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 special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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