10:36 Friday 14th March 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[P]AUL STAINTON: We’re paying homage to a truly remarkable man. Politicians of all sides have been paying tribute to Tony Benn, who has died at the age of 88. A former Cabinet Minister, an MP for more than 50 years of course. David Cameron said he was a magnificent writer, speaker and campaigner. Labour Leader Ed Miliband said he was a champion of the powers, a great parliamentarian, and a conviction politician. You don’t get many of those to the pound, do you? And former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was a powerful fearless relentless advocate for social justice and people’s rights. One of the most important figures in the Labour Party for many years, serving in the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the ’60s and ’70s. And he had the unique ability I think, when he talked, even if you disagreed completely, vehemently with what he had to say .. even as a kid I remember sitting and watching his speeches, and being drawn in to this amazing man with a pipe, who apparently drank tea by the pint. Well I’m joined on the line now by Daniel Zeichner. He’s the Labour prospective Parliamentary candidate for Cambridge. Daniel, morning.
DANIEL ZEICHNER: Morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: A very sad morning. I may not have agreed with what he had to say when I was a kid, but he did have that amazing power, didn’t he?
DANIEL ZEICHNER: He did. And you’ve just been playing “Rebel Rebel”, and I think rebels across the country were drawn to Tony. And I remember, I knew him a bit in the ’90s, he seemed to be at every Labour rally and Labour event. And anyone who met him I think was always charmed and mesmerised by him. His most famous time I guess was when he nearly became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1981. And like many young people then I was totally with him, for him. And I was terribly disappointed when he didn’t win. But looking back, he also divided the Labour Party, and probably made the Labour Party unelectable at that time. So there are pluses and minuses. But he’ll be hugely missed. And of course when he no longer was a threat to the Establishment, they embraced him.
PAUL STAINTON: If you’d had your wish, and he’d become a leading figure in the Labour Party, would the country have been a different place?
DANIEL ZEICHNER: That’s a very interesting question, isn’t it? I have to say I’ve learned from that experience that actually mesmeric leaders aren’t always what you need. And it was a very divisive time of course. It was a time of people like him, people like Margaret Thatcher. And I think those of us who now want a more consensual politics wouldn’t wish to go back to that time. But no-one can underestimate the role that he played, and the powerful effect that he had on people. And when he spoke he had this mesmerising ability to weave politics and history into a compelling story. He was a very very very influential person.
PAUL STAINTON: He has many quotes to look back on. Perhaps one of the best, one of the most important really, was when he stood up against Enoch Powell. “The flag of radicalism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered twenty five years ago over Dachau and Belsen.” That’s powerful stuff, isn’t it?
DANIEL ZEICHNER: It is powerful stuff. And the ability to take big ideas and find the right words to actually reach people in that kind of way is something really really important. Not many politicians have it, and I think the tributes that have been paid today by many of the leading politicians point to just what a significant figure he was. And of course in later years he became such a charming raconteur, such a wonderful presenter, both on television and in his stand-up performances. It was an astonishing transformation, because remember in my childhood he was reviled and hated. He was the hate figure in British politics. And yet by the end he’d managed to charm everybody. Astonishing achievement.
PAUL STAINTON: Did you meet him?
DANIEL ZEICHNER: Yes I did, as I say at some of the events I .. the thing about him was I think everyone always felt they’d met him. I was organising events, but he always had time for people. It’s one of the ways you can actually judge a lot of politicians. not by what they say, but by the way they treat people. And he was always very kind, personally courteous, and always seemed to have time for people. I remember he used to turn up at one of the rallies I used to run in Norfolk, always in his Mini, with his pipe and his mug of tea. And you could say it was an image he cultivated, but actually it did seem to be the real man.
PAUL STAINTON: Daniel, thank you for that this morning. Daniel Zeichner, the Labour prospective Parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, with his thoughts about the sad demise of Tony Benn.