Labour’s lost leader

Leo Panitch assesses the legacy of Tony Benn

March 27, 2014 · 15 min read

I vividly recall a rather sober conversation I had with Tony Benn sometime in the mid-1990s, just as it was becoming clear that social democracy everywhere was accommodating to neoliberalism. We were discussing how broad and profound was the defeat of both trade unionism and the democratic socialist left over the previous decade, when Tony suddenly asked me how long I thought it would take for a revitalised working class and a renewed socialist movement to reemerge. I ventured that we might be facing a rather long period not unlike that which separated the defeat of Chartism in England and the 1848 revolutions on the continent from the new kind of trade unionism represented by the London dockers’ strike of 1889 and the birth of so many socialist and labour parties over the following decades. Tony puffed on his pipe for a moment, and then, with that characteristic twinkle in his eye, replied: ‘Well, in that case I shall just have to live until 120.’

Just as the widespread emergence of new mass working class organisations by the beginning of the 20th century was in many ways seeded by those who penned the Chartist demands and the 1848 Communist Manifesto, so will the new socialist movements that will surely arise in the 21st century be able to draw on the legacy that Tony Benn leaves us. Indeed, nothing could be more important now than to clear away the misrepresentations and misconceptions of what he stood for and what was entailed in the long decade of struggle to change the Labour Party into an effective agency for democratic socialism from the early 1970s to the early 1980s.

Don’t blame Benn

Those who blame Benn for the divisions that wracked the Labour Party usually have little or nothing to say about the frustrations produced among party members by the way the Alternative Economic Strategy adopted by the party conference and executive before the 1974 election was ignored by the subsequent Labour governments. Nor do they address the trauma that the now fully-accepted democratic (and affirmative action) procedures for the selection of candidates and leaders produced at the time among MPs and a media that readily amplified this into sheer hysteria. As Jack Straw, looking back in 1995, put it: ‘The parliamentary party was in a state of high neurosis . . . a very important political institution [was] having a nervous breakdown.’

The intensity of the confrontation over party structure, strategy and leadership after the 1979 election was not because the challenge came from the ‘far left’. On the contrary, most of the activists who were working to change the Labour Party from within were still regarded on the British left (and for the most part regarded themselves) as rather moderate and ‘reformist’. When Robin Blackburn interviewed Tony Benn in September 1979, he asked: ‘Aren’t your remedies very modest considering the magnitude of the crisis?’ Benn agreed – and so would have most of the activists who belonged to the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, and especially the Labour Coordinating Committee. who were particularly critical of Trotskyist ‘entrists’ in the party . This was even truer of most of the constituency activists who supported them.

If those who supported Benn at the time were ‘unrealistic’, as has so often been alleged, they were especially so in underestimating how far the parliamentary leadership would be prepared to go to defeat them. From the early 1970s on, it was Benn’s capacity to listen to what these activists were saying and to articulate their ideas so effectively that made him their representative at a time when the whole concept of party leadership was being put into question. Who would become party leader was important – no activist would have dreamt of denying it. But had that been the main thing they would not have pushed so tenaciously for the broad range of constitutional changes they did, only some of which would affect who became party leader – and all of which were designed to secure that leader’s accountability to the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary party.

Indeed, in the face of the overwhelming sense of betrayal that fuelled rank and file hostility to the parliamentary elite, one of Benn’s most insistent themes was that just seeking to replace ‘a group of supposedly guilty men and women’ would not get to the root of a problem that was structural and thus ‘requires the wide redistribution of political and economic power . . . in the institutions of state power as well as in those which uphold private power’.

Socialism and the economy

Immediately after the 1979 election Benn identified the primary task as that of restoring ‘the legitimacy in the public mind of democratic socialism because the press were actually engaged in outlawing any argument to the left of the centre of British politics’. As he put it in March 1980: ‘The fact is that we have a capitalist system in this country which is no longer capable of sustaining the welfare upon which so much of our post-war politics rested. The real problem is not that the Tory government are pursuing their policy but that there is no alternative to their policy unless we are prepared to achieve a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families.’

Yet Benn recognised that it was harder to make the case for a radical alternative in these terms than it had been when he first coined this phrase in 1973. This was why he put ever greater emphasis on the importance of challenging Labour’s traditional statism: ‘Democratic control must be established at every level in the public sector in order to create a wholly new vision of what society could be like if we lifted the stranglehold of market forces.’ This vision matched the kind of ‘in and against the state’ ideas that inspired a good deal of the left in Britain in this period.

As for the crisis of economic policy, Benn told the 1979 party conference that this was ‘the moment of truth’, not only for the party, but for the nation, ‘because the belief that the mixed economy could sustain full employment and rising public expenditure had turned out to be an illusion’. The ability of democratic governments to engage in national economic management on the basis of Keynesian and corporatist policy instruments had been undermined by what he consistently identified in his speeches as ‘the international growth of industrial and financial power’ as well as by ‘the biggest acceleration of technical change the world has seen for many years’. Those who still concentrated on corporatist arrangements to get trade union leaders to adhere to wage restraint as the means of securing non-inflationary Keynesian growth and full employment (as the parliamentary leadership still did) were offering a prescription that ignored these fundamental changes.

The common observation that the Labour new left’s advocacy of import and capital controls proves that they ignored the forces leading to globalisation may be seen, in light of the above, to be superficial and misleading. It was their sensitivity to the power of those forces, unless they were checked, to undermine national policy autonomy that led to the stress on controls over capital movements. Just as their emphasis on the growth of the multinationals was what made the Labour new left’s analysis distinctive in the early 1970s, so was their emphasis on the growth of international finance at the end of the decade. It was the Labour leadership who were ignoring the profound structural changes in capitalism with their insistence that if Keynesianism was not viable in Britain it was only because they could not emulate the corporatist wage restraint of the Swedes and Austrians.

Sterile partnership

At the same time, the charge that Benn was too narrowly tied to a defense of traditional trade unionism simply ignores what he was actually saying. Benn was often prepared to challenge this directly, particularly by strongly encouraging trade union involvement in ‘the evolution of sensible strategies of development upon which communities depend for their lives and amenities’, and arguing that this depended on forging strong links with activists engaged in anti-nuclear, ethnic, pensioners’ and women’s issues. In advancing this argument Benn was in fact making the most pointed criticism of the trade union leadership’s embrace of corporatism to be offered by any leading European politician on the left. Not only rank and file workers, he argued, but even capitalists and bureaucrats had become disillusioned with the constraints of corporatism, leaving many trade union leaders defensively clinging to this ‘sterile partnership’.

Benn also took up again the position he had articulated in the early 1970s, that unions should use their bargaining role to negotiate themselves into a position of power in an enterprise, with enabling legislation for the disclosure of company information and planning agreements backing up enterprise-level bargaining over ‘the whole range of company policy, including decisions about research, development, marketing, investment, mergers, manpower planning and the distribution of profits, with a requirement to agree on all these matters before company policy is decided’. Today this could be called ‘stakeholding’ with teeth, but Benn rejected the idea that this was all about ‘co-partnership which seeks consensus in the interests of shareholders’. His model was rather workers’ initiatives like the one at Lucas Aerospace; he hoped that decentralised planning of production at the company level would inhibit the reemergence of corporatism.

As wide as life itself

Notably, when Benn defined the key task as that of restoring ‘the legitimacy in the public mind of democratic socialism’, he first of all thought in terms of making ‘the Labour Party reintegrate with other activists with whom we sympathised, such as the women’s movement and the Friends of the Earth’. He recognised that this had to mean broadening out beyond traditional conceptions of the constituency for socialism.

As he put it in the preface to the collection of speeches he published during the 1981 deputy leadership campaign: ‘Inequality in Britain is not by any means confined to the class relations deriving from the ownership of capital.’ Although this remained ‘a central obstacle which must be overcome if any real progress is to be made’, it was ‘a pity that the nature of the argument for socialism should have been so narrowly conceived . . . If democracy is based on a moral claim to equality, the issues opened up are as wide as life itself.’ This included women’s inequality and discrimination against ethnic and racial minorities, and gays. Ken Livingstone went so far as to credit Benn with ‘being the first to highlight the need for a wider Labour movement actively encouraging the involvement of women and black people alongside the traditional white male trade unionists’.

Taking reform seriously

It is perhaps most important to register, however, how Benn addressed the old dichotomy between reform and revolution. At the 1979 party conference, he described himself as ‘a Clause Four socialist, becoming more so as the years go by’. But he insisted that if the conference expected the parliamentary Labour Party to take its resolutions seriously then the conference had also to take the Labour Party seriously, as ‘a party of democratic, socialist reform. I know that for some people “reform” is a term of abuse. That is not so. All our great successes have been the product of reform.’

Taking reform seriously meant coming to terms with ‘the usual problem of the reformer; we have to run the economic system to protect our people who are now locked into it while we change the system. And if you run it without seeking to change it then you are locked in the decay of the system, but if you simply pass resolutions to change it without consulting those who are locked in the system that is decaying, then you become irrelevant to the people you seek to represent . . . We cannot content ourselves with speaking only to ourselves; we must raise these issues publicly and involve the community groups because we champion what they stand for. We must win the argument, broaden the base of membership, not only to win the election but to generate the public support to carry the policies through.’

This remarkably clear-sighted and thoughtful argument was ignored by the entire mainstream media, including the Guardian. Scarcely anyone who did not attend Labour Party conferences, including most of the left, would have known he had made it. They would have heard it, however, if they were among the capacity crowd of 2,600 people at Central Hall, Westminster, who came to hear Benn and Stuart Holland debate with Paul Foot and Hilary Wainwright in March 1980 at the famous ‘Debate of the Decade’ between the left inside and outside the Labour Party.

The revolutionary socialist groups, Benn insisted there, confused real reform with revolution. Their talk of revolution ‘implies, and nobody believes it, that there is a short cut to the transfer of power in this country . . . What the socialist groups really do is to analyse, to support struggle, to criticise the Labour Party, to expand consciousness, to preach a better morality. These are all very desirable things to do. But they have very little to do with revolution.’

The socialist groups had to come to see that they too were part of the problem, and that the limits of their own practices, just like those of the left in the Labour Party, could also be measured in the simple fact that ‘we do not have a majority of support outside for any of our solutions’. It had to be recognised, moreover, that even those among ‘the rank and file’ who were acutely aware of the inadequacies of the Labour leadership’s policies and were sympathetic to socialist solutions were not prepared to agitate for them at critical moments, lest they ‘put at risk the survival of a Labour government. We must be prepared to face the fact that the problem of the balance between agitation and loyalty has got to be solved. Unless we can deal with that problem we are going to continue to be radical in opposition and somewhat conservative in office.’

Huge miscalculation

This was indeed the Labour new left’s central dilemma. For the contradiction between agitation and loyalty existed not only when Labour was in office. An agenda for change as extensive as that which was being advanced after 1979 was obviously going to be fought tooth and nail, and the divisions this would engender would have to be confronted in good time before the next election if Labour was to have a chance of winning it. Benn recognised this, but hoped that after 15 months of controversy, during which the new left would lay the foundations of its agenda for change, the party would reunite to campaign together for the 1983 election. But this scenario assumed that the centre-right parliamentarians would be as loyal to the party as the long-suffering rank and file activists. This was very soon shown to be a huge miscalculation.

For those social democrats who stayed in the party, almost as much as those who left, evinced a very different mix of loyalty and agitation – and their agitation, unlike that of the rank and file activists – had the national media as its amplifier. Their claim that it was impossible to win elections with radical socialist policies was initially dented by the Mitterrand victory in France, and Labour actually ran well ahead in the opinion polls all through 1980 and most of 1981 despite the socialist policies it had adopted. But the social democrats’ persistent denigration of the left through the media eventually took its toll on the party’s popularity.

The problem faced by the Labour new left in this context was captured by ‘the usual problem of the reformer’, just as Benn had identified it at the 1979 conference. Those who set out to reform the party were concerned with keeping the party electorally viable in order to protect all those who looked to it for the protection of their immediate political interests; yet if they refrained from trying to change it, they would be locked into the decay of the system. It was the most intractable of dilemmas. That Benn was so acutely aware of it, and yet refused to give up, reflected not only the strength of his commitment but the depth of his understanding that accommodating oneself to this ‘decaying system’ (as he saw it, in moral as much as in material terms) was itself no long-term answer.

This approach was made all the more poignant by his recognition – even on the optimistic scenario that the foundation for changing the Labour Party might be laid in as short a time as 15 months – that the larger democratic socialist agenda could only be realised on the basis of a very protracted and long-term struggle. As he wrote in his diary on the eve of the 1979 conference: ‘I think we are going to be engaged in the most bitter struggle over the next ten years, and if this [new right] philosophy gains hold in the public mind then not only might we not win the next election but socialism could be in retreat in Britain until absolutely vigorous campaigns for democracy are mounted again.’

Tony Benn has been proved right about this. And this remains his legacy for the left in the 21st century.

The quotations used here are mainly drawn from chapter 8 of Leo Panitch and Colin Leys’ book The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour (Verso, 2001). Photo: Reuters/Toby Melville

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