Tony Benn, who died on 14 March 2014, led a radical recomposition of British politics, which despite the defeat of the left he led in the labour movement in the 1970s and 80s changed left politics in Britain forever.
Before ‘Bennism’ swept through the labour movement its politics had become mainly confined to militant trade union and economic struggle. Not since the rise of the international class struggle that culminated in the Russian Revolution of 1917 had there been a mass left current in the British working class that stood for a radical anti-imperialist, feminist, working class politics. That early 20th century tradition – represented by those such as Sylvia Pankhurst, John Maclean and James Connolly – had opposed the First World War, fought for Irish Freedom, supported Votes for Women, was in solidarity with the Russian Revolution, and formed the early Communist Party. Smashed by defeat of the international revolution in the inter-war period and the errors of Stalinism in Russia, that type of hegemonic, left current was reduced to the extreme fringes of British working class politics.
‘Bennism’ embodied the return of those advanced politics in the new circumstances of the 1960s and 1970s. This was a refounding of a left politics based on the class struggle in its broadest sense; 100 per cent behind every struggle waged for higher wages, to defend jobs and for trade union rights, but also centrally standing for a fight against nuclear weapons and imperialist war, supporting the Irish national struggle, championing the struggles of women and Black people and supporting lesbian and gay rights. This was a true ‘communist’ tradition in Lenin’s sense of a movement that sought to stand for the interests of the working class and all its components and for the rights of all those oppressed and discriminated against in a single movement that fought for them all.
Of course, Tony Benn was not a communist. He was an extremely radical democrat advocating socialism. But he always understood the connection between the wider politics he espoused and the achievements of the international communist movement. Despite the anathema to his brand of politics of the regime in the Soviet Union, he always defended the USSR. And he saw more clearly than others that the movements that brought down the regimes in Eastern Europe and eventually the USSR itself were perhaps an inevitable product of the mistakes of the past, but would not represent progress, merely the advance of NATO to the east and a strengthening of imperialism.
It was precisely because of its hegemonic approach ‘Bennism’ was, and is, considered ‘dangerous’ by its enemies. It was a new politics capable of acquiring a mass base of support, and came within a millimetre of winning the leadership of the labour movement with the 1981 Deputy Leadership election.
Although its leadership was based within the Labour Party it reached far beyond and its impact was on every element of the wider labour and progressive movement.
The origins of ‘Bennism’
The origins of the new left politics that Benn symbolised lie in profound changes that unfolded internationally and within British society in the post-war period.
The most profound impact was from the advances of anti-colonial struggles. These struggles confronted the labour movement with a choice between siding with British imperialism in trying to hang onto its Empire or supporting those struggles. Initially those supporting these struggles were a small minority, but gradually movements of solidarity developed within the imperialist countries, eventually becoming a mass movement against the Vietnam War.
At the same time, the imperialist countries were going through a vast social change. Capitalism required a huge increase of labour as the post war economies boomed. In Britain this was provided by a mass entry of women into the workforce and the recruitment of workers from Britain’s former colonies. This entirely changed the social composition of the working class in Britain. Rather than overwhelmingly male and white – a composition that was mirrored in the trade unions and wider labour movement including its radical left-wing – women and Black workers formed a growing presence.
These developments shaped society and gave rise to new social movements; against imperialism, for women’s liberation and against racism. Tony Benn’s immense contribution was that he provided leadership to a new class struggle left that embraced all these developments.
Benn’s leftward journey
Tony Benn entered parliament in November 1950 and soon established his clear commitment to an anti-imperialist agenda.
Prior to ‘Bennism’ Labour’s left, much like today’s Labour right, tied itself to Britain’s imperial past, supporting the economic exploitation of its current and former colonies, with the associated need for an offensive military capacity and subservience to the US. The Labour Party was not an early supporter of independence and self government for Britain’s colonies.
Benn made a decisive break from all this.
In 1954 Benn helped establish the H-bomb National Committee to campaign against Britain developing nuclear weapons.
The same year he also helped found the Movement for Colonial Freedom (renamed Liberation in 1970) and became its Treasurer. It campaigned in support of the anti-colonial independence struggles, supported the 1959 Cuban revolution and opposed the 1955-75 US war in Vietnam.
In the 1964–1970 Labour Government Benn served as a Cabinet Minister and witnessed Labour’s leadership capitulating to capital’s demands. The 1967 currency devaluation directly attacked working class living standards.
These experiences prompted Benn to shift further left and throughout the 1970-74 Tory Government he linked up with those fighting the Tories economic offensive.
In 1971 Benn famously headed the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) demonstration in Glasgow. UCS were the first workers since the war to organise a factory occupation and their ‘work-in’ successfully forced the Heath government to reverse its closure policy.
Benn supported the Pentonville Five, five dock workers imprisoned in 1972 for breaching Tory anti-trade union laws. He backed the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974.
After Labour’s return to office in 1974, Wilson then Callaghan abandoned their manifesto commitments and the government sought to make workers pay for the slowing economy. Benn, who was now the Cabinet’s leading left wing member, opposed the use of wage restraint on trade unions, leading to his demotion from Industry to Energy Secretary.
The 1975 ‘incomes policy’ that held wage increases below inflation, followed by the 1976 Lib-Lab pact in which 13 Liberal MPs were given a veto over government policy, ensured Thatcher’s election victory in 1979.
The ‘Bennite’ left
There was widespread understanding within Labour of the cause of its defeat, reflected in the growing support for Labour’s left, which by 1980 had a majority on the party’s National Executive Committee. Labour’s membership and affiliated unions wanted more influence over the manifesto and greater accountability from MPs and the Leader. Demands had arisen for democratising the election of party Leader and re-selection of MPs. Tony Benn became the Labour left’s leading figure campaigning for these internal reforms.
When in 1981 Benn contested Labour’s Deputy Leadership, in the final round of the count he secured 49.57 per cent of the vote to Denis Healey’s 50.43 per cent. Benn had lost by less than 0.5% – a margin accounted for by some Labour MPs who soon defected to the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
Then in 1982 Benn set up the Campaign Group of Labour MPs based on principal of open meetings that linked up with mass forces campaigning outside of parliament.
Benn and the Campaign Group threw themselves into supporting the National Union of Mineworkers and its leader Arthur Scargill through out the 1984-5 miners’ strike. Through the experience of the strike the NUM’s leadership came to be identified with a similar politics to Benn, shifting to actively support the struggles of women, Black people, lesbian and gay rights and a range of international issues.
Within Labour the ‘Bennites’ took up the battles for a greater say for women and black people. While the Labour leadership tried to hold back any advance, the party’s Conference eventually agreed measures to increase the representation of women and Black self-organisation was accepted within the party. Similar changes took place in the trade unions.
Tony Benn helped sustain this political framework for the next twenty years. Kinnock and Blair relentlessly drove the Party to the right and the rest of the labour movement followed suit. But it had become impossible for any section of the labour movement to suggest that the rights of women should not be integral to its concerns, that lesbian and gay rights should not be defended and Black and Asian people should not be represented. Although the fight against all forms of racism, the remnants of colonialism and imperialist war was not so entrenched institutionally in the labour movement, they are considered part of the definition of the left in a way they were not before.
After retiring from the House of Commons in 2001 Benn became President of the Stop the War Coalition, campaigning against the war in Afghanistan, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, NATO’s 2011 assault on Libya and most recently he opposed Western intervention in Syria. He became a founding patron of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, founding signatory of Unite Against Fascism, backed the Occupy London movement and last year helped launch the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.
The mythology of Labour defeat
The right wing of British politics, including within Labour, attacked Benn, then and now, because he so resolutely sided with those in struggle. As part of that, a much publicised myth was created that Benn and the left were responsible for Labour losing the general elections in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992. It is just pure fiction as Labour’s right wing controlled Labour’s orientation in three of these elections and in 1983 it split the party to ensure there could be no Labour victory.
Labour was kicked out of office in 1979 for attacking people’s living standards.
Following the ‘Bennites’ securing left control of Labour’s NEC a new Labour right offensive was launched. The Social Democratic Party was set up in 1980 and 28 Labour MPs joined the split. The SDP allied with the Liberal Party and together they took 25 per cent of the vote at the 1983 general election to Labour’s 25 per cent, ensuring a Tory victory.
After Labour’s right wing recaptured control of the party NEC in 1981, instead of promoting a broad alliance to fight the Tories, it focussed its energy on battling the Labour left. Given the level of support for ‘Bennism’ a frontal assault on it would have failed so instead a witch hunt was launched against the Militant Tendency because its more backward economistic politics made it easy to crush.
Kinnock, as Leader from 1983, continued this anti-left rather than anti-Tory agenda and inevitably was incapable of delivering electoral success in 1987 and 1992.
Tony Benn will be rightly remembered for the wide range of progressive struggles he championed –for so many he will forever be a hero.
When he started out in the Movement for Colonial Freedom he didn’t know he was at the beginning of creating a new left politics, but that now is established. Thanks to the considerable attention Benn paid to arming up the left, including the younger generation, the political framework he fought for will continue.
Whilst the left has lost an outstanding leader, his legacy will inspire for years to come.
Tony Benn 1925 – 2014