To say "Tony Benn inspired me" has become a bit of a cliché since he passed away, aged 88, on Friday morning.
That said, in my case, it happens to be true. He undoubtedly did. On most of the domestic and foreign issues I care deeply about - from support for the Palestinians and opposition to the Iraq war abroad, to helping the poorest and most vulnerable at home - he was a lode star. He was unafraid of saying unpopular or unfashionable things; unwilling to bend his knee to the right-wing press (which ludicrously demonised him as the "most dangerous man in Britain") or to the New Labour leadership and its big business outriders. (I disagreed with Benn, of course on withdrawal from the European Union - but respected and understood the non-jingoistic, pro-democracy position he took. I also acknowledge, of course, that he played a massive and hugely damaging role in the Labour/left split of the 1980s - but the SDP splitters can't be exempt of responsibility here, either.)
I met Tony Benn on several occasions but spoke in depth with him on just two - neither of which I will ever forget. In 2011, I trekked to his famous house in Notting Hill to interview him for the Ed Miliband biography that I was then co-writing with James Macintyre. It was Benn who revealed to us, on the record, that Marion Miliband, the media-shy and very left-wing mother of David and Ed, had "probably been backing Ed" during the Labour leadership contest the previous year. Benn himself backed the younger Miliband, who he called "helpful, thoughtful, decent". (Incidentally, isn't it amusing, not to mention impressive, how the Labour leader managed to attract endorsements from both Tony Benn and David Owen?)
But my proudest moment - and one of my dad's proudest moments! - was when I appeared on BBC2's Newsnight with Benn in September 2010 to discuss the Labour Party and its relationship with socialism. The Labour leadership contest was in full swing and the five candidates had been asked at a hustings whether they were willing to call themselves "socialists".
It gave me the opportunity not just to share the screen with one of the greatest British politicians of the past 100 years but also hear him repeat his famous line in person: "The Labour Party has never been a socialist party but it's always had socialists in it." I used the debate to remind Jeremy Paxman that even New Labour founder Tony Blair retained the line "we are a democratic socialist party" in his reformed Clause IV in 1994.
You can watch the full discussion here:
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