I got to know Tony Benn well when I worked as a researcher to the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs in the mid-2000s. I’d first met him when he was about to stand down from Parliament “to devote more time to politics“, a promise which he fulfilled. He filled venues around the country with his “Audience with …” one-man shows, and maintained his prominence as an anti-war campaigner through his presidency of the Stop the War Coalition.
But perhaps the most unexplored aspect of his life has been his contribution to economic thinking for democratic socialists. While no economic theorist or econometrist, Tony Benn emphasised the need for political theory to inform economic policy.
Like his politics, Benn’s economic vision was rooted in democracy – “the most revolutionary idea“, as he described it. Speaking at the conference of the Left Economics Advisory Panel (LEAP) in 2008, Benn developed that idea into the economic sphere:
Democracy transferred power from the wallet to the ballot, from the marketplace to the polling station. What people couldn’t afford to buy, they could vote for”.
When we see our rights being ripped up – to free education, to legal aid, to employment tribunals, to benefits, decent working conditions, and to council housing – it is clear that power is being transferred away from us in a reversal of the gains won by the working class in the twentieth century, mostly from Labour governments.
The Bennite vision is perhaps most clearly and articulately set out in Arguments for Socialism, Benn’s 1979 book. As ever, Benn asks the pertinent question,
Do the British people really want a society in which industrialists and bankers have more power over Britain’s economic future than the government they elect?”
The answer today, as it was then, is ‘no’. A poll last year commissioned by the thinktank Class found that two-thirds of the public want the railways, energy companies and Royal Mail in public ownership. The contradiction is that for the last thirty years, the political consensus of the major parties has been to privatise despite mass public opposition. That is the transfer of wealth from the many to the few.
In practice, as Industry minister, he supported workers’ co-ops to save workplaces, as well as the Morrisonian model of nationalisation that dominated post-war Labour. These were not just the nominal co-ops that hit the headlines today, but co-ops with industrial democracy, worker participation, trade union planning. Critics point out that many of these failed, but they were failing to begin with. Benn’s co-ops were rescue attempts, which were at best an adjunct to, and rather more often a thorn in the side of a rightwards moving Labour government in the 1970s. As that other recently departed titan of the left, Bob Crow, once said: “we don’t just want the lame ducks in public ownership, but the white swans too.”
In Arguments for Socialism and Labour’s programme (1982), Benn foresaw the damage that the neoliberal economy would do. Paying tribute to Tony in a parliamentary debate John McDonnell MP said of the 1982 programme:
Virtually all of it was written by Tony Benn… It was absolutely prophetic … Tony’s ideas in that programme were straightforward: we would undertake a fundamental, irreversible shift in the redistribution of wealth and power. How would we do that? Through a fair and just tax system, tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance, taking control of the Bank of England, preventing speculation in the City and the banks because it could be dangerous to our long-term economic health, and creating full employment.”
It reflects badly that the issues identified above by Benn in 1982 still face us today, over 30 years on. But it simply shows how broken our democracy is (even by the confines of liberal interpretations). People increasingly do not vote and the parties fail to represent public opinion – which is hardly surprising when even the Labour Party has hollowed out its internal democracy. The broader sense of democracy, which Benn advocated – including economic as well as political rights, and state intervention in the economy – is almost extinct as a concept within mainstream political discourse.
We should understand our ongoing economic crisis as a political crisis, a crisis of democracy. Throughout the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, successive governments gave away the economic levers they had possessed. They deregulated, privatised and liberalised. In short, they let the market rip. The results are clear: higher unemployment, greater inequality and poverty, repeated crises and recessions, and lower economic growth.
Benn’s legacy continues because the issues facing us do too. It is visible in the work of tax justice campaigner and economist Richard Murphy. His book The Courageous State is Bennite both in its belief in the potential of the state to be a force for good, and in many of the proposed solutions to our economic problems. He castigates “government … run by cowards who believe that there is nothing they can do but acquiesce to the demands of the market“. The essence of Bennite economics is an economy in which people matter, an economy which serves the people, rather than the other way around.
Andrew Fisher is co-ordinator of the Left Economics Advisory Panel (LEAP) and is author of the forthcoming book The Failed Experiment and how to build an economy that works. This post was first published at New Left Project