Tony Benn addresses the crowds during the traditional May Day rally in Trafalgar Square in London in 2007. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.