Tony Benn – a political sage who cost Labour elections

Tony Benn (far left, where else?) at the Labour Party conference in 1984.

Tony Benn (far left, where else?) at the Labour Party conference in 1984. - Credit: PA

The deaths of Tony Benn and Bob Crow over the last week have made British politics less colourful and robbed the far left of their most powerful voices.

But what impact did they actually have on political life in this country.

Mr Crow’s legacy is perhaps the easiest to assess – his robust trades unionism ensured his members had some of the best salaries and conditions in the country, even if it did mean he bacame a bogeyman to millions of commuters.

Mr Benn’s impact on the nation is probably greater than that of Mr Crow over a longer period of time – but I suspect it is not the legacy he would really have wanted.

Yes, for the last 20 years he’s been seen as a highly-principled political campaigner who says what he believes without compromise.

That is a great, and thoroughly praiseworthy, for anyone campaigning to get a political position accepted.

The problem for Mr Benn, and the Labour Party, is that he spent the previous 20 years trying to get everyone else to accept his ideas when frankly they didn’t believe in them.

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The attempts by him, and his supporters, to take over the Labour Party in the late 1970s and 1980s ensured that the Conservatives were in power for 18 years.

While some right-winger commentators may disagree, I don’t believe for a minute that Mrs Thatcher won three elections because the country loved her.

She won three elections because the electorate were more afraid of Tony Benn than they were of her!

Talking to Ken Weetch the other day reminded me of my early days as a reporter when what happened in Ipswich seemed to be totally at odds with what was happening nationally.

In Ipswich there was a strong Labour party with a popular MP (who is still respected by political opponents as well as Labour supporters) which won local election after local election.

Nationally the Labour Party was increasingly dominated by ideologically-driven left-wingers who saw Mr Benn as their standard-bearer.

Nationalisation of the banks, import controls, and further government control of the economy may have been popular among some committed socialists.

But most working-class people wanted to live in better homes, drive better cars, and discuss ordinary life with their families and their mates – not get involved in political discussions on how to change the world.

Mr Benn and his supporters never got that. Ken Weetch and those on the moderate wing of the Labour Party did.

During his latter years, Mr Benn’s meetings attracted the politically active of all colours – and showed him to be thoroughly decent. But he remained someone who didn’t understand those not interested in politics.