Praise Benn – but never forget the damage he did to Labour

18th March, 2014 7:10 am

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.

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  • Tokyo Nambu

    This. Every word.

    Francis Maude had it right, in his off the cuff tribute an hour after Benn’s death was announced. Benn was, said Maude, a great asset to the Conservatives, as he helped secure three general election victories, sustained Thatcher in office and avoided the defeat of an unpopular Conservative government in 1983. Yep, that’s about it.

    Benn was Clare Short with a pipe. He’d rather be right in his own mind, praised by his claque of sycophant in futile opposition, than do the hard work of being in office. ANd had he spent half the time on being a cabinet minister as he did on writing self-justifying diaries and stabbing his colleagues in the back just think how much better Labour could have done in the 1970s.

    The biggest decision he ever took was the colour of the second class stamps. Otherwise, he was a total political failure whose achievements amount to absolutely nothing. He sent both his sons to Westminster School, too, until a late and convenient conversion.

    • NT86

      Ironically, Clare Short herself made a few news appearances following his death. Basically saying that his move to the ultra left hurt Labour badly in the 80s, how he wasted his own potential as he could’ve remained a moderate figure (Shirley Williams said his move more to the left happened in the 70s) to get Labour back in power much earlier, as opposed to sitting on the fence about Militant, etc.

      Wouldn’t go as far as saying that he was Clare Short with a pipe. They were in two very different eras for a start (Benn during Labour in opposition, Short while Labour was in government). Short’s reputation took a hit over her stance on Iraq followed by repeated criticisms of the Labour government, despite the loss of credibility. Moreover the electoral map of the 2000’s was overwhelmingly red, not blue.

    • reformist lickspittle

      Benn was a flawed if gifted man – some of the praise for him has been OTT.

      But if it comes to a choice between him and that snivelling vacuous weasel Maude, I know where I stand. As do 99.9% of Labour people I suspect 😉

  • treborc1

    I will wait actually until he is put to rest before I say anything.
    In due respect to his family.

  • NT86

    One question might be: If there wasn’t such fractious splits in Labour during that time (assuming Tony Benn amongst others had remained a moderate left winger) and they got back into power in 83 after only one term of a Thatcher government, would that have prevented the birth of New Labour a decade later?

    I suppose it’s a ‘big what’ if question.

    • Tokyo Nambu

      The answer’s fairly obvious, I think.

      Benn was the worst thing that happened to Labour in the last fifty years: plausible, charismatic, completely unelectable. He was wrong on pretty well every policy (Europe and nationalisation, notably) and when in office was incompetent. His legacy, particular in 1983, is a split Labour Party which is more interested in factional infighting than taking hard decisions in office.

      Benn always had the right answer when he was writing his diary, because his diary didn’t talk back and didn’t vote.

      A Labour Party without Tony Benn would have been in office for most of the 1980s. We can argue about the policies that they would have followed, and a combination of hindsight and speculation is never going to be terribly convincing. But I think it’s safe to say that no matter how foolish some of Labour’s policies might have been, the appalling mis-rule of Thatcher and her evil cronies would not have happened. The devastation of British industry, the sucking of jobs and wealth into a small clique of bankers in London, the sale of government to multi-nationals: a hypothetical Healey-ite government wouldn’t have started us down that dark road. But thanks to Benn killing the Labour Party as an electoral force for the entirety of the 1980s, Thatcher could do whatever she wanted without an organised opposition.

      Benn fans: I take it you’ll all be voting for the UK to pull out of the EU when the referendum comes, in honour of your hero? Out campaigning for UKIP on this important matter? And if not, why not?

      • Why didn’t Tony Blair change things that Thatcher did that you feel were so bad?. I suppose because he didn’t really disagree with them or her.

  • swatnan

    We need to take another look at the 1963 ‘End of Hereditary Peerages Act’, and make sure that it does what it says on the tin. That the Peerage actually comes to an end and is not put into cold storage and held to be passed onto the next incumbent. Its like having your cake and eating it, and is not in the Spirit of thing. End of Peerage. End of story.
    Agree with sentiments expressed. Benn and Foot were WMD; but Labour have only themselves to blame for allowing it to ever happen. And the Unions in 1979.

    • Tokyo Nambu

      “That the Peerage actually comes to an end and is not put into cold storage and held to be passed onto the next incumbent”

      Indeed. One of the reasons why talk of Elizabeth II abdicating “in favour of Charles” or even, madly, “in favour of William” is that the Act of Settlement is quite clear: if Elizabeth II abdicated, she would be succeeded by Viscount Lindley (the late Princess Margaret’s son) as abdication erases any claims by your children. There’s not going to be any appetite to alter that, either. There’s ample provision in precedent and law for various forms of regencies to deal with the case of the monarch being incapacitated through age or infirmity, so the effect’s the same; Charles would be prince regent for his mother, rather than her abdicating, just as George IV was prince regent for his father George III. But the Queen remains the Queen. If she wants to stop being Queen (ie, because she wants to run for parliament on a “Corgis and Landrovers” ticket) then Viscount Lindley needs to get measured for a crown.

  • Duncan Hall

    Well I guess you can say that this isn’t hypocritical. I can’t think of much else to say in its favour. It’s typical of most of what I’ve seen from Benn’s critics, though perhaps more robust than most in places. Obviously as a proud, unrepentant Bennite I’m going to disagree with you, but this isn’t from the perspective of sentiment (my political hero has just died and commentator after commentator is lining up to say “he was a charming man but…” and I find it pretty insufferable) but from the perspective of analysis. I think you are just plain wrong.
    Let’s address the “charge sheet”:
    1) Without dealing in counter-factuals we’ll never know if the policy agenda was wrong for Britain, but I doubt it. Staying outside of the EU (and nationalising North Sea Oil, I might add) doesn’t appear to have done Norway much harm. Your hero Neil Kinnock also advocated nuclear disarmament (before quietly dropping this once fundamental and core principle a few years later) – actually the policy was not unpopular, and nobody seriously now thinks that it would have made a difference to the Cold War. After all, there are rather a large list of successful developed economies that “managed” without nuclear weapons, some of whom weren’t in NATO either. Leaving NATO would have allowed us to join the Non-Aligned Movement, and would have given us more authority in any attempt to exercise the once much-talked-about “ethical foreign policy” that vanished as soon as it was announced. There is nothing incompatible with such a policy and internationalism. The Alternative Economic Strategy (as constituted in the late 70s and early 80s) was a crisis management strategy. Was it worse/would it have been worse than an IMF loan, 3 million+ unemployment, industrial decline, public services cut and demoralised… I don’t think it would have been, but again let us not deal in counter-factuals. All we can say is that eventually even Denis Healey concluded that the IMF deal was unnecessary, and Margaret Thatcher ultimately introduced her own version of important controls: structural mass unemployment. While the Labour Party still talked about full employment then, only the Bennites were promoting policies that actually aimed to try and secure it.
    2) This is probably the bit I find most wrong. First just on the facts – Tony Benn was never a Gaitskellite. He turned down an invitation to join the Bevanites on the grounds that, as a new backbencher, he wanted freedom to choose his own views, but not on ideological grounds. He wrote speeches for Gaitskell and was immensely useful as a moderniser in terms of changing the way we communicated with the public immensely for the better (he was actually a trail-blazer for modern political communication – another item on his list of achievements that nobody seems to want to talk about) but he actually resigned from Gaitskell’s Shadow Cabinet and from the NEC, both over the issue of nuclear disarmament. On to 1980s – your other hero, Mr Blair, is fond of saying that sometimes you have to do what’s right, even if it isn’t popular. Tony Benn did not subscribe to a version of democracy where you blew in the wind of focus groups and polling data – he believed that you set out an argument and you try and win it. And the truth is that – on many of the issues you previously listed – when that pesky polling data was collected without “left/right” or “Benn/Healey” labels they were often very popular. Tony was doing a pretty good job of winning those arguments. But it has to be remembered that this was not a fair fight between Tony’s arguments and yours; it was a fight between Tony’s arguments and the full weight of the establishment and press that was mobilised in the most sustained and personalised attack on any political figure that I think this country has ever seen. Tony was “the most dangerous man in Britain” (I actually agree that he was dangerous to the establishment, I don’t react to that headline quite as others do); he was “mad”, “bonkers”, he was pictured variously as a Nazi or a Stalinist; his party colleagues openly briefed against him (and in doing so openly briefed against their own party policies but, in the twisted version of 1980s Labour history to which some subscribe, it was Benn who was the “splitter” and was disloyal). They pretended they had psycho-analysed him. They bugged his phone and went through his bins; they attacked his kids and made up false stories. They pretended this democratic radical was an apologist for the Argentine junta, a communist, a member of Militant. Some of the absurd charges were repeated by people who should know better even this week, of all weeks.
    It is profoundly democratic not to listen to your electorate – but Benn did listen to his electorate; he furiously and uncompromisingly represented his constituents during the Miners Strike, for example, while many others equivocated and ignored their voters in the vain quest for positive headlines. It is utterly absurd for people to keep blaming Tony for the elections that others lost and others won, especially in the light of the fact that the same people so unrelentingly fed the headlines that made Tony (briefly) unpopular with some. It is instructive that actually Benn has retained a popularity than none of those who accused him of making them unpopular have managed to come close to retaining.
    3) The constitutional reform agenda was not “cliques and caucuses versus OMOV” as the right often like to pretend, it was a decision between only MPs voting for leaders and deputy leaders and starting to bring in the wider movement into that decision-making process. There was no weight behind OMOV in 1981, and it has its problems anyway, as we’ll no doubt discover in the coming years; I’m surprised to hear “roundhead” Luke so contemptuously dismiss activism as sitting through interminable meetings. The truth is that the reform agenda in the early 80s that Benn became associated with (although it was not “his idea” or some scheme to get himself elected, whatever Joe Ashton might say on the subject) established the principle of extending internal party democracy which ultimately even the Tories had to accept. “Your lot” were still arguing that MPs should make the decisions alone, and when losing that principle argued for as large a PLP section in the college as possible – nothing remotely democratic about such an argument.
    4) The Militant thing is ridiculous and people should just behave themselves on this. I am not, never was, a Militant supporter, but it was just a group of people who had a different view and tried to push it forward. No different from the Euro-communist and SDP people who came in and tried to push the New Labour agenda in the 90s. It is intellectual cowardice to expel ideas rather than debate them. And I say that too to the people who think that Progress should be proscribed – its pathetic and the NEC was pathetic in the early 80s, dragging kids to some sort of McCarthyite inquisition; telling the public that we were somehow infected with some revolutionary disease. It is utterly wrong to blame Tony Benn for the disagreements on that – he was absolutely right to try and save the Labour Party from the disgusting spectacle that it was idiotically engaging in. It is instructive that when Hatton tried to thank Benn and Heffer for their stand on Militant, Benn snapped back “this has nothing whatsoever to do with you”. It wasn’t about Hatton; it wasn’t about Nellist (who’s written a tribute nearly as heart-warming as yours) – it was about the principle. It was absolutely wrong for the Labour’s executive to drag people through these appalling show trials because they disagreed with them. And to pretend it was about something else is disingenuous. Hilariously, Kinnock said that they had to be expelled because they didn’t agree with Clause IV!
    5) Oh, of course, the arguments and divisions were all the fault of the “bullying” hard left. Not the bullying leadership that treated kids like they were in court on criminal charges; not the fixers and the briefers who poisoned not only the Labour Party with their machine politics but poisoned the public’s good opinion of the Labour Party with a constant diet of saying our best communicator was a dangerous lunatic and our party was full of wicked Trotskyists.
    The fact is that occasionally the left/right pendulum swings in the Labour Party; what is sadly quite clear (and I say this as somebody who believes the party should be a broad church and needs to hear from people like you even though I fundamentally disagree with you) is that quite contrary to the picture painted here and in some of the “tributes” this week, the left is far more accommodating of a right ascendency than the right is of a left one. Cripps, Bevan, Foot – all expelled. The SDP betray us (oh, apparently that was Tony Benn’s fault too; Williams and Owen and the like weren’t the splitters – oh no!) the NEC comes over all The Crucible on us. Apart from very minor splits, Tony Benn not only endured the long right ascendency that followed, but reached accommodation – even with Blair – in a way that the caricature is presented that it never could. If in fact he had left the party and there had been a much bigger split in 94, I don’t think many of the people who blame Benn for the SDP would be saying “that Peter Mandelson split the party”.
    The fact is that Tony Benn was a brilliant politician. A brilliant speaker and communicator, yes, but that wasn’t the most important thing. Being a brilliant speaker doesn’t win you the “iconic” status Tony acquired – Kinnock was an excellent speaker (not entirely to my tastes – always seemed too much like Rory Bremner doing Bevan to me, but a great rabble-rouser) – but nobody now remembers much of what Kinnock had to say. Because he was a self-aggrandising, self-justifying windbag. Tony is remembered so fondly because he was visionary; he was an ideas man; he would “think the unthinkable” (which apparently is an admirable quality if the “unthinkable” is cutting benefits or privatising everything but is simply undemocratic if it is designed to help people or make power more accountable). And he survived the most sustained onslaught the British establishment has ever thrown at a political figure, if not unscathed (I don’t think that) unbeaten.
    I might add, for somebody whose democratic credentials you chose to question, he was also a remarkably successful politician winning more by-elections than any other British politician and I would be interested if someone would do the maths to see whether he has won more parliamentary elections than anybody else (1983 might prevent this from being the case, and I could write another comment just as long on that one debacle but I think I’ve rattled on long enough).
    Actually, despite all that has been said, Tony was a unifying figure in the Labour Party. For a brief period, because he was popular in the party and could have won, he was personally and politically attacked in such a way that he found himself at the centre of a great division, but that was not what characterised his politics or his attitude to the Labour Party. And so, while I’ve been quite robust in some of this comment, I do want to say – because I think it’s what Tony would want people to say – that while I will correct this misrepresentation of 1980s Labour politics wherever it is presented and particularly at a time like this, the important thing is not where we’ve been but where we’re going. And the best tribute to Tony would be for us to be a lot more thoughtful about policy and ideas in the future and to accept elections and debates as positive and democratic rather than fear them as divisive and dangerous.

    • Tokyo Nambu

      “Staying outside of the EU (and nationalising North Sea Oil, I might add) doesn’t appear to have done Norway much harm.”

      That’s the Norway that has a population of less than a tenth of the UK, and therefore had roughly (assuming a 50/50 split, which isn’t quite the case, but close enough for this purpose) ten times the oil money per capita? Comparisons between Norway and Scotland aren’t fanciful: their population (and economy) are about the same size. But the UK is ten times the size: Norway could (and did) spend five times the oil revenue per head of population that we did and still have half of it left over to build a sovereign wealth fund. Norway also had no manufacturing industry worth talking about (quick, name a Norwegian export other than primary extraction?) and even today has only four cities with populations over 100000, whereas I think we have 37. Next lesson “what Andorra tells us about UK industrial policy”.

      “The fact is that Tony Benn was a brilliant politician.”

      If your definition of “brilliant” does not involve winning a parliamentary majority and forming a government, that’s right. Benn was brilliant at sniping from the sidelines and telling his diary how clever he was. His actual political achievements are non-existent: Concorde and Norton Villiers Triumph notwithstanding. They say that all political careers end in failure; his consisted of little else.

      • Duncan Hall

        Yes, because of course I said that Norway and Britain were the same. I am just such an idiot.
        Rather than “wrestling with a chimney sweep” over your last paragraph, I’ll ask Mark if I can write a full article on the achievements of Tony Benn. It will be a long one.

        • Tokyo Nambu

          We don’t need a long, rambling account of why Tony Benn was right about everything. We’ve got his diaries.

          • Duncan Hall

            You obviously haven’t read them

          • Doug Smith

            Amusingly, at Jack Jones’ (the TGWU leader) funeral in 2009, Harriet Harman approached Tony Benn and said “I just want to let you know I’m trying to model myself on you.” Benn responded: “That’s a bit of a mistake, because I was a great failure.” (from Benn’s The Last Diaries: A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine.

          • Tokyo Nambu

            Oh look, it’s another example of Tony Benn recording in Tony Benn’s diaries the witty things that Tony Benn says he said. We can all think of snappy responses we wish we’d come up with, but didn’t until some time after the event; the French even have a name for it, l’esprit d’escalier. But the trick is actually saying them at the time. If Benn had been a tenth as sharp and convincing at Labour’s cabinets of the 1970s as he said he was in the evening, perhaps they’d have listened to him.

            Some wag once said of Ed Balls that his problem is that he’s nearly as brilliant as he thinks he is. It’s an epithet that has some force, but not one you’d apply to Benn. Using Benn’s diaries as a gloss on how brilliant Benn was is rather missing the point. The great political diaries are by political nobodies, because although they’re trying to make a reputation for themselves as writers, they aren’t naive enough to think they can make a reputation for themselves as politicians: that’s why “Chips” Channon’s diaries are such a fascinating account of the 1930s and 1940s. Benn’s diaries have only one subject, himself, and can’t be considered reliable on that.

          • Doug Smith

            “If Benn had been a tenth as sharp and convincing at Labour’s cabinets of the 1970s as he said he was”

            To find out how able Benn was as Minster for Trade and Industry you should read: ‘Save the Triumph Bonneville: The Inside Story of the Meriden Workers’ Co-op’ by John Rosamond.

          • Tokyo Nambu

            “To find out how able Benn was as Minster for Trade and Industry you should read: ‘Save the Triumph Bonneville: The Inside Story of the Meriden Workers’ Co-op’ by John Rosamond.”

            Ah, the Meridan Co-Op. Remind me how that ended? Oh yes, finding that the market for 1950s OHV parallel twins which piss oil and vibrate like crazy is limited to ageing nostalgics, while everyone was buying reliable UJMs.

            NVT under Poore, Benn’s creation, argued that it didn’t matter that no-one was buying small British motorbikes (such as the BSA Bantam, a German design taken in war reparations and, er, well that was the only one) because the real motorcyclist would obviously move on to real bikes, such as the aforementioned Triumphs, and therefore the Japanese were doing the British a favour by making small bikes to bring new riders into the market, who would obviously then buy British once they had passed their test. So there was no need to design a new small British motorbike, a task no-one had actually done since before the war, because the Japanese were doing it for them. Result! You buy a CB250, you pass your test, you buy a Bonneville. Profit!

            There’s a hell of a lot of Z1s and CB750s, and a housing estate in Meriden, that say that argument was total, utter bollocks.

          • Doug Smith

            Clearly you haven’t read Rosamond’s book.

            In 1978, the year before Labour was voted out of office, the Triumph Bonneville T140J was the best selling European bike in the all-important U.S. market – up against such prestigious names as BMW, Moto Guzzi and Laverda.

            The Meriden Co-op eventually became bankrupt in 1983 as Thatcher ramped-up the campaign to de-industrialise the UK.

          • Tokyo Nambu

            In 1978, the year before Labour was voted out of office, the Triumph Bonneville T140J was the best selling European bike in the all-important U.S. market – up against such prestigious names as BMW, Moto Guzzi and Laverda.

            That argument is deluded (and I was riding motorbikes around that time and reading the motorcycle press). The market for European motorcycles in the USA was small and shrinking, while several million Japanese bikes had been registered during the decade. Triumph had a tiny model range (two, if memory serves, both large parallel twins: the co-op stopped manufacturing the far superior Trident). BMW had a range which went all the way from 500cc upwards to the R100, including the R100RS and R100RT which still look modern today. Moto Guzzi likewise was selling everything from V35s up to Le Mans 850s, plus all those dreamy Californians if that’s your thing. Even Laverda weren’t reliant on just the Jota. So if you look at the sales of individual models, a company with just two models manages to sell more of one of them than the individual sales of two companies that were shipping ten or more models? Wow, I bet that hurt.

            Triumph had also spent a fortune on swapping the gear lever over, a move they should have made a decade earlier, and had serious trouble meeting new Californian emissions requirements. They had catastrophic warranty claims (I’m thinking of a problem with the oil-tank in the downtube, but I might be mis-remembering) and were losing money on every bike that they sold.

            Look at most charitably, they sold more 1950s-era 750s than any individual bike in their competitors large ranges, and lost money on every example they shipped.

          • Duncan Hall

            It’s odd isn’t it, how people from all across the political spectrum have praised Benn’s diaries as “an archive of incalculable value”, “immensely interesting and revealing”, “an important work of historiography”, written by “the best political diarist of our time” and includes some “critical patches of postwar history recorded hot” and yet these people are all so stupid and wrong – because Tokyo Nambu has decreed it. Peter Hennessy? Ben Pimlott? Alan Clark? What do they know – some anonymous troll has spoken the truth on the internet.

          • MikeHomfray

            You clearly haven’t read them

      • amie

        quick, name a Norwegian export other than primary extraction? Trolls? (the mannikins, not the internet kind.)

    • keggsie

      You’ve put it more eloquently and with greater knowledge than I could have. Great stuff.

  • Robert_Crosby

    An article written in the usual Progress-speak… condescending and not giving any of the rest of us any credit for being able to work these things out (and see beyond the superficial media coverage) for ourselves.

    I’m well aware of how damaging the splits were in the 1980s and the Bennites’ part in them. The Blairites today are a different kind of curse. They seek to stifle even our ambition let alone anyone else’s (bar their own, of course). Their lack of regard for due process/probity and misjudgements regarding the rather tacky company many of them are prepared to keep stands just as much of a chance of keeping us out of government today as the splits of the 80s while voters think they still hold sway.

    • Luke Akehurst

      What has this got to do with Blair or Progress? I’m talking about battles with Healey and Hattersley and Kinnock when Blair was hosting “Benn for Deputy” meetings at his home.

      • Robert_Crosby

        I’m drawing a direct comparison between Tony Benn and his supporters back then and people – albeit of rather contrasting views – who are doing their best to undermine the message that many others feel should resonate with voters now. Lord Hutton’s comments on the 50p tax rate is just the latest in the long line of examples… and he is a Progress/Blair cheerleader isn’t he?

        I remember all too well how far Tony Benn pushed many people’s tolerance when he challenged Denis Healey and the damage that it did. You’re making no great revelation there.

      • DanFilson

        Now I know whom not to vote for in future NEC elections. Trying to tar Blair with Bennite tendencies won’t wash. Tar him with opportunism by all means. Arguments about the early 1980s are best done by those who were there and, as Diane says, not dependent on hearsay and the thoroughly biased various media.

        • Luke Akehurst

          Hi Dan. It’s up to you how you vote in NEC elections. My pitch is that I am opposed to the political agenda of the Hard Left but will work with anyone on a comradely and democratic basis.

          However, please don’t patronise me by suggesting I am writing about something that happened when I wasn’t there. The reason I write about this with passion is because these were the events that were going on while my political views were being formed. I was too young to be a member in the early ’80s but if the definition of an activist is someone who delivers 1000s of leaflets I was a Labour activist in the 1983 General Election and previous rounds of council elections – my parents believed in getting their kids campaigning young and in 1981 I was helping my mum try to become a councillor. By 1988, when Benn ran against Kinnock for Leader, and all the rows about CND happened in the policy review, I was a party member and active at GC and branch level. The CLPD Bennites in my CLP were actually very kind to me but I saw firsthand Socialist Organiser Trots bully someone until they ran in tears out of a meeting.


  • jimmy

    THere is no such a thing as a BENNITE or a BLAIRITE – there are sheep devoid of any potential original thought of their own. Tony was a breath of fresh air to the party and had alternatives that the nappy rash called right wing labour were afraid of as it would have meant taking steps to realise a socialist Britain and it would have meant that the people would be in control not the expense skimming, house flippers that we have been inflicted with as a result of the undemocratic selection processes that existed until recently. The policies were not dangersous they were fundamental to the change that he envisaged and people didnt not reject them they were not told what it meant to them becasue the right wing press decided that they controlled the election and the flow of information. People didnt undertsand what he was saying because he was not allowed prime time or news reel to explain. if you had heard him speak instead of using your political alleignece as an excuse not to you would understand what maketh the man and perhaps your CAREER would have taken a different turn.

  • littlescrimmage

    Even though I may believe that winning actual general elections is really very,very important that doesn’t mean I don’t get why some people would rather chew their own arms off rather than win by pretending to believe in things that they don’t. Tbh, I would rather be like the latter group – but I can’t be because I know that unless Labour wins the occasional general election then tens of millions of people are worse off in so many ways.

    Even Luke probably has his own lines that he wouldn’t cross under any circumstances (and policies that if the party adopted would give him cause to object to or even leave).

    And that’s partly the problem with the argument that Luke is advancing – wasn’t it people with views like his that formed the SDP and actually consigned us to decades of Thatcher government? No SDP in ’83 and things would have been a bit different (and no Benn didn’t make them do it – they had a choice).

    I don’t think the SDP ever won any general elections either so, maybe, ‘moderate’ centre-left policies weren’t ever the full answer to the problem for Labour in the 80s. The ‘moderate’ professional election winning machine that New Labour supposedly was shed 5m votes between 1997 and 2010 and presided over a catastrophic decline in membership and activity in our party and almost single-handedly accelerated the decline of politics generally. (Btw, there was some good stuff too – but, my god, didn’t our legacy in public services make it so easy for the Tories to do what they’re doing now to education and health?)

    There has been a lot of crapness in our party in the last few decades and it is only a very partial view of history that could blame it all on Benn (who incidentally I fell out of love with a very long time ago).

    • Tokyo Nambu

      “I don’t think the SDP ever won any general elections either so, maybe, ‘moderate’ centre-left policies weren’t ever the full answer to the problem for Labour in the 80s. ”

      In 1983, in an era of substantially greater (for want of a better phrase) working class solidarity, far greater trade union membership and an at least partially functioning manufacturing sector, and with the recognised danger of a Tory government that had started to bare its teeth, Labour was only able to secure 27.6% of the vote with the SDP as a minor force. By contrast, Gordon Brown, possibly the least popular (as opposed to most unpopular) Prime Minister of the post-war era and a man who probably cuts his toenails with a shotgun, fighting two charismatic young opponents with far better media skills, with all the problems of fighting an election on the back of a tired government that had been in office for more than a decade, was able to get 29% against a resurgent LibDems.

      I realise it’s an argument you aren’t making, but too many analyses of the 1980s by people too young to remember them start to make the claim that Labour should have swung further to the left to outflank the SDP (an argument Heffer and Benn made after the 1983 defeat, for example). leaving aside what the country would have looked like with such policies implemented, the chances of them resulting in anything less than utter rejection at the ballot box – party killing, end of an era scale rejection – were never more than zero.

      • littlescrimmage

        The SDP-Liberal Alliance weren’t a minor force at the 1983 GE – they got 25.4% of the vote! Or to look at it another way, moderate centre-left policies were even less popular than the ‘hard left’ policies that Labour fought that election with.

        Btw, I actually don’t believe it was the policies wot won it or lost it.

        With a united party with a charismatic leader it’s possible we could have won (or at least done a lot better) with either hard or moderate left policies in 1983. The disunity and the SDP split off were as much the fault of the right at the time as they were the fault of the Bennite left – but at least the left had actually taken control by the democratic means that were open to them then. It’s the shock of that possibility again that lead New Labour to the execrable “the means justifies the ends” professionalised culture of fixing and patronage – which in terms of political disengagement we’re still reaping the whirlwind of now.

        Far more than policy disagreements, there’s really only one game in town for the Labour Party now – to find a way of getting through to our most marginalised and politically citizens, to show that there is a difference and that politics changes things.

        • BillFrancisOConnor

          ‘but at least the left had actually taken control by the democratic means that were open to them then……’

          Maybe, but it wasn’t much fun having your local CLP run by head banging Trots and they certainly did turn off people with a regular job, a nice council house and a VW Polo. The worst thing was you had to kind of go along with some of it because some people in Militant were not averse to ‘robust’ methods of persuasion

        • Tokyo Nambu

          “The SDP-Liberal Alliance weren’t a minor force at the 1983 GE – they got 25.4% of the vote! ”

          But in 1979, the Liberals under David Steele, reeling from the resignation of Thorpe under what we might safely describe as “quite newsworthy” circumstances (dogs, shotguns, etc), got 18.3% on their own. The Alliance got, as you say, 25.4% in 1983, in an environment in which Labour were haemorrhaging votes and much of the drain from Labour might well have gone to the Liberals anyway.

          “With a united party with a charismatic leader it’s possible we could have won (or at least done a lot better) with either hard or moderate left policies in 1983”

          And if wishes were horses we’d none of us walk.

          • reformist lickspittle

            Wrong, the Liberals got 14% in 1979.

            They scored 18-19% in the two 1974 GEs.

      • Carolekins

        We have to accept that the 1983 manifesto (on which I campaigned) was hardly election-winning, even though I approved of most of the ideas. I have never since had such tough campaigning (in a Labour area with proud TU traditions.

    • Luke Akehurst

      Hi, it was people with my views, who I work with now in Labour First, who were instrumental in staying in the Labour Party and fighting to turn it round, rather than joining the SDP. The organisation I am secretary of was founded in 1988 as a merger of groups including the Solidarity Group – the moderate Labour MPs who had opposed the SDP split.

      For the record, I have repeatedly publicly opposed the Blair public service reform agenda.

      There are other traditions on Labour’s right that have nothing to do with the SDP and pre-date New Labour.

      I joined the party when it had policies on my key red line issue of unilteralism which I opposed, and got active partly to change that policy.

      • littlescrimmage

        Hello Luke – ta for the reply.

        I suppose what I’m really baulking it at is the idea of Benn “doing damage” to Labour. Actually what happened was that the right-left warfare in the Labour Party at time was what actually did “damage” to us. In one way I’m glad we’re past that now but in another I deeply regret the consequences for political engagement.

        In the Benn era I was a student and I desperately wanted Labour to beat Thatcher – so I got into that “ends justify the means” mindset. I even got onto a coach with other Labour students with an icepick strapped to the front bumper – we were off to defeat ‘the Trots’ after all. Just typing that actually makes me feel queasy now – in much the same way that reading the ‘inside story’ of the 70s Wilson or New Labour governments does too.

        I do understand that your political points of view are genuinely held (Hey! I’m in the Labour Party so I probably share some of them!) but so were those of ‘the Trots’ I mentioned above. The point is that it’s hypocritical to criticise people like Tony Benn for trying to popularise and win control with their genuinely held views – after all isn’t that what you on the right did/had to do to ‘reclaim’ the party?

    • BillFrancisOConnor

      What an awful lot of sense! It was of course the SDP that led to the Tories winning by such a margin in 1983 (check the individual constituency election results for confirmation) – a margin that became very difficult to overturn. This combined with the lack of gravitas exuded by Kinnock and the ideological collapse of the particular kind of postwar social democratic hegemony that characterised the period 1947-1973 that were the real reasons for the longevity of the period of opposition. It really had little to do with Tony Benn.

  • Doug Smith

    “It’s an odd kind of internationalism that seems characterised by anti-Europeanism and anti-Americanism.”

    Perhaps that’s because he wasn’t anti-American. If he had been he would have found life very difficult as his wife was American. His opposition was to unaccountable corporate power and the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us against.

    Benn’s opposition to the EU was because of the absence of democracy within the EU. And he called it right. We now have Baroness Aston (never been elected to any position in her life) as EU foreign policy chief and complicit in the destabilisation and overthrow of a democratically elected government in Ukraine And the EU is set on the pathway to military integration.

    Benn’s internationalism wasn’t a matter of forming alliances with a view to undertaking disastrous military adventures, it was founded on the belief in the value of a common humanity.

  • It is sad that Luke has taken to the internet to attack Tony Benn. It is particularly sad because so much of what he has to say is hearsay. This is because, by my calculation, he would have been ten at the time of the titanic Benn/Healey deputy leadership contest. So the general characterization of supporters of Tony Benn being vicious; bullying etc is typical of what the right said at the time. But it bears little relationship to the facts .But to deal with some specifics:
    · Benn’s support for trade union rights and freedoms and his critique of the market has stood the test of time. With stronger trade unions we would not see the super-exploitation of immigrant workers, the proliferation of agency workers and the abuse of zero hour contracts. Post the collapse of Lehmann’s, not even Tories, are not as starry eyed about markets as Luke appears to be. And Benn’s concerns, about the lack of democracy and accountability within the EU, are shared by people across the political spectrum.
    · Luke complains that Benn continued to argue for his political beliefs all his life. But why not? Many unpopular causes that Benn spoke up for went on to be mainstream orthodoxy (i.e. talking to the IRA) If Labour people had not been willing to argue and campaign for unpopular causes, we would still be sending children up chimneys.
    · Luke can’t understand why Benn was opposed to the expulsion of the Militant. But that is simple. Benn’s politics were very different from those of the militant. But he did not believe in pursuing doctrinal difference through disciplinary means. And he was right.
    It is unfortunate that the death of Benn has moved some to rehash old baseless smears. I am only surprised that some are not acusing Benn of being clinically insane, as so many tabloids alleged at the time

    • Tokyo Nambu

      “With stronger trade unions we would not see the super-exploitation of immigrant workers, the proliferation of agency workers and the abuse of zero hour contracts. ”

      With stronger protection of workers’ rights by legislation we wouldn’t see them either. No need for extra-parliamentary pressure: democratically elected and accountable governments could have resolved those issues. Perhaps a Labour government holding 418 seats, the largest majority of any party ever, could have used its five year term in office to pass strong rights for workers, rather than pissing around dealing with fox hunting? Or, if they couldn’t be bothered, perhaps a Labour government with 413 seats could have had a crack at it, instead of whatever it is that Labour did in office between 2001 and 2005 other than brief against each other (can anyone remember?) Or, failing that, maybe a Labour government holding 355 seats could have had a look?

      Labour were in office for thirteen years, with massive majorities throughout. For senior Labour figures such as yourself to lament that policies weren’t passed is absolutely disingenuous: if the abuse of immigrant and agency workers and the use of zero-hours contracts are such a bad thing (and they are, absolutely, such a bad thing) then why the hell didn’t you do something about it while you were in office with an absolutely unassailable majority? Muttering about how the unions could, in an alternative world, have resolved these problems is passing the buck. Labour were in office. Labour had a massive majority. What did Labour do about it?

      • Duncan Hall

        I suspect that Diane (and Tony) would agree that they should have done, and indeed argued and campaigned for them to do so. However, having read some of your comments on other threads and blogs, I suspect they wouldn’t agree with you about much else.

    • Ashurstman

      ” But he did not believe in pursuing doctrinal difference through disciplinary means. And he was right.”
      What a naive statement. I was a member of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee and live in the North West very close to the one time Militant heartland that was Liverpool. The idea that Militant could be defeated by argument was simply to play into their hands. They would use intimidation, rule bending and every imaginable dirty trick – ask your former colleague Jane Kennedy for the full list.
      The only way to deal with their undemocratic agenda was to expel them from the Labour Party.
      Whatever his strengths and qualities as a person Tony Benn was a divisive and harmful presence in the 1980’s.

    • Dez

      Hi Diane,

      How are things going with your friends in Venezuela?

    • Luke Akehurst


      I’m a bit surprised that you claim I appear to be “Starry eyed about markets”. We have sat in the same CLP meetings for 16 years plus I write all the time about my political views and I don’t remember ever saying or writing anything positive about markets. On the contrary I have repeatedly argued against marketisation of public services and am a member of a Labour Group that has effectively “re-nationalised” or rather “re-municipalised” key services.

      It suits you to try to define everyone to your right as neo-liberal when in fact Benn was fighting not Blair but soft left figures like Foot and Kinnock or traditional social democrats like Healey and Hattersley.

      By the way I didn’t say Benn was personally vicious or even that all his supporters were – again you know on a personal level there are plenty of Bennites I get on fine with – but the evidence of the behaviour in the early ’80s is a matter of historical record when you look at the scale of deselections of perfectly good and in many cases quite leftwing (but not Bennite enough) councillors e.g. Johnny Kotz and Eddie Millen (ex-Leader & Deputy Leader of the Council) in my own Hackney ward, Chatham, for reasons of pure sectarianism. I was active in Bristol where I arrived soon enough after the Benn era to meet councillors his supporters had deselected and Michael Cocks (the former Chief Whip), who his supporters had deselected in 1987 again for reasons of pure sectarianism.

      The difference with Militant went beyond “doctrinal”. They were members of a separate political party, the Revolutionary Socialist League, who were entering into the Labour Party with a view to taking it over.

      What I find astonishing about the Hard Left is the complete absence of any self-criticism of their role in the 1980s or of any re-think in the face of overwhelming evidence of a failed strategy. In this respect the contrast with Blairites and Brownites is stark – people on the right of the party will usually volunteer some things they would like to have changed about our period in government (in my case it would have been the public service reform agenda) or mistakes we have made in the party.


    • keggsie

      Spot on Dianne. That said I agreed with the expulsion of Militant. I still do. So while I considered Tony my political hero I didn’t agree with him on that.

    • sacicr

      I absolutely agree with the hearsay. So many people chant from the well worn hymn sheet, and it is so depressing.

      I am an Old Labour supporter, so what I say is loyal, but not to New Labour.

      Benn’s 1983 manifesto would have saved us from the 30 year neoliberal nightmare culminating in the financial crisis, the monstrous gap between rich and poor, and foodbanks, zero hours contracts and the privatisation of the health service.
      The blind and tunnel visioned right of the party got Thatcher in to power by rejecting Labours Norway style manifesto. They got Thatcher back into power by forming the SDP and splitting the vote down the middle.
      Now just watch David Owen trying to save the NHS – the end result of the right of Labour’s stupid behaviour. They pretend it was to get elected – a euphemism for getting through that revolving door to private health company directorships, and in the case of Blair – 2.5 million from J P Morgan.
      These corrupt politicians only saw the 1983 manifesto as a suicide note in terms of it keeping their noses out of the trough.
      Remember- the Tory vote went down in 1983 – Labour lost because of the SDP it was they who wrote the suicide note.

    • RWP

      Diane I think you should recognise the thrust of Luke’s article – Tony Benn was well intentioned but he knowingly campaigned in a way that did a lot of damage to Labour’s internal harmony and therefore electoral prospects in the 1980s. A principled and passionate man, yes, but not above putting his own principles and ambition ahead of the party interest.

  • Pingback: On Luke Akehurst’s charge sheet against Benn | Left Futures()

  • Jingoistic

    The Labour Party is miles away from the Labour Movement for the working Class.

  • NilsBoray

    I fully agree

  • MikeHomfray

    I don’t agree at all that all the ideas were dangerous. Unilateral nuclear disarmament was and remains an excellent idea. We spend far too much on defence and so called liberal intervention is a disastrous failure.
    I didn’t agree with him on the EU but anyone who thinks that trade will get us into recovery in a globalised world is naive. The EU will become entirely protectionist within 20 years.
    And while I didnt agree with Benn how do you think Blair will be remembered? As a duplicitous liar, war criminal and corrupt supporter of illegal regimes. Benn was regarded with affection. Blair will be remembered with disgust

  • robertcp

    Unfortunately, Luke is right about the damage that Benn did to the Labour Party from 1979 to 1983. The damage was so great because he was a former Cabinet minister and a gifted politician.

  • Megalomaniacs4u

    What damage? – he rightly prevented the looney left from ruining the country, and with the help of the welsh windbag Kinnock kept labour out of office for the good of the country. Shame the traitor Blair and the one eyed scottish moron Crash Gordon “and we saved the world” Brown got let in to ruin stuff again.

    • reformist lickspittle

      What, exactly, is the point of this moronic drivel on a LABOUR site??

      • treborc1

        I suspect he escaped for the day, they have him now back in the hospital.

    • pricklypilgrim

      What a vile comment. Why wear out one’s carpal tunnels just for spite?

  • RWP

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read for a long time, and not just on LabourList. Spot on.

  • Pingback: My memories of Tony Benn… | Cllr. Darren Price()

  • Colin Nicholson

    Tony Benn wasn’t exactly backward at the deindustrialisation business himself


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