I was saddened to hear of Tony Benn’s death. I only met him once – at Party Conference in 2011 – but I’m pleased that I did, not just for the experience of meeting someone so central to Labour’s history, but also because he was charming and courteous, even after his granddaughter had explained I was an NEC member from a rather different wing of the Labour Party to him.
I spend enough time with Bennites to know that his family, friends and close comrades will be devastated by the loss of someone they loved and regarded with huge admiration and affection. Particularly there are young people in the Party who he went out of his way to give encouragement and friendship to, and who must feel bereft.
Tony Benn loomed large in my very political home as I was growing up in the early 1980s. We were a Bennite household. His columns (from memory on the back page of the Guardian) were quoted excitedly by my dad. My mum thought he was wonderful but that it was terribly sad that he didn’t get on with her other hero, Michael Foot. My late auntie was more actively involved in promoting Benn’s ideas in the local CLP and her trade union – I have her copy of his book Arguments for Socialism, with a nice inscription to her from him inside it. My earliest foray into electoral politics, aged 11, was winning a class mock election running on a platform basically consisting of Benn’s ideas and stating he would be the key player in my imaginary cabinet.
I parted company with Bennism thanks not to any great ideological soul-searching but rather to the discovery, in 1986, of the Economist World Atlas of Elections in my school library. I remember seeing for the first time a map of the most recent General Election, the 1983 one, and suddenly understanding how few bits of the country had voted for my beloved Labour Party. I went away fascinated and horrified and read everything I could about why Labour had done so badly and how this could be changed.
And that is how it came to be that by the time I eventually met my erstwhile hero, whilst I was still star-struck and delighted by the experience, I didn’t think much of his politics.
I think it’s quite important to not allow history to be rewritten about Tony’s role in Labour’s years in the wilderness. It is very easy to think of the Bennite Hard Left as somehow harmless eccentrics who provide an essential role as the conscience of the Party. In fact, they were an utterly ruthless and driven sect that came very near to destroying the Labour Party.
For me the charge sheet against Tony and his followers is fairly straightforward:
- The policy agenda they proposed was wrong for Britain. It wasn’t that it was just idealistic or naive, it was actually dangerous. If somehow there had been a Benn Government implementing his agenda, we would have been committing national economic and diplomatic suicide. State control of 100 key companies, an Alternative Economic Strategy based on a siege economy with import controls, leaving the Common Market, leaving NATO, unilateral nuclear disarmament in the middle of the Cold War. There is almost a cartoonish quality to it all, but this was seriously being proposed by Tony as the alternative to Thatcherism. It’s an odd kind of internationalism that seems characterised by anti-Europeanism and anti-Americanism.
- Having discovered in 1983 that the British public didn’t like this vision of the future, to the extent that he lost his own seat, Tony’s reaction was to make the bizarre claim that the defeat meant that “for the first time since 1945, a political party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people”. He then basically continued to promote the same rejected ideas for the rest of his life. That’s intellectually problematic – when the evidence suggests your ideas are not popular, you ought at least to consider whether that is because the ideas are wrong. Sticking to being wrong isn’t a virtue, and is also odd given that Benn had proved capable of completely changing his ideas when he moved to the left from a fairly orthodox Gaitskellite position in the late 1960s. It’s also profoundly undemocratic not to listen to the electorate, and consider that they may be right and you may be wrong, which is odd from a guy who wrote “Arguments for Democracy”.
- The constitutional reform agenda pursued by the Bennites through the profoundly misnamed “Campaign for Labour Party Democracy” is now falsely looked at as a democratisation exercise because people remember not the Electoral College that Benn helped create but the later version that John Smith brought in where ordinary members and trade unionists were given a One Member One Vote ballot in the leadership election. The Bennites opposed OMOV both when Smith introduced it in 1993 and when it was floated at the Wembley Special Conference in 1981. They were still voting against it in the Collins proposals a few weeks ago. Their version of the Electoral College gave 40% of the vote not to ordinary trade unionists but to be cast as block votes by union General Secretaries (so the outcome of leadership elections in the 1980s was determined by union endorsements before nominations had even opened). The 30% given to CLPs also didn’t have to involve all members being balloted but was generally determined by the small number of the most active members on the CLP General Committee, with “winner takes all” applying to all of the CLP’s votes. If you want to understand why they didn’t want OMOV it is for the simple reason that they calculated that the most active members would be more extreme in their views than the mass of less active members. A model of “democracy” where the more interminable meetings you sit through, the more influence you have.
- The refusal of Tony to accept any enemies to his left is also odd for someone committed to parliamentary democracy. If you are a democratic socialist, why would you not draw a clear line and say that people who support revolutionary Leninism rather than parliamentary democracy are not “OK”? The case in point is Militant, whose behaviour was often characterised by appalling intimidation and bullying, whose ideology was revolutionary Trotskyism, and whose strategy was to hide their real identity (another party, the Revolutionary Socialist League) and enter into the Labour Party as political parasites. Why did Benn defend Militant from expulsion? Couldn’t he see the damage they were doing?
- For a man who was so courteous and charming, he allowed a type of sectarian politics to develop among some of his supporters that was highly personalised and vicious. The Labour Party in many CLPs in the 1980s was not a pleasant and comradely place to be politically active. Good people – many of them themselves leftwingers of an earlier, gentler Bevan or Foot type – were hounded out of office and deselected as councillors and MPs. Many more good people just gave up political activity because of the bullying by the Hard Left, or were put off ever getting involved. The people who broke away to form the SDP were wrong to do so, they should have stayed and fought in Labour, but the Bennite reaction was almost to welcome the purification of Labour’s ranks rather than to see the split as a tragedy.
So much of what Tony Benn was responsible for in the 1980s was a terrible waste.
A waste of his own immense political talents, intellect and charisma on a political project that almost destroyed Labour when he could have been helping us win elections not helping us lose them.
A waste of the time, enthusiasm, idealism and energy of his followers who marched themselves off down a political blind alley, and all the time and energy of the internal fight to restore Labour to an electability it should never have lost.
A waste of Labour’s opportunity to turn Thatcher into a single-term PM. We threw away a big opinion poll lead and sweeping council gains in the first few years after 1979 in order to indulge ourselves in infighting.
A waste of all the life chances of all the people who had to endure 18 years of Tory rule and the cuts and unemployment and destruction of British industry that went with it because Labour stopped providing a viable opposition.
What a shame that Tony Benn, this great politician and leader with his ability to communicate, inspire and enthuse, did not channel it into the practical election-winning politics he espoused in the 1950s and 1960s but instead led Labour’s left off into the political wilderness to be politically pure but powerless.
His positive monuments will be his magnificent diaries and the people he inspired to become activists. His negative monument is that he takes at least partial blame for allowing Margaret Thatcher to create the Britain you see around you with all its inequalities and unfairness. Imagine the social democratic country we could have had if Tony had played a constructive part in returning Labour to power under Prime Minister Healey and Prime Minister Hattersley. It didn’t happen and mores the shame.