Tony Benn: An obituary

The strike against David Cameron is that he does not believe in anything. That’s not to say he is apolitical - he clearly believes in the values of the Conservative Party, the ability of the free market to allocate resources and western liberal democracy – but his polices lack a basis in political theory and he does not have a transformative vision for society. Lacking a coherent narrative to explain the banking crisis he simple fell back on blaming Labour overspend on benefits. His only decent new idea, the big society, wilted under lack of support and has been replaced by pandering to UKIP, petty Eurosceptism and political narrative targeted at the Conservative base.

Without a clear vision of where the government is going it is unclear why he wants power other than to stay in power. As a society we may have lost faith in grand narratives, but do voters really want a leader who gravitates towards what is popular (or at least what is perceived to be popular) and has no ideological base to be held against?

Tony Benn was the complete opposite of this. For him, the purpose politics was neither just as a mirror of public opinion, nor merely ideology-free management as New Labour and every government since seemed to see it. A man with a clearly stated ideology, who not only believed in making Britain better, he had a clear vision of where we would go and how we would get there. A vote for Tony Benn was a vote for a man who wanted power not for its own sake, but because he had a plan to use it improve people’s lives.

This plan was socialism and it informed all of Tony Benn’s career. Many people disagree with socialism, both voters and Labour Party members, but what I believe is important about Tony Benn’s political career is he had these values, backed up by ideology and theory which he could be held to, debated and challenged on. In our distaste for grand narratives we have turned away from this and towards bland politicians who have no ideology and seek power only for their own self-aggrandisement. You may disagree with Tony Benn and the virtues of socialism. But the process of democracy, in which he deeply believed, is more important than the outcome. A democratic process whose politicians have clearly stated goals and ideologies is superior to a democratic process driven by marketing focus groups and the prejudices of the right wing tabloid press.

The Benn family name is synonymous with the Labour Party. His father William Wedgwood Benn was a cabinet minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour government, whilst his son is a shadow cabinet minister in the current Labour opposition front bench. Tony Benn’s career in politics has always been lively. He campaigned not to inherit his father’s peerage and remain in the House of Commons. He fought a bitterly contested election for deputy leadership in 1988 and led the Stop the War coalition against Blair’s invasion of Iraq. Always he acted with principal and integrity. In 2001, he stood down from parliament saying he wanted to "spend more time on politics".

Benn was unusual, if not singular, among Labour Party MPs who have served in cabinet in that he became more left wing as he aged. But his belief in collectivist economic principals of national ownership and state intervention weren’t always as fringe as they now seem. It is difficult to overstate how different a country Britain was when Benn began his career: whole swathes of the economy nationalised, and governments of both parties seeing part of their role as maintaining full employment. Whilst Benn did undoubtedly become more left wing during the ‘70s and ‘80s, the centre ground under Thatcher moved in the opposite direction at the same time. Unfashionable as it subsequently became, Benn believed that politics and economics could change peoples’ lives for the better.

To those on the British left Tony Benn was a man who meant a great deal to a lot of people. An icon of what we want to be and achieve. There will be many questions about the identity of the modern left asked in the wake of his death - I asked some of them here. These are important questions, but what I am mourning the most about Tony Benn’s death is the loss of grand narratives, of transformative visions of society and clearly defined ideologies.

Our current governments believes in nothing except their own vested interests and their wealthy, privileged supporters. What is needed to chase to these Etonians from power is politicians who have ideologies to be held against and a vision for a society where we will all be better off. Tony Benn is no longer with us, so we cannot rely on him to lead the way. Now we are alone we have to find the way there ourselves, and it starts today.