable just because he was worried about UKIP, on a renegotiation that no one else in Europe is interested in, is pathetic, and really is not in our national interest, and I’m happy to put that on the record.
Seven.// You mentioned local business owners, so what else do you think could be done to support local business owners and retailers?
I think there are a number of things. First of all we need to cut business rates. Business rates have been going up inexorably under this government and a lot of small and medium sized business owners tell me they’re the biggest burden on their businesses, and Labour is committed to cutting and freezing business rates, instead of introducing a further cut in corporation tax which is what the conservatives are planning to do. As you probably know, corporation taxes tend to benefit only the very biggest businesses, so there is a clear choice there between a labour government which will support small and medium sized businesses and the conservatives whose main interest is in supporting big businesses in the city of London.
I think the other thing we need to do is continue to invest in infrastructure. Infrastructure is really important for businesses. Our rail network as we saw last winter when Dawlish fell into the sea, our road network, all are in need of investment. And the other thing I’d say is skills. We still aren’t producing enough young people with the right skills for the businesses that we need to compete in the future. We’re quite good in Britain at turning out very bright graduates from excellent universities like Exeter but when it comes to skills and apprenticeships in Engineering and those other fields we’re still lagging behind our competitors, so Labour’s got a very ambitious programme for skills and apprenticeships, and for devolving the funding for managing those and organising skills to a local and city-region levels which I think will be very warmly welcomed by business leaders in Exeter.
Eight.// How confident are you that you’ll keep the seat against Dom Morris and the other candidates?
Well, I’ve never been complacent about Exeter, it was always a conservative constituency on the current boundaries before I won it in 1997, my majority was reduced to just 2700 last time so it’s going to be a very close contest indeed! But I mean we’re working very hard, I’ve got a very well organised and highly motivated local labour party, I’ve got the best cohort of Exeter labour students that I’veever had, Exeter Labour Party has got a very good reputation – we’ve had a good reputation running the council whilst exeter’s been a city and I’m happy to stand on my record. And I hope very much that after the election I’ll be able to continue my work but I’m not taking anything for granted. I’m going to spend every spare moment I have fighting for every vote.
Nine.// What are you most looking forward to in the run up to May 7? It’s a busy time, it must be really stressful but what is it that keeps you going?
The thing that’s always kept me going is actually talking to people in Exeter and helping them with their problems, and you know at the very darkest and most depressing moments in politics with terrible things happening nationally and internationally, whenever I get back to Exeter at the end of the week I always feel heartened and encouraged by people’s basic decency, and you know, it reminds you that the world is not such a terrible place. I very much enjoy meeting people, talking to people, taking up their issues, discussing policies and issues with them, and I want to spend as much of my time doing that over the next few weeks as I can, in fact I actually enjoy campaigning, I’ve always enjoyed the constituency side of this job and I’ll carry on doing that and I look forward to the election.
Thank you very much for your time and good luck!