Star Interview: '˜Cancer won't keep me from my work in politics,' says Sheffield MP Clive Betts

'I'm at an age now where I could retire,' says Clive Betts. The Labour MP for Sheffield South East had his 68th birthday over the weekend, and is well aware he could swap Westminster for a more sedate life '“ but it's unlikely.

Tuesday, 16th January 2018, 7:39 pm
Updated Tuesday, 16th January 2018, 7:40 pm
Clive Betts, Sheffield South East MP. Picture: Marie Caley NSST Betts MC 6

“It’s a matter of choice for me, the party and the electorate. There are still big issues around.”

Clive has spent more than 40 years in politics, 26 of them as an MP, and has been around long enough to recognise that ‘things tend to repeat themselves’.

“Housing is still a big issue and it was in the 70s. We were building more houses then but we still had big challenges around housing standards and conditions, and making improvements. What we have got now is less ability to actually build the homes people need, which at least we were doing in the 70s and 80s.”

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One thing he is sure of in 2018 is that ‘no-one knows what’s going to happen’.

“The Brexit thing is a complete mess and we’re not quite sure where we’re going to end up with it. The public are really detached from it, by and large. The best you get is ‘Why aren’t we out yet?’ People haven’t got the first idea what it entails.”

Clive is talking at his city centre office in Barker’s Pool – easier for all of his constituents to get to by bus, he thinks, than picking a location in, say, Mosborough or Darnall. He’s dapper in cords and velvet blazer, and we meet hours before Friday’s derby match between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United, which Clive naturally attended, as an Owls season ticket holder. “Home and away,” he points out.

It’s a badge of honour for Clive that, during his four decades in politics, he hasn’t had a single day off sick. He’ll need to have a couple of weeks off from meetings and House of Commons business ‘in February or March’, though, to undergo a stem cell transplant to treat multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer he was diagnosed with in August.

He hasn’t spoken about this publicly before, and his experience is a reminder of the importance of having regular health checks. His illness was detected early when he had a routine blood test after changing GPs.

“It was as simple as that. I’d not been ill, in that sense. I didn’t have any symptoms. They were good, spotted it, did a second check and sent me off to hospital. The NHS have been absolutely brilliant.”

Clive has been having chemotherapy for five months at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital.

“They said at the hospital I might have to slow down a bit, but I haven’t. I just get on with it. People say ‘You look well’ but, actually, I am. It literally hasn’t stopped me from doing anything at all. I’m still doing my five-mile walks.”

There is no cure for the disease, but treatments are improving.

“If the stem cell transplant works, which they’re convinced it will, you go into remission. They don’t know how long it goes into remission for – that’s something they can’t predict – but when you are, you’re back to normal and don’t need any medication at all. My GP said, ‘This is not a disaster. Just get on and live your life, carry on doing what you do and remain positive.’

“It’s something I’ve been treated for, I’ll have to have a bit of time off, at the end of that I’ll be back firing on all cylinders and doing the job I’m paid to do. It’s nothing that’s going to involve a byelection in the near future. At the next byelection I’ll be knocking on doors.”

Clive has devoted most of his days to politics. He studied the subject at Pembroke College, Cambridge and joined Labour in 1969 after growing up in a council house, attending Longley School and King Edward VII in Broomhill. He worked as an economist, became a city councillor in 1976 and in 1987, aged 37, was elected leader of Sheffield Council.

Whether he’d like to be council leader today, though, is doubtful.

“We had a bad period from ‘87 to ‘92 in terms of the Thatcher cuts, rate capping and the poll tax, but what I would say – and David Blunkett would say the same – is the cuts we had to make then are nothing compared to what’s being asked for now. These austerity measures are far worse than what’s been seen historically. The social care situation is a complete crisis, it’s a mess.”

The atmosphere in Sheffield was different then in other ways – private businesses were regarded with deep suspicion inside and outside the Town Hall following the collapse of heavy industry.

“We lost 40,000 jobs in 10 years in the Don Valley, and that was private firms shutting down, by and large. The steel industry and engineering always had cycles, and people expected that in a few years it would come back. This time it didn’t.”

The old manufacturing jobs were ingrained in the city’s psyche. Generations worked for the same firm, there were jobs for women and men and the cameraderie continued when work was over.

“Every big firm had a sports and social club. That was part of Sheffield life and it got ripped apart. Antagonism built up towards private firms. It was a fundamental change to the way the city saw itself and trying to build a belief that something good could happen in the future was very difficult.”

When he was council leader the first application was lodged to build Meadowhall. “I remember someone saying ‘We want real jobs on that site’. What they meant was steel and engineering jobs. I think there is still a problem for the city. We lost well-paid, male, manual jobs.”

He agreed to hand powers over to the Sheffield Development Corporation, a move which brought in £50m but was contentious at the time.

“It looks, now, a reasonably attractive area,” says Clive. “The relationship with the private sector did improve.”

In 1992 he was elected as the MP for Sheffield Attercliffe, as his constituency was known until a boundary shake-up in 2010.

Parliament has been tarnished in recent months by allegations of misogyny, bullying and abuse. Clive has his take on the controversy.

“I do think there’s a difference between two adults, and one makes an inappropriate move, and the other says ‘No, I don’t want that’, and it stops. That’s the end of it for me. That’s very different to a senior MP trying to come on to a junior member of staff, and putting pressure on them. That’s where it’s unacceptable, in any walk of life.”

Clive has had brushes with the tabloids himself. In 2003 he was suspended from the Commons for seven days for employing a former male escort as a researcher, and he got caught up in the expenses furore.

What did he learn from those days?

“There is a tomorrow. I think the public accepts MPs are human, and have flaws, and make mistakes like everybody else. But if they think you’ve had your hand in the till, and making money at their expense, that’s where they draw the line.”

Clive hopes people still aspire to join Parliament.

“I think it’s good that many MPs have come through the local council route, and understand how the local connects with the national. Social media has changed it to some extent. Some of the abuse, particularly of women MPs, has been absolutely outrageous. The problem is there’s nothing to stop people.”

The nature of scandal has undoubtedly evolved. Fifteen years ago Clive came out when there was still only a handful of openly gay MPs.

“When I grew up in Sheffield, you didn’t know anyone who was gay. You felt alone. I think things have changed absolutely enormously. When I came out people said ‘Fine, get on with it, what’s the difference’.”

He lives with his civil partner of seven years, James Thomas, in a farmhouse on the Derbyshire border. James is also his parliamentary assistant.

“After the ceremony I remember a little old lady stopping me in the street and saying ‘That was a lovely picture in the paper, I hope you’re very happy together’. She wouldn’t have said that 30-odd years ago.”

Clive, who has a majority of nearly 11,800, hasn’t decided whether to stand at the next election – “Let’s wait and see” – and says Labour has challenges, particularly around wooing older voters more traditionally inclined to choose the Conservatives.

“The big change between 2015 and 2017 was people saying ‘We’ve had enough of austerity, we still haven’t balanced the books’. We can’t let the NHS decline, we’ve got to make sure the police are there to serve us, kids deserve a proper education and we’ve got to build some homes.”

Labour’s popularity among the under-45s is partly down to the elusive ‘Jeremy Corbyn effect’, he accepts, but adds: “It’s the policies, as well.”

‘Everyone will look silly if devolution fails’

Clive Betts is confident Sheffield will get a devolution deal ‘eventually’ but says any agreement would still amount to ‘central government control’.

The MP, chair of the local government and communities select committee since 2010, says: “Devolution is mainly about the devolution of powers, not about the ability to raise money. It’s about getting handouts from central government. It’s better to have more money than less, but that is still central government controlling all the time. That’s the bit of the deal that really hasn’t changed so far.”

As the debate continues on whether to keep the Government-approved Sheffield City Region settlement or pursue a Yorkshire-wide arrangement, Clive says other areas are leaving South Yorkshire behind.

“We’ll get a deal eventually. Everyone’s going to look pretty silly if there’s money on offer and they don’t take it. Clearly Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool are using it, and demanding more powers, and being consulted and talked to in a way Sheffield isn’t.”

The Sheffield agreement is the only one on offer, he asserts. “And I’ve made clear my position on a Yorkshire mayor. I think it’s centralisation. Currently you make decisions about transport at South Yorkshire level. Why would you want a mayor in Leeds deciding where the buses run in Sheffield?”