Hilary Benn: Saviour of the Blairites?

9 Jan 2016

 

Just 12 months ago, Hilary Benn occupied an obscure position on Ed Miliband’s frontbench. Six months ago he was Harriet Harman’s still obscure but newly promoted Shadow Foreign Secretary. Now, Benn is the icon of Labour’s ‘soft Right’ – a hero of the so-called moderates in a party led by the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn. Benn has been in the shadows of the Labour Party since losing the Deputy Leadership election in 2007. So, why – in the days following his speech on airstrikes in Syria – did Benn become the odds-on favourite to emerge as the next Labour leader? Granted, his speech was an amazing piece of oratory, but is a single excellent speech enough to turn a hitherto relatively unknown politician into a Prime Minister? How do we explain the Benn phenomenon?

 

 

Back in the 1980s, Hilary's father, Tony Benn, became the hero of the Labour Left after he battled against moderates within the party. Some form of rebelliousness seems to run in the Benn family. Indeed, due to his resolute approach, Hilary has become a figurehead for those who seek to assuage the radicalism of Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. There are, of course, a few clear differences between Hilary and his father, not least the ideology divergence. However, like his father, Hilary is an emblem forged by steadfast political principles.

 

The political ideology that Hilary represents is a form of Blairism. Despite the fact that trade union favourite Ed Miliband defeated New Labour progeny David Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership election, the Blairite faction of the party remained remarkably bullish. They hubristically took their foot off of the pedal whilst Miliband steered Labour gently leftwards. They presumed that there would always be a place for Blairism within Labour, since it was the party’s most electable faction. However, this illusion came crashing down when Liz Kendall received just 4.5% of the vote in the election to decide upon Ed’s replacement. Corbyn's shock victory startled the New Labour establishment, and it is only now reacting to changes that have occurred within the party over the past five years or more.

 

Consequently, Blairite MPs have sought a clear champion to fight for their cause. When Hilary Benn stood up to Corbyn in the Commons chamber and left many observers in awe, moderates began to take Benn seriously. A man who, if sacked five years ago, would have received merely customary commiserations from likeminded colleagues, has become an unlikely hero for despondent Blairites. Hilary Benn's meteoric rise can be explained – in the simplest of terms - as a fluke of timing. At a time when Benn has made frequent, passionate and widely-publicised arguments for soft-left principles, the Blairite wing of the party has been most desperate for a figurehead.

 

So, will Benn be Labour's next leader? Perhaps. His father's shoes are colossal and there are many people keen to compare him to Tony, regardless of Hilary's centre-ground convictions. One thing we know is that, currently, Hilary Benn is a force to be reckoned with and, as much as Corbyn may want to puncture Benn’s bubble, the Labour leader is stuck with him. Sacking Benn would risk plunging Labour into civil war, which is something that Corbyn cannot afford. Hilary Benn's rise is similar in many ways to that of Corbyn. The left of the party sought a leader after the general election, just as the right has been searching for one after Kendall’s defeat. Moreover, just as Corbyn shattered the supremacy of New Labour, Benn might eventually topple the Corbyn regime. How ironic that the son of one of Corbyn's closest allies might well be his downfall... 

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