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Election Section #1

In the first of a weekly report from the campaign trail, Dazed travels to the south coast to meet 20-year-old Emily Benn (yes, Tony’s granddaughter), who could be the youngest MP ever

A smiling Emily Benn poses for photographs outside her local Labour party headquarters, which doubles up as a Fair Trade gift shop in the seaside town of Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex. A steady flow of shoppers drop by and say hello to the smartly-dressed 20-year-old who hopes to become Britain’s youngest-ever MP. “I don’t see myself as a politician. It’s not a term I use,” she says, aware of the public’s increasing disdain for the political class to which her whole family belongs. Her uncle is environment minister Hillary Benn, and her grandfather is the towering old socialist Tony Benn. “I see myself as a candidate, but I’m more than just a politician. I’m a candidate, but I’m also a student.”

Inside her office, which is decorated with a mix of “Vote Labour” placards and novelty Fair Trade finger puppets, a clutter of the local Labour hardcore is gathered. Most are at least in their mid-50s and wear waterproof jackets – the weather’s sunny – as they offer free cups of tea and coffee to anyone interested. As well as her mature tone of speech and appearance, there is none of the wackiness or optimism of student politics about Benn’s campaign. There are no handmade slogan t-shirts, no silly nicknames, no painted faces, no audacious pledges, and nothing you wouldn’t have found in a general election campaign being run in 1950, apart from the young, half-Indian female candidate. “We’re not a student campaign, we don’t go in for that. I don’t do a lot of that kind of thing,” she says. She’s not really involved in student politics at her university in Oxford either. “I don’t have time to do student politics, as I’m obviously quite busy here.”

Despite Benn’s dedication, not even the local Labour party secretary believes she can overturn the Tory majority of 8,183. “Not this time,” laments a waterproofed Sally Daniel when out of earshot of her candidate. Still, getting selected for one of the three main parties to contest a general election seat will look great on her CV. “I don’t have a CV,” snaps Benn, turning her attention to a father and child who’ve come to say hello. She doesn’t like hearing it, but Benn is probably just earning her stripes in a seat that can’t be won this time around. Maybe after a decent showing here she’ll be rewarded with a safe Labour seat somewhere along the line, as often happens in the British party system. The smile she uses to greet the voters gets drawn away as she deadpans: “I have no idea what I’m going to do after university.”
The picturesque town of Shoreham-by-Sea, and the neighbouring Worthing, are her battleground. A walk around town shows a farmer’s market, a branch of Age Concern, and a candidate for the UK Independence Party getting quite a few good vibes thrown his way. It may be just a few miles away from the liberal oasis of Brighton, where the Green party stands a realistic chance of winning its first seat this year, but the constituency is culturally conservative with an ageing population. Fielding a young, mixed race woman in a white, middle-aged area is a daring, or more likely carefree choice of candidate by the local Labour party. But Benn seems more comfortable with the constituents here than other people her age would, as she listens to the residents’ concerns about hospitals and chats to grandparents about their pensions. Her family are no doubt very proud of the manner in which she conducts herself.

“People don’t expect me to be the voice of youth, that’s not really true. It’s not really about me as an individual, and it’s not really about my age,” she says. It seems that Benn is missing a trick by actively distancing herself from the one group she could rally to her cause, and could really relate to her, and which is most disenfranchised by the political process; the youth. There are enough of them in the constituency, if she looked for them. The middle-aged are pretty well represented in Westminster, with only three out of 646 MPs elected at the last election being under 30. But she doesn’t think young people need any more representation than they already have. If young people have a problem, her advice is: “If it’s something your MP could raise, get in touch with them. Get in touch with a select committee, because they can change things.”
“I don’t claim to speak for anyone,” she says, which you don’t often hear from someone running for election. “I stand up for the values that I believe in, and there you go.” But these aren’t the principles of a dissident or a maverick. The thing she is most passionate about is youth music of the classical variety. She is ambivalent towards university tuition fees, one of the major gripes of her fellow students, which even some of the older candidates have beef with. She supported the Iraq War and named Tony Blair as one of her heroes in an interview in 2007. She slips into the infuriating trait of public figures when presented with something embarrassing they’ve said in the past. They either say they’ve had their words “taken out of context” or they’ve been misquoted, when they really haven’t. In this case, Benn says: “I think I may have been misquoted on that one.”

The adage that politicians are all essentially the same is becoming ever more true in the minds of the general public. It’s apparent to both seasoned observers and those new to the game that Blair and New Labour watered down the Labour brand so much that there’s now precious little between Labour and the Tories. And with the current electoral system, the Lib-Dems don’t stand a chance. Throw in the shame-on-all-your-houses of the expenses scandal, and there is a real desire for a new breed of candidates who set themselves apart from the politics of old. Just don’t expect Emily Benn to be one of them. She’s already been blighted by the establishment, and is already just another politician in all but name.