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Stan Newens obituary

Terry Philpot
·6-min read

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.

Stan Newens teaching history at Edith Cavell school in Hackney, London, in late 1964. Although he had just been elected as an MP, he continued to teach part-time to help his pupils through their exams.
Stan Newens teaching history at Edith Cavell school in Hackney, London, in late 1964. Although he had just been elected as an MP, he continued to teach part-time to help his pupils through their exams. Photograph: Les Lee/Getty Images

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 Ceaușescu of Romania on the grounds of Ceaușescu’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