Stan Newens recounts a life on the left while championing the case of the Palestinians in conversation with Mike Davis.
Long-time socialist, Labour MP and MEP Stan Newens died earlier this year aged 90. Duncan Bowie wrote his obituary in April. Seven years earlier Stan published his autobiography, In Quest of a Fairer Society. Mike Davis interviewed him then about his life and work on the left. The article was published in Chartist 271, November/December 2014. We are pleased to reproduce the article on our website.
There is an odd symmetry between the serried lines of books on shelves in room after room, the organised rows of vegetables set out around the edges of his well-managed garden and the family photos (he has five children) arranged on the piano. All are close to the heart of Stan Newens, the 84-year-old ex-MP and MEP and Labour stalwart of 65 years. We meet in his home in Old Harlow. The occasion is the recent publication of his autobiography, In Quest of a Fairer Society.
So what got Stan into politics all those years ago? A Bethnal Green boy from modest family origins, he was aware that life was much better for his generation than that of his grandparents who had seen two of their children die in infancy. He was attracted to the Liberal Party in 1945 and at school stood as Liberal candidate in mock elections. He read widely, particularly GDH Cole, and began to realise liberalism was not enough and became a socialist. Although he could see the Labour Party was dampening things down when he went to University College London in 1948, he joined the Labour Society and the Labour Party in 1949. While at university he discovered a range of groups including the Revolutionary Socialist society. He met Ralph Shaperman who explained about Trotsky and the way Stalin had betrayed the objectives of the October revolution. “I read a great deal about Marxism and Lenin, then went to a debate for young socialists between Ted Grant, arguing that Russia was a degenerate workers state, and Anil Kumari [Moonesinghe, later to become a minister in Sri Lanka] arguing the state capitalist case.” The result was that he met Chanie Rosenberg and husband Tony Cliff. After three long nights at their house in Stoke Newington where he “was subjected to a huge tirade from Cliff”, he joined the Socialist Review Group. “My objective was that we should build a left wing group within the Labour Party”, he outlined.
In 1952 with a degree and Certificate of Education he became liable for military service. Opposed to the Korean War, he realised he had two options: the Merchant Navy or the mines. With encouragement from SR comrades he became a miner in North Staffordshire until late 1955. “I became very active in the NUM and led an unofficial strike in 1955 to improve conditions.” He also formed the Stoke-on-Trent Labour League of Youth.
The Socialist Review was a small group. “When I joined, Cliff said it had 26 original members. By the late 50s it had grown, especially after the 1956 Suez crisis and Hungarian revolt and Khruschev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress denouncing Stalin. This led many to leave the Communist Party.” Although the Grant and Healy groups picked up most defectors, Stan recounts how he and his wife Anne sold Socialist Review outside the CP congress. There they met Pat Jordan. The result was a SR group in Nottingham with Jordan, Ken Coates, Daniel Singer and others.
He was persuaded by Cliff’s analysis that Russia was state capitalist rather than the prevailing Trotskyist view of a “degenerate workers’ state” which should be defended against capitalism. Therefore policy should be neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism. “Although I’d been interested in the Communist Party, the trials that took place of people in eastern Europe convinced me the CP was wrong.”
Stan spent the 1950s organising for the group, selling and writing for the paper. He arranged for the paper to be printed in Harlow. He and Anne (who died in the early 1960s, leaving him widowed with two children) collected copies of Socialist Review from the printer, batched up copies late at night and distributed them to supporters in central London, all the while holding down a teaching job in Hackney.
His first Labour Party meeting in North Weald, a small Essex village, elected him delegate to the General Committee which met in Epping. There he met the MP Leah Manning, who in the 1930s had helped evacuated child victims of the Spanish Civil War. She had also encouraged ‘Newens junior’.
In 1956 he returned to teaching and became assistant secretary of Epping Labour Party and its volunteer agent. He joined the Movement for Colonial Freedom (renamed Liberation in 1970) led by Fenner Brockway. Along the way he helped organise a big demo in Trafalgar Square against Eden’s Suez policy.
At this time he joined Victory for Socialism which was seeking to form a left-wing group within Labour. “Cliff and co were not primarily interested in influencing the Labour Party but seeking to build a British Bolshevik Party. I thought this was unhistoric.” In the SRG his views were shared by Ray Challinor and Bernard Dix. “We were called revisionists.” He also got fed up with John Fairhead, who was later exposed as a right wing informer and Tory. This all contributed to his decision to quit Cliff’s group in 1959.
“I was one of three owners of shares. I passed them over. I learnt a tremendous amount from Cliff but his ideas for the British labour movement were wrong. There was no basis for building an effective revolutionary party in Britain. When I ceased membership of Socialist Review I then became national organiser for Victory for Socialism.”
So what got Stan into Parliament? “At this time (Gaitskell was defending the H bomb) Walter Kendall and Richard Fletcher issued a document, ‘This way to Peace’. We decided we needed more left members of Parliament. We compiled lists and wherever we heard of a vacancy we pushed left candidates – Ron Atkins in Preston North was one. I was approached to stand in Barnet, but Rene Short objected because of my Trotskyist leanings. I had been agent in Harlow in 1959. Then I was approached by members in Harlow and encouraged to stand.”
The rest is history. He agreed and was selected. Following a grilling from Ray Gunter (with his incriminating pile of Socialist Reviews) and Len Williams at Transport House he was endorsed and elected in 1964 with the Labour government that ended 13 years of Tory rule.
During this time he met and married his second wife, Sandra. His commitment to his pupils meant he continued teaching in Hackney, at Edith Cavell (one of my first schools), for some time after election to Parliament.
Always on the left of the party and passionate about peace, he became part of the Tribune group and those MPs who voted against the prices and incomes policy (and were disciplined for doing so) and Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife anti-union bill. Roy Jenkins approached him to support a plot to oust Wilson. He refused. “So from being a rebel I was seen as a loyalist. In retrospect Wilson stands out as the best leader we had since Attlee. He did not send troops to Vietnam although I was one attacking him. He said ‘the dogs may not be re-licenced’, referring to me as one of the dogs. But I would never have been promoted – ‘not even as minister for burnt-out candlesticks’ – because I was seen as unreliable.”
Then came a crucial moment in the birth of this magazine. Newens, along with his VfS comrades, decided that a more combative left was needed in the party. The Socialist Charter group was formed. However, more orthodox Trotskyist members were not the pluralists Newens and his MP friends had hoped for. A split and takeover ensued in 1970. Stan hung on for a while, but the early Trotskyist Chartists were determined Socialist Charter was to adopt more revolutionary policies. By 1971 none of the MPs were left.
Internationalism and human rights has always been at the centre of his politics. The book details a myriad of causes which were enjoined involving overseas visits and campaigning, from solidarity with Vietnam (he secured 80 MPs for an early day motion against the war) to support for Cuba (he led a delegation in 1970), organising the first demo against the overthrow of Allende in 1973 to promoting the rights of the Kurds (for which he authored a pamphlet). He became chairman of Liberation.
We spoke as Israel’s bombing of Gaza had killed over 700 mainly civilians. Perhaps the Middle East was the most important of these causes. He went to Egypt after the Six Day War to meet with Nasser, but he was ill. He met the foreign minister. “Although the establishment of Israel was a mistake, it now has to be accepted. In the Six Day War I was seriously lambasted by every Jewish Labour MP, with the exception of Frank Allaun, for opposition to Israel in the war. I lost my seat probably because the Jews of Chingford decided to vote against me in 1979. The fight for a just settlement for the Palestinians goes on and there will never be peace for ordinary Israelis until it is achieved. If anyone was doing to Israel what they are doing to Gaza – not unlike what happened to Jews in Warsaw – imagine the outcry. I have fought for a settlement which recognised the return of territories taken in 1967 and a Palestinian state.”
Following defeat in 1983, Newens was elected as an MEP for Harlow a year later, winning several terms until standing down in 1999. “I am very much against Britain leaving the European Union”, he said, “although I was originally against membership. But the EU has become dominated by capitalist ideas. It’s the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War – a terrible crime. Since the EU’s formation we have had the longest period without a war in western Europe and being able to take decisions with the representatives of other European countries is of great importance. The idea of reverting back to nationalist Britain, nationalist France, nationalist Germany is totally reactionary.” He robustly defended the EU as essential for dealing with problems of the environment and revealed himself a fan of Caroline Lucas.
He has reservations. “While I was a member I fought against the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), proposals for right-side driving in Britain, and [I thought] expansion to the east was a mistake.” He argued for a 20-year transition period, foreseeing the problem of immigration, and was one of a minority who abstained on the European currency “because I considered it would place poorer countries at a disadvantage”.
Finally, we talked about the future of the Labour Party. Would he say Labour has betrayed its founding values, gone so far to the right in adopting neoliberal policies that it is no longer a party for progressive change?
The passion resurfaced. “The Labour Party under New Labour did betray many of its long-established traditional principles. It was outrageous that Tony Blair led us into two wars; he was right to intervene in Sierra Leone and Liberia… but he doesn’t understand the Middle East properly. But there is no alternative in Britain to the Labour Party as an alternative government. So we should continue to work for a Labour government, [and] at the same time work to put forward socialist policies. At the last Harlow GC we agreed to renationalise rail and energy, take back education into local authorities and remove Trident. I favour left-wing policies, but there is not a ghost of a chance in building an alternative to the Labour Party in Britain. All the experiments like Respect, SWP, have come to grief. I can’t envisage any alternative in my lifetime. I look forward to another 1945, but I am not sure I’ll be around for that.”