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Tony Benn and the limits of left reformism

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Tony Benn’s retirement marks the end of an era for the left. Dave Telfer examines his political career and assesses the current state of the Labour left

Tony Benn recently announced his intention to step down from parliament. He will not contest his Chesterfield seat at the next general election. Benn’s departure represents the end of an era for British politics in general and for the left in particular.

Now 74 years old, Benn is the longest-serving Labour MP. He first entered parliament in 1950, when he became MP for Bristol South East where he remained for all but three years until 1983.

During those three years, between 1960 and 1963, he fought to renounce the title, inherited from his father, of Viscount Stansgate, which forced him out of the Commons. He has fought a total of 17 parliamentary elections during his political career, up to the last general election when he was re-elected as MP for Chesterfield, a seat he first won in a by-election in 1984. Benn was a member of the Labour Party NEC between 1959-93.

Benn has long had a reputation as a maverick: as postmaster general he attempted to have the queen’s head removed from stamps. He is also known, rather remarkably, as a politician who has become more radical as he became older. Harold Wilson apparently once commented that Benn “immatured with age.”

While famous as a left winger, Benn has never claimed to be a revolutionary. He has always dismissed the need for a revolution in Britain, counterposing the power of parliament:

“The reason why the labour movement has never espoused a revolutionary alternative in Britain, as some socialists have done abroad, is because we ourselves fashioned the democracy which should express itself through a fully functioning democratic parliament. Therefore to ask the British labour movement to abandon democracy and go for the short cut to socialism by some coup d’état is to ask us to repudiate our history.” (Arguments for Democracy)

Benn’s reformism is evident in this quote. The British, he claims, are instinctively democratic (by which he means attached to parliament) and have no need to turn to “foreign” revolutionary ideas. This has been the stock-in-trade of left reformists since the Labour Party was founded. It is nonsense, repudiating the revolutionary tradition of the British from Cromwell in the seventeenth century, through the Chartists in the nineteenth century to the revolutionary socialist and syndicalist shop stewards of the twentieth century.

Nor is it true that the British labour movement shaped the existing parliament. Labour movement pressure certainly led to the extension of the vote, but the bourgeoisie have always kept “democracy” in check. Our democracy is curtailed by institutions hallowed by the British constitution but elected by nobody – the monarchy, the House of Lords, the civil service chiefs, the commanders of the police and armed forces, the judiciary, the Privy Council and so on and so forth.

Last, but by no means least Benn shamelessly equates the socialist revolution – which by definition must involve the mass of the working class and must be made by direct democratic organisations of that class, workers’ councils – with a “coup d’état”. This suggests that revolution is made by a minority and is intrinsically undemocratic – the very opposite of every revolution that has taken place this century, not least the Russian Revolution of October 1917 which was made by the masses not by a coup d’état as every honest account of it, even by bourgeois academics, proves.

Benn’s theoretical attachment to reformism – even of the most left variety – explains the ups and downs of his long political career. His achievements have always been limited, hemmed in by the restrictions of a capitalism that he disliked but could never conceive of overthrowing by revolutionary means. The compromises and even betrayals championed that resulted from this have been as much a feature of Benn’s political life as his much vaunted radicalism.

Benn’s early political career saw him hold several posts in the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1960s and 1970s, including Minister of Technology, Secretary of State for Industry and Secretary of State for Energy.

It is in this period that his commitment to “democracy” and Parliament, even if it meant attacking workers became clear. Throughout the late 1970s, including the period of mass strikes in 1978/79 known as the Winter of Discontent, he remained a member of one of the most right wing Labour governments ever seen. As workers fought the imposition of the wage cutting Social Contract with strike action, Benn held fast to the principle of “collective responsibility” in the Labour cabinet, refusing to challenge the union bashing strategy of Jim Callaghan and Denis Healey who were determined to undermine union power.

He did not resign, vote against or even speak against the government. Keeping the Labour government in office, rather than standing with the workers, was the priority for Benn. And his role was not simply confined to keeping quiet. He openly admits in his diaries that as the Minister of Energy, faced with a tanker drivers’ strike, he was prepared to use troops to smash the strike in order to keep Labour in office and protect his own position as a voice of opposition within, not outside, the government.

During the same period Tony Benn – who was later a firm advocate of the miners during their heroic fight against pit closures in 1984/85 – took on the NUM. Of course his methods were different from the right. He was famous for bringing workers’ leaders into his office, showing them the union banner draped behind his desk and sharing a big mug of strong tea with them. But behind the hospitality lay the hit.

As energy minister Benn carried through a massive pit closure programme. Worse, he colluded with the right of the NUM to push through a regional productivity deal. The impact of the deal would be to divide region against region, undermining nationally agreed pay deals by imposing differentials based on the quantity of coal produced.

Despite national ballots rejecting this deal Benn and the then miners’ leader, outmanoeuvred the opponent of the deal, Arthur Scargill, to push it through via regional ballots. The significance of this betrayal of the workers’ interests – and it was a betrayal of the first order – became clear in 1984 when the regions that had benefited most from the deal due simply to geological factors (Nottinghamshire in particularly) became bastions of scabbing in the fight against pit closures and fatally undermined the effectiveness of the national strike.

The years after 1979, when Labour began their long period of opposition, were the heyday for Bennism as a distinctive trend in the Labour Party. In 1979 the election defeat did shake the Labour Party up considerably. A large number of activists, rightly, blamed the Callaghan leadership for the defeat and for attacking the working class. They began to rally around the slogan “never again”, meaning, never again a Labour government that broke its manifesto pledges and turned on the working class.

Given that the right drew the opposite conclusion – that the unions and the working class had led to the downfall of a Labour government and should be attacked for doing so – a battle was inevitable. To his credit Benn sided with the :never again” camp and quickly rose to become the leader of a powerful left pushing for constitutional reform of the party to restrict the power of the Labour leadership and enhance the power of the membership.

Released from the duty of supporting a Labour government if office, Benn made two challenges to the leadership, coming within 1% in 1981 of beating Dennis Healey for the post of deputy leader and challenging Neil Kinnock for the party leadership in 1988 on a ticket with Eric Heffer.

As it turned out 1981 was the heyday of the left. But its moment of near victory – a victory that saw the hard right of the party defect to form the Social Democratic Party – rapidly turned into its moment of defeat. Terrified by the defection of the SDP and the growth of the Bennite movement the remaining right, in alliance with top union bureaucrats, demanded that Michael Foot launch a witch hunt. The right was about to regroup.

To neutralise Benn a special meeting was called in late 1981 at the plush mansion of the ASTMS (a union which went on to form today’s MSF) at Bishops Stortford. At this meeting the right threatened Benn with an all out war and further defections unless he called off his reforming campaign. Faced with the threat of a split Benn caved in to the right’s demands. The movement would be called off and all efforts would be turned towards preparing Labour for the next general election (which came in 1983). In early 1982 Benn announced that the left had won, the war was over and the job now was to unite behind the leadership (witch hunter Foot and right wing Healey).

Again, this was a betrayal. It disarmed and disoriented the left. After the 1983 election disaster, in which Labour was savaged, with Benn himself losing his seat, the right were able to turn around, blame Benn and the left and begin their transformation of the party back to being a safe alternative for the bosses.

They did this with gusto under the new Kinnock/Hattersley leadership and Benn – who probably believed he had won – paid the price for demobilising his movement after the treacherous pact with the right at Bishops Stortford. The left was driven back on every front. Purges and witch-hunts became the norm. Benn’s base was driven out of the party, his reforms neutralised by counter-reforms from the right. Defeat followed defeat and the left was reduced to the sorry state it has remained in to this day.

Benn is leaving parliament with Tony Blair leading Britain’s first Labour government since 1979 having followed both Neil Kinnock and John Smith in unleashing a series of attacks on the left as part of a transformation of the party into one safe for Britain’s bosses. Blair has won a number of significant victories in the way that the Labour Party organises itself that mean that the left is now far more marginalised than it ever has been and unable to get itself into the sorts of positions of power that it did in Labour’s early years of opposition.

All of the campaigns that Blair has waged inside the Labour Party beginning with the battle to rewrite Clause 4, the part of the Labour Party’s constitution held dear by Benn and the left inside the party, have been won with relative ease. The left is now extremely weak and bewildered by what they have seen going on.

Benn has said that he is not giving up politics by leaving parliament, promising instead “to work closely with all those, outside and inside parliament, who want to see the Labour Party recommit itself to the causes of social justice, democratic socialism and peace.”

Although Benn is an astute critic of the changes Blair has made in the way the Labour Party functions, the nature of parliament and has passionately held views on democracy and the senselessness of war, neither he, nor his co-thinkers on Labour’s left have the means to overcome the problems they identify.

On the question of internal democracy Benn sees Blair’s “modernisation” as a kind of patronage. That is, Blair is using his powers to appoint an ever increasing number of people to positions of power without the need to go through either the party membership or parliament itself. The examples he gives show what he means: Blair has appointed a number of people, mainly Tories, to important consultative positions from Michael Heseltine, to head a committee dealing with trade relations with China, to David Mellor being put in charge of football.

The adoption of list systems for elections to the European Parliament as well as the Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly are seen as part of the same process, ensuring that electors cannot choose the individual candidates, but rather only those that are Tony Blair’s choice. The decision to give the power to set interest rates directly to the Governor of the Bank of England is seen as part of the same trend.

He says:

“Seen in this light, modernisation can be understood for what it is – a throwback to feudal England where the King appointed everybody and there was not a shred of real democracy allowing the people to have any say whatever in determining their own future.” (Tribune, 6 November 1998)

The nature of parliament itself has also changed, according to Benn, as reflected in his statement explaining his decision to stand down. For one thing, he observed that politics is moving out of parliament. For another the role of parliament was now changing “from being an instrument we can use to control the economy, into an instrument used to control us in the interest of the economy.”

His arguments on Europe are an extension of his arguments on the nature of democracy. Benn has always maintained an anti-European stance whilst keen to point out that his is not the same xenophobic position as the Little Englanders of the right.

The problem for him is that the acceptance of a European Central Bank having the power to make decisions that effect all of Europe’s citizens is undemocratic because it is unaccountable to the individual parliaments of the European Union’s nations. Furthermore, it is protected by the terms of the Maastricht Treaty from pressure by those national parliaments.

Of course, Blair’s strategy has always been one of closing down debate and concentrating power increasingly into his own hands and this must be fought by all activists within the Labour Party. But parliament, even if it has become increasingly shallow and increasingly dominated by sound-bite politicians – of which Blair himself is a prime example – has not fundamentally changed. It has never been an instrument that we can use to effect real change, it has always been wielded to act in the interests of capital. The illusion that parliament can be used by the working class to see off the evils of capitalism for good is the central lie of reformism.

To his credit, Benn has consistently been an almost lone voice within the Commons in opposition to imperialist wars. However, his position on all these conflicts has consistently centred on the same fatal reformist flaw: a reliance on the United Nations (UN) to solve the problems.

He talks of the UN as a neutral force within these conflicts. But the UN is an organisation developed by and controlled by the USA and is always subservient to the needs of US imperialism. The Security Council, far from being an arbitration body is in fact a Council of War.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait and the UN imposed sanctions as a prelude to the actual conflict which was to follow with such devastating effects, Benn was fully supportive. When this policy was turned into one of an actual shooting war, Benn and his supporters complained that sanctions hadn’t had time to work.

In short, this pacifist line is one which fails to recognise the logic of why imperialism is responsible for war and sees war as something qualitatively different from the other tactics that imperialism, and the US in particular, uses to achieve its aims. It isn’t. Sanctions, bombs, or whatever tactic imperialism chooses are in the end the same thing: the use of force and violence through which imperialism imposes its will on the world as a whole.

Benn has for many years been a dominant force within the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs. This group consists of around 35 MPs and 6 MEPs, although its active core consists of a somewhat smaller number, including Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Grant. These MPs also figure on the editorial board of their publication, Socialist Campaign Group News, along with their main “theoreticians” Ken Livingstone and Alan Simpson.

The other major “official” opposition is represented by the Labour Reform Group who produce the Tribune newspaper and is a less thorough opposition to Blair. But between them, these groups reflect the central concerns of left reformism.

Alan Simpson’s politics rely on a strategy of government intervention into the economy in line with Keynesian economics allied to a set of social policies inherited from Beveridge. In short he views it as possible to manage international capitalism for the benefit of the working class.

Ken Livingstone favours a similar mixture of Keynesian economics and social reform mixed in with disgust for Labour’s attempts to woo middle England and thereby drive away Labour’s old support. He is further concerned that Labour is trying to break the union link, merge with the Lib Dems and silence the rank and file.

The Labour Reform Group sees as its main task the defence of democracy within the party. This it sees as being carried out mainly by attempting to enable Labour Party members to participate more fully in the areas of decision making and the drawing up of policy and moving away from the centralisation of power within an increasingly smaller band centred around the leadership itself. Also part of this process is its aim of ensuring that those in power are more firmly held to account. These purely internal matters are, for them, the main problem with the Labour Party.

They see the Labour Party as having as its central aims ensuring social justice and economic prosperity. They fully accept the new version of Clause 4 as the means to achieve this. They are happy to work in a party that relegates the unions to just one more special interest group within the party, equal to voluntary and community groups for example. In a word they are modernisers who think Blair needs to be kept in check.

They are currently trying to set up a Charter of Rights for Labour Party members frustrated with the centralisation of power. They see the introduction of the major reforms that Blair has brought about, not only the new Clause 4 but also Partnership into Power and One Member One Vote, as being not a problem in themselves but subject to abuse by the leadership.

Their draft charter proposes that these moves away from democracy are reversed.

As John Hurley, in one of their documents, puts it:

“It is clear that since the election a chasm has opened up between the leadership and the party membership. This chasm is not about the modernisation of party structures – few members would really want to return to the era of smoke filled rooms or Militant infiltration – but about how far members can influence the direction of government, through these new structures. The principles of a modern and democratic party are not being observed. Party policy is being made through processes which consult widely, but which are not transparent, allowing policy formulation to be effectively determined by small central elites and imposed on the membership. The selection of representatives is being removed from members and systems of patronage are being established. Timescales for debate are curtailed and no platform is given to alternative views, however well informed. Members have no opportunity to change parts of policy documents which they find unacceptable – policy is offered on an all or nothing basis and alternative options are excluded. The principle of One Member One Vote is being eroded in favour of a system of closed committee rooms that it was supposed to abolish.”

In other words, they are operating purely on questions of the internal functioning of the Labour Party and not on the questions of policy, which they explicitly reject as being part of their arena.

Both these loose groupings share the idea that reform can be delivered by better management of capitalism and that the Labour Party can be the vehicle for achieving this.

Linked to both of these is the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance which has, for the past two years stood a slate for the elections to the NEC.

In 1999 their candidates included two of their successful candidates from the 1998 elections, Liz Davies (famously deselected by the Labour Party leadership after being selected to fight the seat of Leeds North East in 1995) and Mark Seddon, the editor of Tribune.

Their election statements had in common a stress on the need to defend internal democracy but policy statements, where there were any, were at best woolly. One of the slate, Bill Butler, for instance, claimed support for “fairer” distribution of power, wealth and resources, a “realistic” minimum wage, “decent” levels of pensions and benefits and “adequate” funding for local government.

We are left to ask: who is to be the judge of what is fair, realistic, decent or adequate?

The Grassroots Alliance came into being as part of a campaign (together with the Labour Reform Group and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy) to delay (not stop) the implementation of Partnership into Power but found that shoddy treatment by the party bureaucracy meant that they had to maintain their existence further.

The choice of name of Centre Left Alliance is highly significant as they consider it important to elect a left chair and centre co-ordinator so as to ensure balance. They are keen to assert that they do not represent a “party within a party”

What remains on the left of the Labour Party now are groups and individuals still peddling the same old myths that Benn and his like have been peddling for years. They are convinced that the Labour Party is still the vehicle for the transformation of society – if only Blair would moderate his assaults on their abilities to operate within it.

The goal of the left now has changed from the days when Benn and Heffer actually put in some kind of challenge on the leadership, however inadequate, to one of “keeping the party labour” as they put it.

What is needed, though is a strategy that banishes forever the myth that managing capitalism in favour of the working class and one which puts up a real fight against Blair and his policies. In other words a strategy designed to win workers away from a reliance on reformism and win them to revolution.

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