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Obituary: Political figures and former colleagues in Camden remember Tony Benn

Tony Benn at home in Holland Park in 2008. Picture: Nigel Sutton. Tony Benn at home in Holland Park in 2008. Picture: Nigel Sutton.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014
3:00 PM

Political figures and former colleagues have remembered Labour stalwart Tony Benn following his death aged 88.

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Tony Benn at an Animal Aid-sponsored walk on Hampstead Heath in 2006. Picture: Nigel Sutton.Tony Benn at an Animal Aid-sponsored walk on Hampstead Heath in 2006. Picture: Nigel Sutton.

The father-of-four, who served as a Labour MP between 1950 and 2001, died surrounded by family at his Holland Park home on Friday.

He is considered one of the most prominent left-wing Labour figures of the last century, described as an “iconic figure of our age” by Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Hampstead and Kilburn MP Glenda Jackson, who spent nine years in Parliament with Mr Benn, said: “He was always interesting to speak to, even if rarely did I agree with what he had to say. He was always enormously courteous to everybody.

“It’s always sad when someone dies but equally he had a remarkably rich life and I think one should be grateful that we were around when he was.”

Mr Benn first entered Parliament in 1950 after winning a by-election in the now defunct constituency of Bristol South East, an office he held for a decade.

In 1960, Mr Benn was forced to step down following the death of his father, Viscount Stansgate, which meant he automatically became a peer and was thus prevented from sitting in the House of Commons.

He subsequently campaigned for the right to disclaim peerages and was instrumental in ensuring the passing of the Peerage Act 1963, which enabled him to dispense of his hereditary title and return to the commons as an MP for Bristol South East.

In the 1964 government of Harold Wilson, Mr Benn became postmaster general and worked with Camden Town artist David Gentleman, 84, in designing the first experimental postage stamps dispensing with the then mandatory portrait of the Queen.

Mr Gentleman, of Gloucester Crescent, said: “What changed was that he was prepared to widen the subjects that were considered possible [on stamps].

“When Churchill died, he was the first commoner ever to appear on the stamp and, at that time, this seemed noteworthy.”

In the Labour government of 1974, Mr Benn became secretary of state for industry and made a lasting impression on Kentish Town resident Lord Peter Melchett, 65, then a junior minister.

“He was extremely conscientious about drafting and redrafting letters to people who others might have seen as not being important enough,” said Lord Melchett.

“There were other sides to his politics that get lots of attention but that was the best example I saw of a representative taking the role seriously.”

Following the resignation of Mr Wilson as Labour leader and Prime Minister in 1976, Mr Benn competed in the leadership race but eventually pulled out to support close ally Michael Foot.

Former chairman of Hampstead Labour party Barry Peskin held a number of meetings in the area around this time to build support for Mr Benn’s leadership bid.

Mr Peskin said: “He’s a sad loss for the Labour movement and for that to happen in the same week as Bob Crow’s death is a big loss.”

When Labour was in opposition in the 1980s, Mr Benn became a prominent figure on the party’s left wing and the term “Bennite” was coined to describe someone with radical left-wing politics.

After leaving parliament, Mr Benn became president of the Stop the War Coalition from 2001 until his death.

Camden Council leader Cllr Sarah Hayward said: “Tony Benn has left an indelible mark on the history and direction of the Labour Party and left wing politics generally.”

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