“People might ask how I can know anything about ‘the real world’ given who my family are and the fact I am the granddaughter of Tony Benn” – Emily Benn
First it was Stephen of House Kinnock. Then came Will of House Straw. Euan of mighty House Blair waits in the wings. And now it is official – Emily Benn, fifth generation of her line, has been selected as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Croydon South.
At one time, this depressing nepotistic spectacle was mostly a Tory party phenomenon – the Conservatives still boast a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, Nicholas Soames, among their MPs. But as the ideological gap between the main parties has narrowed and the background of one party’s parliamentary intake has gradually become indistinguishable from another’s, we can only expect cases like this to become more frequent.
Is it necessarily bad to have someone from a political family, a woman in her early twenties, in Parliament? Of course not. Since the interests and priorities of young people are often scarcely acknowledged by Britain’s political leaders, more young faces in the halls of Westminster can only be a good thing. In particular, at a time when huge areas of government spending have been strictly constrained, virtually nothing has been asked of Britain’s pensioners or soon-to-be retirees, so great is the power of the grey vote. More young voters and a few twentysomething MPs are not the whole solution by any means, but it couldn’t hurt.
But is this really best that today’s Labour Party can do, in the age of Miliband? When every other speech from the Labour shadow cabinet (generic ranting against austerity aside) bemoans the lack of opportunities available to disadvantaged young people and the vital importance of listening to them, how will electing a privileged young woman from a dynastic family, almost completely divorced from real life, help to redress the balance?
Emily Benn, of course, is falling over herself to emphasise her humbler side and the extent to which she shares in the same trials and tribulations as the rest of us. In a piece in the Telegraph entitled “What I can offer British politics”, she insists:
“I get up and go to work every day (in the private sector). I have the same friends as everyone else and use the same buses, tubes and trains to get around town. I procrastinate on Facebook, just like the rest of our digitally savvy society, and struggle to find a house I can afford. And right now I am using the very same NHS hospitals as you would, while I accompany my mother to appointments in her cancer battle.”
But while it is true that this routine does indeed mirror the lives of many Britons, it would bring absolutely nothing new to the socioeconomic makeup of the House of Commons. Emily Benn’s career path has essentially been that of any other young(ish) Labour MP: university graduate (Oxbridge was helpful), premium graduate job (working for UBS investment bank, in Benn’s case), dabbling in lower level local politics to show a willingness to “help out”, followed by the nimble leap to national political party life. The only thing that differentiates Emily Benn from the other women in the Labour parliamentary party is the speed at which she achieved the holy grail of being selected by a constituency association – a victory which, if she were to be honest, is entirely attributable to her surname.
Contrast the embryonic career of Tony Benn’s granddaughter with the likes of Owen Jones, the young and telegenic left-wing campaigner, author and talking head. While one can disagree with his politics (this blog certainly does), it is hard to deny Jones’ very tangible accomplishments: a bestselling book that made people stop and think and which influenced the national political conversation, another book on the way, and a respectable track record of grassroots activism to back it up. Jones is often encouraged, even begged by some supporters, to stand at the next general election – though to his credit, he demures and remains non-committal. And few would doubt that Owen Jones would make an energetic, engaged, articulate and highly effective MP were he ever to run.
When has Emily Benn made people stop and think anew about a longstanding social problem? How many people turn out at events to hear her speak passionately on an issue close to her heart? How many newspaper articles does she have to her name, how many books has she published, how many times has Emily Benn’s media profile or debating ability led to invitations to appear on Question Time? In short, aside from her brief tenure as a local councillor, what has she done (aside from graduating university and getting a job like the rest of us) that in any way suggests an ability and promise so great that they earned her the right to carry the Labour Party banner into the 2015 general election?
When The People’s Assembly skulked through London in protest against austerity, this blog contended that a national movement which chooses Russell Brand rather than the likes of Owen Jones as its figurehead should not be surprised when it is generaly dismissed as irrelevant and unserious. The same criticism must now be levelled at the Labour Party, and the way in which local Labour associations are selecting their parliamentary candidates. If Labour insists on choosing famous names, and favouring style over substance, why should voters give them the time of day?
Ultimately, Emily Benn must ask herself this question – are her potential abilities as a future Member of Parliament so great and so unique that her contribution to British political life will outweigh the harm that she is doing by perpetuating yet another exclusionary British political dynasty?
But we cannot expect Ms. Benn to reach the difficult, truthful conclusion on her own. Therefore, it falls to the constituents of Croydon South to ensure that genuine promise beats hereditary entitlement in May 2015.