Tony Benn: the best leader Labour never had?
By Nick DaviesAlmost exactly thirty years ago I was at Lambeth Town Hall, Brixton, where Tony Benn held a packed house of trade unionists, socialists and members of the local black community in the palm of his hand as he explained at length, fluently, and with passion that the miners’ strike was not just about the coal industry, it was about class, power and the use of the state apparatus against the labour movement. Benn made many such speeches at that time, but on this occasion in particular he and his audience understood each other; in the 1980s the people of Brixton were no strangers to the use and abuse of power by the state apparatus. Although, despite the allegations of his more puerile critics, Benn was never a Marxist, his analysis of the use of the state against the miners owed much to the ‘armed bodies of men’ of Marx and Engels. How many of today’s Labour MPs would even know what Benn was talking about, let alone be able to make that speech?
Such a speech did not come from nowhere, but from the arc of Benn’s political career. Originally a man of the Labour establishment, an articulate and telegenic representative of Wilsonian technocracy, he was radicalised by office and the realisation that when he had his hands of the levers of power, those levers were not connected to anything. Once convinced of the need to democratise society at large, it was logical to start with his own movement. Thus was born the current which, for the sake of political shorthand, bore Benn’s name, but was, in truth, a movement of grassroots activists, politicians, trade unionists and academics reacting against the drift, demoralization and move to the right of the Wilson and Callaghan administrations of 1974 to 1979.
This movement’s purpose was two-fold. It sought to develop a policy agenda for Labour, the Alternative Economic Strategy, to counter the abandonment by Labour of post-war Keynesianism and the move, spearheaded by Thatcher and Reagan, towards an aggressive free market fundamentalism based on cuts in public expenditure, privatisation and attacks on the labour movement, together with a renewal of the Cold War. (Personally, I did not, and still don’t agree with aspects of this programme – such as import controls and outright withdrawal from the then EEC – but nevertheless, it laid down an opposing line of march to the new orthodoxy). The other aim of ‘Bennism’ was the democratisation of the Labour Party: the right of members to reselect or deselect their MP, to determine policy and to elect the leader. The movement’s high point was in 1981, the year I joined the Labour Party, when it galvanized the Labour rank-and-file behind Benn’s almost successful campaign for the deputy leadership.
It was the growing influence of this movement that precipitated, in 1981, the split from Labour to form the Social-Democratic Party. But for this split, the Tories would probably have lost the 1983 election, but then, the SDP splitters’ whole purpose was to respond to the needs of capital, as opposed to those of the labour movement. The Labour Party had also to be brought into line; that was the job of Kinnock, who had abstained in the deputy leadership election, went onto betray the striking miners and paved the way for New Labour. Although New Labour subverted party democracy in practice, the formal effective abolition of Labour’s collective, collegiate democracy had to wait until 2014. With the resulting donation to the party of original SDP splitter David Owen there is a sense of the wheel having turned full circle.
But back to that night in Brixton. What impressed me the most was Benn’s clarity: one of the greatest literary or oratorical gifts is to be able to explain complex ideas simply, and Benn had this talent in abundance. It was his clarity that shone through the obfuscating smoke of ‘consumer choice’ and ‘modernisation’ which has polluted political discourse since the 1980s. He spoke the truth about class, power and inequality: how mining communities were pauperised and criminalised, how Iraq was invaded and its resources looted on the basis of a lie, how our public services were stolen from us and sold on the cheap to the Tories’ friends, for them to sell back to us at a profit and how we have to work harder, for less, with fewer rights and end up deeper in debt.
The official reaction to Benn’s death was significant. Praise for his kindness, courtesy and eloquence was automatically qualified by an assertion of the UK’s official ideology: that despite Benn’s sincerity, be was utterly wrong, and aren’t we all fortunate that he did not succeed, otherwise we’d all be living in a European version of North Korea. It’s redolent of the media treatment of the death of Thatcher: a celebration of our escape from the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s. But there’s almost an air of desperation in the way this line is constantly peddled: as if it betrays a creeping realisation that, for most people, the free-market god has failed and that after all, Benn had something to say about the banks, the City, globalisation and the dangerous unaccountability of EU technocrats
Among many of Benn’s supporters there’s also a misplaced air of finality, as if an era has passed. Benn, according to this version, is ‘irreplaceable’. On a personal level, of course, he is, but then so is everyone. Politically, however, such an assertion is an admission of defeat. When our movement is as weak as it is, individuals such as Tony Benn and Bob Crow appear to carry the hopes and expectations of millions on their shoulders, when they, as all of us, should be just links in a chain.
The most significant tribute to Bob Crow was from Ken Livingstone when he said that RMT members were the only working class people in London with decent wages; a situation that should be the norm was now the exception. It reminded people of what they have lost. And just as we need many Bob Crows – so that the cleaners and call centre workers who work in the 21st century’s sweat shops can have security and dignity at work and a living wage – so we need to find many Tony Benns who can speak with clarity and passion about inequality and power and the need to build a better world.