I am part of a small group of people that you can only get into based on an accident of birth. Am I a member of the Royal Family? No. Instead, I am one of a small number of people whose parent also happens to be an MP. (Though I’m not a member of the Benn family, pictured above.)
How many of us are there? I have no idea. Were it not for the fact that I am one of three children and happened to go to school with someone else related to an MP, I would never have spoken to anyone else in this situation before I started to write this piece. As a ballpark figure, given 650 MPs and an average of 1.9 children per family, maybe 1200 other people are in this situation. That’s about 0.002% of the population of the UK, or to put it another way, about as many votes as it would take to get elected in my local council ward. Another thing to note is that everyone I was able to speak to was under 30.
For some people (perhaps most famously Leo Blair, the first child born to a sitting Prime Minister since 1849), they have always had a parent who was a politician. For others, like me, it happened later while they were growing up. One person I spoke to was eight when their mum began their selection process – I was twelve when my mum began hers. (Though – forgive the cliché – I grew up in a “Labour household” of political activists, so I wasn’t exactly a stranger to party life.)
One common worry expressed by people I spoke to – and one I personally share – is about nepotism, or the accusation of nepotism. We’ve seen worldwide the presence of Eduardo Bolsonaro, Yair Netanyahu and Donald Trump Jr as a collective of very online children of right wing leaders. Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner both have senior roles in her father’s White House administration. On a personal level, as someone who would like to work in politics some day, I’ve already decided I will never apply for a job with an MP representing the same region as my mother. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me if I can get my mum to do something (the answer is always no, by the way). And if anyone does say I’m only involved in politics because of my mum, I can just point at my two brothers who refuse to have anything to do with the whole business.
The other big concern that I have whenever I discuss politics is that I’ll inevitably get the line “oh you only think that because of your mum.” This is patently bollocks. I challenge anyone to find a person whose politics weren’t partially shaped by their parents or their upbringing – yet funnily enough, over nearly 20 years I have managed to develop my own views and opinions. You need only to look through replies to tweets by Hilary or Emily Benn to see this in action – scores of people claiming that Tony Benn would be ashamed of his son and granddaughter (which, if you know anything about Tony Benn, you would know is untrue.) A line I often use when someone accuses me of being fed lines by my mum is that “my mum has to nag me to do the washing up, do you really think she tells me what to tweet.” This is, unsurprisingly, a concern shared by everyone I spoke to – that either they don’t tell people they’re related to politicians for fear of being labelled a younger clone of their relative, or that people see their surname and assume the same regardless.
There’s no manual for being related to a politician. There’s no WikiHow article telling you how you’re supposed to act. I have only ever come across two articles written about this, one by Hugo Rifkind (son of Malcolm), and another by Hanna Flint (daughter of Caroline). And it varies by MP – on a basic level some families live in London full time and the MP goes off to the constituency at weekends, or, like in my case, they live outside London full time, while the MP goes off to London for the week. You do at least get used to having only one parent at home full time – I am “lucky” in that I was 15 when my mum first got elected, but for those who were younger I can only imagine how tricky it would have been effectively growing up only having both parents around half the time. Being related to an MP has definitely changed my outlook on politics – when I get the inevitable “do you want to be an MP” question, my answer is a resounding no, because I’ve seen how it affects a person, and how it affects their family.
It’s given me some amazing opportunities – like the opportunity to visit Parliament and meet so many people I wouldn’t have otherwise met – but there have been quite a few low points too. At the start of the 2017 election campaign, with Labour slumped at 21% in the polls I wasn’t just thinking we’d lose the election, I was worried about the electorate making my mum redundant. When people talk about the “deselection express,” that’s personal to me. I’ve had people send me messages about votes by my mum, or people she’s met, even when I disagree with those votes, or the people she’s met – and I know for a fact I’m not alone in this. The people I spoke to all echoed this worry of feeling like you have to defend your parent even if you don’t necessarily agree, and we’ve seen how protesters have told Jacob Rees-Mogg’s children that “their daddy is a bad man.” They’re all young children – at least I am an adult and made the choice to be active in politics.
Worst of all are the threats. In an age where distrust and abuse in politics is rising, it’s something that’s always at the back of your mind. I personally can’t scroll all the way down my own mother’s Wikipedia page because it mentions death threats she received and I find that triggering. I will always remember where I was when I heard about the shooting of Jo Cox. Someone else I spoke to said they felt paralysed after that. I remember, too, where I was during the Westminster Bridge attack – in a science lesson, checking my phone to see two notifications, one an alert from BBC News and another a text from my mum. It just said “I’m fine x.” I went home and watched the live coverage in silence with my dad. That isn’t normal. And when I see people standing for office joking about getting people to assassinate MPs, you’ve no idea quite how upsetting and offensive that is, because there’s probably a far right equivalent about Labour MPs.
There’s no support network for politicians’ kids, not even a Facebook group or an email chain. Should there be? It would certainly be interesting to find out how the experience affects other people. (I have absolutely no idea how many MPs’ children share my “no way José” attitude to following in my parent’s footsteps – clearly Hillary Benn and Stephen Kinnock didn’t.) Personally, I think that it would be nice to be able to connect with other people in this small collective. Maybe someone will sort it out on social media somehow.
So, if you ever come across someone related to a politician: no, we aren’t a one-stop “use us to access politicians” shop; no, we don’t all want to be MPs; and yes, please, treat us like we’re real people with our own politics and opinions.