Election Interview: Remain alliance is ‘nonsense’ and Lib Dems are ‘offering a dangerous lie’, says Helen Hayes

Katherine Johnston (05 December, 2019)

'It is very, very clearly about trying to secure political advantage for minority parties rather than stopping Brexit'

33663Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood

Helen Hayes pulls no punches when it comes to the election pact that has pitched her constituency, the UK’s most politically pro-European seat, as a key battleground.

“The whole Unite to Remain situation is a nonsense really. It is very, very clearly about trying to secure political advantage for minority parties rather than stopping Brexit.

“If it was about stopping Brexit then they wouldn’t be standing candidates strategically against pro-Remain candidates like me and Neil [Coyle, in Bermondsey].”

In Dulwich and West Norwood the Liberal Democrats have stood aside to give the Greens’ Jonathan Bartley a clear run and there are no independents or Change UK candidates standing.

“[Lib Dem leader] Jo Swinson is making a false promise to the county when she says make me Prime Minister and I’ll revoke Article 50.

“Our system cannot possibly deliver that. She is offering a lie really, and I think it’s a dangerous lie.  The idea that we can just turn our face to the parts of the country that voted leave and pretend it didn’t happen is a dangerous course of action. We have to find a democratic way through and out of Brexit that’s about winning the arguments. The Remain alliance would have a bit more credibility if they were standing against Tory Brexiteers.”

And she pours scorn on the idea the Greens are a Remain party parachuting in to save the day.

“The Greens did no campaigning locally in 2016 for remain. One of the most prominent national Green politicians Jenny Jones, a Southwark councillor several years ago, campaigned for leave.

“They are rewriting history with this absolute nonsense about being the only Remain party that is simply not true.”

But can you blame the public for being confused about Labour’s have-it-both-ways stance on Brexit and Corbyn’s lacklustre Remain campaign?

“Labour is offering the only way out of Brexit for those of us who want to remain – and that is a democratic way out of Brexit,” she presses.

“Our commitment in this election is to a final say referendum with remain on the ballot.”

A whopping 77 per cent of people in Dulwich and West Norwood voted to remain in the EU. From the referendum result onward Hayes has campaigned for another vote.

“Only 23 MPs voted in 2017 for a second referendum, and people’s recollection is that many more MPs voted against triggering article 50 than actually did,” she says.

Hayes was elected in 2015 with a landslide win after Tessa Jowell stepped down. At that point she had spent several years as a Southwark councillor after a shock result against the incumbent Tory college ward councillor in 2010.

Can Labour buck the trend nationally this time, despite what the pollsters say?

“College ward was a conservative ward since before I was born, so my very first experience of an election taught me that any democratic event can have unexpected consequences. We were told there was no possibility of a Labour councillor being elected and then I was.”

“Not long after the 2015 election my case workers started saying they thought there was a problem with older commonwealth citizens who were suddenly being asked for proof of their right to be in the UK. What we didn’t know was it was happening on a national scale. As soon as it broke in the news we recognised it instantly.”

Born in Lancashire, she went to a state school, before studying politics at Balliol College, Oxford, graduating in 1996.

A formative work experience trip to Chicago over a university summer vacation sparked an interest in planning and how change can affect communities as she joined a campaign to save black-owned businesses on Chicago’s south side. It led her to a 20-year career in planning.

She has now lived in south London for more than half her life, first in Brixton, before moving to Crystal Palace where she lives with her partner and their two children, aged eleven and fourteen.

An effective record in opposition has seen her co-sponsoring the Homelessness Reduction Act and forcing the Tories to U-turn on a supported housing funding shake-up.

This year her planning and affordable housing bill also had its first readings in the Commons.  If passed it would change what she describes as the “broken definition of affordability” and stop rampant land speculation.

At the beginning of the year, Hayes committed to getting a reception for Windrush elders at the Speaker’s House and a debate in Parliament to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their arrival in the UK and contribution to public life.

Soon after the resulting scandal engulfed the government. She says immigration cases are some of her biggest challenges as an MP.

“Not long after the 2015 election my case workers started saying they thought there was a problem with older commonwealth citizens who were suddenly being asked for proof of their right to be in the UK. What we didn’t know was it was happening on a national scale. As soon as it broke in the news we recognised it instantly.

“There are thousands of immigration cases I’ve worked on over the last four years.  The impact of the wider hostile environment is on people’s inability to resolve status and the utter misery and hardship that causes for years. There are even cases I inherited from Tessa Jowell.

“This government keeps people in total limbo with their status and their ability to work and access benefits.

“As an MP the issues come to you because the job is about representation, but I always try to think what the bigger change is I want to achieve and in terms of the Windrush scandal it’s education.

“It’s partly about teaching our children an accurate and complete version of British history, but it is also that migration as a prism for teaching history is very equalising. I know very little about my family history more than two generations back, but I have an Irish surname, my family is from a migration city, Liverpool, I grew up in a town with a Viking name, Ormskirk.

“None of us have always been here. If you can understand that that’s the case then I think it can cut through a lot of the prejudice and discrimination.

“Labour is committed to those reforms if we get into government.”

Meanwhile, extra police and more money isn’t the only answer to stopping the serious youth violence devastating families, she says.

“I have spent a lot of time supporting one mum living in my constituency whose child was murdered, and it was very difficult to get the mental health support that she needed.  When tragedies happen as a consequence of serious violence the ripple effects in terms of trauma are very wide.

“We need that access to support to be there for people without having to fight it. If you look at the ages of those getting caught up in violence now, they have grown up in this decade of austerity.”

Labour has pledged to row back austerity, redesign the economy with its decarbonising Green New Deal and throw in added sweeteners like its nationwide broadband giveaway.

Can the spending splurge really attract swing voters who think our economy wouldn’t be in safe hands with Labour?

“What we have seen over the last ten years is the absolute false economy of austerity.  We are so far the only party that has produced a full costed set of proposals for our manifesto, so the idea that we are just making spending commitments with no regard to delivery just isn’t true.”

She dismisses claims only a Green vote will get the action we need on climate change, or that the Lib Dems and Tories’ commitments are enough.

“In 2006-08 I was working on a Labour government-funded project about climate change, to drive change and policy and practice, making the climate the prism through which we see everything else. It was life- changing and shifted my perspective from seeing the climate as an issue of concern to seeing it as absolutely the first consideration in everything we do. Sadly coalition government archived it. This election should be talking about ten years of positive progress but instead we are revisiting policy legislation I was working on more than ten years ago. When you take resources away, change stops.”

This August a constituent was jailed after a campaign of harassment which included bombarding her team with hundreds of emails, including ones with sexually explicit images. Another person has been handed an injunction.

Did she hesitate about standing again?

“There was no doubt at all, it is a genuine privilege to do this role every single day,” she insists.

“We are in an extraordinarily difficult and complex time in our politics but it is still the best role that I’ve ever had and could ever imagine having. I’ll be here as long as voters want me to be.

“On a day-to-day level I’ve never felt that I had to organise life around what the worst person might possibly do because most people aren’t like that.”

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