Exclusive: Burgon proposes ‘Tony Benn University of Political Education’

Sienna Rodgers

Deputy leadership hopeful Richard Burgon wants to set up a ‘Tony Benn University of Political Education’, LabourList can reveal, because he says Labour has “failed miserably in relation to political education in the last few years”.

In an exclusive interview, the left-wing contender vying to succeed Tom Watson as Labour’s deputy leader declared that he wanted to create a “living monument” to his hero, the late socialist Labour MP Tony Benn.

“You could have academics coming to your guest lectures, MPs past and present, biographers, historians, a wide range of people,” Burgon explained. “I think people would really like it. People would really value it.”

On political education provided by the party itself, the shadow cabinet member – whose bid for the deputy post was not endorsed by Corbynite group Momentum – said: “Some people hoped Momentum would do a fantastic job with that.

“They did a fantastic job of mobilising people. They did a fantastic job in terms of some of the social media content they were putting out. What they didn’t do anything about really, in my view, was left political education.”

The suggestion is just one of a selection of party reform ideas being put forward by the frontbencher. He also wants to see ‘justice twinning’ of local parties, a “proper Labour Party podcast” and a “decent Labour Party YouTube channel”.

In a wide-ranging interview with LabourList, Burgon also:

  • Said the Labour Live festival was a “good idea” and “the kind of thing we need to be doing”
  • Implicitly criticised rival Angela Rayner’s claims of a “toxic culture” in the party
  • Said he would not describe himself as a “Zionist” but “got it wrong” when he described Zionism as an “enemy of peace”
  • Defended his decision not to sign the Board of Deputies or Labour Campaign for Trans Rights pledges
  • Expressed concern about NEC by-election candidates being suspended during contests

Asked how his education proposal was different to that of leadership frontrunner Keir Starmer, who has suggested a ‘Labour Party College’, Burgon said: “I’ve yet to see him unpack the idea or explain it further. The impression I get is it’s to do with organising and mobilising.”

While “these things are very important”, Burgon said, his university named after Benn would be “much more expansive” as it would focus on “ideas, our history, internationalism” as well as the struggle of liberation movements.

“It’s not about everyone agreeing with each other. But if we don’t understand the world ourselves, if we don’t understand socialist politics ourselves, then we’re never going to convince the public to support that politics.”

Although Burgon said “we shouldn’t dismiss” present local meetings as a “boring distraction”, he said the Benn university would provide a forum for “the kind of discussions that maybe don’t have the space to breathe in a local Labour Party meeting”.

As well as new and improved media outlets, Burgon told LabourList that he would like to see the introduction of “justice twinning”. This would see local parties pair up with “places in the world that are facing injustice”.

He explained: “We could have CLPs twinning with places in occupied Kashmir, places in Colombia, where of course you get shot for being a trade unionist, with Palestinian villages in occupied territories.”

Burgon also expressed interest in Labour setting up a festival modelled on the Festival of Humanity in France, which is organised by daily newspaper L’Humanité – linked to the French Communist Party. It has featured artists such as Iggy Pop and was attended by over 800,000 people in 2018.

He said: “I think Labour Live was a good idea. Obviously, it could have been more of a success, but I’m glad that it was tried. There’s no shame in trying it. It shows the kind of thing we need to be doing going forward.”

During the interview, Burgon took the opportunity to highlight “something that has annoyed me during the deputy leadership contest”, which is “when one of the other candidates keeps criticising Labour members and making generalisations about them”.

“I’m proud of our members,” he added. “I don’t like it when MPs start slagging off Labour members in a kind of broad brush way, as if they’re some kind of a rabble or some kind of mob. It’s not right. Most Labour Party meetings are very well behaved.”

Asked which candidate he was referring to, Burgon said: “Anybody who’s watched the hustings can come to their own judgment. But there is another candidate who keeps talking about a toxic atmosphere created by members and when she says that I don’t think that’s fair towards the members.”

LabourList understands that the criticism is of frontrunner Angela Rayner, who recently talked about there being “a bit of a toxic culture” during the Glasgow hustings and members being “shouted down at meetings or made to feel that they are not welcome” in Peterborough.

In Nottingham, Rayner told the hustings: “I think we have to get rid of the toxification in our party that makes people feel they can’t be part of it. So stop name-calling and slagging each other off.”

On the subject of Rebecca Long-Bailey calling herself as a ‘Zionist’ and whether he would do the same, Burgon told LabourList: “I wouldn’t describe myself as a Zionist.

“However, I understand that Zionism also means different things to different people, which is where I got it wrong before as an MP when that video came out of me using a kind of crude, simplistic analysis of it, as if Zionist just means people who are in Netanyahu’s cabinet or the political current that supports Netanyahu and other hardliners.

“What it means is somebody who believes that an Israel should exist, and obviously that includes people who want a two-state outcome… It’s a complex issue.”

Asked about the Board of Deputies’ ten pledges that he refused to sign, Burgon commented: “If I’m asked to sign up to something that I have concerns about, I won’t just sign up to it for the political optics.”

On the pledges of the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights, which he has also declined to sign, Burgon said: “I support all of the pledges of that organisation, apart from there’s one that gave me cause for concern.

“It seems to me that one of the pledges was risking dismissing thousands of feminists in the Labour Party as members of a hate group. Obviously, there is no place for hate groups within the Labour Party.

“But I’m very concerned that we shouldn’t go down the road of dismissing thousands of feminists in the Labour Party, whether we agree with them or not, as being people who should be drummed out or expelled from Labour Party.”

One of the 12 LCTR pledges describes Woman’s Place UK and LGB Alliance – of which some high-profile Labour members are a part – as “transphobic organisations” and “trans-exclusionist hate groups”.

Burgon also commented on the recent suspensions of several candidates in Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) by-elections, which have caused some controversy as frontrunners have been made ineligible to stand.

“I do know that members are concerned and members don’t want to see complaints about serious matters ever used as an election tool,” he said. While “suspension in employment is meant to be a neutral act… when there’s an election going on, it’s not really a neutral act if the suspension means that you can’t be a participant in the election.”

He noted that he was not aware of the details of the disciplinary cases in question, before adding: “One antisemite in the party is one antisemite too many. But everyone has to have confidence in the complaint system.”

A fresh letter signed by 1,500 members including eligible NEC candidates is calling for a pause in the process. It is understood that all of the suspensions by Labour are related to allegations of antisemitism.

Burgon said: “What we don’t want to do obviously is encourage a situation where people are making mischievous complaints inspired by the elections taking place. I don’t know if that’s the case in this scenario – I’m not alleging it is because I don’t know the ins and outs of it – it’s just a general point I’m making.”

He also suggested: “I think it’s really important going forward that where allegations are made against people, both the person who has made the allegation and the subject to the allegation of both kept informed on a regular basis, even if it’s a letter every two weeks or four weeks saying ‘nothing further to report, still gathering information’.”

On the future of the Labour left, Burgon concluded that it “can be healthy” thanks to the 2019 intake of “some fantastic new left MPs”. He cited Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Zarah Sultana, Rachel Hopkins, Claudia Webbe and Ian Byrne as examples.

Asked about the Labour left favourite to replace John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, Burgon said: “Obviously, if Becky doesn’t win the leadership, and I hope she does, I think she should be shadow chancellor. That would make sense to me if she doesn’t win.”

Labour’s deputy leadership contest – along with the main leadership race, NEC by-elections and another deputy leader post for Scottish members – saw ballots begin to drop from Monday. They will continue to be sent out throughout the week.

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