Tony Benn, the unrivalled leader of the Labour left during the 1980s, died in 2014. He had long since ceased to wield any mainstream political influence.
Less than four years later, the Bennite tradition has undergone a remarkable revival. Benn’s protégé, Jeremy Corbyn, appears on course to become the next prime minister. Michael Heseltine – a Tory giant of the Eighties – has said he would be willing to accept a Corbyn-led Labour government. It would be preferable, he suggested, to a hard-Brexit Tory regime.
Many factors have contributed to this astonishing state of affairs. But here is one which has attracted little commentary. The Bennites are the only faction of either main political party not to have been compromised by two damaging tendencies in British politics: deference to the United States, and complicity with the right-wing press.
Loyalty to the US and belief in the “special relationship” has been an article of faith shared by most Labour and Conservative leaderships since the 1940s. Both Tony Blair and David Miliband have expressed regret that they did not do more while in government to promote a positive case for European Union membership among the British public. What they didn’t acknowledge is that this would have required them to make a case for why being “European” was an attractive prospect for UK citizens. The only way to do so during the Nineties would have been to advocate a more traditional western European social democratic agenda, against the “Washington Consensus” in favour of open markets and borders.
Instead, New Labour argued for the American neoliberal agenda within the EU, strongly supporting the eastern European enlargement and labour market deregulation. These are precisely the factors that have led to the immense unpopularity of the EU among working-class English people in recent years. These voters have seen their living standards continually eroded, and come to perceive eastern European immigrants – rightly or wrongly – as direct competitors for jobs and housing.
Almost no section of the Conservative or Labour parties opposed the Blair government’s pro-American alignment. The traditional Labour right has been obsessively Atlanticist since the aftermath of the Second World War, when the US actively encouraged the growth of western European social democracy as a liberal bulwark against Communism. Labour’s “soft left” has long enjoyed a close relationship with the US Democratic establishment.
As for the Conservatives, the Tory right was never going to argue that we should look to Germany as a model of a more efficient, egalitarian form of capitalism. Transfixed by the success of Reaganism, its admiration for the Republicans was always evident.
When Tories such as Boris Johnson began to make Euroscepticism their great cause, from the late Eighties onwards, they were drawing direct inspiration from the anti-government rhetoric of the American right. Lacking an actual federal government to rail against, they began to concoct a mythical “federal superstate” of their own in the form of the nascent EU.
And this brings us to the other appalling and distorting tendency which has shaped the British political class in recent decades: its craven deference to the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press. It is in the pages of these newspapers that myths about Britain, the EU and the very nature of social and economic change have been circulated and reinforced. Unless robustly countered, this was always going to lead to a vote for Brexit.
The polling and survey evidence is crystal clear on this issue. British voters on average have a grossly distorted picture of the scale of immigration to the UK, its effects on wages, the benefits system and the housing market, and the role of the EU in our national political life. They are more likely to have a demonstrably inaccurate view of these issues the more they rely on the Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express as their main sources of information. And yet, nobody with any political clout has made an explicit attempt to counter this mythology since the Eighties.
This is why Heseltine’s wing of the Tories bears as much responsibility as anyone for the hole into which the British political class has dug itself. Liberal Conservatives – from Ken Clarke to George Osborne – were perfectly aware that the right-wing press was peddling lies about the EU and other related themes. But none spoke out, as long as those papers kept telling their readers to vote Conservative.
Theresa May, who obviously knows that Brexit will be a disaster, could stop the project in its tracks tomorrow if she had the nerve. But to do so, the Prime Minister would have to give the speech that no political leader has dared make: stating, in no uncertain terms, that Sun owner Rupert Murdoch and Mail editor Paul Dacre have been lying to the British public for decades.
This inaction is surely a central reason for Labour’s recent success. In particular, it helps to explain Corbyn’s popularity among Remain voters, even though the Bennites were avowedly Eurosceptic.
Much of the voting public appreciates – if only instinctively – that Corbyn has never made the mistake of deferring either to Washington or to Murdoch and Dacre. That might not be enough to save us from the Brexit disaster. But it is more than could be said for any leader of a major party since the Seventies.
Jeremy Gilbert is professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief