Tony Benn: The Lost Leader Labour was lucky to lose

Published on 17 March 1983

It is good for a nation to mourn the passing of its former political giants – but not at the expense of truth.

The Guardian’s immediate coverage of Tony Benn’s death was significant, because it has reported the British Labour movement more deeply and more sympathetically than almost any other newspaper in the past fifty years. Its editions last Friday and Saturday were understandably drenched with tributes to him. Unfortunately, its younger readers would have missed key points in Benn’s story, particularly at his apogee in the early 1980s.

For example, they would not have been aware of John Silkin’s candidacy against him in the Deputy Leadership contest of 1981, a courageous and important decision.

They were encouraged to believe that Benn was desperately unlucky to lose that contest, by a wafer-thin margin, because of last-minute union machinations and betrayal by a group of left-wing Labour MPs led by Neil Kinnock. In reality, Benn was desperately lucky to get as close as he did – only because Labour’s largest union, the TGWU, gave him their vote in the second ballot against the wish of a clear majority of its members, who wanted Healey.

Most important of all, younger Guardian readers were given no idea why Benn was rejected by the Labour party. They read about a Lost Leader, brilliant, principled, inspirational – and right. So why did so many Labour supporters and progressive people reject him and work against him, intensely and passionately and often at high political and even personal risk? Were these all flinching cowards or sneering traitors, secretly suborned by the capitalist enemy?

I am biased: I was Denis Healey’s chief of staff from 1981 to 1983. Most of my professional life for that period was spent trying to resist Tony Benn and leech his influence out of the Labour party. I hope that I can explain why so many people, who disagreed on countless other issues, committed themselves to this mission.

I believed then, and still do, that Tony Benn’s Deputy Leadership bid was a destructive and unprincipled act. If it had succeeded, the Labour party would have been extinguished as a political force and as an agent of change for people who needed it. Worse still, it would have deserved this fate.
Within Tony Benn’s campaign were numerous “bad guys” who were enemies of democratic Parliamentary socialism, and a larger number of obsessives who wanted a Labour party with their outlook and in their image and did not care what that would do to voters. However, it did attract many committed and principled Labour supporters searching for an exciting vision from the party amid the darkening skies of Thatcherism. I believe that Benn was a parasite on their idealism. He annexed their loyalty to ideas and great causes and identified it with loyalty to himself. Eventually, John Silkin stood against him to resist this annexation and allow people to vote for most of Benn’s policies while rejecting his designs on the Labour party itself.

Benn’s claim to the Deputy Leadership was built on a multiple series of lies. The very idea that the party’s Deputy Leader defines and safeguards party policy was a lie. Benn’s own loyalty to current party policy was selective, and abandoned at will, as over NATO and Ireland. Benn had his personal foreign policy, which Denis Healey trenchantly described as “deserting all of our allies at once and then preaching them a sermon.” Benn never dealt with any objection, principled or practical, to any part of his programme. For example, he assumed that that Britain’s then European partners would be eager to help us leave the (then) European Community overnight, and shut out their goods from our markets while leaving their markets open to ours. In fairness, Benn’s acolyte Chris Mullin anticipated some of the challenges to a prospective Benn government in his didactic, dystopian novel A Very British Coup. It was a poor advertisement: our economy is sabotaged and our democracy destroyed.

Benn and his supporters constantly peddled a false narrative of the previous Labour government, and his own role in resisting its “surrenders” to the IMF and other international capitalist conspirators. They encouraged the de-selection of MPs simply for supporting decisions by that government and its ministers.

Benn and his followers claimed to be bringing democracy to the Labour party. As widely noted at the time, it was a peculiar democracy which always stopped short of giving a vote to the rank-and-file members of local parties, trade unions and other affiliated bodies, whom the Bennites claimed to represent. They knew that the rank and file could never be trusted to vote the right way, and when pressed to explain their exclusion the Bennites blamed them for being dupes of Right-Wing media, too stupid to work out things for themselves. As a matter of tactics, the Healey campaign pressed constantly for full membership ballots in local parties and unions. We secured around 60 in local parties: overwhelmingly, they supported Healey. Of the unions which conducted a proper ballot of members, Benn took the Mineworkers, Healey took all the rest.
The Bennite agenda was to put the Labour party under permanent control by the coalition of Left-wing sectarian factions under his banner which had managed to seize control of decaying Labour party local institutions. All Labour office holders, ministers, MPs, councillors, would effectively take orders from them. He followed the long-established pernicious maxim of “no enemies on the Left” so that no one, however obnoxious, undemocratic or plain silly, was excluded from his coalition. He consistently defended the right of the Trotskyite Militant Tendency to use the Labour’s party organization, money and good name, ignoring the fact that Trotsky hated the Labour party all his life and urged his followers to join it only to subvert it.

I listened to Benn at meetings and never once heard him repudiate any stupid or extreme remark from a sympathizer on the floor. He had a characteristic response: “there’s much to think about in what the comrade has just said and what we’ve got to do is to connect this with all the other struggles now going on, the nurses, the miners, [insert any major strikers], the Greenham women, and those in the wider world, for jobs, disarmament, against apartheid … [continues for several minutes until weirdo is forgotten.]”

It is terrible but true to say that Benn was “soft on communism” at this time, never willingly attacking any Soviet policy, constantly explaining away Soviet military might, including its nuclear arsenal, as a defensive response to legitimate fears. Benn never attacked any transgression by any “progressive” regime or institution. I attended a meeting in the early 1980s in which he reported on his recent visit to Castro’s Cuba. He dwelt on Castro’s pursuit of human rights through education and health but never mentioned the regime’s abuses of gay people or the mentally ill or dissidents, including people trying to organize free trade unions.

Above all, Benn never once in 1981 took any responsibility for the impact of his campaign, his policies, his personality, on Labour’s standing in the polls and its actual performance in by-elections and local elections. Denis Healey, even when fighting for his political life, did his utmost in the contest to stretch his personal position on all sorts of issues to preserve the appearance of unity in the Labour party. He took some fierce criticism for this. Tony Benn made no adaptation whatever in the interests of the Labour party. As Labour plummeted in the polls and in real elections, his followers pretended that he was the solution not the cause. They made the self-serving claim that voters were turning to the breakaway SDP and indeed, to Margaret Thatcher, because the Labour party was not Left-Wing enough.

If Benn had won the Deputy Leadership in 1981, there would have been a mass of defections to the SDP from MPs, including shadow ministers, and councillors, and several unions. The MPs would not have included Denis Healey but he and his major supporters would have left the Shadow Cabinet and regarded themselves as free agents, politically. I have no doubt that the Benn-controlled Labour party, nominally led by a captive Michael Foot, would very quickly have fallen to third place in the polls. That would have prompted all but diehard members to turn to the SDP-Liberal Alliance as the best way of getting rid of Mrs Thatcher, although Labour in Scotland and Wales would also have faced desertion to the nationalist parties.

The Alliance would not have won the 1983 election, but it would have had a sporting chance in 1987 and ought to have won the election of 1992. (Ironically, it would probably have been considerably more progressive than Blair’s Labour government of 1997).

Tony Benn’s opponents had no time for such speculations in 1981. We were fighting someone who had no right, in our view, to a position of trust in our party, who would have brought it to political extinction. Benn may have been a Lost Leader but he was a leader that Labour was lucky to lose.

However, a long way after 1981 we could analyse and even enjoy his gradual evolution from Public Enemy to Revered Political Philosopher. As he himself acknowledged, it reflected his loss of power and influence in British politics. No longer a threat to the political establishment, they could use him as a poster boy for British democracy and fair play, and help people to forget all their other efforts to exclude or stifle dissidents.

Deservedly, he benefited from speaking and writing colourfully as more and more mainstream politicians relied on pre-prepared bromides. He mellowed and developed a pleasant line in self-mockery we never saw in 1981 (perhaps taught by his follower Ken Livingstone, the Cheeky Chappie of British politics).

Above all, Benn was made to look like a lost prophet by New Labour. None of us who thought we had saved the Labour party in 1981 anticipated that it would fall into the hands of a leader who would love to confront its own supporters but never its enemies, who loved Big Business even more than Mrs Thatcher, who would take us into the Iraq war. Benn’s showily modest public lifestyle, so often mocked in his heyday, looked much more attractive in his sunset. Unlike Blair and Mandelson and others, we did not see him pursuing money from unattractive or secret sources (not that he ever needed to do this.)

Benn profited in later life from the dualism that has always permeated British politics, from a default assumption that the Labour party had to be either Bennite or Blairite. Curiously, the two factions had much in common. Both were brilliant organizers and networkers, able to give each other jobs and positions which afforded the maximum time for political activity. Both regularly bored opponents into inanition, with jargon-heavy speeches or pamphlets: one’s jargon was Marxist, the other managerialist, but the effect was identical.

Above all, Benn and Blair had a unique capacity to talk drivel with total conviction. In fairness, both offered listeners that really serious drivel was about to come. Benn would precede this with the words “let’s be clear”, Blair would simper and say “hey…”

Both Benn and Blair were equally cavalier with the past. They could present themselves either as modernizing iconoclasts or as heirs to some noble tradition. In the latter vein, both Benn and Blair treated history as an endless parade, with themselves taking the salute.

17. March 2014 by rkh
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