What a beautiful day and what a wonderful send off for Mark Bennett, the Mayor of Lambeth and my former right-hand man Mark Bennett, who died of a heart attack aged 44.
St Leonard’s Church was packed out as hundreds gathered to pay respects, from a former Prime Minister and a Bishop to messengers and clerks and also the people who run the Lambeth food banks to which Mark gave such support.
Ex-MP Keith Hill, Mark’s friends and colleagues Cllr Lib Peck and Cllr Imogen Walker spoke beautifully in tribute, and children from the school of which he was a governor, Dunraven, sang beautifully too.
They both had family and friends in tears as they talked of his character and his commitment to his politics and to the area. I tried to lighten the tone a little in my tribute, which is posted below. I still cannot quite believe he has gone, but the remarkable turnout for his memorial underlined I am not alone in feeling so sad that he has.’
— I would normally wear a black tie at an occasion like this, but I think Mark would have preferred red.
Mark must have typed several million words for me, so I thought he would also appreciate it if I started not with my words, but his. You can tell a lot about someone from how they talk of themself and these words, from his website, say a lot about Mark, both his life and his character. As our fellow Labour battle bus veteran Tom Dibble said, Mark had an incredible mix of duty and responsibility, alongside unquenchable irreverence.
“Home page — About Me
“As the great music hall comedian Dan Leno said, a former resident of Lambeth by the way (Akerman Road, SW9 since you ask):‘I came into the world a mere child, without a rag to my back, and without a penny in my pocket.’
“And so, dear reader, did I. Yet, as Leno also said, ‘There is nothing exceptional about being born. Birth is something that comes to all of us sooner or later.’ So there we are. And here I am.
“Fast forward through three of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man (puking infant, whining schoolboy, sighing lover), and you will find me being re-elected as a Lambeth Labour councillor in May 2010, following a by-election win in October 2005 and the all-out elections in 2006 when Lambeth was the only Labour gain in the country. (you may cheer) … being a Lambeth councillor is as near as I get to Shakespeare’s fourth age – ‘a soldier, full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel’. I’m bearded like the pard, anyway. I’m also 42 and represent Streatham South ward, together with two Labour colleagues, who are not bearded like the pard.
“After two years as Cabinet Member for Community Safety, I spent a year as Cabinet Member for Culture, Leisure and Sport. I then went back to being Cabinet Member for Community Safety again. Following the 2010 elections I decided to stand down and I’m now happily a backbencher, pursuing a range of interests, from almshouses to animal welfare. I’ve lived in Streatham for thirteen years and I’m proud of my family’s varied roots in London, Berkshire and the South East. I’m also a governor of the successful Dunraven School in Streatham. I joined the Labour Party in the early 1990s, when John Smith was leader, and I was a student.
“I have written articles on politis, cinema and I was a co-editor of The Blair Years, Alastair Campbell’s diaries, and continue to edit further volumes.” (I am sure Mark would have wanted me to include a book plug in a eulogy to him…)
“This blog is not solely about politics,” he said. “It’s a mix of things that interest me.”
His twitter biog says what those interests are.
“Interests: Lambeth, its past, present and future.”
He was writing a history of Lambeth’s past when he died, and working for its future.
It was Mark who got me into social media, my current addiction, mildly better than the other ones. He used to mock me for my pen and paper, anti-computer ways and was the first to persuade me I really had to ‘get with the programme’ He created my blog and coined my twitter name, @campbellclaret, having given up trying to explain why I couldn’t use my own name.
When I first met him he was a civil servant, the only man among the ‘Garden Room Girls’ who act as Downing Street’s administrative support to the Prime Minister.
Later he joined my PA Alison Blackshaw, the two of them sitting outside my office, working as gatekeepers, support staff, advisers and friends. They basically ran my professional life for me and I trusted them totally to do so.
On paper, he was relatively low ranking, but his dedication, intelligence and his acute political mind made him a key player in the team. Yes, he would make the tea and file the papers, and come in obediently and instantly when I shouted ‘Bennett’ at the top of my voice. ‘Yes, my liege,’ he would say on entry. ‘In what humble and obsequious way may I serve you now?’
He was a good and very funny writer, forever coming up with jokes for Tony Blair to use in speeches which were so risqué that Tony was never going to use them.
But John Prescott did.
He would also comment not just on what I was writing and doing, but the Prime Minister too. Remember the slow-handclapped Women’s Institute speech. ‘All wool, no thread,’ he scribbled on the draft. You should have listened, Tony.
At the 2001 election he did something that few civil servants do. He resigned so that he could support us in the election and became my right hand man for the campaign. This despite the fact that it meant an inevitable end to his civil service career.
He continued to work for the Party, the GMB, for Labour causes and was a brilliant campaigner and councillor. One of his lasting legacies came from his time working for Siobhan McDonagh, a campaign for digital hearing aids, and to destigmatise deafness, a cause he cared so much about because of his profoundly deaf niece, Samantha. And I want to say to Mark’s family that the loss you feel is greatest of all, but we share it with you, and I hope that helps in some small way. Remember, as the Queen no less said, grief is the price we pay for love.
Mark met the Queen. Oh how he loved meeting the Queen, welcoming the Duke and her, in his mayoral chains, to the National theatre. This is the real tragedy of Mark skipping through Shakespeare’s seven ages so quickly: it is that he really found himself in the role of Mayor of Lambeth. It gave him the chance to serve in his own right. It gave him connection with so many people. It gave him profile and recognition and he didn’t mind a bit of that. And it gave him those bloody mayoral chains? How he loved those chains.
Burns night was a double whammy. Chains. And a kilt. ‘How many pictures of your own knees can one man tweet,’ I tweeted? ‘At least I don’t go around squeezing a cat and pretending it is a musical instrument’ he tweeted back. How many people go on a Gay Pride Parade wearing mayoral chains? He was particularly proud and touched to have received a letter from the lesbian and gay rights movement praising him for being a “fantastic LGBT role model in our community”. He was.
When I began the mammoth task of preparing my diaries for publication, Mark became my right hand man, co-writer, tea-maker, and sound counsel once more. We sat for day after day upstairs in my office trying to make sense of the millions of words I had recorded. Our joint legacy lives on in his dog, named after the most painful part of the whole venture: Index.
In The Blair Years cast list he is described as my ‘researcher. That does not get close to what he meant to me, my colleagues and my family.
At some of the most difficult points in my life – moments of huge personal loss, moments of high stress – Mark was there, always clear in his thinking, calm, loyal, supportive, honest, unafraid to say what he thought, even if he thought I might not want to hear it.
The last time he worked for me on a big project was when I was preparing for the Chilcot Inquiry. He had helped me prepare for many inquiries, hundreds of media briefings at home and abroad and I knew that for something as important as this, I needed him there as I worked my way through the mass of papers, and marshalled my arguments. He always knew when I might need him around, didn’t have to be asked. Like when I was due to do BBC Question Time in Burnley with George Galloway a fellow panelist, and as I got ready to head north he said ‘I’d better come with you … I don’t want you beating him up in the green room.’ So yes, there were limits to his commitment to public service.
When I was phoning around in the wake of his death, everyone, from Tony Blair and Iain McNichol to Number 10 messengers and party volunteers, said the same. Great guy, team player, too young. Mark would have loved that so many people are here, including a former PM to whom he was as dedicated as he was to me, and as he was to you the people of Lambeth.
As Tony said in tribute: “He was intelligent, immensely hard-working and above all, a warm and generous spirit who was a pleasure to be around.”
Working for us, and more recently in his tireless work in Lambeth, he touched so many people, which is why there was so much sadness when he died, and so much love for him today.
Mark, you were a gentle character, but a big character. You were a carer, and a giver. You left your mark on all of us. I will miss you and so will all who had the good fortune to know your wit, your passion, your insecurities, and your determination to do something good for the world.