Tony Benn: Committed Democratic Socialist

22 April 2014

No British politician who has also served in government was ever subjected to as much hostility and calumny from the Tory Party, from the mainstream media, or even from senior colleagues in his own Labour Party as was Anthony Wedgewood Benn.

No British politician who has also served in government was ever subjected to as much hostility and calumny from the Tory Party, from the mainstream media, or even from senior colleagues in his own Labour Party (LP) as was Anthony Wedgewood Benn during the period stretching from the late 1970s to the end of the 1980s. Yet on his passing, tributes flowed from across the political spectrum and from the very media sources that had once loved to hate him.

Is this to be completely dismissed as mealy-mouthed hypocrisy? Or as paternalistic condescension from dominant elites – the ‘British Establishment’ – who no longer had to fear him as they once most definitely did? Certainly, there is a large measure of these attitudes but there was also a widespread recognition that a truly distinctive political figure had finally departed. If one phrase accurately captures the man and how he was perceived beyond all political disagreements, it is that Tony Benn was a man of remarkable moral-political integrity!

Political Influences

Despite media hostility never the hint of a sexual or financial scandal could be laid at his door. Furthermore, here was a figure who was widely touted as a future Prime Minister, even publicly introduced as such by a former leader of the LP, Michael Foot; but who refused any compromise whatsoever with his principles in order to secure this position --  otherwise a sine qua non for an aspirant to becoming leader of the LP. To call him as many did, ‘the best Prime Minister Britain never had’ would therefore be mistaken. For to suggest as much, would be to imply a willingness on his part to betray at least some of what he stood for. So what did Tony Benn stand for? What process of political evolution did he undergo to finally arrive at those political principles?

To take the second question first. He came from a nonconformist religious and political family background. His two grandfathers were Liberal Party MPs; his father a Cabinet Minister in the pre-war Labour government of Ramsay Macdonald, later given a hereditary peerage which Tony Benn himself would later renounce. His mother was a feminist and theologian with a difference, insisting that in the stories of the Bible the prophets preaching righteousness were to be preferred to the Kings who had power. Benn belonged then to a very English socialist tradition shaped not so much by Marxism as by the teachings of Christ, the Peasant’s Revolt, the Levellers, Tom Paine, Chartism, Robert Owen, Bernard Shaw and the Fabians.[i]

Joining the LP as a Fabian centrist, what moved him progressively leftward was by his own account his experiences in the two continuous spells of Labour in government, 1964-70 and 1974-79. In the former he was first Postmaster General then Minister for Technology. In the latter he was first Secretary of State for Industry where he prepared a White Paper, The Regeneration of British Industry advocating not just public ownership of key industries but also industrial democracy. This so frightened the Civil Service, the Confederation of British Industry and his own party superiors that he was quickly demoted to the then more junior post of Secretary of State for Energy.

Given his administrative and communicative skills (he was an orator and wordsmith who could powerfully encapsulate policy perspectives and judgements in a single strikingly illuminating sentence), he was an obvious candidate for entry into any Labour ministry. But what shocked members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and especially the top leadership, was that he actually meant what he said outside of government! In a 1971 address to members of the Engineering Workers Union he said, “If we are going to talk about industrial policy……and start talking about industrial democracy….. democracy means that the people ultimately control their managers. Just that, no more, no less…..”[ii]Again, “Investors there will always be, but there is no valid reason why the investors’ money should give them first claim to control before those who invest their lives. Political democracy wrested the control of parliament from those who owned the lands and factories, and industrial democracy is a logical and necessary development of it.”[iii]

The lessons Benn drew from this stints in Labour governments which behaved in ways betraying the formal policy commitments and assurances made to party members when out of office, were four. First, that the Civil Service had the power and ability to frustrate the policy efforts of duly elected governments. Second, that the Labour Party had a highly undemocratic structure whereby the PLP was unaccountable to the party membership, the Cabinet uncontrolled by the MPs, and the Prime Minister who by having disproportionate influence in deciding Cabinet composition, was excessively dominant.[iv] Third, that industrialists and bankers exercised their power to economically pressure and even blackmail Labour governments. Fourth, there was the power exercised by the media to ensure that the dominant forms of public discourse would be in favour of those already powerful, rich and privileged. By contrast with all this, the power of unions in industrial disputes was very limited. “These [four] lessons led me to the conclusion that the UK is only superficially governed by the MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing periodical change in the management team….. to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is…..”[v]

Of course, Benn was far from untouched by the radical upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s both worldwide and in Britain. These gave rise to a host of new progressive struggles and movements such as those against racism and sexism, for sexual liberation and respect for minorities, sexual and ethnic, to anti-nuclear and anti-imperialist solidarity movements (Vietnam, national liberation struggles in sub-Saharan Africa, the Irish question), for workplace and educational democracy, the emergence of squatters movements and rape crisis centres, and so on. In fact, this radicalization process on a mass scale appeared to put the issue of socialism on the immediate, practical agenda.

Benn differed from the far left groups that burgeoned in this period in rejecting the idea that violence would ever be necessary for such a transition, and in his belief that, given British parliamentary traditions, this could be accomplished by a transformed Labour Party genuinely committed in government to pushing through policies that would a) shift power and wealth towards working people, and b) help institutionalize and legitimize the building of a much more radical popular democracy, a process which itself could only be initiated and strengthened by extra-parliamentary activity. “We shall never change society unless we start to do it ourselves by directly challenging unaccountable power now exercised over us…..this is not an appeal for violent revolution…..It is an appeal for a strategy of change from below to make the parliamentary system serve the people instead of serving the vanity of parliamentarians, an appeal for popular democracy.”[vi]

The Inner Party Struggle

The 1974-79 Wilson-Callaghan administrations had been a bitter disappointment to party members and even to the TU bureaucrats. In 1972 and then in 1974 miners strikes had brought down the Heath-led Conservative government, the first time in modern European (not just British) history that industrial opposition by a strategic section of the working class had resulted in such an outcome. But the end of the ‘long boom’ by the mid-seventies and the emergence of stagflation also brought to an end the post-war Tory-Labour consensus on preserving full employment and a strong welfare state whose bedrock had been Keynesian macro-management. The new right recognized that the time had come to reject the old ‘class compromise’ on which this consensus had been based, hence the emergence of Thatcherite political ambitions. Yet the bulk of the British Establishment then also recognized that Labour governments were much better placed to push back the rising tide of working class militancy and to secure the necessary sacrifices from this base through wage restraint and acceptance of higher levels of unemployment that would thereby weaken union power. A run on the Pound pushed the Callaghan government to go in for an IMF loan with its deflationary conditionalities when the other option would have been to take on both the City of London by establishing capital controls, and industry through more public ownership and worker cooperatives. With the economy reeling, Thatcher won the 1979 general elections after which Benn resigned from the opposition front bench.

He had by now decided that it was not enough to try and reverse what was clearly going to be a dramatic shift to the right in British politics but to make an equally dramatic shift to the left. The main route for achieving this he thought would have to pass through a democratic reorganization of the Labour Party itself. This required making a future Labour government and its policies much more accountable to the party and thus to begin with, certain constitutional changes had to be made. The left within the party had now been strengthened by the entry of significant numbers of social movement activists and radicalized campaigners into the constituency Labour parties (CLPs), the public sector unions and into local government employment. With Benn in the lead they would make the charge. Though the issue was first posited as one of procedural constitutional changes, everyone on both the left and the right, inside and outside the party knew that the real stakes were far greater. These changes could empower the left to such a point that its capacities for mass mobilization would be so greatly enhanced that it could drastically alter the LP’s fundamental ideology and policy perspectives. The constitutional changes made in 1980/81 allowed the CLPs the right to re-select or reject sitting MPs thereby making their local representatives much more accountable. The National Executive Committee (NEC) with representatives from the unions, the CLPs and the PLP would decide the manifesto. Most importantly, the Leader and Deputy Leader would be decided by an Electoral College giving unions a weightage of 40% and the CLPs and PLP 30% each.

After the 1979 defeat Michael Foot, hitherto a leftwing parliamentarian, was made leader but the real issue was whether Benn or Dennis Healy the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and very much on the right of the party ideologically and programmatically, would become the Deputy Leader in the forthcoming election via the newly established College.[vii] The principles that Benn stood for and would remain steadfastly committed to till the end of his life, had by now become clear as a result of the numerous positions he had taken in support of all progressive causes concerning gender, race, nuclear disarmament and opposition to British and American imperialism. For Benn the LP had to renouncing the ideology of Labourism itself whose guiding principles were acceptance of capitalism, defence of the archaism of British political structures – an unelected House of Lords, a Constitutional monarchy, an unwritten Constitution, the essential unaccountability of its parliamentary and Cabinet system, the absurdity of the first-past-the-post electoral system, -- and its acceptance of Britain’s continuing imperial role.[viii] Is it any wonder then that Benn was so hated by the Establishment and its media acolytes!

In October 1981 when the vote for Deputy Leader took place Benn lost to Healy by a bare 1% primarily because of the TU block vote in cahoots with the majority of the PLP including those like the future leader Kinnock who had promised support to Benn but then deliberately abstained so as to curry favour with the older guard and furbish his credentials as a future leader of the party. Those truly committed to the party programme and the genuine grassroots campaigners were in the CLPs which overwhelming voted for Benn. In retrospect this event turned out to be the high tide of the historic struggle to transform the LP into a genuine vehicle for moving the country on a journey towards transcending capitalism even if the ‘key junction’ of a decisive confrontation with the capitalist state would still have lain further ahead along that road. Even before this poll for Deputy Leadership, frightened by Bennism a group of rightwing Labourites led by Shirley Williams and David Owen left the party to form the Social Democratic Party first to ally with the Liberal party and later on to merge with it to form today’s Liberal Democratic Party. The successes of post-war Keynesianism had led certain earlier LP leaders like Tony Crosland and Richard Crossman – the intellectual inspirers for the later party breakaways -- to believe that Britain had become, if not a completely classless society certainly one where class politics was no longer relevant. The British state was socially neutral and accordingly they and the LP should moved rightwards towards the Centre and given the new communications revolution (television) rely more on ‘political marketing’ via the mass media, weaken the connection with the unions and appeal to the widest cross-section of the electorate. This at a time when a class war was being vigorously fought by a hard right which (like their Marxist counterparts) had no illusions about supposedly growing ‘classlessness’.

The Miners Strike and Municipal Socialism

Between 1981 and the general elections of 1983 the LP leadership was more concerned with destroying Bennism than with launching a campaign offensive against a Thatcher regime which despite the temporary popularity of the Falklands war had devastated the socio-economic scene at home. The LP had its worst showing electorally since 1918 but the new post-election Kinnock leadership remained preoccupied with destroying the left within so as to make the party more amenable to the Establishment without. The new leadership therefore was both embarrassed by the TU link which caused suspicion in this Establishment but also needed the link for reasons of finance and the block vote. It was left therefore to two other fronts to carry on the struggle against Thatcherism – the miners’ strike of 1984 and the struggle by progressive Labour controlled local governments in Sheffield, Liverpool and above all the Greater London Council (GLC) which had a budget equal to the GNP of some small countries. After the 1983 victory, Thatcher clearly understood that she had to defeat the strongest arm of the union movement if she was going to succeed in institutionalizing her neoliberal project. She carefully prepared for, and deliberately provoked the miners’ strike. Yet she could have been defeated if only the LP leadership and enough sections of the TU bureaucracy would unite and demand sustained solidarity strikes by other sections of the working class. They didn’t. Despite the heroic months-long miners’ struggle, supported by numerous sections of what we now call the progressive social movements, they were ultimately defeated.

The other front of what was called ‘municipal socialism’ sought to give citizens under their jurisdiction better and more public services e.g. the immensely popular lowering and subsidization of public transport fares in Greater London, and more material support to a range of progressive groups connected to the various social movements. Since most of their discretionary funding beyond the grants for ‘standard services’ themselves being slowly curtailed came from the rates charged on properties, Whitehall sought to cap the rates and thus deplete their financial capacities and services. The GLC was led by Ken Livingstone who after a period of resistance gave up the struggle in the name of a pragmatic need to preserve the capacity to fight another day.[ix] It was a fatal mistake. Once again, the enemies of the GLC were more clear-sighted about what was at stake. Norman Tebbit, Mrs. Thatcher’s right hand man of the “Tebbit test” fame -- to be counted as proper citizens enjoying basic rights Afro-Caribbean and Asian Britons were expected to show national loyalty by supporting the England Test Cricket against Test teams from the West Indies and South Asia -- put it bluntly. “The GLC represents modern socialism. We must kill it.”[x] After a year Thatcher abolished the GLC.

Thatcherism Mark II

The field now was made clear for a neoliberal dominance that has lasted to this day. Kinnock lost the next two general elections of 1987 and 1992 even as the party moved progressively to the right being obsessed with carrying out witch hunts and purges against the left within, and of course blaming internal ‘disunity’ as caused by the left and the reason therefore for electoral failures.[xi] Blair took over the leadership of the party after the 1992 debacle and completed the project of ‘making Labour safe’ for the Establishment, i.e., transforming the party ideology and programme into a ‘Thatcherism Mark II’. By 1998, finances from “high value donors” for the first time exceeded TU contributions to the party. Control over policy formulation was transferred to a National Policy Forum which met in secret and was no longer accountable in the limited ways that older mechanisms had provided for. The NEC was recomposed so as to heavily stack it with complaisant Blairites, reducing the influence of representatives from the CLPs.[xii]

As for Benn, he continued on the same path fighting as best as he could within and without to rally support for all progressive causes. In 1991 he proposed the “Commonwealth of Britain Bill” which sought in true republican and secular spirit to abolish the Constitutional monarchy and disestablish the state from the Anglican Church. The Bill proposed a written Constitution, a fully elected Upper House with equal representation of sexes in both Houses of Parliament as well as national parliaments for England, Scotland and Wales and the ending of British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. The Bill never got a second reading and languished. Benn finally retired from Parliament in 2001 saying he had done this so as to be involved in politics. This was only partly ironic. For him, extra-parliamentary activism had always been central. The “Stop the War Coalition’ that emerged against Bush Junior’s war on Iraq in 2003 saw him become President till his death; while the unctuous and ineffable Blair proved himself to be the most faithful of factotums for his masters in Washington. In his farewell speech to Parliament this is what Benn said: “In the course of my life, I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person – Adolph Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates – ask them five questions. What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you? If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

What lessons then can be taken from the political life and struggles of Tony Benn? Can British politics throw up a similar figure? The answer to the second question is no. It may well be that Benn’s project of trying to propel the Labour Party on a path that would bring socialism much closer was doomed from the start. In retrospect, there are strong reasons for believing this. But that is a story for another time. In any case, today’s LP is an utterly different animal – a neoliberal wolf not even in a sheep’s clothing! But what a remarkable and admirable effort was Benn’s! And ignoring the pressures of age and office he always remained faithful to his principles and values. A truer measure of what he sought to do is perhaps brought out through a more comparative lens. Take the three liberal democracies of the US, Britain and India. In the first two a ‘new right’ – Reaganism and Thatcherism -- arose in the late seventies-early eighties while in India the new right arose later in the eighties. This provoked the rise of Jesse Jackson and the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ in the Democratic Party as the effort to prevent the political centre of gravity shifting further to the right by asserting the more ecumenical values of the main opposition party. In the end Jackson gave up the fight and accommodated himself to the Mondale leadership. The end result was the emergence of Clinton’s ‘New Democrats’ whose domestic politics were much closer to those of Reaganism, and indeed to the right of Nixon’s Republican Administration in the decades past.

In the case of Britain, Benn sought not to strengthen Labour’s traditional values and positions in response to Thatcherism but to carry out a much more radical left transformation which is why he was reviled in a way that Jackson never was. In both the American and British cases because there existed long established organizational structures in the Democratic and Labour parties respectively, that political struggle had to be refracted through the organizations themselves. Benn unlike Jackson never let his side down, nor did he ever shift towards an unprincipled accommodation with his opponents. It is only after prolonged struggle and final defeat of the Bennite left that a ‘New Labour’ under Blair could emerge, thus guaranteeing the long term and stable dominance of neo-liberalism.

In India, because the Congress by the eighties had long lost the coherent pyramidal structures and mechanisms of the past it did not have to face any internal organizational struggle. Here, all that was required was for a much smaller coterie of top leaders under pressure from a rising Sangh Parivar to decide on the shift rightwards towards ‘soft Hindutva’ and steady economic liberalization as the way to attract the misnamed ‘Indian middle class’ which comprising the top 15% to 20% of the population was actually a rising new elite of mass proportions. It is this layer that has provided a social bedrock of support for reactionary rightwing politics and ideologies of all kinds be these in the guise of the Congress or of the more dangerously authoritarian and communal Sangh Parivar.

Today, the right is still ascendant in these three countries even if weakened somewhat by the effects of the Great Recession. But their inabilities to adequately deal with the multiple social, economic, cultural, ecological and political problems confronting the majority of their own citizens, is a guarantee that there will be very considerable turmoil to come. For Tony Benn a livable society could only be one which transcends capitalism and institutionalizes a much more radical popular democracy in all aspects of life. That still remains the project that progressives everywhere must continue to pursue.

[i] Much later in life Benn actually read Marx for the first time. He gave what for him was high praise in calling Marx a great prophet of capitalist iniquity demanding its transcendence, i.e., socialism.

[ii] Speeches, ed. Joan Badington, Spokesman, 1974; p.19.

[iii] A.W. Benn, Arguments for Socialism, Penguin, 1979; p.4.

[iv] Historically, the Labour Party had been thrown up by the British trade union movement. So from the inception there was both a powerful corporate link between the unions and the party mediated by the TU bureaucracy, and a division between industrial action and political activity. The TU leaders of the biggest union groupings (over a century there were mergers creating huge composite union structures e.g., the Transport and General Workers Union) with millions of members who simply by virtue of membership in closed shop unions also paid a nominal ‘political levy’ to the LP to which their union was affiliated, thereby being counted as LP members even if they were utterly passive or voted at election time for other parties. These huge unions dominated by bureaucrats with mostly sectional concerns then delivered finances for running the LP and for its election expenses as well as a ‘block vote’ (related to the size of their membership) at those party structures that basically made policy and personnel decisions. The end result was a cosy and self-serving nexus between key LP leaders and TU bureaucrats, both concerned above all with preserving their own positions of power and status. Benn not only frightened his Cabinet colleagues but also the TU bureaucrats bypassing them through his active interventions with rank-and-file trade unionists. Jim Callaghan, a former Labour Prime Minister, declared in 1980 at a party conference that “I can never get to sleep with that fellow behind me.” Peter Shore a former Cabinet colleague called him the “cuckoo in our nest”.

[v] T. Benn, Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963-67, Arras, p. xiii. Benn kept a diary recording daily events, meetings, thoughts, etc. which stretched to 11 volumes and has been an invaluable archival document of modern British political life.

[vi] Speeches, Op cit., p.275.

[vii] Foot like so many before and after him, when elevated to the high office would move rightwards and help ensure the continuity in leadership of those leaders most determined to accommodate themselves to the British Establishment.

[viii] Benn served as the Vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), advocated unilateral disarmament for the country, and called for the walk-out from a nuclearized NATO. Unlike the majority of the party’s top leadership, Benn opposed the 1982 Falklands-Malvinas war with Argentina even though he was wrong in thinking this war would be domestically highly unpopular. In this writer’s view Britain’s claim to this overseas possession is as fraudulent as Portugal’s over Goa even if it is assumed that a majority of Goans (as in the Falklands) would have preferred to remain under colonial control.

[ix] Livingstone was a Bennite who would subsequently also move to the right although not to the extent of many other former Bennites. He therefore remained anathema to the later LP leadership that opposed him standing for Mayor of London on a Labour ticket. He therefore stood as an independent and because of his past record won.

[x] Quoted by Robin Pauley, Financial Times, May 5, 1984.

[xi] The late Eric Hobsbawm by the late seventies had come to the view that Labour to regain power must look for greater support by moving towards the centre, and was bitterly hostile to Bennism. But he failed to realize until too late that ‘New Labour’ and Blair, whom he detested and called a “Thatcher in trousers” was the logical outcome of that very defeat of Bennism that he so wanted.

[xii] For insider accounts of party machinations under Kinnock and Blair see respectively, R. Heffernan and M. Marqusee, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party, Verso, London, 1992 and Liz Davies, Through the Looking Glass: A Dissenter Inside New Labour, Verso, London, 2001.

photo by Joe Dunckley