By Alec Wheeler
Tony Benn, a long serving and influential Labour MP, died last Friday at the age of 88.
Benn was known for being one of the most prominent and most active members of the Labour Party as well as one of the furthest left leaning. In his later years, after being a government minister under Harold Wilson, he became one of the most vocal members of the party, particularly against Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s.
Benn first became an MP in 1950, serving as a Labour MP in opposition for ten years. He was forced to resign when his father, The Viscount Stansgate, died and was made the 2nd Viscount, a title which he refused and campaigned against until 1963 when the government overturned the old rule which didn’t allow peers to resign. Benn became the first peer to resign.
As mentioned, he served in the first Wilson Government (1964-1970), first as Postmaster General and later as Minister of Technology. Following the (unexpected) return of Wilson in 1974, Benn was made Secretary of State for Industry and, later under both Wilson and his successor, James Callaghan, Minister of Energy, which he served as until the government was defeated in 1979 by Thatcher.
During the Thatcher years, rather than leaders Michael Foote or Neil Kinnock, Benn was the most vocal and most recognizable face of the Labour Party, regularly topping polls as the most popular MP in the House. His social and unionist calls were the polar opposite of what Thatcher was promoting and made him a somewhat dividing figure and voice of influence as to what direction the party should go. Some have said that his calls for Labour to be more left-wing and socialist hurt their chances for election victory, as the Conservative Party would win four straight elections and remain in power for 18 years. During this period, he ran for both Deputy Leadership of the Party (which he lost narrowly) and Leader of the Party (which he lost by a much wider margin). It was also during this period that Benn experienced his first defeat at the ballot box, in the Tory landslide in 1983. However, he was re-elected shortly thereafter in a by-election and returned to the House of Commons.
Benn didn’t quite agree with the path the Labour Party had taken under Tony Blair and retired from Parliament in 2001. Despite this, he continued to be politically active, becoming President of the ‘Stop the War’ Coalition and actively protesting the Iraq War. In 2007, he was named the United Kingdom’s Political hero, defeating his longtime opponent Margaret Thatcher at last.
In spite or perhaps because of his long career in politics, Benn never lost touch with humility and humanity. Many of the causes he took part in, such as anti-war demonstrations, socialized medical care and/or workers rights and unions, were all basic human rights and principles and should be entitled to everyone. He never forgot both who sent him to Westminster and the reason why he was there. More than anything though, Benn believed in democracy and the process of change for good that it can bring and that may be the reason why he was into politics and why he never really left it. Calling him a man of the people, while fitting enough, does not seem apt; rather he should be remembered as a hardworking, genuine person, one who never gave up on what he believed could and should be done; a Champion of the People.