Tony Benn addresses the crowds during the traditional May Day rally in Trafalgar Square in London in 2007. Photograph: Getty Images.
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With Benn's death, it's time to bury the myths of Old Labour

There was never a pure, unsullied left, seduced and corrupted by a power-hungry right.

In 1994, Tony Benn’s career was winding down. His moment had passed; his movement was finished. He was the Betamax to Margaret Thatcher’s VHS. His supposed victories had been overshadowed by their unintended consequences. He won the right to eschew his title and remain in the Commons, which allowed Alec Douglas-Home to do the same and become Conservative prime minister. He forced the Labour Party to change its electoral system, and was beaten in the contest that followed. His acolytes took over the party’s structures; the decade that followed belonged to the Conservatives.

Fittingly enough, he owed his renaissance to another unintended consequence. That same year, Tony Blair created New Labour to show that the Labour Party really had changed; but it got its history badly wrong. The myth of New Labour was that this was the first time that the party had been anything other than an economically incontinent and ideologically crazed rabble. The good news was that everyone outside of the party believed it, paving the way for Blair’s three successive election victories. The bad news was that everyone inside the party also believed it: and the myth of the New led to the lie of the Old: that until 1994, no one in the Labour Party ever compromised on anything.

That lie worked pretty well, though, if your name was Tony: Blair was able to cast himself as Labour’s saviour, while Benn was given a new lease of political life as the party’s conscience. Unfortunately, what worked for the Tonys didn’t work particularly well for anyone else: Old Labour could serve as Benn’s well-respected retirement home or Blair’s paper tiger, but there was one thing it couldn’t do: produce any ideas.  The argument for New Labour and Blair became that it was the only part of the party that would compromise, the appeal of Tony Benn became that he never would, and the left of the party went from being an ideas factory to a heritage site.

Which was all well and good until New Labour collapsed as well. Lehman Brothers destroyed its economic underpinnings; Gordon Brown’s personal failings buried it as a political enterprise. The leadership election that followed, though, largely hinged on aesthetic questions – "Ed speaks human" versus "David looks like a leader" – because, intellectually, the frontrunners could hardly be differentiated from one another. Scarcely more than a year before an election that is overwhelmingly likely to send Ed Miliband to Downing Street, Labour’s internal conversation consists of a series of arguments between the Labour right and a left that says no to everything.

Labour very badly needs a further injection of new ideas; and to do that requires the final rejection of the belief that there was ever a principled, unsullied left, seduced and corrupted by a power-hungry and alien right. It was the party’s left that first brought forward major trade union reforms; it was the party’s left that effectively did a deal with the private sector to ensure that the National Health Service could be born. The myth of New Labour pragmatism made Blair indispensable and the illusion of Old Labour purity turned Benn into a latter-day saint, but it killed the party’s intellectual debate stone dead: because you cannot have a discussion if one of the participants doesn’t want to compromise. Four years after Ed Miliband buried New Labour, Tony Benn’s death presents an opportunity for the left of the party to do the same to the Old.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.