One of the more interesting implications of the forthcoming general election, at least for people who are interested in these things, is that it might finally, forever banish the ghost of Tony Benn. I confess to feeling a little perturbed by this. The Labour party without the continued influence of Benn would be like a ghost story without any ghost in it. An empty tale without colour or incident. There would be no bumps in the night and nothing to quicken the heart rate.
In the 1960s and 70s, Harold Wilson and Ted Heath had dithered over the deathbed of social democracy. It was unclear what would inherit the country next, until the free-market right at last outwitted all of the available alternatives. The UK was treated to aggressive denationalisation; its trade unions were pulverised.
During this period, Tony Benn was never really a goer. A minister for Industry and then Energy in the 1964-70 Labour government, Benn became increasingly alienated from the establishment. He fell out with civil servants, trade union leaders, and, in the measure of the Labour leader Michael Foot, every politician that he ever had to work with. Benn would become one of life’s kings across the water. He was not even the leader of the Labour party during the height of his own influence, and his attempt to seize the deputy leadership in 1981 was narrowly defeated.
Labour’s 1983 manifesto, a picnic hamper of Bennite policies, called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, the abolition of the House of Lords, withdrawal from the European Economic Community, and a massive programme of public investment and construction (paid for by borrowing rather than taxation). A lot of this manifesto now sounds greatly more sensible than the winning policies of the 1980s that had paved the road to the 2008 crash with mass unemployment, deindustrialisation, and declining wages.
The Labour MP Gerald Kaufman appeared to have the last word on the manifesto when describing it as “the longest suicide note in history.” In fact the imagery of suicide has never quite held true. For a start, the Bennites did not exclusively write the suicide note – moderates such as John Golding had agreed to preface Labour’s election defeat with this hard-left manifesto in order to promote a self-serving storyline of their own. Moreover, Benn would, like Rasputin, have to be killed several times over. The journalist Mick Hume wrote after Benn’s real-world death in 2014 that “as a political outlook, Bennism died when the Berlin Wall fell.” And today, with a Bennite being similarly positioned to take responsibility for another Labour election defeat – and with Labour’s parliamentary rump of Eurosceptics about to be thinned even further – Benn is dying all over again.
Benn was a Brexiteer decades before the word had been coined. He was, along with Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, one of the most senior politicians to urge “No” during the 1975 referendum. His Eurosceptism provides the ultimate twist to Diane Abbott’s tribute that “positions which Tony Benn took up in relation to Ireland, issues like gay marriage, race, women, they became very mainstream… a lot of the issues he espoused earlier in his career became completely mainstream.” Through Benn’s socialism, the Labour party retains its last lifeline to the millions of working-class people who had voted for Brexit.
Except that the Labour party is today such a shell that its few remaining Brexiteers could become even fewer. Gisela Stuart, the chair of the official Leave campaign, has quit as a Labour MP. She is dismayed that “at this moment Labour has made itself irrelevant.” Stuart had been an MP for twenty years, whilst over in Vauxhall, the Brexiteering Kate Hoey, an MP of twenty-nine years, is fighting a Remain revolt. Hoey had campaigned alongside Nigel Farage (on a boat) during the EU referendum, which is viewed as treachery by those who cannot remember that the Left had likewise shared a platform with Enoch Powell in 1975. In a ludicrous spectacle, the journalist Paul Mason, who lives in Vauxhall, has refused to endorse Hoey. You might think it an unlikely geographical coincidence to begin with that this prominent latter-day Bennite is able to vote for one of the few candidates to authentically support a Bennite policy.
Hoey is seventy; her fellow Labour Eurosceptics Frank Field and Dennis Skinner are respectively seventy-two and eighty-five. They are an awkward squad from another age and no younger politicians stand out as vividly from the blandness and boredom of the current parliamentary Labour party. Labour’s aged Bennite leadership is nearly as politically isolated as its Eurosceptics. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott will be discredited by the looming defeat, or at least this is the hope amongst most of their colleagues. Corbyn still looks like the freshest item that Labour has in the fridge to me. Labour’s moderates are nakedly scheming for another leadership challenge, in the delusion that Corbyn’s defeat will somehow magically provide them with a plausible leader and inspiring policies.
From Hillary Clinton to Emmanuel Macron, the centre is now synonymous with negative campaigning, once the great no-no of electioneering. Vote for us because we are not somebody else!
It would be nonetheless a mistake to drop Benn and Corbyn out of their specific historical contexts. Benn was ultimately a Eurosceptic because he regarded the EEC as a conspiracy to outlaw socialism in the UK. These days, nobody wants to launch a brand new sort of socialist state; Brexit only lingers as an attachment to democracy per se. Corbyn is also, despite his personal affiliations and history as an activist, in charge of a completely depoliticised administration. The truce between himself and most of his shadow cabinet would be broken if any of them uttered a political statement. This explains why Corbyn is now roaming aimlessly around the country, waving at bemused crowds like Princess Diana, fluttering his eyelashes like a bimbo, and assuring everybody that he is campaigning only for things like decency. If he suddenly made a specific pledge – to, say, raise the tax on bananas by one pence – there would be horror, mass shadow cabinet resignations, backstabbing, and an umpteenth leadership challenge. Labour’s pending manifesto would best be a blank piece of paper.
Corbyn has threatened to remain Labour leader even if he is defeated in a landslide. A YouGov poll from March found that 68% of Labour party members expect his resignation in these circumstances. I worry about this. If Labour cannot retain or replace its few ancient Bennites, it will become smaller, meaner, and more plastic. It will have less of a connection to everyday life in the UK. After years of Blairite candidates losing elections inside and outside the party, Labour will have become even more weirdly Blairite. The party’s imagination will have shrunk even more radically, at a time when the Left is in desperate need of bigger ideas.