14 March 2014

Tony Benn - the man of a misremembered yesterday

credit: Joe D / Cotch.net
Hackney Wick. 1983. The Labour Party fundraiser has run its course. There are empty Red Stripe cans on the floor and a slick of homous and Turkish set yoghurt in the sink. Mixed-up B52s, Human League and Talking Heads tapes lie entangled in the spaghetti of hi-fi wires.

Some Motown is played for one last rally before the party closes. Martha and the Vandellas sing but the words are changed by the dancing chorus of near everyone who remains:

Tony, Tony, oh Tony Benn, when are you coming back?
Tony, Tony, oh Tony Benn, you better hurry back.

Benn’s death will produce a glut of obsequiousness and wholesale editing of Labour history, including bromides from those who were to his Left.

I am writing this obituary now to correct these distortions, but Benn's political obituary could have been written at the time of that party in Hackney. Although not then settled, by 1983 he was yesterday's man; the Bennite feint had run its course and Labour would not make any Left turns for the next thirty years.

Earlier in 1983, Benn had been the star-turn at a packed meeting in Hackney Town Hall. Many who were in the Labour Party then, and who would later become a Council Leader, a lobbying company Chief Executive or a Queen's Counsel, came that night to fawn before the Benn.

Following too many soft-ball submissions from that audience, I asked, 'When do you intend fighting back and stop making concessions, like that of the Peace of Bishops Stortford?'

The loud groans I heard when putting the question made me feel a little like my friend's mistress might have done when she turned up at his funeral and introduced herself to his wife, if only she had but a smidgen of diffidence. That barracking during  and after I spoke meant we did not hear whether Benn even bothered to reply. But their Benn was simply there for them to behold.

Before Benn

The Sixties are seen as a radical decade but I think they have a strong, both backward and postwar tone; my mother was still giving us austerity spam fritters for our tea.

There was not any move Left by Labour, even in the late Sixties, nor much disquiet about the paltry advances made by the 1964-70 Labour government compared with that of the same from 1945-51. Whatever Left moves happened  in the sixties (e.g. the start of 'Gay Liberation', or student occupations) were not associated with Labour, or included people leaving that party. France in 1968 might have gone to revolution; the same year in Britain saw inner-city Labour councils turn Tory. 

That was followed by Labour, in government again, from 1974, as part of the fossilised establishment; the monolith that lumbered on right until Thatcherism.

For a flavour of the times before the revival of activism in Labour party at the very end of the Seventies, watch Youtube on the early travails of the Sex Pistols. Places in Wales simply near banned the band - the interchangeable be-hatted magistracy and municipal leadership (overwhelmingly  Labour) pushed for bookings to be cancelled and coaches to be diverted. You are reminded of those American films where a sheriff tells the newly arrived longhairs that they are on the next bus out of town.  

But then the  late Seventies saw some movement, albeit only temporary leftward advance. In 1970, 11 million working days were lost through strike action; 30 million days were lost in 1978 (249,000 were lost in 2012).

Some long-held social conventions started to be ditched - library workers could wear what they wanted, rather than their previous undertaker's drab or today's corporate uniform. A few schools abolished uniforms; a course now unimaginable as it is apparently accepted that tie-wearing means a higher standard of education - like in Finland or in the Netherlands. Time for Benn to make his move.

Enter Benn

WW2 pilot, Oxford graduate, son of a Cabinet member, a member of the Cabinet himself and Privy Councillor, Tony Benn was a man determined not to deny others the full benefits of his talents.

He had come fourth in the ballot amongst Labour MPs to replace Wilson as Prime Minister in 1976. He then put forward the 'Alternative Economic Strategy' to Callaghan's Cabinet but this was defeated in favour of agreeing to the IMF loan.

Benn saw that it was proving harder than it should be to convince his fellow Labour MPs that he was the best choice to lead Labour. Perhaps when drawing thoughtfully on his pipe, it had occurred to him: 'what if I recruit a plebeian chorus to make the Labour leadership listen to me?’

Benn had seen the start of a movement amongst some Labour activists who were opposing the lack of progressive reform being made by their 1974-79 government. Those such as Councillor Ted Knight, later Leader of Lambeth Council, who argued for resisting cuts the government was making as part of the IMF agreement, like the 93% reduction in the Transport Supplementary Grant to South Yorkshire County Council because they refused to raise bus fares (bus fares then were more the price of confectionery rather than, as now, the cost of a pint or even a packet of cigarettes).

By the late Seventies, this move Left by some in Labour was apparent in various urban areas. 'The Rise of the Left Revisited: Labour Party culture in post-war Manchester and Salford' (Labour History Review, December 2006) reports on the first occasional glimmerings of opposition to the local Labour Party leadership there before this time, but in the context of often near moribund local Labour organisations and a hegemony of right-wing boss politics. 

Then war broke out in the Labour Party in places like Manchester. I would watch arch-Tory, Stuart Hall sneer on BBC Look North West reporting on the epic battle between Manchester Labour councillors in the early eighties.

The old right manual-worker leadership of the city council's Labour Group fought dirty to stop the rise of more Left, graduate Labour councillors - like the then-Bennite Graham Stringer, who became Leader of Manchester City Council in 1984 and is now the MP for Manchester Blackley and Broughton. These Bennite insurgents did then have some fire in their belly - although that is now replaced by foie gras.

A Militant member of Stockport Labour party told me of the late night/early morning meetings when members of the Women's Section, aroused from thirty years of being expected just to make the tea, suspended standing orders to extend the meeting so as to face down the Bennite librarians and housing officers, knowing that their opponents would wilt around one o'clock in the morning thinking of their nine o'clock start, when all the victors had to do the next day was pick up their pensions.

A considerable numbers of Lefts flocked into Labour. SWP branches disappeared because most of their membership had gone over. For a few years it appeared that most activists you met would be Labour Party members. 

"Official figures indicate that the size of the party in Manchester and Salford halved across the two cities during 1965–1980...In 1982, Hulme Ward (Manchester) recruited thirty-two new members... The ward subsequently called for: investigations into police violence; an ‘indefinite’ strike in the National Health Service and a boycott of the local Labour club for refusing to oppose discrimination against lesbians and gay men." (The Rise of the Left Revisited)

A ferment of media coverage arose about the supposed extreme path that Labour was now taking - it was this impression of radicalism that made me join the Labour Party, whilst at school, in 1980.

Because what do you do when you want to change things? Most people do nothing, some try and live the way they want the world to be, many work on their cynicism but some join a political party. But why would anyone radical join one of the main parties? I think it was because whilst you knew you were being shoe-horned into something, that somehow seemed better than having a million parties with just one member each.

It is that feeling of dislocation and enthusiasm that Benn - after establishing himself as the leader of the Left in Labour - was able to use to co-opt to his cause most of the new, young activists who wanted things done in a hurry. Benn, as the only identifiable Left apart from Michael Foot in the outgoing Labour Cabinet of 1979, had assumed leadership of the Left rebels whilst Foot swung right to become the compromise candidate in his successful bid for the Labour leadership in 1980. 

Britain does not have a tradition of local leaders taking national roles in the way that a French politician may be both a mayor and a minister. This system meant that people like Blunkett and Livingstone could not forward their own political careers from their respective positions as Leader of Sheffield City Council and the Greater London Council (GLC); they needed first to trade down to become MPs and then advance from there.

The Bennites, often associated with the magazine Labour Briefing, won local power and selection as parliamentary candidates in many big cities and middle-sized university towns.

Some advances were also made by Militant and a few minor victories fell to other Trotskyists in the Labour Party. There were sharp lines of difference between these three groupings but that is a detail not now often acknowledged.

Labour's Wembley conference in 1981 made right-winger Denis Healey the Deputy Leader, but Benn was just 1% behind and if the votes of the MPs who then defected to the SDP had been discounted, Benn would have won.

In 1981, a few days after being elected, the GLC Labour councillors replaced their old Leader with Ken Livingstone. In 1982, the 22 Islington council seats held by the SDP councillors (who had defected from Labour the previous year) were all lost as Labour took all but one of the seats on the council. 'Fortress Islington' was the front page photo of Labour Briefing as radical Labour took control of several London councils. 

Benn and Bennites

Benn's feint against the Labour Front Bench was about getting him into power and he wilted. Benn and the Bennites failed to stop the resurgence from the right of Labour that then developed, especially after Neil Kinnock was elected Leader in 1983. 

But in support of his campaign, Benn had encouraged a generation of Labour activists -  who initially had a lot more credulity than political comprehension - up to the top of the hill of local political power.

When they got there, they briefly admired the view before beginning their long descent - first raising the rates and then privatising, smashing the trade unions and slashing, and slashing again, as their fall accelerated towards the gutter.  

Many Bennite councillors I knew - one with her hair cut and dyed in the shape of a red star, and another who lasted just one council meeting before resigning - did not have a plan to deal with the financial responsibilities of municipal power and the obligations that were foisted upon them, by both council officers and their own party apparatus.

With a very few honourable exceptions, these councillors either headed for the exit. Or they knuckled down and went to M&S, for maybe their first suit, and then kept a discreet eye out for forthcoming Labour Party parliamentary candidate selections.

Most former Bennites who managed that quick-change routine have now, in turn, been displaced in the metropolitan areas by younger Labourites; by those who have never experienced anyone arguing against the leadership consensus.

In places like former mill-towns or mining areas, it is not uncommon to be a councillor for thirty-plus years; Labour Councillor Ray Davies, former miner and steelworker, who led the protests against the Sex Pistols gig in Caerphilly in 1976, is still a councillor there, fifty years after he was first elected..

It might surprise some in these smaller towns - the Caerphillys and the Merthyrs, rather than the Cardiffs and the Swanseas - that their present, local political bosses - who long ago conceded everything to private companies (or their near twins, such as Housing Associations and social enterprises) and to council officers (both the Chief Executive and his Deputy at Caerphilly Council have been charged with misconduct in a public office after receiving massive, secret pay rises) - may once have had a radical Bennite flush in their youth.

Political leaders who are glad that Google can not yet mine thirty-year old copies of the Pontypridd and Llantrisant Observer to reveal how they once batted for Benn. Or they don't care - the most divisive issues now amongst such councillors can be about who gets the Royal Garden Party invitation or be conflict ignited by the awarding of an OBE to one of their number.
Not all former Bennites kept selling out. Some found that their souls had become too blunted to slash any more. You might now occasionally see their name in a local paper or on an online forum. If in the North, they might be organising a Real Ale Fayre or a Preserved Bus rally or writing up their travels ground-hopping at Non League football clubs. I saw one in the stands at a Football Club United of Manchester match; I remember him as a Leicester City supporter.

All this activity of theirs is wallowing in some supposed better yesterday. Their socialism has been replaced by hobbyism.

It is now near impossible to imagine a Bertram or a Bedi leading a future Left movement in the Labour Party, as both Benn and the earlier Bevan (who was opposed by Benn) once did. The present organisation most dominated by the political expression once known as Bennism is Left Unity.

The end of Benn

For all Benn’s vainglorious grandstanding, he did maintain a commitment to every good cause going when these could no longer be of any personal benefit to his career. It is not his fault that all sorts of political waste, like Louise Mensch, doubtless saw his name trending when he was admitted to hospital and so dispensed a few words of anaemic benignancy to the old man. His foul litter of children still active - Harman, Abbot, Bassam etc. - will soon be fading away (his real kids and grand-kids are a Labour hereditary bigwigs family).

The old right that remained in the Labour Party during the Benn insurgency picked up their tools and just stayed in their Labour Clubs and trade union retired member branches. I wonder if Labour might now be slightly less right-wing if they had beaten Benn at the beginning.