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

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How the Brexit campaign lied to us – and got away with it

The Leave camp promised us all a unicorn and now claim they merely hinted at the possibility of a pony.

Whenever something cataclysmic happens in politics, there’s a temptation to trace it back to a single moment that set everything in motion: the shot heard around the world. Or, in the case of the night in the Commons bar where Eric Joyce lamped a fellow MP, prompting a fishy by-election in Falkirk that led to a fundamental reform of the Labour party rules, which enabled the election of Jeremy Corbyn, the punch that changed politics.

You can’t always identify the flap of the butterfly’s wings that creates a hurricane. The EU referendum result was driven by many factors: class, geography, differential turnout, culture and education. Even the broad conclusions – more older voters turned out and they were heavily pro-Brexit; cities went for Remain – must be qualified: why was Liverpool a win for Remain while Sunderland picked Leave?

If there is one sentence that explains the referendum result, though, it’s this one from the website of the Advertising Standards Agency. “For reasons of freedom of speech, we do not have remit over non-broadcast ads where the purpose of the ad is to persuade voters in a local, national or international electoral referendum.” In other words, political advertising is exempt from the regulation that would otherwise bar false claims and outrageous promises. You can’t claim that a herbal diet drink will make customers thinner, but you can claim that £350m a week will go to the NHS instead of the European Union.

The brains behind the Leave victory discovered this loophole in their earlier incarnation as the NoToAV campaign, promising that the cost of a new voting system would deprive babies in incubators or squaddies in Afghanistan of a spurious figure plucked from the air. And they got away with it.

Will they pull off the same trick again? It was noticeable how quickly the twin planks of the Leave campaign – extra money for the health service, and the implicit promise to cut immigration by “taking back control” of our borders – fell apart. On Good Morning Britain just hours after the result was declared, Nigel Farage decried the NHS pledge as a “mistake” (he was not part of the official Leave campaign that made it).

That evening, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan told Newsnight that “taking back control” of immigration didn’t necessarily mean cutting it. He advocated joining the single market: meaning that if Turkey does join the EU, Britain will be obliged to accept freedom of movement for its citizens. And we won’t have a veto on Turkish accession. (When we leave the EU, we will also lose automatic access to the scheme by which failed asylum-seekers are returned to the country in which they first claimed sanctuary.)

The first few days after the referendum felt like an extended period of gaslighting – being told that things you could distinctly remember happening had not, in fact, happened. How could anyone think that the Leave campaign had promised an extra £350m for the NHS? The money was “an extrapolation . . . never total”, said Iain Duncan Smith on the BBC. It was merely part of a “series of possibilities of what you could do”. My eyes flicked from his pious face to Twitter, where someone had posted a picture of him standing next to the campaign bus. Its slogan read: “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.” Then I looked at the pinned Tweet for the chief executive of Vote Leave, Matthew Elliott, which reads: “Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week.” These people promised us a unicorn and now claim they merely hinted at the possibility of a Shetland pony.

More gaslighting was to come in Boris Johnson’s announcement, made through the impeccably democratic, anti-elitist medium of his £250,000-a-year Telegraph column. Of course, we would retain access to the single market, said Johnson. Britons would be allowed to travel and live freely wherever they wanted in Europe, while we could also “take back democratic control of immigration policy, with a balanced and humane points-based system to suit the needs of business and industry”. Unfortunately, to use a phrase beloved by my dad, if Johnson thinks Angela Merkel will give the UK everything we want without giving anything back, he must be crackers.

The debate about free movement will dominate politics all summer, as the Tory leadership contest runs until 2 September. The future direction of the country will be seen through the prism of tactical advantage within the Conservatives. A split is already emerging on the right: Michael Gove, who promised withdrawal from the single market during the campaign, has aligned himself with Johnson. On 28 June, sources close to Johnson said he had been “tired” when he wrote the column, and it would be “vetted” to avoid mixed messages in future.

For the Tories, an unappealing choice lies ahead. It looks as though Britain’s economy is already contracting, thanks to the uncertainty brought on by Brexit. Their 2015 Tory election campaign, which asserted that Ed Miliband was a “threat” to our economic
security, feels blackly humorous.

Some of the pain could be mitigated if Britain accepted a deal close to what we have now. But is that what people voted for? The Leave campaign told voters over and over that mass immigration was frightening and it should be curtailed, and that public services were about to be pumped full of cash clawed back from Brussels. Right now, it’s the Remainers who are angry. But what happens when those who backed Brexit to get back at the political class discover that they have been taken for a ride?

The Leave campaign won by pretending there are simple answers to our problems. They spurned nuance, compromise and trade-offs. They won an astonishing and unexpected victory. But at what price? 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies