More Time for Politics
By Tony Benn, Hutchinson, London, £20 hardback
In the 1970s and 1980s, Tony Benn earned the scorn and hatred of the rich, the capitalist media and their right-wing friends within the labour movement because he was seen as a champion of socialist ideas.
Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary
When Labour was still a workers’ party at the bottom – although with a pro-capitalist right-wing leadership – he was a symbol of the struggle to transform the Labour Party in a socialist direction, notably in the bitter deputy leadership contest of 1981.
Yet, as this disarmingly honest latest volume of his diaries demonstrates, the opposite is the case today. In a revealing entry about a speaking engagement at the Oxford Union, he writes: “Senior civil servants and judges are all part of the mandarin Establishment class, who run everything. I was saying how nice everyone was to me, and Lissie [Tony Benn’s daughter] commented, ‘Well, it’s all about class, you realise.’ They are nice to me because I am part of their class.”
In the past he reflected, at least partially, the class opposition to them. Moreover, as these diaries show, he is still committed to socialism, is hostile to New Labour, sometimes passionately so.
He is therefore still supported, even venerated, by many workers and socialists but he is no longer feared by the capitalist establishment. Indeed, he has been transformed into something of a ‘national icon’, a deadly place to occupy for any opponent of this system.
His present political outlook poses no real threat to capitalism and its representatives. Nor does he offer a way forward to a growing layer of young people, workers and socialists looking for an alternative.
This is illustrated by his attitude towards New Labour. If there is a central thread in these diaries it is his scorn for New Labour while, at the same time, refusing to embrace a real alternative.
On New Labour
In his foreword, Blair, Brown and New Labour are indicted for their privatisation programme, their refusal to link pensions to earnings, the attacks on education and their assault on civic and democratic liberties.
He also recounts the comment of a Tory election candidate who revealed to Benn that when Norman Tebbit asked Thatcher what she regarded as her greatest achievement, “…she replied, ‘New Labour.’ That says it all really.” [p111]
On the state of the Labour Party, he writes: “The local Labour Party came [to a meeting he addressed]. They were all pensioners, and you could see immediately what was wrong. I mean, the young people who are interested in politics just don’t connect with the Labour Party. I don’t know if it can be saved, because the Labour Party is now an old age pensioners gathering.”
Contrast this to the success of the Socialist Party and our clear socialist message in attracting young people as evidenced by their attendance at our recent ‘Socialism’ event.
Yet a few paragraphs later, he writes: “The setting up of a new Socialist Party is a waste of time – look at what happened at Brent [in 2003]… The left candidates, of which there are a number, picked up 130, 140 votes, so the Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Party and all that are really irrelevant in the situation we are in at the moment.” This clearly leaves the reader with the impression that the Socialist Party stood in Brent, which was not the case.
But why allow simple facts to get in the way of the case for historical inertia, which is what Tony Benn’s position actually is? What is his alternative to the Socialist Party’s idea of a new mass workers’ party? “There is a vacuum, and that’s what the Labour conference has to do, fill the vacuum, because you cannot have a democratic system without a serious alternative, and people want a Labour government.”
So the Labour Party conference is the alternative? This conference, the author freely admits later on, is stuffed in the main with Blair’s toadies, and now Gordon Brown’s, local right-wing councillors carrying through cuts and sheep-like MPs who trot into the division lobbies of the House of Commons to back them up.
Left alternative needed
And what actually happened at the conference Tony Benn expected to be an alternative? “New Labour has come out more violently anti-union and anti-left than for many, many years… Constituencies are no longer on the left, because all the decent socialists have left, so it’s a Blairite rump.” In fact, the New Labour conference, led by the constituency delegates, voted later not even to discuss the catastrophe of the Iraq war.
Refusing to pose the issue of a left alternative outside of the left prison which New Labour has become and isolated in terms of organised support, Tony Benn, as revealed here, in desperation chose some odd confidants. For instance, he “rang Ted Heath” for political advice!
This is the brutal Tory leader who took on the miners in 1972 and 1973-74, the latter dispute resulting in the infamous three-day working week and a general election which saw him turfed out of office.
The same indulgence is shown to Roy Jenkins who, as Tony Benn freely admits, led the right-wing revolt in the Labour Party in the early 1980s against ‘Bennery’, the shift towards the left of the ranks of the Labour Party.
He also inspired the ‘Gang of Four’ to split the Labour Party and form the Social Democratic Party, the 1981 capitalist-inspired right-wing breakaway designed to keep a left Labour Party out of power.
In contrast, left-wing allies like George Galloway come in for severe criticism. Galloway had attacked Blair and his cabinet over the Iraq war: “Britain is currently run by a blood-spattered, lying, crooked group of war criminals.”
The language may be emotive but is this not an accurate description of Blair and his cronies for supporting a war that has produced such devastation for the Iraqi people, including four million refugees and 650,000 innocent civilian victims?
But Tony Benn declares: “Now, first of all I think that is a totally ineffective way of getting your case across, but secondly, last November George pleaded with me to try to persuade the National Executive to let him stay in the party. So if I’d succeeded, he would have still been a member of the party currently run by a ‘blood-spattered, lying, crooked group of war criminals’. Put me off George Galloway in a fairly fundamental way.”
Tony Benn is correct in general to eschew personal attacks, including on capitalist opponents of socialism, and to concentrate on the issues. But the class struggle is not a diplomatic chamber or ballet school. Rage and anger can reach such a pitch that it will be expressed in scorn and hatred of outraged workers for their oppressors. Thatcher was such a figure, as is Tony Blair. Even Tony Benn described Blair as a ‘Führer’ and was subsequently ticked off by his children!
It is the contradiction in his approach to New Labour, which, as this diary reveals, provoked his indignation at Galloway’s words. For instance, he attacks Clare Short, even at the time of her resignation from the government over the war: “I am afraid I have no time for her whatsoever. She had supported the war and only jumped ship when her position became untenable.”
But there is no such, even mild, criticism of his son Hilary Benn for remaining in Blair’s government throughout the Iraq war. He now occupies a prominent position in Gordon Brown’s cabinet. Indeed, Tony Benn reveals his delight at Hilary’s promotion to the cabinet, at one time “dancing around the table” when he is promoted by Blair. But socialists should abide by the old adage: “We love our friends (and particularly our family) but we love the truth even more.”
In hoping that change will still come within the Labour Party, he imitates the proponents of Lib-Labbery – continued support of the trade unions for the Liberal Party – in the nineteenth century. Workers, particularly trade unionists, left the Liberal Party and joined together with a new generation of workers to create the basis for the Labour Party.
Even Tony Benn writes: “What Blair is doing is privatising the Labour Party. He wants to get rid of the trade unions. After all, seven million trade unionists give £7 million, and ten people contributed nearly £40 million and some end up in the Lords. My dad left the Liberal Party because Lloyd George was so corrupt in his use of patronage.”
Precisely! But it was not just in protest at ‘patronage’. The Liberal Party was tied to the coat-tails of capitalism and was attacking the working class, particularly the trade unions, through measures like the infamous Taff Vale anti-union judgement. What is different about New Labour’s policies today?
Because of his stance, Tony Benn, while cheered for his past, will become an increasingly isolated figure to the new generation of workers who are looking for change, if he maintains his present posture.
Of course, he is advanced in years. But so was Franz Mehring who, after a lifetime in the German social democracy, did not hesitate to break his links when it supported the First World War. He joined together with Rosa Luxemburg in the last years of his life to create a new mass political formation for the German working class.
Similarly, the 75-year old Friedrich Engels tirelessly worked for, demonstrated for and worked together with small formations to create the basis for the new mass ‘working-man’s’ party. His efforts laid the basis for the creation of the Labour Party.
Sadly, Tony Benn rejects this path. It will not stop the march of history, which will see in Britain, as in other countries, new political formations of the working class.