Snap election series: Once fighting for labour rights, now a Lib Dem candidate

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By Polly Botsford on

Law graduate who once championed miners’ rights in South Africa begins new life canvassing on the streets of east London

In the third piece of our snap election series, we focus on the Liberal Democrats. Of the eight Lib Dem MPs elected in 2015, two have a background in law: Alistair Carmichael was a solicitor at a firm in Scotland, and Norman Lamb was an employment law solicitor at Steeles. Candidate Ben Sims is hoping to become the third; we speak to him about his move away from law into politics.

Some cases are life-changing. Ben Sims, a law graduate and now the Liberal Democrat candidate for Leyton & Wanstead, was lucky enough to be involved in just such a case.

He worked on a key trial in South Africa fighting for the rights of a miner who worked in the country’s infamous gold mines. As an intern to a one-man band, former College of Law (now The University of Law) student Sims was heavily involved in the case which ended up before the Constitutional Court of South Africa, the top court there. Sims explains:

I drafted the legal argument for South Africa’s highest court using a skeleton argument I had put together for the College of Law’s moot!

Sims says the trial gave him “a real sense of what can be achieved if you work at it and what the courts can do to protect society.”

His student life started at University College London as a history undergrad. He then won an internship to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris (wow!) through an EU-funded scheme called the Leonardo Da Vinci programme.

When he came back to the UK, Sims worked as a “digital nomad” in IT but also decided to go to law school, which he self-funded. He says that law and computing are not that far apart:

Law is quite similar to computer programming. You have a set of rules on one side and you have the real world on the other and you are trying to map them across.

It was at law school that the interest in worker and human rights took hold, which eventually led him to the outskirts of Kruger National Park to fight the miner’s case.

“It was a real David and Goliath story,” Sims says. “Mr Mankayi had been a gold miner all his life. Not surprisingly he had developed silicosis, a lung condition caused by inhaling particles of silica during the mine-blasting. Under South Africa’s labour laws, workers with an occupational disease like this do not have a right of action against their employer; instead, there is a designated workers compensation scheme.”

But here was the problem: “it just happened to exclude miners.”

Sims’ boss, Richard Spoor, fought against this anomaly — all the way to the constitutional court. Nine months later, they won. Sadly, Mr Mankayi died before the judgment was handed down so he didn’t receive his compensation. The case was so important it caused the price of gold to drop worldwide by five percent following the decision.

Sims joined the Lib Dems two years ago and helped out in the 2015 election — the one that wiped the Lib Dems almost entirely into oblivion. Clearly, he has not been put off and was selected as a candidate in 2016.

Wanstead and Leyton is a staunch Labour seat, and Sims will stand against John Cryer, a Brexit Labour candidate, with a majority of almost 15,000.

Sims, 37, is not OVERLY bothered by the majority: “Cryer is a Brexiter in a Remain area. And people who have voted Labour all their lives are so unhappy about that. There is a good chance they will come over to me.”

The Lib Dems are, of course, the only party that say they will have a second referendum if they are voted in:

We want a second referendum on the final Brexit deal otherwise the Tories can put in whatever they want to.

Campaigning is a “very intense experience”, says Sims. “It’s not that dissimilar from running a business or law firm. You need to have a handle on how to speak in public but you also have to run a team, deal with constituents, sort out those leaflets…”

Underlying all that is an absolute commitment to politics: “You need to know that you want to contribute — you can’t do this in a half-hearted way.”

Sims has opted not to practise law full-time and is a tech consultant running his own business, Tech City Lab, which helps small businesses get the most out of the latest technologies.

He adds: “I use my legal training everyday.”

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