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Tributes to Labour stalwart Tony Benn who has died aged 88: ‘A conviction politician who will influence generations to come’

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

Friday, March 14, 2014
11:57 AM

Tributes have poured in from all sides of politics to the veteran Labour politician and former cabinet minister Tony Benn, who has died at home at the age of 88.

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

Labour leader Ed Miliband described the former champion of the Labour left as an “iconic figure” and said the party had lost a “champion of the powerless, a great parliamentarian and a conviction politician”.

Prime Minister David Cameron said that Mr Benn ensured there was “never a dull moment”, even for those who disagreed with every word he said.

First elected to parliament in 1950, Mr Benn renounced a peerage in order to remain in the House of Commons and was an MP for more than 50 years, serving in the cabinets of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and staging a bitterly divisive battle with Denis Healey for the Labour deputy leadership in 1981.

He famously retired from parliament in 2001 saying he wanted to “spend more time on politics” and won a new status as a national treasure touring the country to speak to packed audiences in venues from town halls to West End theatres and the Glastonbury festival.

Tony Benn in his own words

Tony Benn was a forceful orator whose tongue could be as sharp as his mind. Here are some of his more famous quotations:

“I am not a reluctant peer but a persistent commoner” - November 1960 at a press conference.

“I try to operate on two unconnected levels. One on the practical level of action in which I am extremely cautious and conservative. The second is the realm of ideas where I try to be very free” - 1971.

“Marxism is now a world faith and must be allowed to enter into a continuous dialogue with other world faiths, including religious faiths” - In a lecture in 1982.

“I think Mrs Thatcher did more damage to democracy, equality, internationalism, civil liberties, freedom in this country than any other Prime Minister this century. When the euphoria surrounding her departure subsides you will find that in a year or two’s time there will not be a Tory who admits ever supporting her. People in the street will say, thank God she’s gone” - The Thatcher Factor, Channel Four, December, 1990.

“I think the truth is that the Labour Party isn’t believed any more because people suspect it will say anything to get votes. The rebuilding of some radical alternatives to Thatcherism - and by that I mean all-party Thatcherism - will require us to do some very difficult things” - In The End of an Era, 1994.

“If I rescued a child from drowning, the press would no doubt headline the story: ‘Benn grabs child”’ - 1975, on his cynical attitude towards the media.

Well into his 80s, he was a familiar and popular figure at demonstrations and anti-war rallies.

In a statement released early today, his children Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua said: “It is with great sadness that we announce that our father Tony Benn died peacefully early this morning at his home in west London surrounded by his family.

“We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all the NHS staff and carers who have looked after him with such kindness in hospital and at home.

“We will miss above all his love which has sustained us throughout our lives.

“But we are comforted by the memory of his long, full and inspiring life and so proud of his devotion to helping others as he sought to change the world for the better.”

Mr Miliband paid tribute to an “iconic figure of our age”.

He said: “Tony Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for.

“For someone of such strong views, often at odds with his party, he won respect from across the political spectrum.

“This was because of his unshakeable beliefs and his abiding determination that power and the powerful should be held to account.

“He believed in movements and mobilised people behind him for the causes he cared about, often unfashionable ones. In a world of politics that is often too small, he thought big about our country and our world.

“Above all, as I had cause to know, he was an incredibly kind man. I did work experience with him at the age of 16.

“I may have been just a teenager but he treated me as an equal. It was the nature of the man and the principle of his politics.

“I saw him for the last time a couple of weeks ago in hospital. He may have been ailing in body but was as sharp as ever in mind. As I left he said to me ‘well, old son. Let’s have a proper talk when you have more time’.”

Mr Cameron said: “I am sorry to hear that Tony Benn has died. He was a magnificent writer, speaker, diarist and campaigner, with a strong record of public and political service.

“There was never a dull moment listening to him, even when you disagreed with every word he said.”

Labour’s former prime minister Gordon Brown said: “Tony Benn was a powerful, fearless, relentless advocate for social justice and people’s rights whose writing as well as speeches will continue to have a profound influence on generations to come.

“My thoughts are with his family, whom he adored.”

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