Stan Newens was born in Bethnal Green on 4th February, 1930. His father was a haulage contractor and his grandfather a policeman. During the Second World War the family moved to North Weald, a small village in Epping Forest and he was educated at the local elementary school.
Excited by the election of Clement Attlee and the Labour government in the 1945 General Election, Newens joined the Labour Party. He later recalled: "The 1945 general election had been the crest of the wave for the development of the left in Britain. The British Labour government, which took office, implemented a very radical programme-nationalisation of the Bank of England, coal, gas, electricity, the railways, civil aviation, long distance road haulage, cable and wireless and steel; the creation of the welfare state, the national health service, massive house building, the establishment of the New Town, etc."
Educated at elementary schools he obtained a history degree at University College, London. After leaving university he became a history teacher at Edith Cavell School in Hackney,. He also held several posts in the National Union of Teachers. He was also chairman of the Movement for Colonial Freeman and president of the London Cooperative Society. Newens became concerned about the Labour Party moving to the right: "One of the principal reasons for this was the growth of affluence among working people and the coming of age of a generation who were too young to remember the miseries of the inter-war period. Another reason was the Cold War, reports of repressive acts by Communist governments and the trials and executions of leading Communists in Eastern Europe. This destroyed the appeal of the British Communist Party and rubbed off on all who advocated left wing socialist policies - even those who were critics of infringements of human and democratic rights by Communist regimes."
Newens was also a member of the Socialist Review Group led by Tony Cliff. During this period Newens was a supporter of the theories of Leon Trotsky. Newens opposed the election of Hugh Gaitskell as leader of the party: "The election of Hugh Gaitskell as Labour Party leader in 1955 and the dominance of right wing leaders in the trade union movement reflected the shift to the right. Great demonstrations or mass struggles for left wing objectives seemed to be remote from reality - the phenomena of an age that had passed. Those who considered themselves to be in the mainstream of post-war life had little sympathy with strikes and mass demonstrations."
Newens gave his support to Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson in their struggles with Gaitskell. Wilson later commented: "A few of us, Barbara Castle, lan Mikardo and myself, felt that we should form a small tight group to work out our strategy and our week-by-week tactics. I was elected leader. We met at half-past one every Monday. I set myself the task of resisting extremism and provocative public statements." Newens added: "At the Morecambe annual conference of the Labour Party in October 1952 the Bevanites, ie the Labour left, captured six of the seven constituency party seats on the NEC. In 1953-54 the left, joined by some in the centre and even on the right, fought a long campaign to stop German rearmament. In 1955 Aneurin Bevan opposed British membership of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and was briefly expelled from the PLP."
In 1956 Newens was active in the campaign against the attempts by the British government to capture the Suez Canal. "The Trafalgar Square rally turned out to be a seminal event in British Labour history. My 6,000 leaflets, which a crowd of dockers helped us to distribute, disappeared in a flash. All afternoon people were pouring into the square until it was impossible to move. At the height of the proceedings, a great chant went up in the north western corner of the square as a massive column of student demonstrators began to come in and went on endlessly."
Newens was also a strong opponent of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. "The Suez expedition and Soviet intervention into Hungary created a new situation on the left in Britain and made an impact which lasted for at least a generation.... The revolt in the Communist Party threw up an army of potential Labour Party recruits who were steadily absorbed. But at the same time the protests against Suez politicised and reinvigorated a host of others. Trade unionists, highly experienced political workers, gifted intellectuals and many new, dedicated young people joined the ranks. The experience of the anti-Suez campaign and the fight against repression in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe generated a new breed of political activists who joined the political struggle throughout Britain."
Newens was elected to represent Epping in the 1964 General Election. In the House of Commons Newens associated with a group of left-wing members that included Konni Zilliacus, Ian Mikardo, Barbara Castle, Sydney Silverman, Geoffrey Bing, William Warbey, Russell Kerr, Norman Atkinson, John Mendelson and Emrys Hughes. He revolted over immigration controls, defence spending, nuclear weapons, Vietnam and the Atlanticist policies of Wilson and Callaghan.
Stan Newens lost his seat in 1970 but won it back in the 1974 General Election. He still remained a strong critic of Harold Wilson and once compared his second stint in Downing Street as like "sitting through a bad film twice". As Terry Philpot pointed out: "He could also be unpredictable. A supporter of the liberal reforms of the Wilson government, he was nevertheless ill at ease with many social changes. He regarded feminism as a threat to the family and a distraction from the class struggle, and while he voted for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, he made it clear that he had no sympathy with what he perceived as gay people's 'lifestyles'. Having once opposed membership of the Common Market, he came to support the EU as a counterforce to the power and influence of the US."
Newens left the House of Commons in 1983 and the following year he became a member of the European Parlament for London Central (1984-1999) and was an active member of the Health Centres Trust. He was a strong opponent of Tony Blair whom he regarded as a Tory put in place through a rightwing "putsch".
Stanley Newens died aged 91 on 2nd March 2021.
(1) Stan Newens, International Socialism (12th October, 2006)
For some years prior to 1956 the British labour movement was in overall decline. The 1945 general election had been the crest of the wave for the development of the left in Britain. The British Labour government, which took office, implemented a very radical programme-nationalisation of the Bank of England, coal, gas, electricity, the railways, civil aviation, long distance road haulage, cable and wireless and steel; the creation of the welfare state, the national health service, massive house building, the establishment of the New Town, etc. Even so, electoral support declined before the government had run its course.
Although Labour did not lose any of the 22 by-elections it fought up to 1947, the local elections of that year showed severe Labour losses. Gallup Public Opinion Polls put Labour and the Conservatives at the same level in mid-1947, but thereafter the Conservatives went ahead, until in November 1949 they were ten points in the lead.
Labour managed to rally at this point, however, and in the February 1950 general election actually secured a clear lead of nearly a million votes. Unfortunately, the overall majority of seats fell to five, owing to the concentration of Labour votes in a limited number of constituencies, while many marginals were overwhelmed by small Conservative majorities.
After 1950 Labour also fell back, but once again in the 1951 general election it pulled back and polled more votes overall than the Tories (13,948,833). This time, however, its seats were reduced to 295 against the Conservatives’ 321, which gave the latter a majority of 26 over Labour. As a result, Winston Churchill again became prime minister.
In the years that followed Labour support declined again and in the 1955 general election the Conservatives were returned with a majority of 67. Thereafter the drift to the right continued, with the Labour vote being seriously cut back.
One of the principal reasons for this was the growth of affluence among working people and the coming of age of a generation who were too young to remember the miseries of the inter-war period. Another reason was the Cold War, reports of repressive acts by Communist governments and the trials and executions of leading Communists in Eastern Europe. This destroyed the appeal of the British Communist Party and rubbed off on all who advocated left wing socialist policies - even those who were critics of infringements of human and democratic rights by Communist regimes.
The election of Hugh Gaitskell as Labour Party leader in 1955 and the dominance of right wing leaders in the trade union movement reflected the shift to the right. Great demonstrations or mass struggles for left wing objectives seemed to be remote from reality - the phenomena of an age that had passed. Those who considered themselves to be in the mainstream of post-war life had little sympathy with strikes and mass demonstrations.
In local, ward or general committee Labour Party meetings, in trade union branches and in other areas of activity, it was only too clear that the left was swimming against the tide. There may have been exceptions, but I can vouch from my own experience in urban Stoke on Trent and suburban and rural West Essex that the level of activity and the numbers of members were constantly falling and the majority of those who remained tended to reject left wing proposals. I attended meetings in the old Holborn Hall and such rallies as there were in Trafalgar Square and handed out leaflets, etc. Attendance was sparse and enthusiasm limited to the few.
There was nonetheless an active left throughout this period, albeit in the minority. On 5 March 1952 an amendment in the House of Commons condemning the rearmament proposals was backed by 57 Labour rebels who - despite their variety - essentially represented the Bevanite movement, which had existed as the Keep Left Group even prior to Aneurin Bevan’s resignation in 1951, which gave the group its name. At the Morecambe annual conference of the Labour Party in October 1952 the Bevanites, ie the Labour left, captured six of the seven constituency party seats on the NEC. In 1953-54 the left, joined by some in the centre and even on the right, fought a long campaign to stop German rearmament. In 1955 Aneurin Bevan opposed British membership of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and was briefly expelled from the PLP.
The impetus did not fade as we returned to our homes and it was contagious—inspiring many who were not present, throughout the country, to oppose Eden’s war.
In Trafalgar Square Mike Kidron, a fellow Socialist Review supporter, told me (as he had left home much later) that the Russians were apparently going in to crush the uprising in Hungary, which had occurred in the latter part of October. The British Communist Party was already in deep crisis. Ever since Nikita Krushchev, the new Soviet leader, had repudiated Soviet changes made under Stalin against Tito in Yugoslavia, which the CPGB leaders had supported, there had been widespread unease. Since then there had been Krushchev’s secret speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU on 25 February, which the Observer had published in full on 10 June. The Hungarian prime minister, Matyas Rakosi, had confessed that the trial of Laszlo Rajk, a Hungarian Communist leader who had been executed, had been rigged. In Poland Gomulka had assumed power in defiance of Soviet wishes after riots in Poznan in June. The Hungarian revolt had been the last straw, particularly when the case of Edith Bone, a British Communist who had been tortured and ill-treated in a Hungarian prison, hit the news. A huge swathe of Communist Party members were in revolt at the unwavering support given by their leaders to Soviet policy under Stalin.
Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker correspondent in Hungary, sent in reports which the paper refused to publish. It found another journalist, Charlie Coutts, who was prepared to defend Soviet action. Peter Fryer resigned from the Communist Party, wrote a book The Hungarian Tragedy in record time and joined Gerry Healy and his group.
Edward Thompson and John Saville were publishing The Reasoner, a duplicated magazine, which they refused to close down. A third of the Daily Worker’s journalists left. Key trade unionists like John Homer, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Jack Grahl, Leo Keely, Laurence Daly (a leading Scottish miner), Les Cannon of the ETU and many others left the party. The historians Edward Thompson and John Saville quit. Christopher Hill, another historian, who with Peter Cadogan and others produced a minority report on inner party democracy, left afterwards. Besides these and other well known figures, thousands of other members were in revolt.
(2) Stephen Brasher, The New Statesmen (24th September, 2014)
Anybody looking at election results from the 1960s will wonder how Labour ever won Buckingham and Epping. The answer is new towns: Milton Keynes and Harlow outgrew those seats and now stand on their own. Stan Newens was the MP for Epping from 1964 to 1970 and for Harlow from 1974 to 1983.
Born in 1930, Newens had an upbringing that speaks of an increasingly distant age. His memoir opens with the claim that "I would never have been born but for Jack the Ripper", as his policeman grandfather Thomas was moved to Bethnal Green in the East End of London to help deal with the case. His great-grandfather had been a resident of the notorious London slum known as the Old Nichol: baths were in front of the stove, "mice and bed bugs were a recurring problem", and school celebrated Empire Day and awarded the Victorian adventure stories of G A Henty as prizes. Bed bugs may have made a popular comeback so far denied to Henty, but Newens clearly took a different lesson from the one intended. He registered as a conscientious objector and ended up going down the mines in Staffordshire. His only brainwashing sessions were with Tony Cliff, later of the Socialist Workers Party. At one point his family took out an advert in the local paper disclaiming Stan's politics. Newens, though often allied with the far left, was always too independent for it – he supported the task force to the Falklands on the grounds that the Argentinian junta should be opposed, and was against Tony Benn's bid for Labour's deputy leadership. But his letter in 1968 asking the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to rehabilitate Trotsky and his meeting with the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu now seem as dodgy as Henty's novels.
There are some delicious "what ifs" in his life. Cultural commentators might have liked Dennis Potter to beat Newens to the Labour nomination for Epping in 1964 so as to see Potter in parliament, and things might have been very different if he'd held his seat against Norman Tebbit in 1970 or if, in 1983, he had been appointed to lead War on Want, rather than George Galloway. And his warnings that the removal of the secular dictatorships of the Middle East would lead to their replacement by Islamic fundamentalism now sound all too prescient.
(3) Terry Philpot, The Guardian (4th March, 2021)
The former Labour MP Stan Newens, who has died aged 91, would never accept office under the governments of Harold Wilson or Jim Callaghan, as ministerial duties seemed to offer too many opportunities for compromise.
Sitting on the backbenches as a dedicated MP for Epping from 1964 to 1970 and then for Harlow for nine years from 1974, he was rarely happy with those Labour governments, once comparing Wilson's second stint in Downing Street as like "sitting through a bad film twice".
Ironically, when he made his final exit from the House of Commons in 1983 he was swept away in Margaret Thatcher's landslide victory after defending a Labour manifesto with which he was probably more comfortable than any other on which he stood.
He then became a Labour member of the European parliament for Central London from 1984 until 1999, by which time he had to come to terms with the ascent of Tony Blair, a politician with whom he had even less in common than he had with Wilson and Callaghan, and whom he regarded as a Tory put in place through a rightwing "putsch".
Never one of the most public of the Labour left, Newens was nevertheless as much a thorn in the side of Labour governments as better known colleagues such as Eric Heffer, Tony Benn and Frank Allaun. He revolted over immigration controls, defence spending, nuclear weapons, Vietnam and the Atlanticist policies of Wilson and Callaghan.
He could also be unpredictable. A supporter of the liberal reforms of the Wilson government, he was nevertheless ill at ease with many social changes. He regarded feminism as a threat to the family and a distraction from the class struggle, and while he voted for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, he made it clear that he had no sympathy with what he perceived as gay people's "lifestyles". Having once opposed membership of the Common Market, he came to support the EU as a counterforce to the power and influence of the US.
Like Michael Foot, his party leader, he supported Thatcher in her war with Argentina over the Falklands in 1982, believing it right to resist a fascist invasion of a self-governing British overseas territory. He opposed Benn standing as deputy leader in 1981, but voted for him because the alternative was Denis Healey.
Two decades before asylum seekers and economic migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, he envisaged that wars and hardship would encourage mass movement of peoples that would threaten the nature of Europe. As an MEP he believed that the EU should delay by 20 years the free movement of the eastern European accession countries because western European nations, particularly the UK, could not cope with a large and sudden influx.
Born in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London, Newens was the oldest of three children of Arthur, a haulage contractor, and Celia (nee Furssedonn). The family had lived in east London for generations. His great-grandfather was a Salvationist, whose stern morality partly accounted for Stan's own somewhat puritanical outlook – but also his social awareness. The family moved during the second world war to the Epping Forest village of North Weald. Newens was educated locally and studied history at London University. As a conscientious objector to the Korean war, he did his national service as a coalface miner for three years from 1952.
Then he entered teaching and had two spells (1956-1965 and 1970-74) as a history teacher at Edith Cavell school in Hackney, where one of his colleagues was Illtyd Harrington, also a Labour candidate in 1964, who later became the last chair of the Greater London council. Even when he was elected as an MP for Epping, in Essex, in October 1964, Newens continued to teach part-time so that he could see his pupils through their exams. But he had become dissatisfied with teaching methods, and believed that a breakdown in discipline (he continued to support corporal punishment) had made the job more difficult.
Newens attributed his defeat by Norman Tebbit in Epping in 1970 partly to some of his Jewish constituents switching sides. But he refused to see a connection between this and the fact that three years before he had failed to support Israel during the six-day war and that he was supportive of the Palestinian political leader Yasser Arafat.
After a four-year hiatus, during which he went back to teaching, he returned to parliament as MP for the nearby new town of Harlow, and after losing that seat in 1983 he made one unsuccessful attempt to win it back in 1987, while he was still an MEP, before accepting that his days in the House of Commons were done. Later he regretted not accepting Foot's offer of a peerage, which would have allowed him a continuing presence in Westminster.
A Marxist, Newens had a visceral dislike of the US and Israel, the latter of which, he claimed, was created by "ethnic cleansing". This outlook contrasted with his support for authoritarian regimes such as those in Cuba and Vietnam, and his justification of China's suppression of Tibet. He characterised Vladimir Putin's rule in Russia as "a mild dictatorship" and justified his support for Nicolae Ceau?escu of Romania on the grounds of Ceau?escu's independence from the Soviet Union. His published interviews with the dictator seemed to accept at face value the tyrant's statements on democracy and human rights.
Life with his family, in a large rambling house in Old Harlow, was central to his being. He was an expert genealogist and intimidatingly well read, and was equally at home with theology, ancient history, poetry and science. Personally ascetic, one of his few extravagances was buying rare, antiquarian books. He wrote several pamphlets and two books, A History of North Weald Bassett and Its People (1985) and an autobiography, In Quest of a Fairer Society (2013). In retirement he strongly supported his friend Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of Labour as a return to the party's founding values. He regarded accusations of widespread antisemitism in the party as "malign".
His first wife, Ann Sherratt, died in 1962, leaving him to bring up two small daughters, Sarah and Caroline. When his pupils collected money on his wife's death, he gave half the sum to his children and the other to Oxfam. In 1966 he married Sandra Frith; they had two daughters, Helen and Margaret, and a son, Thomas.
He is survived by Sandra, his children and four grandchildren.
Arthur Stanley Newens, politician, born 3 February 1930; died 2 March 2021