Left Foot Forward speaks to the outgoing Labour MP for Exeter
Ben Bradshaw first entered parliament in 1997 in the Labour landslide of that year. He’s since been a continuous presence in British politics, first in numerous ministerial posts in the New Labour government, then as a prominent backbencher. Having announced he is standing down at the next general election, Left Foot Forward spoke to him as part of our series of interviews with retiring MPs.
With 26 years of parliamentary experience behind him, Bradshaw has sat in the Commons throughout some of the most dramatic sagas in British political history – from the Iraq War to Brexit, the financial crash to COVID-19. He’s also been an MP throughout a period in which seven separate prime ministers have occupied Number 10. When we speak, he gives his thoughts on each of them in turn.
His assessment on the five Tory prime ministers is varied, but predictably he is highly critical. David Cameron was a “typical old Etonian” who was “shallow and complacent”. He gives Theresa May a slightly better judgement, saying she was “decent” and “solid”, “but without the courage to strike a softer Brexit deal with Labour, and that will go down as the most negative part of her legacy.” Bradshaw then gives the three most recent occupants of Downing Street a more damning verdict. Boris Johnson was “not fit for public office”, Liz Truss was “crazy”, and Rishi Sunak is an “otherworldly tech bro”.
He, of course, gives glowing praise to the two Labour premiers he served under. Tony Blair, he says, was “the best prime minister by a long way since Attlee.” Gordon Brown was a “fantastic chancellor”, who “would have made a great prime minister if he’d won that election which he lost undeservedly.”
Given the esteem he holds the former Labour leaders in, I ask what lessons he thinks Keir Starmer can learn from their thirteen years in government and the election victories they secured. He is cautious about drawing direct parallels between the political context of the New Labour years, telling Left Foot Forward: “Obviously, 2024 is very different from 2005 and so you’re going to need a different approach for different circumstances. And the inheritance that Keir Starmer and his team will be landed with is far worse than what faced Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and the crew in 97. So their room for manoeuvre is going to be even more constricted. So it’s going to be a massive challenge.”
Nonetheless, he does see some similarities, saying: “So I think the similarities with Blair are that you have a leader who the public can see in Number 10, who they trust on a range of issues more than they trust the Tories.”
Bradshaw is generally filled with praise for Starmer – the man he backed to be Labour leader in 2020 – and his approach to the next election. He says: “In recent months I think he’s begun to outline a policy programme which is minimal which I think is very sensible before an election and get the right team in place which he did with the reshuffle”, later adding “I’m absolutely confident that the values and instincts that Keir has are mainstream social democratic values and that the government that he leads in spite of all the challenges that it will face will make a difference.”
Given his strong endorsement of Starmer’s approach, Bradshaw is equally strong in pushing back against those on the left who criticise the Labour Party’s current trajectory. Starmer has repeatedly been accused of timidity and of offering little in the way of a transformative programme for government, including from some within the Labour Party itself. After praising Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves for building a reputation of what he describes as ‘fiscal responsibility’, Bradshaw says: “When I hear people criticising Keir for not being radical enough or not coming up with enough exciting, radical proposals, I simply say to them: ‘where is the money going to come from?'”
While Bradshaw is suitably on message when it comes to Labour’s current economic policies, he has been willing to be more outspoken in other areas. When he was first elected in 1997, he became one of the country’s first openly gay MPs. Since, he has been a prominent voice advocating for the LGBT+ community, and in recent years has been consistently forthright in his support for trans rights.
When asked about whether Labour is in the right place on trans rights, he initially says: “Well let’s wait to see what happens at conference, because my understanding of the text that was agreed at the policy forum is that the text was very good and LGBT Labour who were in the room helping to negotiate that text left the room very happy.”
Despite this, he goes on to express concerns about some of the noise that has come out of the Labour frontbench on the issue. He says: “I was a bit concerned by the public statement that was made afterwards by [shadow women and equalities secretary] Anneliese Dodds about us potentially backtracking on our commitment for some form of self ID and depathologising the transition process. I think that would be a retrograde step if that becomes our policy.”
Over the 26 years Bradshaw has been in parliament, public attitudes towards LGBT+ people and the legislative protections for them have shifted massively. The latter has been part of a wider move to tighten up anti-discrimination legislation. Bradshaw mentions this as one of things he is most proud of during his time as an MP, telling Left Foot Forward “the plethora of equality and anti-discrimination legislation for LGBT people that the last Labour government put on the statute book” was among the biggest achievements over that time.
According to Bradshaw, that shift in legislation on equality and discrimination has been mirrored by a shift in culture in Westminster. “I think the culture has overall improved significantly”, he says. Going on to add: “The kind of boorish, misogynistic behaviour that was routine when I was first elected went out very quickly actually – there was a big cultural sea change in 1997 with that big Labour majority in that backwards Tory MPs couldn’t get away with that kind of behaviour any more. Similarly, on the kind of routine homophobia, that has changed massively.”
He does, however, concede that racism remains prevalent in parliament. He says: “There’s still a real cultural problem of unconscious racism. If you talk to black and ethnic minority colleagues about the routine overt and unconscious racism they encounter – not being recognised, assumed to be staff members and so forth. But I think that just reflects the wider cultural challenges that we still face as a country.”
Wrapping up, Bradshaw concludes that “despite the deterioration of the general tone of our politics, caused by divisive issues like Brexit and social media, I think actually the standards and the safeguards in parliament are now much, much better than when I was first elected.”
Having entered parliament on the wave of the New Labour landslide, there is a certain symmetry to Ben Bradshaw stepping down at the election that the polls and commentators agree is likely to bring in a Labour prime minister once again. Does he see Labour as being set to enter government at the next election? “The first thing I’d say is we shouldn’t take anything for granted and we need to be fighting for every vote,” he begins, before adding: “I do feel more optimistic than I have at any point since 2005 that there might be a change of government.”
This article is part of a series of interviews with MPs standing down at the next general election. Our interview with former leader of the SNP’s Westminster group Ian Blackford is here.
Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward