Brexit, Voting, Antisemitism: Speaking with Peter Kyle.

The Member of Parliament for Hove and Portslade, Peter Kyle, has been an MP since 2015. He’s still a fairly new face around Parliament, but has an interesting history. He was an aid worker in Eastern Europe, namely the Balkans, where people were living in a state of great difficulty and instability. Mr Kyle has written about some of his experiences, giving quite a chilling image of what harsh realities one can be faced with in these circumstances. Following his aid work, he has also been a special adviser for the Cabinet Office, and the Chief Executive of a charity created to help unemployed youth. You can see this feed into his political career, as much of his work focuses on youth inclusion. Mr Kyle has continuously tried to engage and create opportunity for young people by visiting colleges, actively campaigning for votes at 16, and pushing for more apprenticeships. In addition to this, he is keen on securing a referendum on the final Brexit deal.

Recently, The Independent launched it’s campaign for a new referendum. As time has progressed, the notion of a second vote is seeming more realistic. Mr Kyle agreed. “I do think that a People’s Vote is more likely now – not actually because of the People’s Vote Campaign. Simply, because of the way Brexit is unfolding, it’s driving people to have really huge concerns about the impact it’s going to have on our country. I think that they are increasingly feeling voiceless through this. They see a very small number of MPs making demands, and the Government caving into those demands. Parliament is shut out from that discussion, so god knows what it must feel like for somebody who’s getting up in the morning, going to work, getting back, looking after their family, seeing friends, going about a busy life and seeing all of this unfold when they are completely voiceless.” Many are critical of a second vote on the issue, the most popular argument we hear is that there has already been a vote on the issue. Mr Kyle accepts that there has already been a referendum, but also says “The referendum was based on the back of promises, and the point of the People’s Vote is that it will based on the back of facts. It will be an entirely different dynamic to the one we had before. That’s why it’s incredibly important that we involve people at the beginning of this process – it is right. The only way we can reconcile our country around this really divisive discussion that we are having is by involving them as we move towards the final stages as well. So that’s why I think we need one – and it’s looking likely that we will have one.”

Another question people often ask is whether a second referendum should include an option to remain, or if it should just be on which deal we accept. I asked Peter Kyle and he told me “Of course [there should be an option to remain]. We can’t enable our country to reconcile, come together after this, unless we give them the option to remain. At the end of the day, we started this debate about whether we want to leave or remain, and now people will see the final deal they will get to decide whether it meets the aspirations they had when they voted leave. So, if it doesn’t, they need to be able to think again about the fundamental question, which is on the table. I would prefer a referendum that quite simply said ‘Do you accept the deal negotiated by the Government and want to leave the EU, or do you reject the deal negotiated by the Government and want to remain a member of the EU?'”.

Aside from whether or not people want another referendum on the issue, most polls suggest that the people have little confidence in both May and Corbyn’s position on Brexit. Neither leader can seem to chime quite right with the public mood and are seemingly criticised from all sides. When I asked Mr Kyle about what he thought they were missing, he said “I think both party leaders at the moment are failing to meet their own tests with their own policies – that’s what I find so difficult. Both parties set off with a single promise. The Conservative Party said at the dispatch box, and this was said more than a dozen times at the dispatch box and in public, is that they will negotiate a deal that delivered the exact same benefits outside of the EU as we enjoy inside the EU. Labour has, as one of it’s ‘Six Tests’, that we will enjoy the exact same benefits.  So, it strikes me that the policies that both parties are putting forward for Brexit aren’t even going to meet the tests that they themselves have set. That’s the fundamental problem I have with the approach of both parties right now… There isn’t a version of Brexit that can deliver what people have been told that it can”. I have to say, I completely agree. It makes little sense to say that it is possible to enjoy the same benefits outside of an institution when the institution is the reason you are able to access such benefits in the first place. It’s nonsensical, and even a little ungrateful. Sometimes I feel as though logic and reasoning have been abandoned in the political world.

Having asked about both parties, I felt it was also important to ask about Mr Kyle’s own party and it’s leader. Mr Kyle has been seen to be an outspoken critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but he was keen to point out that “The funny thing is: I’ve never been as outspoken as people perceive I have about Jeremy. Loyalty is incredibly important to me and I’ve been a member of the Labour Party for a very long time. The person who taught me to doorstep and to engage with the public is a local member of this party here. She’s like a political surrogate mother to me. There is a soft, loving, friendship side of life in a political party that doesn’t really make it into the news because it’s not news-worthy. That has always been a very important part to me. I know that whenever I break the whip, whenever I speak out about the Party in any way, I know that I hurt people – it is not something I do lightly”. He goes on: “Having said that, there is a tradition within the Labour Party of being vocal when you believe it is in the interests of your values and principles…Jeremy has done this more than any other living politician. There are time when I believe the Party is stepping outside of what I believe are the best traditions of the Labour Party and I’ve spoken out about that. I have never personalised it about Jeremy,  although I have spoken out about the role that leadership has played”.

The Labour Party is seemingly continuously lingering just behind in the polls. For any member or supporter it is infuriating, for MPs it is even more so. “We are still lagging in the polls…Labour is struggling in the polls. At the moment, we are ahead, but that’s because our polls have flat-lined and the Tories have dipped because of the the shambles on Brexit. We should be thirty points ahead, I really believe that. Why are we within one point of the Tory Party, with the shambles in our public services, with the disgrace that is Brexit,  having Cabinet Ministers resigning left, right, and centre?” Says Mr Kyle.

A reason many may look towards is the ever-growing problem with antisemitism seen to be entwined with the Party and it’s leadership. Chuka Umunna even said that the issue fitted with the MacPherson Report’s definition of institutional racism. Peter Kyle decisively told me that he completely agreed with Mr Umunna’s statement. He continued, saying “It is a problem in society and it’s a problem in many different organisations – the difference is that other organisations allow the Jewish Community to be a part of solving the problem. Labour seems to have shoved the Jewish Community to one side and sort of said ‘we will deal with this’. This is difficult for me because if I was in a room of 200 MPs and a straight, white, middle-aged man stood up and said ‘I disagree with the definition of homophobia, I think it should be…’  and everybody shouted ‘hear, hear’ – me, as a gay person, would want my voice heard in that debate. I would want my experiences, the real experiences, to be listened to with respect and acted on. I think that is what we are missing in the Labour Party.”

“We cannot solve the problem of antisemitism without accepting that the people who know most about it are Jewish people. We have people in the Party at the moment who think they know more about antisemitism, and have a greater right to be heard, and have their view enshrined in policy, than Jewish people themselves”. Kyle shows a great awareness here, which I, and I’m sure many others, have a great deal of appreciation for. “As Jeremy has said: ‘we now have a problem of antisemitism in the party.’ Those were his words, not mine. So, we’ve allowed it to get to the point where we have a problem of antisemitism and then we choose that moment to redefine what antisemitism is without involving or consulting the Jewish Community. We’ve lost their trust.”

This response from Mr Kyle couldn’t be better. A person, in a position of power, understanding that their position should be used to boost the voices of those who don’t have the privilege of having their voices heard. I just wish this was a stance that the Party Leadership would take.

The Labour Party, in the past, proved itself to be a great champion of furthering rights and equality. From 1997 to 2010, New Labour kept up a quick and steady pace when it came to promoting a fairer society. Whether it was gender equality, gay rights, or social justice – The Labour Government, on balance, did a good job at covering it. This isn’t to say it was perfect, the discussion on what makes an equal society is a continuously evolving debate, but Blair and Brown did well in turning the conversation into actions. Some of the biggest changes made were to LGBT+ Rights, something Ben Bradshaw described as an “incredible period” when I spoke to him. However, as I said, the debate is a continuous one, there is always something more that can be done.

I asked Mr Kyle to comment on what more he thinks we need to do. He said “The first thing we need to do is learn the lesson that Bill Clinton taught us after he finished being President. I was really lucky, I went to a seminar that he gave once and he said that one of the lessons he’s learnt, reflecting on his time as President is: you always think when you’re leading a country, leading a government, through a programme of change that when you achieve change you think you can put it on a shelf, celebrate it and move on to the next thing. He said that was wrong. The lesson is, once you achieve social change, once you create an achievement in office, you then have to readdress it regularly. You’ve got to defend it. You’ve got to defend it again, and again, and again, until it becomes unimaginable that it could ever be reversed.”

“When it comes to LGBT Rights, the first thing we’ve got to do is make sure the rights and privileges that people now have as an LGBT person are defended because they are under attack. We have Jacob Rees-Mogg who still opposes the right for gay people to get married, to adopt, to even engage in the kinds of relationships that we now take for granted. He is now polling as the most popular replacement for Theresa May within the Tory Party. We are a hair’s breadth away from having a Prime Minister that would actively seek to deny us some of the rights we have. We’ve got Donald Trump, who is transphobic, and is introducing transphobic policies into policy in the United States… The first thing that we have to do is make sure that we keep a very watchful eye on the achievements that we have, continue to talk about them and talk about their importance, so that new generations and existing generations see the benefit.”

The world seems to get a little scarier the closer you look. As Mr Kyle pointed out, the people we have in power, or close to power, don’t seem to be willing to protect the progress we, as a society, have made. I’m from Brighton, one of, if not the most open-minded city in the country. It is a safe and accepting place. During our conversation, Mr Kyle told me a few facts, which I found quite surprising. “We live in a city that has one of the highest percentages and incidents of homophobic attacks in the country… We need to end the stigma that’s attached to HIV because the stigma is pervasive and it really impacts people’s lives. There’s a lot of misconceptions. People have no idea, for example, that people who are HIV positive, who are taking all the medication that is recommended and prescribed, mean that HIV is is not contractible through sexual activity anymore. You can’t contract it through having intercourse with somebody who is taking the meds as prescribed”. In all honesty, if Mr Kyle didn’t tell me this, I would never have known.

“Domestically, we need to carry on the discourse that we are having around Trans Rights. Not just rights, but the way we talk and respect people who are trans because there is a very heated, and sometimes angry debate about feminism and the trans community. This is something we need to listen to and really get right as we go forward. We are not at the destination yet, and we need to reassure some feminists that we are not seeking, as a society, to undermine the experience of growing up a woman… but conversely, we are trying to figure a way of making sure that people who do transition find the destination is welcoming and respectful. It’s a difficult one to get right, we’re not there. Finally, we’ve got to look to the rest of the world and use our influence in the forty or so countries that still persecute people who are LBGT through public policy, and the 27 nations that still execute people who are gay. And then, there are regions like Syria where there are ideologies like Islamic State and Daesh who will execute somebody who is accused of being gay, not proven to be gay. Just the accusation is enough. There is a lot we need to do beyond the friendly, liberal boundary of places like Brighton and Hove.”

Peter Kyle is a very progressive and active person, he doesn’t just vote on bills, he’s introduced them too. In May, he introduced a bill to lower the voting age to 16. This topic has picked up a lot of attention in recent years, and it is one that Mr Kyle is passionate about. “I think it is inevitable. The really weird thing is that when you speak to Tories who are not inclined to support this kind of thing, they all say it’s inevitable. So the most common response that I have when I speak to Tory MPs, trying to convince them that this is the right thing to do,  is: ‘I know this is going to happen, but it’s just not my thing. I’m not that bothered about it.’ The challenge is to get people bothered about it. Fundamentally, I just think that we as a society are missing out on the wisdom, insight, and experience that young people bring to the table. I’m getting pretty fed up of having secretary of state, after secretary or state, after secretary of state – Labour and Tory – getting to dispatch box and saying that this is the most well-educated, the most grounded set of young people, and the most productive, and the best qualified cohort of students that our country has ever had, but not backing that up with giving them more rights. It just seems counter-intuitive and incredibly patronising.”

“I think that every generation needs to reassess the franchise and our democracy… A hundred and fifty years ago, the idea of an 18 year old voting was absolutely inconceivable; a hundred and fifty years ago , the idea of women voting was absolutely inconceivable… People link it to public health. They ask ‘If you’re going to lower the voting age to 16, do you therefore want to lower the gambling age to 16? Do you want to lower the smoking age?’. I just say, ‘What is the link between voting and smoking?’ There is none. When I was asked in the commons, I had to say to them that they are asking the wrong person, because I want the smoking age raised to 25 straight away, and in five of ten years time, I want it eliminated all together… Is the implication that voting is addictive? If so, I hope it is!”

My mind, on the topic of votes at 16, isn’t made up yet. In fact, before this conversation I was quite against it, but Mr Kyle’s dedication and excitement about it has made me question some of my own reasons against it. Although I’m still not entirely convinced. He’s right though, some of the arguments against lowering the voting age are absolutely ridiculous.

I have seen Peter Kyle speak at a few different events over the years, but even when speaking with him one-to-one he showed the same passion, the same hunger, to create healthy change. When I contacted him, I promised I wouldn’t take up more than 15 minutes of his time, but we spoke for well over half an hour before he was pulled away to make a speech at the university. I was quite amazed, he didn’t check his watch once. I felt listened to. I couldn’t be more grateful for the time he gave me.

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