Workers' party debate
Tony Benn evades the issue
TONY BENN can still draw a crowd. Over 200 students packed into a recent Stop the War Society meeting at University College London to hear him speak.
The meeting aimed to mobilise students to attend the 8 October anti-war demonstration and it certainly assisted that. But Benn's strategy for the way forward was disappointing.
Benn said that ours is the first generation that has at its fingertips, through the development of technology, the means to solve the world's problems. But the problem, he explained, is one of control. And that is why it is important to vote – if everybody voted we would have the most radical government ever.
He is right, of course, that while the means to solve all the world's problems exist, the vast majority of us do not control those means. Most of the world's wealth and resources are in the hands of a tiny minority.
And he is right in implying that masses of ordinary people are to the left of the government. But it is wrong to conclude that if we all voted in the next election we would have a radical government. All the main parties are much the same, and as long as they are the only candidates, we will not get a radical government.
At that time it looked like a general election was on the cards. Tony Benn told the meeting he was considering standing again as a Labour candidate (for Kensington, where he lives).
From the floor, I challenged him on this. All the main parties are parties of cuts, privatisation and war; they all support a system where the wealth is sucked up to the tops of society.
Under Gordon Brown, the Labour party's already almost non-existent democracy has been virtually eradicated. If Tony Benn is to stand for parliament again, wouldn't it be better if he stood as an independent, anti-war, anti-cuts candidate, using the election to help rally all those opposed to war, cuts and privatisation, as a step towards forming a new party that would stand in the interests of ordinary working people?
BENN COULD have allowed genuine discussion by putting forward his case for socialists staying in the Labour Party to try to reclaim it. He opted instead for ridicule, deliberately misrepresenting what had been put to him by listing all the left groups he could think of and trying to raise a laugh from his student audience.
I interjected to say he could play a part in drawing together different forces, not just political groups, but striking postal workers, other trade unionists, community campaigners etc. But Benn dismissed this by saying that you cannot build a party around an individual.
Of course checks and controls on any leaders or public figures by a genuinely democratic party are essential. But prominent individuals can be important in promoting and inspiring new developments. Benn only needs to look to Oskar Lafontaine who is spearheading Germany's new Left Party or to Keir Hardie in forming the early Labour Party in Britain.
Bob Crow, leader of the RMT railworkers' union, has rightly declared that the Labour Party is finished as a workers' party and that there needs to be a new party. The RMT is considering standing a list of candidates in next May's Greater London Assembly elections.
The Campaign for a New Workers Party, with the Socialist Party playing a leading role, advocates a broad anti-cuts, anti-privatisation list, with the RMT at its head, but drawing in other trade unionists, campaigners and socialists. The RMT's London regional council has now supported just such a proposal, put forward by a Socialist Party member.
A serious debate is taking place about the need for a new party in meetings, workplaces, pubs and at breakfast tables countrywide. The process towards one will not be straightforward but genuine dialogue is needed. Unfortunately, by choosing to ridicule rather than discuss, Tony Benn is throwing away the potential role he could play.
For more information on the Campaign for a New Workers' Party go to www.cnwp.org.uk
"The cheers could have been twice as loud"
AT THE recent national postal workers' rally, Tony Benn was cheered when he said he had written to his local Labour Party asking to be their candidate in the election.
This was not a case of workers having illusions in the Labour Party but rather that postal workers are desperate for their voice to be heard in parliament, particularly as Benn's speech had spelled out that New Labour's drive for privatisation lies behind the attacks on postal workers.
Tony Benn, after all, used to be leader of the left in the Labour Party. Influenced by the strength of the trade union and shop stewards movement in the UCS shipyard workers' struggle in 1971, he became the most articulate spokesperson for a 'left reformist' position.
He supported industrial struggles and measures of nationalisation and even stood as Labour party deputy leader in 1981 when he came within 1% of beating Denis Healey. His support for trade union and anti-war issues has kept his popularity high, though like many Labour lefts, the 'Blairisation' of the Labour Party left him disorientated.
At last week's rally, if the speakers had come out clearly for a new mass workers' party and said that Benn was willing to be an election candidate for that party, or even that he was standing as an independent, the cheers could have been twice as loud.