Tony Benn, the Labour Left ‘and all that’

BARRY WINTER reflects on Tony Benn’s personality and politics, interweaving his own memories of the period as he considers the left’s failures in the 1970s and ’80s and the lessons for those seeking progressive change today.

“There is no doubt that in the years up to 1968 that I was just a career politician and in 1968 I began thinking about technology and participation and all that… I shifted to the left…”
The Benn Diaries, 1940-1990

Few people in contemporary politics have attracted such public affection as Tony Benn. In spite of years of vilification by the media, he remained popular to the end of his life. In fact, he was an inspiration to a surprisingly wide range of people, young and old, politically active and otherwise.

I recall a Muslim undergraduate, whose father was an Iman in the Sudan, who thought the world of him. A veteran, black activist in Leeds sang his praises. A long-term member of the Socialist Workers Party admitted to having a tear in his eye on hearing of his death. Members of my own family attended his funeral. Even Boris Johnson had some kind words to say.

tony bennMuch of Benn’s later acclaim was because, when he stood down from Parliament, he saw it as his duty to offer political hope and encouragement to people. He did so in his usual good-humoured and friendly manner. In spite of advancing age and failing health, he continued to support a variety of causes, including opposition to the Iraq war. His remarkable diaries, covering much of his adult life (although I have not read them all), provide candid insights into how he responded to people and politics.

In reliving and reviewing Benn’s rich and complex political life, I have also relived many of my own experiences. In a sense, the lives of those on the left, struggling for a better society, are all intertwined in various ways. Over time, the stewardship passes from one generation to another. Much gets forgotten, particularly in a world where the ‘now’ is what counts and the past is largely ‘history’ in the negative sense.

That means we have a responsibility to try to remember, not only because an awareness of people’s struggles can enrich our own lives, but because we can learn from those experiences, failures as well as successes. That does not mean there can be one final, incontrovertible account of anyone’s contribution. It remains a continuing process of seeking to understand and, indeed, to challenge that understanding.

So how should we see and respond to Benn today? What might we learn from his personality and politics, from his strengths and also his weaknesses? Might any of this be of help to the democratic left now, as he would have wished? Or is it all just ‘history’ – water under the bridge?

One obvious link is that neoliberalism – currently reasserting itself following the ‘credit crunch’ – had its roots when Benn was becoming a leading figure on the left. A generation ago, the political ground was beginning to shift under everyone’s feet.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the post-war settlement increasingly under pressure. This broad consensus, put in place after the Second World War, included a broad agreement between Conservatives and Labour about how society and the economy should be run. The compromises between capital and labour on which it was based became increasingly strained, and commitments to full employment and the welfare state frayed as profits were being squeezed and leading companies were going multinational.

Returning to office in 1964, a rather insular and complacent Labour leadership was ill-prepared for what was happening. Anthony Crosland MP, the party’s leading thinker wrote some years earlier “the worst economic abuses and inefficiencies of modern society have been corrected”.

The Labour government’s responses to the growing crisis in the 1970s were pragmatic and conservative. Inadvertently, many of its pronouncement and actions (public expenditure cuts, cash limits on local authorities, corporate tax relief, higher indirect taxes, selling the state’s shares in BP) helped lay the basis for full-bloodied Thatcherism.

Indeed, the ILP argued later that Labour had acted as the ‘midwife’ of Thatcherism, leading to the demise of much of Britain’s manufacturing base, the defeat of the trade unions, the privatisation of public assets, the predominance of finance capital, and the decline of collectivism.

Tony Benn v Sir Keith Joseph

Two leading politicians stood out in recognising and responding to the end of the post-war settlement: one was Tony Benn; the other was Conservative MP Sir Keith Joseph.

Joseph (below) reacted to developments by shifting sharply to the right. He feared that Britain was being inexorably drawn towards what he saw as a ‘socialist’ society – increasing state ownership of industry. Drastic action was therefore needed to reverse this process. It was vital to save “crippled capitalism,” as he put it, from such a dreadful fate.Keith Joseph pic

To help clarify his ideas and to construct a coherent alternative, he turned to the free market think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, formed in the mid-1950s. Joseph described his experience during these years as a political “conversion”. His new-found faith in market-based solutions became paramount.

He was to be a major influence upon the young Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, he was a key architect of what became known as Thatcherism. So while his name is barely known today, his formidable legacy remains. Instead of the crippled capitalism he feared, we have a crooked capitalism which he helped to create.

Interestingly, on the occasions when Joseph and Benn met they established quite a rapport: “great fun” was how Benn put it. Joseph accused Benn of being romantic about the working class and Benn retorted that Joseph was romantic about markets. Both had a point.

When he first entered Parliament in 1950, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, as he was then known, was a career politician. His first claim to political fame was his brave, and eventually successful fight against inheriting his late father’s peerage. Inheriting a peerage meant Benn would have to resign as an MP, but he wanted to stay in the Commons because that’s where his ambitions lay. So he stood down, then fought and won a by-election in order to gain the right to denounce his peerage.

His politics began to change in the late 1960s. One important moment for him was his involvement in the struggle against the Tory government’s plans to close the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. In a creative fight to save their jobs, the workers organised a ‘work-in’. Benn not only spoke up for them in Parliament but addressed one of their mass meetings. The workers won wide public support, particularly in Scotland, and the government retreated.

As he shifted to the left, Benn also participated in the Institute for Workers’ Control (IWC). Its 1,000-strong conferences attracted shop stewards, industrial workers, a smattering of radical trade union leaders, left activists and political thinkers – feminists among them. These events provided a lively, exciting and creative mix.

It was at one of these occasions that I first heard Benn speak – and I was impressed. He displayed an ability to convey political issues in a language that was accessible and meaningful.

Under the canny leadership of Ken Coates, the IWC was something of a power house. Its response to the wider changes was to call for increasing workers’ control and for an economic strategy to tackle the growing power of multinational companies. This included a call for ‘planning agreements’ initiated by Stuart Holland. Tony Benn responded positively and contributed to these debates. [1]

When he was appointed by Harold Wilson to the industry department in the Labour Government of 1974-79, Benn eagerly seized the opportunity. He was under no illusions, conscious that it would be an uphill struggle. He wrote “and now I am Secretary of State for Industry. I feel I have to keep the hopes of the Left alive and alight. The job is enormous and the press entirely hostile and will remain so. I have to recognise that in putting my proposals to Cabinet, all will be opposed.”

He was right. His stunned senior civil servant warned him that he was inflaming opinions. He asked Benn on more than one occasion whether he was serious about his ideas. In response, Benn drew his attention to the party’s manifesto commitments.

Benn backed a range of initiatives by workers threatened with closures, although the results were patchy. He encouraged working people to devise alternative workers’ plans when facing job losses. The best of these was the impressive ‘swords-into-ploughshares’ project devised by shops stewards at the arms manufacturer, Lucas Aerospace.

All that changed when Wilson transferred him to the energy department. His reason:  fierce opposition from a loose alliance of top civil servants, industrialists, the media and much of the Cabinet.

Crisis of authority

The ‘unsettling’ of the post-war settlement was not the only change taking place in Britain during this period. Significant cultural and social shifts were also emerging and Tony Benn was broadly sympathetic towards them.

From the early 1960s onwards, social deference and conformism were in decline. Paternalism and patriarchy, so prevalent in the 1950s, were being challenged in various settings – at the workplace as well as in education and other institutions.

Full employment had certainly given many working people a greater confidence in their ability to secure better living standards and conditions. But it does not explain all that was happening. Homeless squatters were occupying empty buildings, ethnic minorities were challenging racism, and hostility to the Vietnam War and apartheid were growing apace. “A civilisation was on the turn,” as Robin Blackburn put it.

In 1968, women machinists at Fords in Dagenham went on strike for equal pay, a fight they eventually won. This was not only a challenge to management but also to male workers and the trade unions generally. In response, the Labour government, thanks largely to Barbara Castle, introduced the first Equal Pay Act in 1970.

Less successful, but no less dramatic, was the struggle by Asian women workers at Grunwicks in London a decade later. Their strike was to last for two years and their picket lines were regularly reinforced by white collar workers, engineers and miners, among many others. Even Cabinet ministers such as Shirley Williams attended the picket lines – something that’s almost unthinkable today.

This questioning of traditional authority led to a broad crisis of governance. A cathartic moment for me as a student came when we occupied the university to protest against a vice chancellor who was using security staff to spy on students. Authorities running a teacher training college where I worked angrily lashed out at students who questioned their regime. The questioning continued, nevertheless.

Later, as a member of the white-collar trade union, APEX, I was part of a generation opposing its tightly-controlled, sexist and domineering, right-wing leadership. We wanted a democratic union that encouraged rather than foreclosed debate and witch-hunted the left. On one occasion we defeated our regional officials’ plan to hold a ‘Miss Apex’ competition. The winner’s picture was going to be displayed on the regional calendar: all in the best possible taste, we were assured. Nor were we impressed when the president declared that APEX would appoint women officials only “over his dead body”. And this in a trade union where 60 per cent of members were women.

Labour in crisis

These cultural shifts also were finding reflection within the Labour Party. At national level, the close links between trade union leaders and the party leadership, which had dominated conference for decades, were starting to fragment. Some leading unions now had leaders with left-wing credentials, such as Jack Jones of the transport workers and Hugh Scanlon of the engineering workers.

There were also shifts taking place at local level where once the right had prevailed. After attending constituency party meetings for six months, one ILPer asked when the MP was likely to show up, only to be told: ‘Oh, Sir Alfred is much too busy to come and see us.’

Of course, not every local Labour Party was quite so grovelling, but it was commonplace for MPs to have imperious attitudes towards the membership. Another famous diarist, the left-wing MP, Richard Crossman, records that his agent warned him that the troops were getting a bit restive. So he sped down to his constituency party, gave a stirring speech and promptly departed, confident that his actions would do the trick.

Anthony Crosland reinforced this outlook by playing down the importance of party membership. In what was seen as an influential pamphlet, he wrote: “the rank and file is less and less essential to the winning of elections. With the growing penetration of the mass media, political campaigning has become increasingly centralised; and the traditional local activities, the door-to-door canvassing and the rest, are now largely a ritual.”

Meanwhile, growing discontent with various MPs led some constituency parties to try to deselect them. It proved to be an uphill and acrimonious struggle. They incurred the wrath not only of many MPs but also of the popular press, whose snooty reaction can be summed up as ‘how dare they?’ and ‘who do they think they are?’

An attempt to remove a Leeds MP, widely seen as ineffectual, shows the depths to which the press could sink. One national daily splashed over its front page that the constituency secretary, a supporter of deselection, was behind with his alimony payments to his former wife.

More famous was the rumpus caused in 1976 when Newham North East Labour Party deselected their MP, Reg Prentice. At the time he was a member of the Cabinet and although the local party had followed all the correct procedures, half the Parliamentary Labour Party came out in his support. He repaid them a year later them by joining the Conservative Party, becoming a Tory MP and later sitting in Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet.

In response, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) was formed in 1973 by rank and file activists, and a smattering of left MPs, who objected to the way the party leadership repeatedly ignored conference decisions. Its ‘simple’ solution was mandatory reselection of MPs “so that they would be under pressure to carry out conference policies”. It was a formidable and well-organised group which regularly took the struggle to annual conferences.

The call to make the process of reviewing the role of MPs a regular procedure was perfectly reasonable, and it won widespread grassroots support. However, as it turned out, the CLPD had a narrower, more instrumental agenda. It only wanted what it called “activist democracy” to control Labour MPs. Indeed, it fiercely opposed the very idea of one member, one vote (OMOV).[2]

Tragically, much of the left, including Tony Benn followed suit. In part this was in reaction to the emerging right-wing groups in the party who, at first, were completely against any idea of a regular reselection process. Only when the right realised that the demand was unstoppable, did it change tack. It then argued that all party members should have the vote. However, that was not a good reason for much of the left to reject the idea.

A variety of other left groups were also emerging in the party at this time. The ILP returned to the Labour Party in 1975 as Independent Labour Publications, and later became a supporter of the principle of OMOV. In 1978, the Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC) was established by Michael Meacher MP and Frances Morrell, two people closely connected with Benn at the industry department. The LCC played a leading role in campaigning for radical policies, but was also seen by some as a stepping stone to a parliamentary career. Clause IV was a left student group that was active on several fronts.

In the 1980s, various far left groups (‘ultras’ as Benn called them) also became active within the party. The most notorious of these was the Militant Tendency. It seized control of any section of the party it could lay its hands on, including the Liverpool party, several student Labour clubs and the party’s official youth section, the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS), which became its political mouthpiece. One young ILPer recalls attending an LPYS summer camp where the final instruction from the platform was: “Go home and prepare for the revolution.”

One criticism regularly levelled at Benn was that he turned a blind eye to Militant’s activities. Indeed he did, but this was probably because he seriously underestimated its influence and intent. He told Jim Callaghan, who was concerned about the far left’s influence in the party, “I read all the left press. Trotskyists are youngsters and if we get them into the Labour Party, we’ll win them over.” That was naïve.

Left v Right

The debate over party democracy spread and, in time, led to pressure for the party as a whole to be able to elect its leader. Previously, the question of who became party leader was a matter exclusively for MPs. A bitter row transpired over how the votes in the proposed electoral college should be shared between trade unions, MPs and party members. The result, deemed to be a victory for the left, gave the highest proportion to the unions, triggering the departure of four leading members of the party who left to form the Social Democratic Party.

Some of Benn’s lieutenants formed the Rank and File Mobilising Committee to bring the various left groups together. Its name somewhat belied the reality, however. Most left groups joined (but the ILP, having attempted to suggest a less confrontational approach, did not tarry long). Just as leading Bennites ran the LCC, and had a strong presence in the CLPD, so it was with the new body.Benn diaries cover

What the ILP was not told when it was invited to join was that the new group had another purpose. Benn’s diary for 30 May 1980 records “a sort of new left gathering” of a select few at his home. After naming some of those present, he commented: “These are the people who have formed the Rank and File Mobilising Committee and, when the time comes, they will be the people who organise the Benn election campaign.” By this, he meant the campaign for him to challenge right-winger Dennis Healey for the deputy leadership of the party.

The struggle over party democracy was complex and dramatic. There is no doubting the CLPD’s organising skills but some of its leading members could be aggressive towards anyone who dared to disagree. Their proposals were sacrosanct. In this sense, their strength – namely their zeal – was also their weakness and produced a blinkered intolerance. Even Benn noted how bullying they were on one occasion.

In addition, their horizons were framed by the struggle within the Labour Party. Some local left warlords could be equally abrasive: the message was simply ‘toe the line’. None of this was politically healthy.

What had begun as a creative moment, seeking to democratise the party, was tragically degenerating into civil war. Both wings of the party carry responsibility for that, including its electoral consequences. Some of those leading the left were unduly triumphalist. They seemed to believe that if the left could secure control of the party, drive the right into the SDP, and offer the working class a socialist manifesto, victory would be theirs.

I am not suggesting Benn was quite so crude, but he came close. During the deputy leadership election he claimed that Labour could expect a landslide victory if the party campaigned on left-wing policies. This was to seriously underestimate the challenge facing the left in the wider society.

The bitterly-fought, five-month campaign for the deputy leadership sadly added to this already politically combustible mix. The party leader, Michael Foot, appealed to Benn not to stand but was told this was about policies, not personalities. Benn came within a whisker of winning.

Following the popular Falklands victory, Margaret Thatcher called a General Election in 1983. It was to be one of Labour’s worst election results. The Tories secured 43.5% of the votes and had a majority of 144. Labour took only 28.3%, just ahead of the SDP and the Liberals with 26%. Labour lost two million of its traditional voters.

Not surprisingly, the result produced some sharp reactions within the party. The Bennite left divided – the ‘hard left’, as they were known, stuck closely to Benn, while the ‘soft left’ paddled away from him. Gerald Kaufman MP (who had been in Wilson’s inner circle) produced what became the most quoted comment on the election when he described Labour’s manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history” – although, as left-winger Dennis Skinner pointed out, it was written by a right-wing MP, John Golding.

Accentuating the positive, as ever, Benn delivered the second most memorable, but even less credible assessment, when he said that “for the first time since 1945, a party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people.”

Disentangling the truth in such circumstances is not easy, far easier for both wings of the party to blame the other. Certainly the 1983 election defeat allowed the Thatcher government, wobbly in its early years, to plough ahead with its programme. A speedy victory in the Falklands certainly helped, but so had the years of conflict within the Labour Party and the consequent emergence of the SDP. For too long, Labour had been a house divided.

Caroline Benn & ‘bloody books’

One person who recognised this was Caroline Benn, Tony’s wife. A committed, political activist and writer, particularly in the campaign for comprehensive education, she clearly felt it necessary to tell him some home truths. Following the deputy leadership campaign, Benn wrote in his diary: “Caroline has persuaded me that not only should Party unity take precedence at the moment” but that his reputation was seriously damaged.

A year later, he wrote: “Last year Caroline felt it was unwise of me to stand for the deputy leadership. When I look back on her advice she has always been right. I think in future I will always take her advice.”

Caroline was also far more interested in political ideas than Tony. In 1976, when he was 51, she gave him a copy of The Communist Manifesto for Christmas. It was the first time that he actually had read any Marx. That same year, he was musing in his diaries about whether he would ever be leader of the party.

Caroline also had a firmer grasp of Labour movement history. While Tony regularly, and rightly, pointed out the historical significance of the 17th century Levellers and the Diggers, he said nothing about the emergence and history of the Labour movement itself.

In contrast, Caroline wrote an outstanding biography of Keir Hardie in which she also traced the lives of those closest to him. Reflecting on his family, she commented that Hardie’s involvement in politics, while certainly creative, also had its destructive side. Interestingly, Tony Benn himself acknowledged the pressure that his own political life and ambitions had exerted on Caroline. She died in 2000, a great loss.

So while Tony Benn was a most assiduous diarist, his political knowledge was patchy. When asked what moved him, he famously replied: “It isn’t bloody books. I hardly ever read them.” He said that he “lived in the oral tradition, learning from listening and watching rather than reading, and communicating by speaking rather than writing.” Of course, that ability has its value but really it is not enough for anyone seeking to lead a movement for social change.

He did have one unusual political advantage, however. Since birth, he had been immersed in Westminster politics. As he acknowledged in 1976:

“Of course, the whole of Westminster is my village. That’s where I was born, went to school, where Father and Mother were married, where Father died and his memorial service was held, and where I work. It’s a strange place, Westminster, very dull in the sense that there are no natural centres or shopping areas but I’ve been around there for 50 years.”

Perhaps this helps to explain his eagerness to be leader of the Labour Party. As his diaries show, there were several occasions when he was itching to stand but people close to him advised against it. As already noted, most backed him in 1981.

Foot stood down as leader after the 1983 election defeat and Neil Kinnock, who likewise had left credentials, replaced him. Kinnock had been an impressive public speaker but this was to change as he moved the party rightwards. Benn became increasingly disappointed with Kinnock’s performance. In particular, he disapproved of Kinnock’s failure to support the year-long miners’ strike.

In 1984, Benn wrote in his diary: “Heard Neil Kinnock on the one o’clock news. His interviews are like processed cheese coming out of a mincing machine – nothing meaty, just one mass of meaningless rhetoric that defuses and anaesthetises the listener.” An acute observation.

Two years later, he’d really had enough of the Kinnock leadership. After hearing another interview, he wrote: “I thought once again we must put up a candidate against Kinnock to challenge this consensus, but, as Caroline said, ‘Nobody would understand what it would be about if you did it. You sacrificed yourself in 1981, when I advised you not to do it. You used up your goodwill at that moment and it isn’t available to you now.’”

Yet two years later, in 1988, he stood for the party leadership, this time in partnership with Eric Heffer who stood for the deputy leadership. Benn’s close confidantes were divided on the issue but the majority agreed to support them both. The result was a disaster for the Bennites, in particular, and did no favours for the Labour left in general. Benn secured a mere 11% of the vote. The outcome simply strengthened the party leadership, not least in its dealings with the left, now revealed to be a pale shadow of its former self.

Benn v Hall

That Benn should have led the left to such a defeat was a result of his optimistic political vision and rather limited strategic thinking. To illustrate this further, I’d like to recall a debate held during the 1984/5 miners’ strike between Benn and Stuart Hall, who sadly also died recently. Hall (below) had been central to the original New Left, a founder of cultural studies, a co- founder of the journal, Soundings, the author of the concept of ‘Thatcherism’, and a leading political thinker in the Gramsci tradition – to name but a few of his achievements.

stuart hall picBoth presented their contrasting perspectives at a Marxism Today conference. Benn began with a rousing speech recognising the formidable nature of the crisis faced by the left and stressing the need for the movement to recover “our morale and self- confidence”. He spoke about the state of the country under the Thatcher government.

He went on to say: “Our task, it seems to me, is to liberate people, to unite people, to prepare and organise for the change we know is necessary.” He claimed that all “the experiences of 1984 show have shown that if you fight, you win, and if you fudge you fail.

“I am an optimist. I confess it is a terrifying period if you look at it one way. But if you look at it another way there is more buoyancy, more hope, more activity and more confidence now than I’ve known at any time in my political life and I was born in 1925.”

In concluding, he called for the Left to “resuscitate that old long-forgotten slogan ‘Socialism in our time.’”

This short summary does not do his comments full justice. However, hopefully it highlights some key elements of his political thinking… and their limitations. It was certainly fighting talk, but Benn said precious little about how the fight should be conducted. He swiftly turned from momentary pessimism to great optimism (perhaps trying to convince himself as well as his audience).

In contrast, drawing upon Gramsci’s insight about pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, Hall offered a very different assessment. He said: “The argument between us resolves itself principally into a strategic question.”

He continued: “The question is: what is the balance of forces in Britain at the present moment? How are the forces for and against the Left disposed?” He went on to ask further questions, including whether the Left looked like the kind of alliance capable of putting socialism back on the agenda in a way that was capable of winning mass majority support.

He argued: “I do not believe that any serious analysis of politics can answer these strategic questions in the affirmative. And that is the issue on which I substantially differ from Tony Benn.” He acknowledged that rallying the troops has its place in politics but to gloss over the present situation was “whistling in the dark”. What the left was facing was a “reversal of a very profound kind”.

Identifying the collapse of the Callaghan government following the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979 as a critical moment, he argued that the new right had successfully established itself as a radical political force. It had connected its arguments to people’s discontents. To progress, the Left had to do more than rally existing forces. It had to connect with people in the wider society.

That meant it had to get out of the ghetto. More specifically, the Labour left had to look beyond struggles within the Labour Party. He noted the “curious way which people in the Labour Party have of identifying the party with the world”. Capturing positions in the Labour Party did not meet the challenges it needed to face.

“Thatcherism presented people with a philosophy of life,” he said. The left had to offer a credible alternative, with a broad popular strategy on many fronts. To this end, nothing could be effectively achieved “(w)ithout the construction of a broad set of alliances around the labour movement”. It would not be easy, it would take time and it would involve a series of dialogues.

While Hall’s arguments needed to be fleshed out more fully, they indicated the directions that usefully could be taken, both at the time and today. Shortly before his death, Hall contributed to the Kilburn Manifesto which offers a more contemporary point of departure.

Alas, Benn’s diaries make no reference to this debate, but his final fling at the leadership three years later suggests that he was unmoved.

A politics for our times

Hall did not refer specifically to Benn’s final call to revive the forgotten slogan ‘Socialism in our time’. The phrase was first adopted by the ILP in very different circumstances during the inter-war years. It became closely associated with the ILP’s leading political figure, Jimmy Maxton MP.

Only recently have the similarities between the two men struck me. Both the chain-smoking Maxton and the pipe-smoking Benn were dearly loved by many. Both were powerful speakers who could inspire their audiences. Both had a taste for the dramatic and could be overly optimistic. Both tended toward intellectual laziness. One clear difference is that Maxton led the ILP out of the Labour Party and into decline, whereas Benn remained firmly within the party presiding over a much-weakened left. Their two lives are testimony to how difficult it is to be a leading left winger at any time.

For Maxton, like Benn, ‘Socialism in our time’ was a rallying cry, a slogan to rouse support. That was not how it originated, however. It emerged from the work of another long-forgotten ILPer, Clifford Allen. An impressive political thinker, Allen was responding to the introduction in 1918 of local Labour parties, which raised the question of the role of the ILP, until then effectively the Labour party’s grass roots.

Allen established a series of commissions to form the basis of a political strategy for the ILP to propose to the Labour Party, and to be a guide for its own wider campaigning. The aim was to end poverty and enhance working people’s lives. In addition to public ownership of the land and the banks, it called for a Living Wage. Like Hall, Allen saw the importance of a clear strategy, but he was politically side-lined by Maxton and others impatient for more immediate change.

These differences over slogans and strategies in two very different periods remain significant. Today, the left is starting from a much reduced social and political base and it has to find a language that is both meaningful and truthful to present its ideas to people. Old slogans and knee-jerk reactions won’t really help.

The fact that Tony Benn continues to be a positive influence on many people today should be valued. But we should be prepared to learn from the limitations of his politics as well.

To confront unbridled capitalism and the unbalanced society it has generated, we need a credible and relevant political language that challenges prevailing ideas, one that resonates with people and communities. In a sense, we are starting again but in the process we can draw on the experiences of past struggles to enrich our understanding. We need to create both a left politics and an ethical politics for our times.

[1] Quite how well these ideas would have met the challenges of the time is perhaps less clear: they were never attempted. The Labour leadership did not seriously engage with the proposals. Some years later, on the one occasion when Benn was invited to explain the left’s Alternative Economic Strategy, as it was then called, to the Callaghan Cabinet, he was in a minority of one.

[2] It was not until the 1993 party conference that the then party leader John Smith secured this reform.


See also: ‘Tony Benn: The Left’s Flawed Figurehead’, by Jonathan Timbers.

‘The Lessons of Tony Benn as  Cabinet Member’ is an academic article by Martin Smith and Dave Richards on Benn’s time as a minister.

‘Unbalanced Britain: What Can We Do?’ by Barry Winter is available here.

One of the leading figures in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy was Vladimir Derer who died recently. Read his obituary here.

‘The Great Grunwick Strike – A History’, a new film about the dispute by Chris Thomas, is available to view here.


  1. Jonathan Timbers
    4 June 2014

    One further point: I do think that the Left should be considering the merits and demerits of planning agreements once more. They were a very interesting idea to increase worker (not state) control of industry.

    On the other hand, I was never a fan of the AES’s import and price controls, and had it been tried, I think the results would have been unpopular in the short term, and not politically sustainable.

    Personally, I thought Bryan Gould’s social ownership policy in the 1987 manifesto was another credible means of extending workers control. His departure from the Labour Party was, for me, when any hope of left radicalism in the party disappeared.

  2. Jonathan Timbers
    4 June 2014

    Very thorough article that puts Benn in his socio-economic context.

    I particularly agree with the observations about Caroline Benn, whom I knew and admired more than her husband.

  3. Ernest Jacques
    31 May 2014

    This article on Tony Benn is (to me) very impressive, thoughtful and fair. Benn was a warm, compassionate and lovely man and a brilliant speaker, but like everyone, with flaws, and as Barry rightly points out (unlike Caroline) not the greatest of thinkers and pretty hopeless on strategy and tactics. .

    I particularly liked the Stuart Hall reference and his comment that “Thatcherism presented people with a philosophy of life,” insofar as when I reflect on my own life experiences, I grew up as a socialist and joined the ILP in 1975 without having the faintest idea what this would mean and how such a system might work. I always knew what I was against, (and still do) but hardly ever what I was for and, like many others I suspect, hadn’t a clue what my yearned for socialism meant for me, or what it might do for the people I love and my local community and had no picture of what the socialist (good) society would look like.

    In this regard, I remember representing the engineering union (People’s March for Jobs, Liverpool to London 1981), and Communist Party Industrial Organiser, Bert Ramelson and the Sheffield AEUW leader (forget his name now) trying to recruit me and when I told them I was in the ILP they spent the best part of an hour berating me for being in such an airy fairy useless organisation. When I asked what life was like for working people in Russia? – I was told that unlike the ILP, Communists were a disciplined army of workers who did what they were told. That did it for me and I never flirted or showed interest in communism ever again.

    Talking to Barry Winter recently and reading his article on Tony Benn has made me realise (yet again) how easy it is to oppose and how difficult and dangerous it is to construct something new, especially if you are in the dark and don’t know where you are going. And that defeating neoliberalism and its conservative culture is a task of historic proportions which cannot be achieved by just having a pop at traitors like Tony Blair and Blair Mandelson and self-serving Labour politicians. But only via the “construction of a broad set of alliances around the labour movement” or what is left of it.

    The bankruptcy of the blame game was brought into focus again recently, when I attended a anti-austerity demonstration in York, at the Liberal Party Spring conference, organised by the Yorkshire & Humber, Regional TUC. Some young university students representing the SWP were handing out leaflets demanding the TUC call a general strike. Well that is that same tub thumping demand the SWP was making against Margaret Thatcher’s government 30 years ago and while I tend to admire consistency and socialists who want change, as a strategy for winning hearts and minds and for maximising an alliance in opposition to austerity and the coalition government, maybe not.

    But there again, I shouldn’t be too holier-than-thou insofar as, over the years, I’ve done more than my fair share of that.

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