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.