Tony Benn’s ideas live on – and still have the potential to create a new society

John McDonnell MP looks back at the Bennite programme of the early 1980s and its relevance to the struggles of today

March 27, 2014 · 5 min read

There has been a clear deep binary divide in the reaction to the death of Tony Benn. On the one hand there has been an outpouring of expressions of warmth, affection and respect for him as a socialist, a man of principle and a great parliamentarian, while on the other hand all those who opposed everything he stood for have had a field day sharpening their knives to attack him.

The central charge levelled against him by the right is that he was responsible for pushing the Labour Party so far to the left that it became unelectable. The evidence cited to substantiate this charge is his influence on the drafting of Labour’s Programme published in 1982, which became Labour’s 1983 election manifesto. The media have revelled in using the description of it by the Labour right as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

It’s true that the ideas of Tony Benn, shared by a broad swathe of the left at the time, had a determining role in shaping that document and the policies it advocated. So what sort of a world would have been created by this Bennite programme?

The 1982 document is worth a revisit to see exactly what Tony and the Labour left were calling for. How outrageously extreme were these policies that they supposedly so fiercely alienated the general population?

The key objectives of Labour’s Programme were achieving full employment, securing greater equality and redistributing wealth to eliminate poverty. How strikingly relevant these objectives are today with 2.5 million unemployed, half a million of our people dependent on food banks, 800,000 more children predicted to be in poverty by 2020, and Oxfam revealing that the five wealthiest families own more than the bottom 20 per cent of our population.

To achieve full employment the programme advocated building more council houses and refurbishing the existing stock, investing in railways, hospitals and schools and developing energy conservation and alternative energy sources.

Since then the failure of successive governments, Labour and Conservative, to invest in housing has resulted in millions still on housing waiting lists, children still being brought up in bed and breakfast and temporary accommodation, overcrowding on a scale not seen since the second world war and house prices so high that home ownership is beyond the reach of a generation of young people. Instead of governments investing in rail, privatisation poured £9 billion into the pockets of shareholders and left blood on the tracks at Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Potters Bar as profiteering took precedence over safety.

As most economists and commentators bemoan the decline of Britain’s manufacturing base over the past three decades, it’s worth noting that at the core of the economic policy of Labour’s Programme in 1982 was an industrial strategy. This explicitly committed a Labour government to promoting higher investment in manufacturing and especially in research and development and skills.

A National Investment Bank was proposed to channel the flow of savings from pension funds into long-term investment in industry. Training was seen to be the key to securing the skilled workforce needed by a modern economy and so every young person was to have the opportunity of further education or training and apprenticeship.

To ensure that we achieved a balanced economy the programme recognised that the City of London and the banks had to be regulated. In addition, it was argued that there had to be an ‘assault on all the avenues for artificial tax avoidance and for the illegal evasion of tax’. Remember that these statements were made 30 years before the lack of regulation of finance capital brought about the greatest economic crisis since the great crash of 1929 and the exposure of the scandal of corporate tax evasion prompted the launch of UK Uncut.

Democratic engagement was at the heart of the 1982 Bennite programme and it recognised the critical role the media played in guaranteeing democratic freedoms but also the threat to journalistic standards from the concentration of media ownership. The programme was prescient about the debasement of journalism by Murdoch and recommended setting an upper limit on the ownership of publications and a Leveson-type replacement of the Press Council with a ‘council with power and resources to initiate investigations, keep standards and performance under review, impose penalties and enforce its findings’.

To get a flavour of the society this programme sought to create, simply add to these far-sighted policy proposals the following small sample of ideas contained in the document:

• the control of the arms trade, nuclear disarmament and the launch of inclusive talks to secure peace in Northern Ireland;

• parliamentary accountability of the security services, the modernisation of parliament and a strengthened public accounts committee;

• the introduction of restorative justice, the extension of legal aid and the establishment of a network of law centres to increase access to justice, the promotion of community policing, enhanced victim support, and the setting up of family and rape crisis centres to address domestic violence;

• free pre-school childcare for all, a legal entitlement to higher education funded by grant and an educational maintenance allowance and a fully comprehensive schools system;

• hunting with dogs banned;

• an agricultural policy based upon the objective of supplying a high quality nutritious diet and protecting the rural environment.

It’s clear from this that the ideas of Tony Benn are as relevant now as they were back in the 1980s. They still have the potential to create the society of equality and democratic freedom that he articulated so eloquently. They still have the potential to motivate and mobilise this and future generations. That is why, even in death, the right and elements in the media had to attack him. It is also why so many of us respect and applaud the role he played and the life he lived.

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