Schoolgirl politician: Emily Benn explains why she's standing for parliament
Emily Benn, 18, is sitting her A-levels – and standing for Labour at the next General Election. She talks to Toby Green about why she wants to follow her grandfather into the Commons
Thursday 05 June 2008
For most 17-year-olds, the summer holidays are a chance to relax, see your friends, go abroad without your parents, and enjoy the absence of work. Not Emily Benn. Instead, last July she drove three and a half hours from a residential music course in Dorset to Shoreham-by-Sea, the first time she had ever driven properly on the motorway.
The reason? To stand in front of the members of the East Worthing and Shoreham Labour Party and persuade them that she, not yet old enough to vote, could be the constituency's next MP.
The members were persuaded. Now, when the next General Election is called, Benn will have the chance to become the youngest ever MP, and the fifth generation of the Benn family to sit in the Commons. Although it is unlikely she will be able to overturn the 8,183 Conservative majority, a strong performance could lead to a more winnable seat in future.
Now 18, Benn still can't believe she was chosen. "I never thought in a million years that I would get it," she says. "I wasn't arrogant enough to think I was going to win against two highly qualified candidates, so I just took it as a wonderful surprise."
Her family connections are undoubtedly a help rather than a hindrance. Her father is Stephen Benn, the son of Tony and brother of the Environment Secretary, Hilary, and her mother is Nita Clarke, a former adviser to Tony Blair and the former spin doctor of Frances Morrell when she chaired the Inner London Education Authority. Already, the family name – together with her relative youth – has led to accusations of nepotism, a charge she appears to be tired of defending.
"You'd be absolutely stupid to vote for me because of my name," she says. "And I definitely didn't play upon my youth. I don't think people should vote for you because of your age, or because of your sex or your race. You vote for people because of what they say and what they believe in."
Accusations of inexperience reflect a troubling mindset, she believes. "Lots of people think young people aren't capable, which I passionately believe is a load of rubbish. We don't live in a particularly child-friendly culture. I don't think young people are valued – we like to knock young people down, and it's very easy to do."
There aren't many teenagers who hold the same interest in the workings of parliamentary democracy as Benn. "The average young person thinks of politics as a middle-aged man sitting in the Houses of Parliament," she says. "That's not really what it's about. It's a bit of a misconception, and put together with people not reaching out to youngsters, it creates a vicious cycle.
"I just wish more young people would vote, or that they made a conscious decision not to vote, yet were really interested and knew everything. I just don't think people see how politics affect them all the time; they don't see how it's relevant to everything they do."
Amid the campaigning, she has the small matter of her A-level exams this month. Studying Latin, history and music, she has had to fit electioneering in with revision and two sessions at the Royal College of Music each weekend. She says ruefully that she's had to learn time management. "I get no sleep, but that's OK. I do have a social life, but I don't go out all the time. If I want to see my friends or my boyfriend, I'll always try to keep Friday and Saturday night free."
She moved school after her GCSEs because her former school, which was selective, didn't offer Latin A-level. She now attends St Olave's School in Kent, the grammar school that Harriet Harman was pilloried by the Labour Party for sending her son to. One suspects that Emily's attendance at St Olave's might cause some disagreement with her aunt Melissa Benn, the writer and champion of comprehensives, not to mention her grandfather Tony, who sent all his offspring to comprehensives.
"I don't necessarily agree with her," she says of Melissa. "In fact, I don't agree with her. We both want the same thing – we both want people to enjoy their school life – but I disagree with her philosophy. I'm not a Labour person who only wants comprehensive schools and won't help any other types of schools.
"For the people in grammar schools, I'm sure they're fine, but I care more about the people that aren't in grammar schools. I know academies are controversial, but academies have been good for raising standards and I'm all for increasing investment and for schools having partnerships with other groups in society. A school near me was rebuilt with absolutely fantastic facilities – it wouldn't have been able to have been done that without increased investment."
She is passionate when she gets on to the subject of potential. "People go into secondary school with a lot of academic promise, but that doesn't necessarily equate five years later to good GCSEs. It's important to make sure that during those crucial five years results are kept up."
Her views may not, on the face of it, be much different from the private opinions of any other New Labour politician, but you do feel that her experience has really shaped her. When she talks about helping those with low self-esteem, she appears to have examples in mind.
She also talks fondly of her teachers. "Inspirational teachers are the real stars of the education system," she says. "Looking back at my education, it is those fantastic teachers that inspired me and helped me that I remember most. I prefer teachers who really involve themselves in school life and get to know the pupils, as opposed to the more stuffy unapproachable types."
A keen violinist, she believes in the power of music education. As an example of what music can do, she points to the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra, which for over 30 years has helped underprivileged children change their lives. The important thing, she feels, is that such education start at a young age. "You see people aged five and six and they love classical music, but, by the time they're 12 and 13, society has got to them and they think it isn't cool, so there's no point getting them involved."
Last September, Emily Benn fulfilled a lifelong dream and spoke from the podium at the Labour Party conference. It was the completion of a circle – her birth was announced at an end-of-conference speech. "I have been to every single Party conference since my birth, and to get to speak was amazing. My mum was there, my dad, my uncle, my aunt and my granddad, who began to cry."
Her unique position at the heart of politics of the past decade – she used to see Tony Blair a lot thanks to her mother's job, and is friends with the Blair children – has left her with a good deal of respect for politicians. Indeed, she feels that politicians are undervalued. "They get such a bad press – they're treated worse than murderers or rapists. I find it incredible," she says, visibly angry. "I hate it – no wonder people are turned off. These are people who have been voted in by 20,000 people and people treat them like shit, it's disgusting."
Is getting a bad press something that she worries about? "Yeah," she says. "But I guess I'm going to have to get used to it if I'm going to do it. Politicians are treated like scum when all they're doing is getting involved in democracy."
Personal attacks will, of course, be something she has to accept if she is to have a successful career in politics. "Some people don't like me because I'm a Benn, some people don't like me because I'm young," she laughs. "Some people don't like me because I'm Labour, so I've just got to find the people that do!
"I don't want to wait until I'm 55 and bitter, and things have happened that I don't like, and I've waited all this time, never complaining and never doing anything. If people get involved early they can help create a world they want to live in."
The Benn Dynasty
William Wedgwood Benn
In the General Election of 1906, William Wedgwood Benn, 28, became the youngest MP, standing for the Wapping seat that his father, John Benn, used to hold. He eventually defected to the Labour Party from the Liberals, and took a seat in the House of Lords.
In 1951, Tony Benn became the country's youngest MP, at the tender age of 26. In 1960, he inherited his father's seat in the House of Lords, but chose to renounce his peerage to continue serving as an MP. He is an anti-war campaigner and a fierce and vocal critic of New Labour.
Tony's son and Emily's uncle, Hilary Benn famously declared: "I'm a Benn and proud of it, but I'm not a Bennite." Since his election in 1999 as the MP for Leeds Central, he has taken a variety of roles in the Labour Party, and recently failed in a bid to become the party's Deputy Leader.
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