Syria Vote: Hilary Benn, Saviour Of The Labour Party?


Despite deep division within Labour, Hilary Benn’s excellent speech in the Syria debate made David Cameron look very small indeed. But it changes nothing in terms of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership

Is Hilary Benn the saviour of the Labour Party, the chosen one sent to lead the party out of the Corbynite darkness?

People are starting to say so – first as a result of Benn’s determined stance in the crunch shadow cabinet meeting yesterday, and especially now, after that electrifying speech in the Syria debate.

The speech was undoubtedly a good one. Here’s a key excerpt:

So the question for each of us – and for our national security – is this: given that we know what they are doing, can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in our self-defence against those who are planning these attacks? Can we really leave to others the responsibility for defending our national security when it is our responsibility? And if we do not act, what message would that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much – including Iraq and our ally, France.

And the stirring peroration:

Now Mr Speaker, I hope the house will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues on this side of the House. As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have – and we never should – walk by on the other side of the road.

And we are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt.

And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight.

The House erupted into rare and sustained applause (which is apparently okay these days, so long as it is not SNP Members of Parliament doing the clapping), while social media and the blogosphere lit up with praise for Benn and hopeful talk that this speech might represent the reassertion of the centrist Left and the high water mark for the Corbynite flood.

Here’s Dan Hodges, waxing lyrical:

Hilary Benn’s speech. It is about to become the House of Commons “where were you when Kennedy was shot” moment. Where were you sitting. Who were you with. What were you thinking.

It was a truly incredible moment. He did not just captivate the House, he inverted the House. Hilary Benn did not look like the Shadow Foreign Secretary. He did not look like the leader of the opposition. He looked like the prime minister. And by extension, his party, which for the past few days has appeared broken and beaten, looked like the government.

Most amazing of all was the effect on the real Leader of the Opposition. Though we may as well now refer to him as the former leader of the opposition. Jeremy Corbyn started by looking agitated. Then he appeared uncomfortable. Then he began to shrink. It was like watching the witch from the Wizard of Oz who has just had a bucket of water thrown over her. All the talk of his “mandate”. All the talk of his legions of new activists. They were destroyed in an instant. Crushed by Hilary Benn and 100 years of the Labour party’s accumulated moral authority.

If only that were so.

Of course Hodges would talk up Hilary Benn, or anyone else from the Labour front bench who managed to sound eloquent while undermining Jeremy Corbyn – and fair enough. The praise is deserved, if somewhat excessive. People will not long remember this speech, and only people within the Westminster bubble and the highly politically engaged will have paid it any note at all. We should not allow ourselves to get carried away by the adrenaline of the moment.

While Hilary Benn’s speech may have been extraordinarily cathartic for centrist Labour types who have had little cause for hope since Jeremy Corbyn (or even Ed Miliband) won the leadership of their party, there is little reason to believe that one speech will dramatically change the fortunes of the Labour Party.

Most people do not watch parliamentary debates, even moderately iconic ones (and this one has certainly been hyped out of all proportion, with politicians and the media talking up the extension of existing airstrikes as some kind of paradigm-shifting declaration of war). Few people will have actually seen Hilary Benn grow in stature, or Jeremy Corbyn shrink a little next to him on the green benches last night.

Martin Kettle acknowledged as much in his own piece praising Benn’s speech:

Wednesday was certainly a reminder that speeches can still make a difference in politics. It was, though, a Victorian political event in a digital age. Benn’s speech was electrifying in the chamber. It triggered an instant Twitter storm among what may have been several hundred BBC Parliament watchers. But most people watch other things. Most people still don’t know who Hilary Benn is, let alone that he made a well regarded speech. And the sleepless digital news caravan has already moved on.

While it’s great that the dignified, sober part of the Labour Party briefly asserted itself – by thwarting Corbyn’s desire to whip the Syria vote, and in Hilary Benn’s speech – it does little to change the cold, hard calculus facing the Labour Party.

Jeremy Corbyn is still not going anywhere – he smilingly said as much on the Andrew Marr show last weekend. His supporters are still growing in influence within the Labour Party, and their memories are long – the current talk of deselections will not have been forgotten by the time the 2020 general election rolls around. And while Benn’s speech was excellent, it only further highlighted the division within the shadow cabinet. That’s the message that most people will take away – that on an important decision about committing British armed forces to action, the Labour Party is no longer able to come to a common position.

Hilary Benn may have displayed his leadership credentials last night, but there is no escaping the fact that Jeremy Corbyn retains firm control of the party, and that any effort to remove Corbyn will produce a nuclear backlash from the activist party base.

The Labour Party needs more than one man with a good speech in his pocket and centrism in his heart. If the goal is to recapture the centre ground of British politics, Labour needs a new wave of members to dilute and counteract the thousands of left-wing activists attracted by Corbyn. And while Hilary Benn gave a good speech on foreign policy, there is no evidence that he is beloved by the public or capable of attracting legions of centre-left supporters back to the party.

Labour Party centrists are desperate for a saviour, and that is understandable. But Hilary Benn is not the answer – not even if ten of his clones sat in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.

To change course, the centrists don’t need one Hilary Benn. They need one hundred thousand new people to be inspired enough by Benn’s words to pick up the phone and join the Labour Party. And that’s simply not going to happen.

The Labour Party needs a new membership before it can even begin to think about choosing a new leader.

Hilary Benn - Syria Speech

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7 thoughts on “Syria Vote: Hilary Benn, Saviour Of The Labour Party?

  1. thelyniezian December 5, 2015 / 10:56 PM

    Benn made an excellent piece of oratory, I’ll give that. Beyond that I’m not sure whether to agree or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper December 6, 2015 / 2:21 AM

      That seems to be what many are saying – it was a fine piece of rhetoric well delivered, but less certain about the content. I thought the standard of the parliamentary debate overall was rather disappointingly low – lots ofoverwrought comments about how MPs “feel”, and not enough focus on facts and information. I watched most of the debate and can’t say I really learned anything from it, which is pretty appalling.


  2. Clive Lord December 3, 2015 / 6:46 PM

    Benn (I hope for his father’s sake there is no after-life) was eloquent, and probably decisive in swinging votes in a way not seen since Victorian times. But his comparison of our virtue with Isis evil is flawed, but we must go deeper than Fiona does. In my blog
    I point out that the evil behind our ‘goodness’ is a growthist world view to which a religion based reaction should not have been surprising. The purely anti-capitalist reaction is ineffectual, again for reasons I explain in my blog. If readers think my suggestion of the basic income as a first step towards a better answer to capitalism than the Caliphate is far-fetched, I look forward to some lateral thinking…


  3. Fiona Grace Barling December 3, 2015 / 2:41 PM

    I remember a chap. Called Hitler who ‘made. Rousing speeches’ to encourage the Germans people to bomb Countries he had no right to be in.The ‘bogeymen’ then were anyone who did not agree with him! Isis are quite out of the ordinary, but Saudi is our ‘friend’ and they indulge in the same sort of brutality as Isis.The Middle East have been bombed to destruction over The. last 14 years, and the situation becomes more and more precarious, in any event, how are our few planes going to make a difference against the might of the USA and Russia? the UK is too poor to service It’s Health Service, It’s Schools, It’s Social Services.May I remind all these blood listing mps that charity begins at home, we have around a 100.000 kids on the streets in this Season of Goodwill, elderly dying from hypothermia., nobody seems to worry about their deaths!I suppose there is no glory in looking after the people who actually voted for you!
    Lastly, the atrocities in Lodon and Paris were carried out by’ home grown’ Terrorists, that fact does not suit the narrative does it? How about we stop those who are supplying them, eventually, when our Uncomprehending Politicos have finished playing ‘War Games’ we will have to find a polical solutions we always have in past similar situations,are any of you old enough to recall The Mau mau in Africa? They were pretty brutal too! All l hope is not too many kids are maimed or slaughtered in the meantime!


    • Samuel Hooper December 3, 2015 / 3:05 PM

      Are you really comparing our anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria to Hitler’s Blitzkrieg?

      You have a very pessimistic and deprecating view of your own country – we are not poor, nor are we weak. We are one of the richest and most powerful nations on the face of the earth, and consequently we have a duty and an obligation to use our global reach where we think, on balance, that it can do good.

      I agree that the “keeping us safe” argument is not only weak but false, and have written as much on this blog. I believe that there are valid reasons to attack ISIS in Syria, as part of a broader commitment to eradicating the group. But thinking that doing so will prevent attacks in London or elsewhere in the UK is entirely wrong, as you say. I do wonder whether many anti-war people will now use any future attack as an “I told you so” moment.


    • mooneyma December 3, 2015 / 3:08 PM

      Agree absolutely Fiona! Well said. Peace.


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