With the death of Tony Benn the UK left has lost one of the last individuals to seriously challenge for the leadership of the Labour Party from a principled position. The 1983 Labour manifesto, famously described by Gerald Kaufman as ‘the longest suicide note in history’, is often cited as the tipping point at which the Labour Party began its transformation into the marketable and heavily populist New Labour of today. Arguably, however, it was the defeat of Benn in 1988 against Neil Kinnock’s rampant metamorphosis from staunch socialist to a willing bystander as Thatcher crushed the miners in 1984-5 that chimed the death knell for a party that began with the likes of Keir Hardie and coughed its last at the hands of Tony Blair. In 1988, as he had in the Deputy Leadership election of 1981, Benn stood up for socialism and to the minds of many he stood for the very essence of the labour movement.
1981 saw Benn come within a whisker of claiming the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. His supporters ran a vibrant and highly visible campaign which enthused activists and the sympathetic public alike. The result was doubtless a disappointment, yet the narrowness of the margin inspite of the calculated impartiality of Labour’s moderate left wing MPs, demonstrated that the hard left of the party remained a considerable force.
By 1988 the electoral defeats against Thatcher’s new brand of free market conservatism had taken their toll on Labour. Kinnock had carried out an internal purge of the Militant Tendency and responded to Labour’s resounding defeat in the 1987 General Election by shifting further to the right. Benn’s leadership challenge was a last, desperate, rearguard action; an echo of a movement that once thundered. He was resoundingly defeated. Within a year Kinnock had reversed the party’s position on closed shops; a totemic move designed to demonstrate a move away from traditional ‘Old Labour’ socialist politics.
One can perhaps point to these defeats as the impetus for the furtherance of Benn’s rightly celebrated anti-establishment views. His anti-war activities in particular were remarkable given his age and esteemed status within the Labour Party; activities that clearly had a notable effect on individuals who may not have been active against Iraq and Afghanistan otherwise, not to mention his opposition to the Falklands conflict and the first Gulf War.
His complete devotion to the NHS as a basic right for all stemmed from his belief that everything begins with democracy and must in turn reflect that democracy. This kind of moral stance can be identified in the myriad interviews and diaries he has left behind, records that we should urge young people to enjoy. I was fortunate enough to briefly meet Tony Benn in 2010 when he told me and others present that he did not hope for socialism, he expected it, and that we should too as a right and a duty. That is a duty we have to fulfil by working towards it from many different perspectives and ideologies, and by ensuring we learn from his fundamental character and life such an outcome can be possible.
Benn was consistently a sharp critic of governments he served in, specifically those of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, and had no truck with the kind of sentiment that bore the famous quote attributed to Herbert Morrison that ‘socialism is what a Labour government does’ . In this vein it would be false not to articulate some instances where Benn himself veered from the path of socialism and perhaps fell foul of the bewildering beast that is parliamentary politics.
During the 1960’s, as Minister of Technology, Benn advocated the expansion of the UK’s nuclear power infrastructure which would ultimately serve as a plutonium supply to the United States’ nuclear weapons programme, something he came to regret after the fact. In recent years he has had many positive things to say about David Miliband and even remarked last year that he believed Ed Miliband was ‘a socialist’ which would suggest that he is offering lenience where perhaps it is not due. Further to his soft touch towards the Milibands, Benn has always had rather little to say about his hereditary wealth and the ‘family business’ of politics (his father, grandfather, children, and grandchildren are all involved in politics or were/are MPs) which were he to answer honestly he would be forced to denounce as regressive, despite the fact he renounced his peerage early on in his political career.
Does Bennism, a somewhat nebulous subscription to nationalisation of industry and increased democracy, offer the required radical critique of neo-liberal capitalism which pervades all three major Westminster parties? The answer is no. It is however laudable in the fact that it exists within a stream of thought that can adequately be called radical, given that anything even partially left of centre can now be accurately described as radical. Compare this to various recent attempts by Labour to occupy notions of redistributive economics and ‘responsible capitalism’ and it is plain to see that Benn was a character who meant it when he said ‘Most political questions are at root moral questions: is it right or is it wrong?’ In this sense we can see that Benn was a man who invested his belief firstly in the labour movement, and secondly in the Labour Party. How much he invested in the latter to his own detriment will be for history to decide but it cannot be denied that in the battle for the party’s identity Benn ultimately came out on the losing side.
There will always be those of us who still see a luminescent hope in the spectre of that red rose which speaks of a bygone labour movement that swept from shop-floor to hospital bed becoming the most significant, yet ultimately flawed, opposition to conservatism this land has ever seen. For those individuals Tony Benn is a beacon and his legacy will be cherished.
There is a passage in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, published only a decade before Benn’s birth, which adequately exemplifies the rarity of his principled stance when the character of Barrington questions the latest Liberal orator to arrive in town espousing the glory of capitalism:
‘I hope you’ll excuse me for asking, but were you not formerly a Socialist?’ said Barrington.
Even in the semi-darkness Barrington saw the other man flush deeply and then become very pale, and the unsightly scar upon his forehead showed with ghastly distinctiveness.
‘I am still a Socialist: no man who has once been a Socialist can ever cease to be one.’
‘You seem to have accomplished that impossibility, to judge by the work you are at present engaged in. You must have changed your opinions since you were here last.’
‘No one who has been a Socialist can ever cease to be one. It is impossible for a man who has once acquired knowledge ever to relinquish it. A Socialist is one who understands the causes of the misery and degradation we see all around us; who knows the only remedy, and knows that that remedy–the state of society that will be called Socialism–must eventually be adopted; is the only alternative to the extermination of the majority of the working people; but it does not follow that everyone who has sense enough to acquire that amount of knowledge, must, in addition, be willing to sacrifice himself in order to help to bring that state of society into being. When I first acquired that knowledge,’ he continued, bitterly, ‘I was eager to tell the good news to others. I sacrificed my time, my money, and my health in order that I might teach others what I had learned myself. I did it willingly and happily, because I thought they would be glad to hear, and that they were worth the sacrifices I made for their sakes. But I know better now.’
It would be all too easy, and even foolish, to downplay Benn’s role in the modern Labour Party. He was born into it, proudly lived within it, and died a committed son of the party. When Tony Benn stood against Neil Kinnock in 1988 he knew very well that he would lose, and with him the last vestiges of ‘Old’ Labour, yet in doing so he avoided the ignominy of the man with the scar in Tressell’s work and accomplished that true impossibility in modern politics; he remained a socialist when it would have been much easier not to do so.
He may have grown into socialism, as it were, but for this resilience we must thank Tony Benn and hope that the likes of he will grace the halls of Westminster once more.