GIVE ME STRENGTH!

Yvette has ‘the strength to win’.  She wants a ‘strong Labour Party’ that will ‘make us stronger’.  She knows this cause she comes from a family of ‘strong women’.  After all ‘we’re stronger when we stand together’ and ‘we need strong opposition’. The way back for Labour is to ‘build stronger public finances’. Her backers confirm this is true: Yvette has ‘Labour values and strength’, they tell me, ‘knowledge, experience and strength’.  Thank God she’s not like that Jeremy, with his ‘old solutions to old problems, not new answers to the problems of today’.

Yvette doesn’t like Tom, but Tom is strong too. We have his own word for it when he promises ‘a strong voice for you’. The visionary look and cleft chin eradicate all doubt. You might shoot the sheriff, but I wouldn’t point your weapon at the deputy, not while Tom’s around.

At the local level things are different.  Here it’s more about smiles. Take Tessa. ‘She’s a star’, a nice man who once delivered the post tells me, ‘She is Labour’s Kylie – everyone loves her and she only needs a first name’.

O I almost forgot Christian.  He’s a bit like Jeremy really. In fact what with their bikes and lack of ties they do seem rather similar. I don’t know if they are strong men or not.  Perhaps I should worry about this because no-one has written to tell me they are? The trouble is, they will keep going on about their policies when really all I’m looking for is a cheery smile with a hint of inner strength from people who understand all these things so much better than me.

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My letter to the London Review of Books on the Labour Leadership contest

The 27 August 2015 number of the London Review of Books published an alarming article from David Runciman (reproduced at foot). I have sent the following response.

Dear Editor,

Strip away the persiflage in David Runciman’s piece (‘Short Cuts’, 27 August) and you are left with an assertion that Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead Labour at all – let alone back to power. Established parties are not led by the likes of him. His supporters wrongly see their approaching vote as a way to express themselves and it is no excuse that they know exactly what they are doing.

Labour is hardly a thriving enterprise. Much polling evidence suggests 2015 voters did not know what it stood for (sometime appending the deadly phrase ‘any more’). Until Corbyn electrified a dismal contest Labour’s identity remained a lost cause. Now overdue policy shifts are being advocated from a position of authority. Runciman acknowledges Corbyn’s policies are ‘popular with a surprisingly wide swathe of the public’, but expects the message to be muffled by a divided PLP and Shadow Cabinet. That distinguished body has Chris Leslie as its Shadow Chancellor. Corbyn is an unassuming man but it does not follow that he cannot lead a powerful opposition from an unpromising electoral position, wrong-foot Cameron at PMQs or handle the press lobby. Campbell-Bannerman and Attlee, who both led powerful but fractious teams back to power from the wilderness, were likewise underestimated.

Political science texts portray party members as unduly ideological and unrepresentative. Blair disarmed them, ruling by referendum as he narrowed the span of legitimate debate and impoverished Labour’s ambition. The Party became defined against its own history, frightened to advocate rational policy. In 13 years it didn’t even achieve public control of the railways – a vote-winner with commuters in Southern target constituencies if ever there was. Has anyone at all complained about Boris Johnson’s quiet municipalisation of private rail lines in rural and suburban Essex, stuffed with seats Labour must win?

The Scottish government disproved New Labour’s thesis by governing from the Centre-left. Despite a referendum defeat, SNP membership exploded, presaging an electoral landslide. Just the prospect of a Corbyn victory has galvanised Labour. Of course its UK-wide task is greater than the SNP’s. But Labour has five years to transmute enthusiasm into votes; Nicola Sturgeon had eight months. This willingness of the once unaligned, jaded or cynical – many of them young – to explore established parties rather than insurgents has unnerved many, Runciman among them. His plea for Labour to do ‘a bit of fixing’ must be the first call for ballot-rigging you have ever carried. I hope it will be the last.

Yours Sincerely,

Short Cuts

David Runciman

It’s easy to confuse democracy with democracy. Having a party’s members elect its leader is clearly more democratic than leaving the decision up to MPs or union bosses. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for democracy. When the Tories first moved to a one-member-one-vote system in 2001, they plumped for Iain Duncan Smith over Kenneth Clarke. The result was that Britain had a weak and ineffectual parliamentary opposition at the most hubristic phase of Tony Blair’s premiership, during the run-up to the Iraq War. The situation was only remedied two years later when the parliamentary Conservative Party effectively staged a coup, installing Michael Howard as the sole candidate without consulting the membership. In 2007, Lib Dem members chose Nick Clegg over Chris Huhne as their leader by the narrowest of margins. Given that Huhne was to end up in jail in 2013 you might think this was the wise choice. But none of the voters (bar two) could have known Huhne’s vulnerability on that score. By choosing Clegg they went with a comfortable politician under whose leadership the party would be chewed up and spat out by the Tories, rather than with a more rebarbative one who might have kept them at arm’s length – and his party alive. It’s hard to argue that British democracy is better off as a result.

Now the Labour Party, putting the decision entirely in the hands of its members for the first time, may elect Jeremy Corbyn. It’s tempting to see this as another IDS moment. But it’s something more than that. The election of IDS was wishful, whereas this looks much more wilful. Deluded Tory members seemed genuinely to believe that Duncan Smith was a widely appealing politician whose virtues, so apparent to them, needed only to be brought to the attention of the general public to win them over. Corbyn’s supporters are under few illusions that he fits the mould of a mainstream party leader. They know he’s at best an acquired taste and unlikely to be the man to win back voters lost to the Tories in the key marginals. A recent YouGov poll found that barely a quarter of Labour members believed that understanding how to win an election was one of the key qualities needed in a Labour leader (62 per cent wanted him or her to be ‘in touch with the concerns of ordinary people’). Corbynites realise that they are not playing the game by the rulebook. They don’t care.

One way to understand this is as a manifestation of what political scientists call the expressive, as opposed to the instrumental, theory of voting. If voting is instrumental then it’s presumed that voters are primarily motivated by the results they hope to achieve: leaders and parties who can deliver real benefits. If it’s expressive then voters are more interested in signalling who they are and what they value. The case for expressive voting is partly driven by the thought that instrumental voting is a waste of time, since in any significant election no one’s vote ever decides the outcome (if your candidate wins or loses it is always by more than one vote, making your contribution incidental). But it also seems to chime with the world of social media and online communication, where self-expression rules and echo chambers proliferate. The internet is much more effective as a vehicle for expressing disgust with mainstream politics than it is for organising pragmatic reconfigurations of it. Corbyn might be a reminder of the 1980s in some of his policy prescriptions, but his is still very much a candidacy of the internet age.

Nonetheless, there is something unpersuasive about the idea that voting is simply a way of striking an attitude. Casting a ballot is an odd way to signal anything to anyone, given that no one is actually watching you do it. Most voters do seem to want their personal contribution to make a difference and believe that it can. I’m not convinced that support for Corbyn is just gesture politics. As well as being the era of self-expression this is also the era of disruption. Yes, a Corbyn victory would mean going against all the conventional wisdom about how to win an election. But conventional wisdom is a devalued currency these days. Whole industries that believed the world was a certain way have found the rug pulled out from under them. Things that seemed impossible become inevitable with barely time to pass through a phase of being merely improbable (and if Corbyn does win his campaign will conform to that pattern – a few weeks ago he was a 100/1 outsider; as I write this he has just been installed as the bookmakers’ favourite). A few years ago Uber didn’t exist. Now it’s taking over the world. Not playing the game by the rulebook can pay off in the most dramatic and unexpected ways. Why should political parties be immune to this expanded range of possibilities? The shake-up is happening across Europe. Why not here?

If I’m right that this is part of what lies behind the Corbyn surge, then his supporters are making a mistake. The Labour Party is not a start-up. Disruption is almost certainly not what it needs. Indeed, disruption is more likely to destroy it than to revitalise it. The job for which Corbyn is standing has many different facets, of which the most important remains leading his party’s MPs in Parliament. This is the bit of the job it is nearly impossible to imagine him doing successfully. It is not just that the parliamentary party is liable to be both split and demoralised by his election. He also lacks the experience. Corbyn at PMQs? Corbyn handling the press lobby? Corbyn managing the shadow cabinet? To see these as relics of the old way of doing politics is to mistake the range of policy possibilities for the range of institutional ones. It may well be true that much of what Corbyn stands for – including a fairer tax system, greater public ownership of key services and more support for the low-paid – is popular with a surprisingly wide swathe of the public. But it won’t make any difference if the news never gets beyond a divided and dysfunctional parliamentary party. Voters don’t elect parties that are split. Those rules are not going to change.

In this respect, the examples of Syriza and Podemos are a distraction. Both those parties are start-ups. Britain may well be crying out for new political parties (especially in Scotland) and the thought of someone like Corbyn at the head of one makes sense, though under Britain’s first-past-the-post system it might not make much difference. But that isn’t what he’s offering. His popularity has been compared to the baffling levels of support currently being enjoyed by Donald Trump in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. That too is probably a reflection of the fact that voters are no longer content to take at face value the limited range of acceptable options presented to them. But Trump’s case is also very different. The length of the US contest means there is plenty of time for the old rules to reassert themselves. And when that happens, Trump has the option of running as an independent, which is what a disruptor would do (though the likely consequence is that he would help usher Hillary into the White House). Corbyn is an intransigent independent trying to take over an established player. It rarely works in politics, just as it rarely works in business. You don’t disrupt corporate behemoths like IBM from the inside. You have to break away.

There is still time for the Corbyn bubble to burst. The opinion polling that has him far ahead is more likely to be expressive than the casting of ballots will be. Polling in previous Labour leadership elections has shown a tendency to overstate support for the more radical candidates (the final YouGov poll of party members in 2010 had Ed Miliband winning by 4 per cent when in fact his brother, David, won that section of the electorate by nearly 9 per cent). If Corbyn does win, there is talk of a swift coup to replace him, but the Labour Party is not the Conservative Party and kneejerk anti-democratic moves are a much harder sell. Ed Miliband must take some of the blame for where the party finds itself. Even Syriza, we now discover, had some contingency plans for exiting the euro. Miliband seems to have done nothing to prepare for defeat, presumably on the grounds that it would damage morale. When it happened he simply walked away. Michael Howard stayed on in 2005 to ensure that the election of his successor could be steered in his preferred direction. Miliband was probably too damaged by the scale of his failure to do that (and who knows what his preferred direction would be), but he could have done more to try to ensure a better range of options than the party is currently faced with: unsustainable inspiration or uninspired continuity. It pains me to say it, but if ever an election needed a bit of fixing it was this one.

31 July

A Campaign to Build a Mass Movement of Resistance

An inspiring piece. In particular the rejection of tokenism in this campaign. No doubt that was the motive of some of Jeremy’s nominators who were frightened of terminally alienating the Left. Fighting to win is absolutely the only way.

Labour Briefing

THE JOHN MCDONNELL COLUMN

WHEN ED MILIBAND ANNOUNCED HE WAS RESIGNING AS LEADER OF THE LABOUR PARTY there were calls for the left to stand a candidate. Jeremy Corbyn and I sat down to calculate whether we had the 35 MPs we needed to nominate to secure a left candidate on the ballot paper. We couldn’t get past 22.

At the LeJMCD4ft Platform meeting on the Tuesday after the election defeat, I explained that we couldn’t realistically mount a challenge, but we delegated Jeremy and Kelvin Hopkins MP to check again what prospect there was of running a left candidate. The numbers came out the same and there were those in the Campaign Group who thought it would be better to back Andy Burnham in return for policy commitments.

There was also the question of who would be the left candidate. I made it clear that, having run twice…

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Not exercise but pleasure

‘Innocent and healthy disciplines may degenerate into pure pleasure…’ (Iris Murdoch)

 

I stopped full-time work in January and was looking forward to daily swims at Park Road in its open-air swimming pool – the ‘lido’ – Olympic-sized and landscaped. Though heated, its ancient system often creaked; I have swum in 17 degrees on cold summer days. But there it was, every Summer.

In 2014 the new owners of this complex began an ambitious – and needed – refurbishment. They foolishly started lido works just before its traditional summer season. Closure then ran on and on, leaving outdoor swimmers either bereft or forced to use the (overheated) indoor pool half its size. I hate steamy, noisy indoor swimming but knew it was that or nothing. This compromise lasted until 12 September, when the indoor pool closed for its own upgrade. I gave up swimming in despair, hoping for a better 2015. Then the miracle: on 26 October the lido re-opened and we are promised it until indoor refurbishments are complete (target date January 2015).

At first the heating of the water had a limited impact. Swimming in 17 or 18 degrees is possible of course: hardy year-round swimmers keep going at much lower temperatures. But at that level swimming is slow and pleasure limited. It feels more like mere exercise. (I intend this phrase as an insult. The three physical exertions in my life – habitually fast walking, cycling, and outdoor swimming – are all aesthetic pursuits. If they make me fitter or slimmer, so much the better but my motive is outdoor enjoyment.) However in the second week of re-opening the water temperature began to climb, just as the air temperature began to fall. It now hovers around 20 degrees. As the sunny but chilly mid-November mornings began I saw what in a quarter of a century of lido swimming I had never seen: steam rising from the pool.

 

 

Steamy fantasiesunnamed

In her 1983 novel The Philosopher’s Pupil Iris Murdoch imagines an English town whose inhabitants are bonded by their common experience of outdoor swimming. Ennistone is a spa with warm springs feeding its Outdoor Bath (’said to be the largest outdoor swimming pool in Europe’) to 26-28 degrees all the year round. ‘Everybody swims’ from six-week babies to the aged who ‘swim, unashamed of their bodies, pot-bellied men and ancient wrinkled women’. These real swimmers are sniffy about the indoor bathers who use much hotter water. Because swimming is universal, the skins of Ennistone citizens have a perpetual healthy sheen.

Here in Hornsey we are near to two year-round open air swimming resources. Parliament Hill (on Hampstead Heath) boasts a huge lido utterly unheated. I revere its hardy regulars who will break ice to get into it for their daily watery fix. I can only admire the Winter patrons of the Highgate Ponds elsewhere on the Heath where I once swam in waters I subsequently found were 14 degrees. I haven’t been back.

In Hornsey our newly-available warm swimming water is engineered and hasn’t the fame of the Heath’s resources. But people are responding to the unfamiliar boon of outdoor winter swimming without the pain. True there are those who must thrash madly up and down but our spacious lido can accommodate them as well as those who insist, quite unnecessarily, on wearing wet suits. For the rest of us this aquatic heaven is a place for rhythmic movement, without pain, effortless and weightless under a blue November sky. We are the Chosen Ones who like Murdoch’s Outdoor Bathers can feel superior to the faint-hearts for whom it is indoor heated or nothing.

(600 words)

Martin Upham

 

THE JAMES PLAYS (Olivier Theatre, London) by Rona Munro.

 

James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock; James II: Day of the Innocents; James III: The True Mirror

Rona Munro’s epic survey of the reigns of three fifteenth century Stewart kings suggests a certain view of her country’s history and its peculiar identity. James I evolves from politically impotent poet to repressive king. As child and adolescent he is a prisoner of the English court, taunted by a thuggish Henry V for his peaceful ways. A lover of beauty and author of the celebrated The Kingis Quair, he recoils. Once on the throne, he discovers that only pitiless government is feasible: he must rule alone and harshly. This however provokes a violent reaction and his eventual murder by threatened nobles.

Enter James II, child-witness to the butchery of his father, pitched into kingship before his time, haunted by blood. This play pivots on the murders of two Earls of Douglas – Scotland’s second highest family. William the sixth earl is killed by regents in the king’s name: James does not instigate, but certainly acquiesces. When king in his own right he himself stabs William the eighth earl (a childhood friend) in full view of the Court. A curious feature of this, the least successful play, is that William provokes James to his own murder, clearly understanding that one of them must fall. By finally wielding the knife, James – a timid fearful figure – endorses this view of kingship. His act is explicitly blessed by the murdered 6th earl’s widow.

The real James II was blown up by one of his own cannon, another violent death – if accidental – heralding another minority ruler, the eight-year old James III. The first two Jameses act as tyrants after exhausting all other possibilities. James III asserts absolute right from the outset: he is indifferent to financial, political or moral constraints. Like his father and grandfather he is an aesthete – we see him luxuriating in music, appreciating poetry, yearning to build a cathedral, considering a pilgrimage. But he will not brook contradiction and this finally provokes a rebellion supported by his own son and death on the battlefield.

This third play is dramatically the most successful, perhaps because the plot turns not just on the personality of the king but also on that of his consort. Each James married a foreign princess – English, French, Danish. The first two do not appear as real players, but Margaret of Denmark was a highly political figure who probably delayed the final fatal uprising against her husband and ultimately secured the succession for her eldest son, the future James IV. It is Margaret who comes closest to drawing explicit political lessons from the impasse between feckless king and truculent nobles. ‘You’ve got fuck all except attitude’ she tells them.

Politically this is the most troubling aspect of the trilogy. The first two plays appear to suggest the only way to govern turbulent medieval Scotland was via a brutal tyranny. The king cannot be first among equals, whatever his nobles think. They are an unlovely lot who must be brought to recognise the royal will without driving them into rebellion.

It is further implied that a monarchy is intrinsic to Scotland’s identity. There is evidence for this in the country’s royalism during the 17th Commonwealth: Scots were prepared (like the medieval nobility) to resist a Stewart king but they rose against a republic, later restoring a Union of Crowns to England as well as Scotland. In the next century, restoration of the Stewart line was the only programme of the three Jacobite revolts. Come up to date and last month’s referendum campaign: only smaller parties advocated a republic. Perhaps this was not merely a tactic as some supposed?

The James Plays depict a distinct Scots identity that predates Union of Crown and Union. The historical Scotland was hard to govern, perhaps because the nobility (we scarcely see the common people) had an enhanced sense of right. Their monarch was ‘King of Scots’, very different from the English version resting on feudal landed right. One is left wondering how the Union has lasted as long as it has.

 

 

 

TONY BENN: will and testament

It’s hard not to be moved by the filmed tribute to Tony Benn premiered nationwide. We see the gaunt old man, facing up to his own end, mourning his lost wife Caroline, reflecting on a turbulent life that mingled great achievements and good fortune with a degree of public and personal hostility few politicians experience. Even the film reviews show these feelings are not yet dead. The source of such reactions lies in the quite recent past, but a past that has not yet found its historian. Today people can casually refer to the ‘Winter of Discontent’, a fertile myth that conveniently captures a certain view of the political world, consoling the intellectually lazy. They talk of how Neil Kinnock made Labour electable and attribute the 1997 election victory to New Labour. Such fantasies are like the work of a Tesco accountant only using black ink. To assess Tony Benn’s appeal you have to get beyond this sloppiness. Why did he face such hatred?

A generation born after World War Two came to adulthood and political awareness in the 1960s. The fortunate 10% of it that attended the universities – new or expanded in anticipation of their coming of age in greater numbers – probably reached the former later and the latter earlier. Those of us attracted to the Left perceived Antony Wedgwood Benn (as he then was known) as a figure embodying modernity, a characteristic he shared – less ambiguously – with Labour’s new prime minister Harold Wilson. As political understanding grew and Wilson became more right wing, so Benn’s reputation suffered on the emerging British Left. ‘Modernity = Socialism’ had lost its magic.

Heath’s unexpected victory of 1970 changed everything. Tony Benn perceived the widespread disillusionment with continuity politics and moved to express it. Such a trajectory was infeasible for the older Tribune Left which owed a primary loyalty to Michael Foot. This Left was primarily a parliamentary phenomenon. What distinguished Benn was his willingness to turn outwards and talk to excluded forces. The film features the UCS sit-in, a dramatic example to be sure, but actually only one of many. The 1970s were years of industrial and political struggle: two national miners’ strikes and, eventually, a 24-hour general strike called by the TUC. In Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon the engineering and transport unions had new leaders willing to countenance industrial action and apparently also content with parallel radicalism in the Labour Party.

Here we reach the first of our sources of opposition to Benn. Before the 1974 election he had industrial allies in seeking to radicalise Labour’s programme (and thus, it was hoped) the manifesto. But once Wilson’s frail second government was formed union leaders’ instincts were to sustain it. They were moreover of the same generation and outlook as Foot who, from 1974, was the most important government minister after Wilson. The 1975 referendum campaign obscured this fissure by briefly uniting the entire Left. After that, and with Benn demoted by Wilson, the fissure became a chasm.

The best way to track this would be to watch filmed records, if they existed, of the Tribune rallies at the Labour Conference. In 1975 both Benn (then Industry minister) and his Minister of State Eric Heffer the one obliquely, the other more directly, set a critical tone. But the platform also included government loyalists. The final speaker was Michael Foot, who spoke for almost an hour. It was dazzling oratory, but almost devoid of content save for one central idea: Labour must keep the power. When the same double acts were featured the following year, the critique of the Labour government (now headed by the egregious Jim Callaghan) was so much more marked that Jones was moved to storm onto the platform demanding the right to speak.

There is a direct line from this reaction to the role of the abstainers in Labour’s Deputy Leadership campaign of 1981. In their view Cabinet ministers were supposed to spend their time celebrating actual existing Labour government and not to point to what might be. This is ludicrous at any time. In the era of what became minority government and the 1976 intervention of the IMF to rewrite everyone’s election manifesto it was plain daft. The loyalist/abstentionist refusal to redefine the role of a Left that had stagnated since Bevan’s time is the first source of spite directed towards Tony Benn. Spiced with the envy of those who feared Benn blocked their path to the leadership, it became a poisonous brew.

He had polled well in the March leadership 1976 election to succeed Wilson, reflecting a growing popularity in the constituencies. The film is surprisingly silent on the struggle for democracy which convulsed the Labour Party in those years. Perhaps this may reflects a personal view of its significance in his life? In fact he had by the later 1970s become a unique figure by marrying authority in the party to advocacy outside it. There were wide disagreements on the content, even the need, for constitutional changes to the Party, but Benn’s growing authority allowed a movement to coalesce around a small number of demands. The general election defeat of 1979 unleashed union power against the new Conservative government, but it also unmuzzled Benn and his allies who now could hardly be accused of rocking a boat that had disappeared beneath the waves.

The period that followed, lasting from 1979 to about 1985 saw Tony Benn the object of public vituperation equalling, if not surpassing, that suffered by Bevan in the 1940s and 1950s, ironic since Foot had succeeded Callaghan as party leader. The 1981 defection of the Gang of Four removed Benn’s most honest opponents from Labour and followed speedily a conference decision to establish a new electoral college to the elect the leader. It was the enemies who did not defect who proved more dangerous. Foot was unopposed under the new system, but Benn stood for the Deputy Leader post. The Labour Right stopped at nothing, including electoral fraud, to gain the narrowest of victories for Denis Healey. In this contest the decisive role was played by 37 Labour MPs who abstained, too gutless to vote for Healey and too jealous to vote for Benn. At a rally that night Margaret Beckett acidly observed that in politics you have to choose. Naturally it was an abstainer who won the 1983 contest to succeed Foot as leader. Neil Kinnock, envious, evasive, mediocre, proved a catastrophic leader who masterminded two election defeats. Benn, who had lost his Bristol seat in the 1983 election rout, was ineligible.

This great exponent of parliamentary practice and upholder of parliamentary rights had eclipsed even Foot who by 1974 was exhausted and had only rhetorical tricks left. The paradox is that this combination of exploitation of parliamentary potential allied to external agitation actually drew large numbers into politics. It would be possible to write a history of the seventies and eighties which presents him as the saviour of parliamentary politics. Despite the (rather good) joke – we hear him repeat it in the film – about leaving Parliament to devote more time to politics, he was an outstanding parliamentarian. He was frequently denounced for undermining Parliament. This inaccurate view traduces his respect for the long suffrage struggle. What he had come to understand however was that only marginal change was possible in the absence of pressure from outside Westminster.

If his failure to play the parliamentary game motivated his many Labour enemies, there were social causes that extended beyond politics. Tony Benn was a patrician. He was, in the most accurate sense, a Labour aristocrat, the son of a Labour peer and grandson of a Liberal politician. National prominence first came to him via a battle to renounce his peerage – Hugh Gaitskell’s supportive statement is one of the many telling clips in the film. When victory was finally won and his election was recognised, his acceptance speech to the electors of Bristol south-east anticipated the politics of twenty years later: ‘you have defeated the Conservative cabinet…you have defeated the House of Lords…by your own power’.

To the Establishment such formulations smelled of trahaison des clercs. But the hostility went deeper. A radical odyssey, getting more left-wing rather than right wing through age, was not what was meant to happen. Labour could accommodate prophets, men of power, even those who moved from one role to the other. But here was a man whose early ambitions had been achieved more easily than most and could at any point have made his peace with the Establishment; he did not do so. Instead he used his prominence to feed a mass movement. To those whose idea of leadership consists in lowering expectations this was mere irresponsibility. We can see where this has led us by looking at Scotland and a Labour Party quite unable to explain how a social-democratic SNP has been able to do all things it said could not be done.

The final source of opposition to Tony Benn lay in objections to his use of history. As a Cabinet minister in the 1960s and (especially) the 1970s, he had to find a political language to communicate with an extra-parliamentary audience. The convention of Cabinet responsibility requires ministers to support, at least not to oppose, government policy. The trick therefore was to play a full and engaged part at the top table while encouraging those excluded from it, to continue to be a man of power while not confusing it with office. Churchill constantly brooded on comparisons – sometimes making them explicit – with earlier periods of British history. Trotsky was said by Lenin (who ought to know) to be constantly looking at his role in history.

Whether Tony Benn did the same I do not know, but he certainly knew enough to feed a mass movement with examples from the past. At the Durham Miners’ Gala, at Tolpuddle, at Burford he honoured the radical or socialist tradition. Sometimes merely turning up there and making a speech was enough but he went further. To hear him addressing the major rallies of the 1970s was to hear surveys of the Labour past pregnant with lessons. A new 1931 – a real danger both in 1968 and in 1976 – was a favourite but he could also be playful as when Andy Bevan, Labour’s young newly-appointed Trotskyist Youth Officer was told his inaugural address would have sounded to Stafford Cripps like that of ‘a vicar at a Fabian tea party’. He became a master of walking the fine line, outwitting – through sheer ability – those who sought to gag him.

These days everyone acknowledges that the political class is unrepresentative and out of touch. It would be nice if those who have since 1994 argued that the only possible Labour government is one which doesn’t do much showed a little humility. They might like to acknowledge that we have lost a rare politician who could get a hearing from ordinary folk in the age of the Westminster clone.