Veteran British Labour politician Tony Benn has died aged 88.

The former cabinet minister died this morning surrounded by family members.

In a statement his children Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua said: "It is with great sadness that we announce that our father Tony Benn died peacefully early this morning at his home in west London surrounded by his family.

"We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all the NHS staff and carers who have looked after him with such kindness in hospital and at home.

"We will miss above all his love which has sustained us throughout our lives. But we are comforted by the memory of his long, full and inspiring life and so proud of his devotion to helping others as he sought to change the world for the better."

Mr Benn was for decades the most independent-minded, powerful and passionate voice of the hard-left at Westminster.

He served in Harold Wilson's cabinets, but was a constant thorn in the then prime minister's side and more than once came within a touch of resignation or dismissal.

Mr Benn was contemptuous of the Labour leadership under Neil Kinnock, and made more than one challenge for the post.

And when, after 18 years in opposition, Labour was swept to power in 1997 under Tony Blair's leadership, this was still not the Labour government of which Mr Benn had dreamed.

Mr Benn found very little in its policies to appeal to his pure socialist inclinations and instincts.

But although he was unpopular with the Labour hierarchy, he remained the darling of the rank and file right into his old age.

He was uncompromising in his views which he distilled with passion and above all clarity, and he probably commanded more popular support among Labour voters than most other leading figures in the movement in his era.

However, in 1999, Mr Benn announced at the age of 74, that he would not be fighting his seat in parliament again. But he insisted that this was by no means retirement from the political battle, in a way it was the reverse of that.

He said he would be able to continue - indeed intensify - his political activity outside parliament for the remainder of his life, which he predicted would continue until he was at least 100 years old.

No one before had quit parliament in order to practise politics even more fervently outside Westminster than he had done within it.

Mr Benn fulfilled that pledge by not standing in the 2001 general election and, true to his word, his "retirement" enabled him to "spend more time with politics".

Even though no longer an MP, Mr Benn was regularly seen inside the Palace of Westminster as busy as ever in pursuit of the causes that were so dear to his heart.

He also broke new ground for "retired" politicians, appearing on the stage in provincial theatres around the country, sitting at a table, with a huge mug of tea and a pipe and dissertating on politics and engaging with his audience on political issues.

His refusal to be budged from the line he chose, made him many enemies throughout the Labour Party.

His was often a lone or minority voice in the party's ruling National Executive, but he never gave in without a bitter struggle.

Anthony Wedgwood Benn was born on 3 April 1925. But he always wanted to be known purely as Tony Benn.

And although he once claimed in Who's Who to have been educated in "the university of life", he actually attended Westminster School and New College, Oxford. 

He was president of the Union in 1947.

During the war, Mr Benn served as a pilot with the RAF and Fleet Air Arm, being awarded the DSO and the DFC.

He joined the Labour Party in 1943 and entered the Commons as MP for Bristol South East in 1950.

He openly supported the miners during the 1984 strike, including urging consideration of a general strike in support of the miners.

He condemned Kinnock for his "consistent failure" to support the socialist struggle outside parliament while watering down Labour's basic policies.

Mr Benn suffered from hearing trouble in the wake of a 1981 nervous illness, diagnosed as Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which sometimes left him - he complained - walking like a drunk, although he was a strict teetotaller.

He is survived by his four children. His wife Caroline, who supported him throughout his tempestuous political career, died in 2000 after a long battle with cancer.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has described him as a conviction politician who made an enormous contribution to the Labour movement.

He said he has left a great legacy behind him.

'A very English phenomenon' - Tony Benn in quotes.