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.