Benn Jnr joins father in the House

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The Independent Online
HILARY BENN is bound for Westminster and a backbench seat alongside his father Tony after winning the Leeds Central by-election early today. But it was the lowest turn-out in by-election history which delivered him there, with a vastly reduced majority.

The turn-out was just 19.6 per cent as Mr Benn won the safe Labour seat by a 2,293-vote majority. The previous majority was 20,689. Mr Benn, 45, secured 6,361 votes. His nearest challenger, Liberal Democrat Peter Wild, won 4,068.

Mr Benn said: "The turn-out is very disappointing and in a democracy this is a concern for all of us. The ballot box isn't just an instrument of democracy. It is an instrument of hope. I would like to thank my family for their love and constant encouragement. The people of Leeds Central need the Labour Government. We have achieved a lot in a short time but there is further to go."

Mr Benn follows in the footsteps of his father, the veteran MP for Chesterfield, and his grandfather Viscount Stansgate, in securing a place at Westminster. He succeeds Labour MP Derek Fatchett, 53, who collapsed and died of a heart attack last month. An advisor to education secretary David Blunkett, observers say it was his skilful oratory which secured Mr Benn selection for the safe Labour seat over popular local candidate Maggie Giles-Hill.

Selection was his toughest battle. After that, he settled down to convincing Leeds of his credentials, declaring that a long-lost uncle had resided here and that there were more Benns in the telephone book than anywhere outside of the South-East. He is, as the tag goes, a Benn but not a Bennite and immediately asserted: "I am my own man."

The next time there is a left-wing revolt against Tony Blair, father and son will undoubtedly be in opposite lobbies. But Benn Snr has made his presence felt, joining his son in the city only this week. "I've come to support my lad," he told voters.

His charisma was needed. Though a string of cabinet big guns, John Prescott and Gordon Brown included, have joined Mr Benn, the election has been very low-key. Though he is a southerner with a forename which provoked as much amusement as curiosity here, Leeds was never suspicious of the high-flier.

After all, Leeds Labour MPs these days are in a modern mould. Several, including the late Mr Fatchett and energy minister John Battle, have become Blairite junior ministers.

There have been anxieties about the extent of waning support for Labour among 1997 first-time voters, though. During campaigning, Mr Benn asserted: "I've talked to a lot of people about `how do you think the Government has done so far?' and the overwhelming reaction is `not a bad job'."

The win is yet another twist to the remarkably colourful association between the Benns and Westminster.

Hilary's grandfather, William Wedgwood Benn, was originally a Liberal MP and Secretary of State for India between 1929 and 1931. He was made a peer in 1941 as part of Winston Churchill's wartime coalition government and took the title Viscount Stansgate.

His son was elected to parliament in 1950 but when his father died in 1960 was forced to quit his seat. He renounced his title, enabling himself to stand again in a by-election, was barred from taking his seat and so - famously - initiated legislation making titles disclaimable, making his long-awaited return to the Commons. Now the third generation has also made it.

The result in full:

Hilary Benn (Lab) 6,361 (48.24%); Peter Wild (LD) 4,068 (30.85%); William Edward Wild (C) 1,618 (12.27%); David Blackburn (Green) 478 (3.62%); Raymond Northgreaves (UK Ind) 353 (2.68%); Chris Hill (Left All) 258 (1.96%); Julian Fitzgerald (Parenting) 51 (0.39%). Lab maj 2,293 (17.39%) - 20.49% swing Lab to LD. Electorate 67,302; Turnout 13,187 (19.59%)

1997: Lab maj 20,689 (55.90%) - Turnout 37,009 (54.70%). Fatchett (Lab) 25,766 (69.62%); Wild (C) 5,077 (13.72%); Freeman (LD) 4,164 (11.25%); Myers (Ref) 1,042 (2.82%); Rix (Soc Lab) 656 (1.77%); Hill (Soc) 304 (0.82%).