Leeds North East MP: Fabian Hamilton: '˜It was the most hostile meeting in my 20-year career'

Fabian HamiltonFabian Hamilton
Fabian Hamilton
Just over a year ago, Fabian Hamilton left the Labour front benches amid a row over the party leadership. The Leeds North East MP talks to Kate Langston about reuniting the party and finding a peaceful solution to North Korea.

Sitting down in a busy cafe on the Brighton seafront, Fabian Hamilton launches almost unprompted into an analysis of this summer’s election. The passion and detail with which he recounts a particularly fractious hustings in one of his local synagogues reveals how raw the campaign still feels for many.

“This is normally a hustings where I get a little bit of stick on Labour party policy on Israel, the odd person talking about anti-Semitism in the party. But generally I’m Jewish, they know me, I’ve been around 20 years. I’ve done a good job for them,” he says.

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“It was the most hostile meeting I’ve ever encountered in my entire political career. There were 120 people there. Half of the people I knew well, a quarter of them, I’d been to their homes.

“And people were standing up saying ‘Fabian, you are a wonderful MP, you’re a great man, we love you a lot as a friend, but we’re not voting for you’. And I thought: This is seriously bad.”

Like many of his Labour colleagues, most of the negative feedback the Leeds North East MP was getting from voters on the doorstep was directed at their party leader. “Some people think he’s anti-Semitic, some people just didn’t like his stand on Israel, and some people didn’t like how left-wing he was,” he adds.

But as the weeks went on and the Tory campaign began to flounder, he could feel the tide beginning to turn.

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Re-elected in June with a 17,000-strong majority – up 15 per cent on 2015 – Mr Hamilton is more than willing to concede that he and his fellow Corbyn-sceptics “were wrong”.

As he speaks to The Yorkshire Post, the tables nearby are packed with people wearing the distinctive Labour conference lanyard.

He admits that he has “never really enjoyed” these annual gatherings very much, but contrasts the mood this year – “there’s a new spring in everybody’s step” – with the “depressing” atmosphere at last September’s conference Liverpool last September.

At the time, the party was riven by infighting following the failed leadership coup, and in the tense months leading up to the vote of no confidence Mr Hamilton joined dozens of fellow MPs in resigning from the front bench.

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Explaining his decision, he claims his constituency had been “split in two” over the issue, and his close allies were warning him that they would abandon him if he stayed on in the role.

When it came to telling Mr Corbyn, the leader was surprisingly “generous” in his response.

“I’ve known this man a long time, 20 years, and we’ve always been good friends and shared a CND platform,” Mr Hamilton says. “I spoke to (him) and said: ‘I’m going to have to step back because otherwise all my workers are going to desert me’.

“He said to me ‘look, I understand where you’re coming from. If I win the leadership campaign again, I promise you there will be another job for you’. He’s a very generous guy... and he was as good as his word.”

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One of the unavoidable topics of discussion in Brighton is the growing influence of the pro-Corbyn group Momentum. In addition to setting up an alternative conference – the World Transformed festival – just across the road from the main Labour Party venue, it has also created a new app to co-ordinate members in key votes.

The organisation estimates that more than 4,000 delegates downloaded this software, while claiming that 5,000 people attended its “fringe” conference, which boasted Ed Miliband and John Prescott among its guest speakers.

So is Momentum the future of the party? Mr Hamilton clearly has mixed feelings about the group.

On the one hand, they are a dedicated army of campaigners, eager to “knock on doors, talk to the public and evangelise” about the Labour message.

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But they are also something of a party-within-a-party, and “we know the public will not vote for parties which are split”.

“I think its a shame that we have to have any separate group within the Labour Party. When Tribune was around, when Militant were there... I never wanted to know about them. Because I joined the Labour Party,” he says.

“It’s fair enough to have your opinions about how you’d like to see the party go, but you argue that from your point of view as an ordinary member, within the structures of the party.

“We don’t need the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks... what we need is a united Labour party. There should be no need for Momentum.”

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His current front-bench role is as Labour’s shadow minister for peace and disarmament. This has seen the 62-year-old take a leading role in the party’s policy on North Korea.

He admits that he does not have “the definitive answer” to the current stand-off, but believes that a co-ordinated international response is vital to de-escalating tensions. Referring to Donald Trump’s recent intervention, he argues that “simply saying ‘we’ll wipe you off the face of the Earth’ is not going to make people like that say ‘oh, in that case lets stop’.”

As an opponent of nuclear weapons he also dismisses the suggestion that having its own nuclear arsenal makes the UK any safer in this kind of situation. Conversely, he believes being a nuclear power makes the country more of a target.