In the hours immediately after his death TV comments illustrated his importance and ideological challenge. Shirley Williams agreed that his intervention had made ordinary people suspicious and cynical about political leaders (surely not!) and Clare Short decried the fact that he had refused to face the facts about the new world order and accommodate himself to it, becoming an ‘impossibilist’. But being cynical about those in power and refusing to accommodate himself to the outrageous present order of things was exactly what characterised Benn and enabled him to make the contribution he did.
Benn first made headlines in the early 1960s as Anthony Wedgewood-Benn, Viscount Stansgate, the first person to renounce an hereditary peerage. Once elected to parliament he was appointed Minister of Technology in Harold Wilson’s 1964-70 government, fully signing up to Wilson’s idea that the ‘white hot heat’ of the technological revolution would save Britain after 13 years of antique Tory stagnation: modernising British capitalism from its gentlemanly, quasi-aristocratic ways was the order of the day. In this period Benn did not question the Labour leadership, the Social Contract or indeed Barbara Castle’s first run at anti-union legislation, In Place of Strife.
During the period out of office 1970-74, Benn spent a year as Labour Chair(man, as they called it then). The national executive (NEC) under his chairpersonship, produced the manifesto for the 1974 election which promised “a fundamental shift of power and wealth to working people and their families”, a declaration which immediate was despatched down the memory hole by incoming premier Harold Wilson and by James Callaghan who followed in 1976.
When Benn came back to office in 1974 as secretary of state for industry, a lot of things had changed. The Tories attempt to impose an Industrial Relations Act and an industrial relations court to impose it, was blown out of the water by mass industrial action, in particular the occupation of the UCS shipyard in Glasgow, the solidarity action that led to the freeing of the five imprisoned Pentonville dockers in 1972 and the two successful miners’ strikes in 1972 and 1974. These events undoubtedly radicalised Benn but he stayed in the cabinet: moreover they had posed the question of trade union power and its limits. It began a whole cycle of struggle that ended up with the decisive defeats of the miners and print workers in the 1980s.
Benn showed his radicalism as industry minister in the late 1970s by endorsing the workers plans for industrial reconversion at Lucan Aerospace in Coventry devised by Mike Cooley and local shop stewards: The vision of the plan was to replace weapons manufacture with the development of socially useful goods, like solar heating equipment, artificial kidneys, and systems for intermodal transportation. The goal was to not simply retain jobs, but to design the work so that the workers would be motivated by the social value of their activities. The press began to portray Benn as part of an emerging ‘loony left’.
After the 1979 election Tony Benn immediately announced that he would not stand for election to the cabinet: everyone knew why not – so as to be free from ‘collective responsibility’ of the Labour leadership under Callaghan (soon replaced by Michael Foot), to be able to organise a left opposition. His announcement resounded like a thunderbolt through the labour movement.
As he began his relentless series of mass meetings around the country and in the unions and their conferences in particular there was immense excitement on the left. Thousands of young radicals, many of them from the ‘68’ generation flocked into their local constituency Labour Parties with the aim of a root and branch transformation. Ex-members of far left organisations also signed up in significant numbers. There was huge support on the left of the union movement. The prospect of transforming the Labour Party seemed on the surface a realistic proposition.
Benn and his supporters on the NEC (in alliance with the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy) went for the bureaucratic jugular, demanding constitutional change in the Labour Party, an electoral college for the leadership elections which would reduce MPs vote to 30%, with a similar proportion going to CLPs and 40% to the unions. Not everyone liked this proportion, Eric Heffer for example being very annoyed at what he saw as too great a proportion effectively given to the union tops. Nonetheless the right wing were furious when this was passed. Radical policy motions were passed at the 1979 and 1980s conferences, which combined with the constitutional challenge caused an explosive mixture.
Bennism at this stage stood clearly for radical democracy and the rights of oppressed groups: the successful struggle to establish black sections and women’s sections in the Labour Party were indications of this. Benn forged firm links with a plethora of left campaigns like CND and fought against the despatch of the fleet to recapture the Falklands, an enterprise lamely supported by Labour leader Michael Foot. Benn also supported Irish unity and his sympathy for Sinn Fein was clear. And he readily took up the banner of LGBT struggles, what was then known as lesbian and gay liberation.
Foot, Healey, Benn
Benn’s decision to stand for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981 also caused a sensation. Michael Foot as leader with Benn as deputy would be symbolic of Labour’s radicalism and consolidate left dominance; Michael Foot with Dennis Healy would mean something very different. The right wing of the labour movement, with the aid of the right wing press, made a huge mobilisation against Benn – and succeeded in defeating him by one half of one percent, because of the decision to abstain by a small group of mainly Tribunite ‘left’ MPs of whom the most ‘prominent was Neil Kinnock. Before it had really reached its high point Bennism had suffered its first major defeat.
Bennism was a broad church, with the left wing union leaders like Arthur Scargill being close allies. But even at the beginning there were identifiable differences between the more radical and the less radical, with people like David Blunkett, leader of Sheffield City council mouthing what appeared to be the right words, but meaning something quite different. But this was a period when even someone as moderate today as Margaret Beckett would count themselves among Benn’s supporters.
The second act of the defeat of Bennism in the Labour Party was the 1983 election of Neil Kinnock as Labour leader on a ‘modernisation’ ticket with Roy Hattersley as deputy. Like Harold Wilson, Kinnock came from the left, the better to impose the anti-left witch-hunt which started first against Militant in 1983. The fight to win Labour back from Bennism was in full swing. Tony Blair and New Labour were its eventual outcome.
And the third act of the Bennite defeat was of course the defeat of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, a defeat that could not have happened if Kinnock as Labour leader and the hapless Norman Willis, TUC general secretary, had stood by the miners. The political defeat of Bennism in the Labour Party could not have taken place in the way it did if Thatcher had been defeated over the miners’ strike and the later print workers’ strike.
Part and parcel of left wing defeats in this period of course was the throttling of the rate capping fight on which a range of left and apparently Bennite council leaders revealed their weakness.
In the early 1980s the line of some militant far left groups was that Benn should ‘organise his base’. In other words should organise in the party and the unions in some more-or-less formal organisation to mobilise more effectively. Whether this was ‘correct’ or not is now rather beside the point: it was never going to happen and it is to mistake the nature of the beast to believe it would. Tony Benn represented the most determined and extreme defence mounted of left social democratic values and aspirations, and indeed personally went some way beyond them, radicalised by the struggle. But you could not have organised in a very coherent way the forces that made up Bennism because they were already organised in a myriad ways, mainly through official structures and campaigns groups that were not amenable to further organisation, and because it would have meant Benn significantly splitting his supporters by stepping on too many left bureaucratic toes. The Communist Party would have been against, a lot of the left Bennite MPs would have been against and so would lots of then left trade unions leaders.
But before, during and after the high point of the organised Bennite challenge Tony Benn represented something much more in the political, ideological and you could say ‘moral’ life of the country. Mass leaders, especially working class mass leaders, can only sustain their position by articulating deep-seated political emotions in significant sectors of the population, especially their gut feelings of democracy, of solidarity with the oppressed and exploited and their desire above all for justice.
Social justice and outrage at the multiple injustices and obscenities perpetrated by the rich and powerful were at the core of his oratorical appeal. Tony Benn had the capacity to articulate that in shedloads with wit and humour and always with an eye to increasing the self-confidence and combativity of his audience. One of his rhetorical tricks that leftists remember is his five questions to those with power, starting with how did you get it and in whose interests do you wield it, and ending with ‘how can we get rid of you?’. In doing this Tony Benn dug deep into the radical democratic traditions of the labour movement and well before, among the Diggers and Levellers, the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
But even with the rise of New Labour Benn remained obdurate about the Labour Party, repeating his rote phrase about being born in the Labour Party and dying in it. This of course is part of the political weakness of Tony Benn, even in his best period, an inability to say what Ralph Miliband found obvious in the 1960s, that Labour could not be used as the fundamental instrument of socialist change.
To repeat: a major part of the ideological power of Bennism was its capacity to rearticulate some of the best traditions of left social democracy and indeed go beyond it, and to build a wide coalition around this ‘programme’.
The real political fight in the last quarter of a century in Britain was between this Bennite programme and Thatcherism, and the victory of the latter is centrally due to the betrayals of the Labour and trade union leaderships. If Thatcherism had been defeated then Bennism itself would have had to have deepened and transformed to outline a realistic socialist transformation in Britain.
Tony Benn always said it was all about policies and not individuals, and refused to directly criticise right wing leaders by name, a compliment they declined to return. But even the most democratic movements need leaders who can motivate, inspire and mobilise; people who can set out a vision of what is wrong now and how it could be different. For that, the left and the labour movement owe him and immense debt.