Tony Benn “too often enjoyed prin­ciple at the expense of power”. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Leader: Benn, Blair and a middle way between principle and power

The Labour Party may yet have an opportunity to achieve the right balance between the two Tonys.

If the modern Labour Party has sometimes been accused of being enslaved to public opinion and the focus group, the death of Tony Benn was a reminder of when it blithely disregarded them. After the party’s defeat under the leadership of Michael Foot in the 1983 general election – Labour’s worst since the establishment of universal suffrage and a defeat that opened the way for a long period of Thatcherite hegemony – Mr Benn proudly declared: “For the first time since 1945, a party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people. This is a remarkable development.” That Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives received the support of nearly 13 million was of less significance.

Mr Benn was one of the few living politicians who merited the epithet “inspirational”. His conviction and eloquence were rightly praised in the days following his death at the age of 88. But the uncomfortable truth is that he achieved remarkably little as a practical politician and his intransigence contributed to the split in the Labour Party. None of the signature policies he advocated – mass nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market – was implemented. He left a significant constitutional legacy in the form of the right for hereditary peers to renounce their titles (see his 1961 article on page 34) and the first national referendum (on the EEC in 1975) but for a man of his status and ambition this was of little consolation.

The stance adopted by Mr Benn and his ideological devotees of “no compromise with the electorate” was one of the main causes of Labour’s long electoral exile in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was not until 1997 and the formation of Tony Blair’s New Labour government that many of the policies long championed by the centre left – the minimum wage, devolution, greater investment in health and education, school reform and peace in Northern Ireland – could be achieved.

The experience of four successive general election defeats and years of sectarian warfare instilled in Labour an obsession with party discipline that endures to this day (contrast the division among the Conservatives with the unity of the opposition). It also led to a narrowing of the party’s horizons; as a result, far less was achieved in Labour’s 13 years in office than originally hoped. Rather than overturning the Thatcherite consensus they inherited, Mr Blair and Gordon Brown merely sought to adapt to it. Indeed, it was in the belief that they would prove more efficient administrators of financial capitalism that some on the right openly welcomed their election.

The failures of this period are well known. An already unbalanced economy became even more reliant on finance; the gap between the rich and the poor widened alarmingly; far too few new houses were built; and Britain was led into ruinous and illegal foreign wars.

When Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader in 2010 (in the closest party contest since Mr Benn fought Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981), many warned that his decision to break with New Labour would consign the party to the electoral wilderness just as the 1983 “suicide note” had done. However, three and a half years later, Labour retains a narrow opinion-poll lead over the Conservatives and has a plausible chance of winning next year’s general election on a social-democratic platform. Polls show that roughly two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a compulsory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities.

It is true that the same electorate favours largely conservative positions on the Budget deficit, immigration and welfare. Yet Mr Miliband, more sensitive to public opinion than Mr Benn was and prepared to listen to the concerns of blue-collar voters, has pragmatically adjusted his party’s policies.

In his 1985 address to the Labour party conference, Neil Kinnock said: “We know that power without principle is ruthless and vicious, and hollow and sour. We know that principle without power is naive, idle sterility.”

With the death of Mr Benn, who too often enjoyed prin­ciple at the expense of power, and the diminished reputation of Mr Blair, who too often enjoyed power at the expense of principle, it is worth reflecting that the Labour Party may yet have an opportunity to achieve the right balance between the two.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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