Tony Benn arrives to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph at a ceremony on August 17, 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Thanks to Ed Miliband, Tony Benn died at peace with Labour

With Miliband as leader, Benn finally felt at home again in the party he served for so long.

In his ninth and final volume of diaries A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine (2013), Tony Benn predicted that he would not live to see the election of another Labour government. Sadly, this great democrat, socialist and internationalist has been proved right today. 

It was Labour that Benn, the son and grandson of Liberal MPs, devoted his political life to. He was elected as the MP for Bristol South East in a by-election in 1950 (becoming the "Baby of the House") and served almost continuously until 2001 (becoming the "Father of the House"). Despite his friendships with Communists and Trotskyists, he never abandoned his belief in Labour as the indispensable vehicle for socialism. 

At several points in history, there were many in the party who wished he had. Many never forgave him for his decision to challenge Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981 (losing by just 0.8 per cent), in defiance of Michael Foot's appeal to unity, and for his refusal to "compromise with the electorate". By far the harshest words said about Benn today will be from his foes on the left, not those on the right. 

That Benn, unlike many of his comrades, chose to remain in the party throughout the New Labour era was partly because he refused to recognise Tony Blair as its leader. As he said many times, he regarded New Labour as a "new political party" - a quasi-Thatcherite sect that led Britain into illegal wars (he most commonly described Blair as a "war criminal"), demonised asylum seekers and privatised parts of the public realm that even the Conservatives dared not touch. Benn never left Labour - but he felt as if Labour had left him. 

He said of Blair last year: "We as a party had suffered greatly from the influence of Mr Blair. He was a man who became leader because he was a successful campaigner, but I don’t think he was ever truly a Labour man. The war in Iraq was a crime and now he has been put in charge of achieving peace in the Middle East, which obviously lacks any credibility. Labour had to get beyond Blair in order to ever have credibility with the electorate again. That’s what I think we are achieving now."

But with the election of Ed Miliband, who interned in his basement office at 16 and whose father he knew well, he finally felt at home again in the party. Unlike Blair and other New Labour figures, who treated him as an embarrassing uncle or simply ignored him all together, Miliband was prepared to embrace him as a fellow friend of democracy and socialism. I remember a touching moment at the Compass conference in 2009 when Miliband, speaking brilliantly without notes (the first time I witnessed that now-famous feat), referred with pride to Benn's presence in the front row and the hall erupted in applause. 

After his preferred leadership candidate John McDonnell failed to make the ballot in 2010, Benn happily endorsed Miliband as "the best candidate", one who cleansed the stains left by Blair. Following his first speech as leader he wrote: "It was a remarkable speech: it was based on his own experiences, and those of his parents during the war, and it will have an appeal well beyond the Labour party. His words on optimism were also important because the media concentrate on spreading pessimism about everything, claiming that new ideas won't work – so, instead of working to improve their lives, people can be dissuaded from making the effort. This speech will help to build up people's confidence in him. I've known him since he was a teenager – he came and worked for a month with me after his O-levels. I supported him for leader and he's justified every hope I had."

More recently, he praised Miliband's pledge to scrap the bedroom tax and his "vigorous" defence of his father. Asked last year whether he believed he could be the next prime minister he replied: "Of course. And he would be a very good one. I’m not in the business of predicting election results as that is always a very foolish thing to do. Whether or not he is left wing is not the point. The point is that he is a trustworthy and capable man that people respond to."

There could be no greater tribute to Benn than for Miliband to now fufil those hopes - and lead Labour to victory next year. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.