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.