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 special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.