The labour of Tony Benn

Review by Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales)

Tony BennTony Benn’s latest volume of diaries continues his frank and honest appraisal of his political life. He has campaigned long and hard – but in vain – to halt the degeneration of the Labour Party.

This book shows, argues Peter Taaffe in the Dec 2013-Jan 2014 issue of Socialism Today (monthly magazine of the Socialist Party), just how necessary and urgent is the task of building a new mass party of the working class.

“The Last Diaries of Tony Benn: a blaze of autumn sunshine” – Published by Hutchinson, 2013, £20


David Cameron wants to erase the speeches and documents of himself and his party prior to 2010 from the historical record, acutely embarrassed at those gushing but completely false promises made before he came to power: ’Caring Conservatism’, ’No attacks on the NHS’, etc.

His ’big society’, meant to give the impression of a non-class, conciliatory approach, has been buried under an avalanche of vicious class warfare by the coalition government against working people.

Contrast this attempt to rewrite history to Tony Benn’s diaries, the last in the series stretching back to 1940.

They are very honest, even when they sometimes present an unflattering political picture of the author himself.

Like Oliver Cromwell, who urged his portrait painter to depict him ’warts and all’, Tony Benn does the same.

He is unsparing in the poignant detail of an older man valiantly struggling to cope with living alone, after the death of his wife, Caroline, in 2000.

He faces increasing political isolation from the Blairised Labour Party. His family still supports New Labour, which he clearly regrets.

This is because it is one of the factors which have held him back from drawing the conclusion that the Labour Party is finished as a vehicle for the labour movement and working class to genuinely express their interests.

The idea of a new mass party of the working class flows from everything Benn records here.

Covering the period from 2007, the diaries deal with the last days of the Blair regime and the start of Gordon Brown’s short and disastrous tenancy of Number 10 Downing Street, as well as the beginning of the world crisis of capitalism.

The fate of the Labour Party, and the figures associated with the New Labour ’project’, is the major theme.

As early as 2007, when Benn was clearly hoping for a change in direction with Brown, he records: “It is really very important now that Blair’s gone, and necessary to take a constructive approach to the new government.

“Although Brown is a neo-liberal in economic matters…” The Socialist Party drew the opposite conclusion: that Brown, joint originator with Blair of the New Labour project, would continue with the same policies.

No matter who replaced Blair, if the new leader remained within the confines of diseased capitalism, as he would, fundamentally the same policies would be carried out.

Hoping against hope that New Labour had been buried by the departure of Blair, Benn writes to congratulate Brown on a speech in the House of Commons.

Yet, barely a week later, he records: “John Hutton, the new minister for business and enterprise, said that Labour is the natural party of business.

“Digby Jones, businessman and former director general of the CBI, has been brought in. Blair, of course, had brought in Shaun Woodward, the former Tory MP, and Brown is hoping to get the Liberals into the government”.

One month later, his hopes of a change seem to be completely dashed: “Gordon Brown praised Mrs Thatcher and said that she was a conviction politician who’d made many changes that needed to be made”.

Thatcher’s ’changes’ involved introducing the most vicious anti-union legislation in the advanced industrial countries, the smashing of the miners, the same treatment meted out to the Liverpool councillors, introducing the poll tax, etc.

Brown grovelled on all fours before Thatcher, which disgusted Tony Benn: “Gordon Brown went to the front of Number 10 and welcomed Mrs Thatcher: she was there with him for two hours and, after his warm tribute to her the other day, he confirmed his Thatcherism, although the BBC is saying he’s doing it to simply embarrass David Cameron.

“Actually, I think it’s embarrassing the left more”. The real left was not embarrassed. Brown’s personal embrace of Thatcher was not a surprise; he and New Labour applied her policies.

Labour leader’s fan club

But what conclusion does Tony Benn draw from the relentless swing towards the right of New Labour? He states clearly that Brown was pursuing Thatcherite policies.

He also writes: “Political life will move outside the party and I will certainly join anyone who is campaigning against privatisation, against the war, against student fees, for pensioners to get a good deal, for civil liberties, for trade union rights, for comprehensive education…

“The changes [in Labour Party structures, proposed by Brown] will destroy the Labour Party as a party, and membership of the party as an instrument of social change.

“It just becomes the fan club of the rank-and-file for the leadership when elections come, and it will have a huge effect on the future of the Labour Party.

“Of course, if they do succeed in getting state funding for political parties, then political leaders won’t need their party any more”.

Absolutely correct! The scenario envisaged by Tony Benn is to some extent working itself out now under Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party.

The recent battle over Falkirk Labour Party saw Miliband bending to the direct pressure of Cameron. He acted like a mini-Noske or Scheidemann, the infamous German Social Democratic leaders who presided over the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and the suppression of the workers’ movement just after the first world war.

Miliband acted like a finger man in setting up an inquiry and referring the issue to the police against Unite the union and Stevie Deans, its convener at Grangemouth petrochemical plant.

This resulted in the suspension of Deans and the vilification of Unite. This in turn led to the calling off of the strike at Grangemouth and consequent victory for the vicious employer, Ratcliffe, and the Cameron-inspired ’inquiry’ into the actions of Unite over its ’leverage’ (solidarity) campaign.

This is timed to embarrass Miliband at the special Labour Party conference in March, where Miliband plans to destroy the collective weight of the unions within the Labour Party.

At the same time, Cameron flags up possible further measures against Unite and trade unions in general.

It is not excluded that a form of state funding of political parties could be introduced at a certain stage.

This will further separate what remains of the Labour Party from real trade union influence.

Clinging to wreckage

Tony Benn is a witness to this degeneration, not over a month, but for a period of ten years or more.

Yet he has clung to the battered wreckage of the Labour Party, even when everything he writes leads to the conclusion that organisationally and politically the Labour Party is impervious to change.

In 2007, he writes: “The more I think of it, the more it seems the conference has been gutted. There seems to be utter contempt for the trade union delegates on the national executive and inevitably the unions will distance themselves, if not disaffiliate completely, like the Fire Brigades Union.

“Better to do that and campaign hard for what they believe in, rather than take on the role of tame rabbits within the party”.

At the conference he declares: “The left at the conference fringe are now useless, because they are all splitting up…” “No resolutions and no books – that’s the Labour Party!” “It is not the Labour conference any more – it’s a rally…

“We gather once a year and meet a lot of old mates. We have no decisions of any kind to reach… It is nothing whatsoever to do with democracy, any more than religion is anything to do the teachings of Jesus…”

Labour Party conferences had become not just a rubber stamp for the leadership; they were surrounded by a cordon sanitaire of police and security heavies.

This was designed to lock out trade unionists and ordinary working people who wished to exert some pressure on the delegates.

To actually get into the conference meant circumventing one barrier after another. Benn records in April 2008: “I spent four hours in the evening – I’m not kidding – filling in the form to apply for a pass to go to the Labour Party conference, which is a meaningless conference this year because there’ll be no votes…

“I mean, you’d really think I was going to visit Dartmoor prison or something! It depressed me no end”.

What a contrast between this caricature of a conference allegedly representing working people and the conferences of the 1980s.

They took place when the left was in the ascendant, when Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party) exercised a big influence, and when workers tuned in to television and radio to follow avidly the discussions around resolutions calling for nationalisation, workers’ control and management.

There is one priceless entry in Benn’s diaries concerning Militant and ’St Vince’ Cable: “Cable… said he once worked with John Smith, advising him, as a member of the Labour Party, but left the party because of Militant”.

This was one of our achievements we were not aware of – nobody noticed Cable at the time! – in driving a right-winger like him out of the Labour Party, to become an oil executive and then to join the Liberal Democrats.

He now sits in the Con-Dem coalition government, giving his blessing to Cameron’s attacks and the ’inquiry’ into Unite.

For every Cable who left the Labour Party at that stage, hundreds and thousands of workers joined, attracted by the left’s fighting programme and actions.

The Liverpool District Labour Party, for instance, could hold meetings of 750 people at the height of the battle (1983-87) against Thatcher’s government.

The right wing of the Labour Party condemned this as ’an unrepresentative left-wing caucus’!

Contradictory approach

Tony Benn displays, as we have also seen in his previous diaries, a contradictory – almost politically schizophrenic – approach towards the Labour Party.

On Brown, he can write: “I watched Gordon Brown on The Andrew Marr Show, and the plain truth is that Brown is the managing director of Great Britain plc”.

Then he writes: “What with Chávez, on the one hand, and Bush and the crisis and ’anything but nationalisation’ on the other, it looks to me as if the ideological, intellectual tide is turning”.

Quite correctly, he points to the anti-war movement, particularly against the Iraq war which, although it did not succeed in preventing the war, illuminated the enormous possibilities for mass mobilisation.

He says that, after the March 2003 demonstration against the invasion, Peter Kellner – a Maoist in his ’salad days’ (as Shakespeare would put it) but then and now involved in the polling organisation YouGov – came to see him.

Kellner said the demonstration “was just Trots having a day out. Well, if there are two million Trots, the British Establishment should be really frightened”. An anticipation of events in the future!

After Ken Livingstone was defeated in the London mayoral election by Boris Johnson, Benn records: “It’s quite obvious that Ken has been brought down by New Labour, even though he took an independent position…

“It was a terrible, terrible day for the Labour Party and, happily, I think, the deathblow of New Labour…

“New Labour had destroyed the Labour Party”. Benn’s vision of the future was bleak: “It sunk me in a deep depression…

“After we lose the election, which we will in a couple of years [and did], there won’t be another Labour government in my lifetime and, indeed, probably not for another 20 years.

“I feel – I’m so tired – I feel bereaved that the Labour Party has gone that way. It has died. It’s been assassinated by Blair and Brown.

“Brown is totally inadequate, but having a new leader wouldn’t solve the problem. What are needed are new policies”.

Tony Benn surveys Labour slashing the NHS, carrying through cuts and preparing the ground for the Tories when they come to power.

His indignation, shared by many socialists, spills over: “The private management of failed NHS hospitals was announced, and it absolutely horrified me.

“What do you make of a Labour government that denies trade unions their rights, that goes to war and then privatises the NHS?”

Yet had Tony Benn, despite his advanced age, made a call for a new party in 2008, it would have found an enormous echo.

A new party would not be able to replace the Labour Party immediately. But it would establish a firm base over time.

Its electoral challenge may even compel Labour – looking over its shoulder – to hesitate before implementing right-wing policies.

When we shared a platform at a meeting in Liverpool this year (2013) there was genuine affection and support for Tony Benn.

Primarily, this was for his stand against the right wing in the Labour Party deputy leadership election in 1981 and for his unswerving support for the miners and Liverpool councillors in their defiance of Thatcher.

But when he concluded in his speech that “we should stick with Labour” it went down like a lead balloon.


The reason he gives for not taking to the road of a new party is that Arthur Scargill failed with the Socialist Labour Party (SLP).

He is also hostile to ’sectarianism’ – ludicrously pointing, in particular, to the Weekly Worker, which is not taken seriously by anybody – and to building parties and movements on ’charisma’ and ’personalities’, such as George Galloway or Tommy Sheridan. At no time does Benn try to explain why Arthur Scargill’s efforts failed.

The conditions for a new party – a small mass party – were in place when he launched the SLP in 1995, following the abandonment of Clause 4 of Labour’s constitution which called for public ownership of the means of production.

Benn is writing in 2008, at a time when an estimated four million voters, mostly from the left, had deserted New Labour and still remain absent.

There was a huge constituency of workers and young people who were, and are, looking for a new political pole of attraction.

At the same time, this layer is repelled by a narrow closed formation. That is why the Socialist Party has consistently argued that a new party would have to be open and democratic, allowing an element of federalism in the sense of the rights of platforms and tendencies.

It would need a firm trade union base to hold the decisive balance of power in such a party. Unfortunately, Arthur Scargill could not or would not see this.

His narrow perception of a party with himself in the dominant position led to the alienation of one layer after another once the SLP was formed. Eventually, it was reduced to insignificance.

Similar attempts initiated by us, such as the Socialist Alliance, also came to grief it is true. This was because of the specific sectarianism of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and its allies.

They wanted to impose a uniform organisational structure in which they would effectively have a veto over election candidates.

In fact John Rees and Lindsey German, the very people Tony Benn worked with as president of the Stop the War Coalition (in which the Socialist Party also participated), were members of the SWP displaying the sectarian methods Benn deplores.

Moreover, the Respect party, which the SWP set up with George Galloway and others, was narrowly based on the Muslim community, did not have a clear socialist and working-class programme and orientation, and collapsed as we predicted.

A missed opportunity

The way to avoid the sectarianism of groups out of touch with the working class is to ensure that any new party is rooted in the trade unions and the organised working class.

At times, Tony Benn inclines towards the idea of breaking out of the prison the Labour Party has become, but is forced to sneak out messages through the bars to the workers outside.

An occasion to chart a new course was provided when the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), together with the Socialist Party and others, organised the No to EU electoral alliance in 2009.

This was an issue of particular interest to Benn. The 1975 anti-Common Market campaign saw the left in general, including Militant and Tony Benn, urging a ’no’ vote in the referendum.

The defeat of the campaign led to him being demoted by prime minister Harold Wilson from industry secretary to energy secretary.

Benn writes: “Brian Denny of the RMT union came to the house… about the European elections… He told me that Bob Crow had decided that he would put up a list of candidates who would stand in the European elections…

“They would stand as ’No2EU – Yes to Democracy’ candidates… We had a lovely talk and, in effect, Bob wants me to stand as a candidate.

“I suggested a slogan: ’No to Lisbon – yes, we can!’ the Obama slogan. Of course… I’d be expelled from the Labour Party…

“But could I get round that because I would be defending Labour policy to have a referendum?”

But this was vetoed by his family: “I spoke to Hillary on the phone, and I mentioned to him this proposal and he was terribly upset.

“He said, ’Dad you’ll be expelled from the Labour Party, and anyway, the Lisbon Treaty isn’t the same as the constitution’ – the official Brown position.

“So I realised also that if I did go ahead with it, it would be a big break with him and might embarrass him”.

Benn did, however, appear in the TV broadcast for No2EU, although not as a candidate. Thus an opportunity was once more lost to establish a platform to take forward a campaign for a new mass party.

The need for a political voice

Of course, there are some like the left-wing celebrity, Owen Jones, who oppose the programme and perspectives for a new party.

They constantly refer to the ’derisory’ votes for independent socialist candidates up to now. They have remained silent, however, after the stunning victory in Seattle of Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative (CWI in the USA).

Those like Owen Jones are worshippers of accomplished facts – such as the creation of the Labour Party as a political expression of the organised working class.

But that was not the case at the beginning, when the Owen Joneses of the time fought might and main to maintain the ’link’ between the unions and the Liberal Party.

The organisation of the Labour Party was met with the same scepticism and scorn reserved for the proposal for a new party today.

Keir Hardie, a founder of the Labour Party and its first MP, received just 617 votes the first time he stood in 1888.

Tony Benn records the Henley by-election in 2008 when Labour came fifth behind the Greens and the BNP.

There were many stops and starts before the Labour Party took off. But the fundamental fact underlining its creation and development was the incapacity of capitalism and its political expressions, particularly the Liberal Party, to maintain the living standards of the working class because of the decline of British capitalism.

Despite the hesitation of the trade union leaders, they were compelled to take to the road of a new party by the demands of the situation.

We see the same processes at work today. The hesitation of Unite and other unions to break with tradition – and stay in the calm Labour Party bay – will give way to the realisation that workers can expect nothing of substance from a Labour government.

There are some illusions among some workers in a Miliband government. But the more politically developed have decided already that the only force they can rely on is their own power and organisation.

At the same time they need a political voice. This is highlighted daily as the relentless attacks of the coalition unfold and New Labour offers only a vague promise for ’change’.

Unfortunately, as these diaries demonstrate, Tony Benn is not able now to provide the lead that he did to some extent in the past.

The Labour left is a shrivelled remnant of its former strength. John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn confessed to Benn in 2009 that they feared expulsion because they voted against or abstained too many times in defiance of the Labour whip.

It is quite clear from the picture painted by Tony Benn that the attempts to create left organisations within the Labour Party – Labour Representation Committee, People’s Charter, People’s Assembly – have come to nothing, precisely because they are situated within the Labour Party with the vain hope of transforming it.

A political concession

These bleak prospects have even led to a certain political regression by Tony Benn. He is so isolated within the Labour Party that he seeks allies outside, even with Tories who have a record of attacking the working class.

In his previous volume of diaries, he wrote that, in 2001: “I rang Ted Heath again. ’Who is it?’ ’Tony Benn.

“You got my letter? What advice can you give me? What should I say at the [Labour] conference today?’ ’Oh, I don’t know.

“I can’t advise you’. ’Well, what do you think?’ He said: ’I think Blair should pipe down. He’s pretending he’s the leader of the whole world.

“It annoys the Europeans and the Americans; he should pipe down!’ He was very candid and actually just about got it right, so I found that quite amusing”. (More Time for Politics, Diaries, 2001-2007)

Benn writes in the latest volume about the coming to power of the Tory-led coalition: “Should we have entered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010? I was a bit torn about that, because a lot of the unhappiness and difficulty in the Labour Party arose from overtures to the Liberal Democrats, when Tony Blair offered a job in a Labour cabinet to Paddy Ashdown. ’Lib-Labbery’ in the Labour Party was one of the factors that contributed towards the birth of the SDP after 1979, and to New Labour and all the rest of it.

“On the other hand, I think that if the Liberals (for whom I have some respect) went along and supported a government, it would strengthen that government; and it has sustained and strengthened the Conservatives”.

This is a clear political concession to the idea of a ’progressive’ coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who are more hated now than at any time recently because they reneged on tuition fees, and for their support for the dirty Tory policies implemented in the last three years.

In the past, Tony Benn would have been implacably opposed to a coalition, with the memory of Ramsay MacDonald and the ’national government’ of 1931-40.

That was a warning to the labour movement against class compromise which, for Labour, had been expressed as a coalition with the Liberals.

These diaries will be of great general interest because of the light they cast on events of the last decade or so.

They are also of particular interest to the more politically developed workers who are looking for a way forward.

They demonstrate beyond all doubt that the Labour Party is defunct as an instrument for working-class struggle and that nothing fundamental will change with the coming to power of a Miliband government.

Therefore, a road to a new mass party must be opened up in order for the new generation to learn in struggle how to prepare a force that this time will end capitalism and introduce socialism.

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