Labour’s future is being shaped by another family saga
In the last parliament we had the Milibands, two brothers contesting a leadership contest and the younger one winning. Now we have the Benns, a far subtler and multi-layered generational drama, one that has reached a climactic but by no means the end of the plot.
Since his speech in favour of air strikes on Syria I am struck by the number of Hilary Benn's colleagues, those who have worked with him in cabinets or shadow cabinets, who tell me he has changed since the summer, finding his political voice or public definition in opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
The oratorical flourish at the end of the debate on Syria was the most vivid example of defiance, but it was also Hilary who used a Today programme interview soon after Corbyn had been elected to politely insist that Labour policy was in favour of renewing trident and then to appear once again to express his support for the right of police to “shoot to kill”, in both cases against the publicly declared position of his leader.
Why does Hilary act in this way now? The answer is partly because he believes in what he says. He is in a very different place politically from Corbyn. But a senior Labour politician who normally focuses forensically on policy suggests to me that in this case family drama plays a part too.
Corbyn idolised Tony, remaining passionately supportive even after Tony had lost the 1981 deputy leadership contest when other ardent followers drifted away. Hilary’s sister, Melissa, novelist and brilliant writer on education, is supportive of Corbyn. During the leadership contest Corbyn spoke to Melissa about how often he thought of Tony as he made his moves. The Benns were and are an extremely close family and yet Hilary chooses this moment, the rise of a leader inspired by Tony, to show the degree to which he is a Benn and not a Bennite.
This is where Labour’s latest family saga becomes more multi-layered than the Miliband drama and with longer term significance. Hilary is very much a Benn if not a Bennite. A lot is made of how Hilary’s mannerisms and speaking skills are similar to those of Tony’s. The parallels are for more precise than that and point to what might happen next at the top of Labour.
Let us begin with the speech on Wednesday. Although Tony would have disagreed with the argument he would have admired the artful composition. I am a big fan of good oratory and as a student in the early 1980s used to take girlfriends to see a Tony Benn speech for a good night out.
I must have seen Tony speak a hundred times even if I did not keep the girlfriends. Each speech was mesmerising. In their tonal variety and witty playfulness the performances had a musicality to them, like listening to a symphony or watching Paul McCartney work an audience live. But in the cold light of day Tony’s speeches often raised several awkward unanswered questions. They had a sense of moral purpose but solutions to thorny policy areas were not as clear as they appeared to be during intoxicating delivery.
Hilary’s was precisely the same on Wednesday night. He argued that the left had fought fascism and taken part in the Spanish civil war, rousing heroic memories. Then he argued “we must do our bit” in Syria - an even more vague call to arms than the one made by David Cameron. Similarly, Tony would link his case for Labour members to control the party’s election manifesto with the struggles of the chartists, suffragettes and, sometimes, Jesus Christ.
The parallels extend much further. The following day after his speech Hilary was doorstepped by TV crews as he left his house. He politely said he was not commenting further. With his relatively low profile this was probably a rare experience of the early morning doorstep.
This summer I attended the launch of a fascinating book about Tony’s father. The extended Benn family attended and I commented to one of them how close they seemed as a family. One said that the experience of living through Tony being doorstepped, cameras outside the house virtually every day, was one binding factor for the children. Now Hilary lives the experience directly. He is the one being doorstepped and for the same reason. He defies his leader.
There is one other important parallel between Tony and Hilary. In terms of the future it is the most potent. When Tony defied his leaders he was always unfailingly polite. There is an unintentionally hilarious entry in Tony’s diaries from the late 1970s. As a cabinet minister he had voted against his government policy at a meeting of Labour’s national executive. He reports being summoned to Number Ten where the Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, was “red with anger”. Tony was genuinely surprised at Callaghan’s fury. Tony was expressing a sincerely held policy difference. He believed that principled differences, expressed in public, were healthy and not aimed at undermining a leader.
Last Wednesday Hilary opened his speech with a defence of Corbyn, condemning David Cameron for calling the Labour leader the friend of terrorists. With sincerity and yet conveniently, Hilary proclaimed his support for Corbyn as a leader of decency and integrity before opposing him.
Tony used to proclaim he had nothing personally against “Harold” or “Jim”, but opposed their policies. Like Tony, Hilary will continue to be unfailingly polite to his leader and disagree with him over specific policies. The combination is difficult for a leader to cope with, much more so than the overt disapproval of stroppy Labour MPs, not fully formed politically, who brief against Corbyn around the clock, seeming cleverer than they are.
Benn will put his case in relation to policies but there will be no briefing operation from him against the personality of Corbyn. As Tony put it, it’s the policies and not the personalities.
Because Hilary is placing these family skills against a left wing leader, rather than from the left against the centrist leader as Tony did, he secures glowing reviews from a London based media that cannot cope with political figures to the left of Nick Clegg and Tony Blair.
In terms of putting the case for war, Hilary’s speech was full of holes, but part of the over-the-top response from politicians and the commentariat was justified. As a disloyal loyalist Hilary suddenly becomes a pivotal figure for the much less subtle dissenters, expressing his undying respect for “Jeremy” while making the leader’s position increasingly fragile as he does so.
The speech on Syria is the beginning and not the end of this unexpected chapter in the Benn family saga.
PHOTO: PA - Hilary Benn with his late father Tony in 2007.