Dave Kellaway pays tribute to Tony Benn, and looks at the current he led within the Labour Party
“The Labour Party used to be there to change society, but now it seems to organise working people to adapt to society.” Tony Benn in a recent Radio 4 interview.
It has been a cruel week, first Bob Crow and now Tony Benn (although Tony had been ill and was no doubt aware that the news media, even the left wing section, had been working on his obituary for some time). With his impish sense of humour he would have allowed himself a little laugh – indeed, he left a short message to be transmitted by Channel 4. At the end of the short clip he says gleefully that he would be checking it on transmission! He was one of the earliest politicians to understand how the media could distort and mislead your message and he was an avid recorder of himself, using all the different technology down the years.
Benn was one of the finest agitators for the general ideas of socialism. Even in failing health at the People’s Assembly national meeting he gave the most listened to and most applauded speech. He was able to use humour and pithy, memorable one liners to get the socialist message across – ‘If we can find money to kill people then we can find money to help people.’
His heroes, he said, were Gandhi, Mandela and Tutu. Great moral and ethical radicals. His socialism was very much within the Christian Socialist, co-operative British tradition. Although he knew and used some of Marx’s ideas he was never a Marxist. He was an agitator and educator rather than a theoretician or leader. While he increasingly championed the importance of extra-parliamentary struggle – particularly after leaving parliament, saying he was going to get more involved in politics – he never gave up his ideal of a new 1945-style Labour government that could bring about socialist change. Of course, such positions made him a dangerous threat to capitalist stability. This is why he was so vilified by the mainstream party leaderships and their media lackeys during that period in the 1980s when Bennism was a real threat within the Labour Party. Indeed in his most recent statements (see above) he criticised the inadequacy of the Labour Party and the lack of democracy within our parliamentary system in even more radical terms.
After the anti-working class policies of the Callaghan government led to the victory of Thatcher in 1979, Benn and his allies made a concerted effort to fight for socialist policies inside the Labour Party. The arena they chose was the deputy leadership election, where Benn put himself forward against the moderate Healey, who had been the Labour chancellor pushing through spending cuts. Policies put forward by the Benn team would have defended working people and been a direct challenge to British capitalism. Hundreds of meetings and debates were held around this election and it ended in a very close run thing – he lost by by 0.5%. It was no surprise that Kinnock’s final decision to back Healey was an important contribution to that defeat.
Some on the left at the time, such as the Socialist Workers Party, saw the rise of Bennism as an expression of the ‘downturn’, or the shift to the right in society and a turn to electoralism. Other political radical currents such as the IMG (predecessors of Socialist Resistance) or the Militant (now Socialist Party) joined in alongside the Bennite current – indeed many of us became Labour Party members for the first time. Massive conferences for socialism were organised in Benn’s new constituency in Chesterfield. You had an activism and debate inside the Labour party that is on another planet compared to today’s situation. A good read on this period is Alan Freeman’s book The Benn Heresy, which outlined the political basis for making a turn to this current.
Why didn’t the Benn current evolve into something more permanent either inside or outside (or both) the Labour party? On the one hand you had the continued defeats of working people under Thatcher’s offensive coupled with her election victories – made easier by the Falklands War and the rightwing split from labour. On the other hand you had the rise of New Labour, started under Kinnock and consummated by Blair. New Labour meant rule changes and direct expulsion of the Militant, so it became very difficult for the left to organise inside the party. Conference used to be a real opportunity to put forward some sort of socialist opposition and actually win significant support for it.
The other weakness in the Bennite current was the way it replicated the traditional division in the British labour movement between the industrial and political wings. Benn and his allies never really organised a class struggle current inside the unions, relying on alliances with ‘left’ leaders. For these reasons despite having the potential for developing into a mass class struggle current, Bennism died with a whimper rather than a bang. In the end there was a need for the leadership of the current to break with Labourism and start to build a political alternative to Kinnock/Blair. Benn’s strong commitment to Labour never really wavered so this was not going to happen. He always sort of hoped the right wing would leave, as it did in the 30s, and then you would have the road to a 1945 type Labour government. You can also argue that we on the outside Labour left could have been more flexible in our approach – what if the SWP had embraced the movement rather than kept it at arm’s length? More reasoned approaches to building a left alternative through projects like the Socialist Alliance and today’s Left Unity were not really tried at that time.
Nevertheless, Benn’s continuing and deepening radicalism through the end of the 20th century meant there was still an authoritative and well-loved voice of socialist values that could be relied on in every one of the major struggles – from the miners to the anti-war campaigns. Although he disagreed with Leninist ideas on the nature of the state and on the need for a party alternative to the Labour Party, he was an exemplary non-sectarian. As John Rees eloquently notes in his obituary on the Counterfire website, he was the first person who organisers of campaigns rang when they wanted to mobilise for a meeting, rally or demonstration. I myself remember when we were organising solidarity with the Argentinian people against the dictatorship that you could directly telephone and talk to him – he did not have a team of spin doctors or PR people. He would travel the length and breadth of the country to support workers in struggle or campaigns.
As a human being he always impressed me with his modesty, humour and resilience. You could not help but be moved as he spoke at the People’s Assembly even though you could tell he was not too well. Even then he brought the house down. Like Bob Crow he was often vilified by the press but people in the street would often greet him very warmly. As a model of somebody who lives by their socialist values rather than just talk about them he stands comparison with anyone and particularly with some leaders with so-called Marxist credentials who have sullied the movement with their personal behaviour.
An interesting discussion has been going on in Facebook on whether we should mourn or organise, or do both in a dialectical way. I think Benn’s final message on Channel 4, where he is smiling and thanks his family for being with him in his life’s journey, just cuts through such a false opposition. We need to take time to properly mourn anyone who has made a decent contribution to the advance of humanity. It also allows us to reflect on the political implications of his life’s work. Tony would have encouraged a good debate on that. We can all usefully follow the epitaph he himself wanted – ‘He encouraged us’. If we can all encourage others then we might just have a chance of building a better world.
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.
Sat 2 Mar, 9.30-17.00
Confronting the Rise of the Far Right, European Conference
Organised by Transform UK.
Bloomsbury Central, 235 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2H 8EP.
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.