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I am still a Bennite

Mobilise for Labour Democracy 1981I am a Bennite. I think I became one in 1977 or 1978, aged 19 or 20, still a student, when we called him Wedgie. And I still describe myself as a Bennite today.

Becoming a Bennite, though it’s hard to say it without a smile, was more about policies than personality, just as Benn so often said about politics in general. I wasn’t one for heroes. I accepted the label because Benn (as chair of the home policy committee of Labour’s executive) was the architect of Labour’s radical 1976 programme, which after the IMF crisis that year was much more appealing than Chancellor Denis Healey’s version of  austerity. He also backed (though he was not, as the press would have it, the instigator of) the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) which I’d just joined.

I had been inspired to join the Labour party in 1974 neither by Tony Benn nor by the more traditional Tribunite left. It was the pragmatic anti-Toryism of a rebellious anti-establishment 15-year old forced to work on A-level essays by candlelight during Heath’s three day week that brought me into political activism. But disillusionment with Wilson’s leadership, the IMF crisis and the realisation that Labour members had so little influence on our own government soon pushed me to the Left. And the face of the Left I saw was that of Tony Benn not the Tribunites.

The distinction was not great in terms of policy but it was in style, and it became more significant over time. It may not always have been that way but Tribune seemed like just another parliamentary elite. They were happy to dissent, to resign in protest, to oppose, but were still remote from the membership. They were not focussed on changing the party, and lacked a strategy for actually making the changes they believed in, as if they were content with opposition. I wasn’t. I wanted a party programme that I believed in and leaders who wanted to implement it.

Benn in the House of Commons, still from Last Will and Testament trailerBenn talked about redistributing power  in the workplace and communities, a popular democracy. He didn’t just advocate the Alternative Economic Strategy (or ‘AES’) (best expressed by Stuart Holland in the Socialist Challenge), he’d tried to implement the industrial policy aspects of it in government. He was a reformist, a parliamentarian, radicalised through the experience of government, rooted in Labour history, not a revolutionary — though he was painted as aligned to the revolutionary left and later, in defeat, he found himself increasingly marginalised alongside them. But he certainly sought radical, even revolutionary change.

My generation was the rock generation. Going on punk, ready to topple even our rock ‘heroes’. We wanted change and were determined to make it happen. The loyalty to leaders and deference of Labour activists through the ages wasn’t our style. But Benn articulated our aspirations. He’d seen the establishment from the inside and it only made him more determined to redistribute their power to the people. He wasn’t so much the leader of the Bennites, as our voice. But his oratory was uplifting and inspirational. And later, when we started losing, it continued to give us hope.

Tony Benn and Jon Lansman  TUC conference in Blackpool 1981 emerging from cloakroom (not Labies toilet!)It wasn’t until 1980 when I was working for CLPD that I first met the man himself but within a few months, as secretary of his campaign committee during the deputy leadership campaign, I worked with him in the  basement of his house in Notting Hill. To echo the words of Ed Miliband, I may have been only 23, but he treated me as an equal.

That year, I heard him making dozens of speeches up and down the country. I many of the same themes repeated again and again, the same jokes and anecdotes. But I never heard the same speech. Whether he was asked to speak for five minutes or forty-five, he put his watch and tape recorder on the table in front of him and spoke for precisely the time requested. He judged and responded to his audience perfectly

In the Chesterfield by-election, I saw him show the same professionalism whether he was speaking to a group of shop stewards in a canteen, a factory gate meeting, a family in their home or one of the large number of packed public meetings we had of which I have never seen the like in any other election campaign. A few months earlier I had seen how a Liberal poster campaign could lay the path to the loss of a safe Labour seat in Bermondsey and we were mindful of the possibility here too. When it started to happen on a highly visible estate, we sent Tony in to charm the key tenant organiser on the estate. His personal warmth might not have sufficed, but he noticed a photo of her late husband and remembered not only that he had been part of a delegation to meet  him as Energy secretary but even remembered his name. The posters came down that afternoon.

Tony Benn with Len McCluskey and Tony Woodhouse Unite EC Dec 2014I last saw Tony three months ago for tea in his flat. He was very keen to know exactly what was happening about the Collins report and especially with the position Unite was taking. Deeply concerned to preserve the strength of the party-union link, he was keen to do something himself which indeed he did. He was going to their executive in December to show the forthcoming film (Will & Testament – see taster below) and I have no doubt that his conversation with Len McCluskey and others on that occasion will have influenced their decision to set out clear red lines on the issue. He was persistent in his politics to the end.

Jon Lansman with Tony Benn in November 2013

I shall continue to identify as a Bennite. And whilst we shall miss Tony enormously, the role of leaders is exaggerated, the Bennites live will on without him.

Tony Benn did not plan the campaign for democracy and accountability in the 1970s and early 1980s. He did not decide the objectives of mandatory reselection and an electoral college, he did not make decisions on strategy and tactics along the way. He backed them because they chimed with his politics and became an enormously effective and their best known advocate.

It was the same with the AES, developed with the input of large numbers of people, numerous economists, Labour party policy staff, trade unionists, shop stewards and convenors in companies like Vickers and Lucas Aerospace, Leyland and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, the Communist Party and many more.

What happened in the 1970s and 1980s did not happen because he was ruthless and driven by ambition. Left to his own devices, as he makes clear in his diary entry for 12 October 1980, he would have stood for the leadership in October that year when Callaghan resigned in a deliberate attempt to pre-empt the decision of Labour’s party conference to have the wider franchise for electing the Leader that all major parties now take for granted.  He would have done so because he felt it was the right thing to do but he would have been soundly defeated, Denis Healey would have become leader and he is unlikely to ever have had a chance of winning. Instead, others persuaded Michael Foot to stand.

Unquestionably, he would have been more ‘successful’ had he been both more ambitious and more ruthless. The most obvious example of this is his decision to fight Bristol East in 1983. Michael Cocks, then Chief Whip and clearly more ruthless and self-interested than Tony, had stitched up his own selection in the safer seat of the two into which Tony’s Bristol seat had been divided in boundary changes. The other was clearly going to be hard to win. Against the advice of virtually all his closest political associates, he insisted on rejecting offers from safe Labour seats in which he would have had no trouble being selected and elected. As a result he was not able to be a candidate in the leadership election of  1983 which he may well have won.

In reality, Tony was nothing like the sort of leader he was made out to be by his detractors, nor those who were elected thereafter every one of whom undermined democracy in the party and took more and more power unto themselves.

Tony’s version of leadership was to encourage and give hope to those he led; to defend them when they needed defending rather than to distance himself from anybody under attack as have successive Labour leaders, to inspire them. Hope and inspiration he will continue to give us even after his death. Managing without him is exactly what he would want the Bennites do to next.

8 Comments

  1. Rod says:

    What now for the Bennites, Jon?

    The situation for the Left within the LP is worse than it has ever been. Progress are tightening their grip and they will be immeasurably strengthened if Ed and his Progress cronies win in 2015.

    Give me a viable, non-fairy tale strategy and I’ll renew my LP membership immediately.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Rod: I don’t think it’s right that “Progress are tightening their grip”. They’re strong, in organisation and within the PLP, and they are very well funded by one rich man. They have created a well-oiled machine for provide assistance for young careerists up the greasy pole to the PLP in order to sustain their influence there. However, this is less successful than it has been in the past, and they are weak in the CLPs (as you can see in the results of NEC election ballots in which none of their candidates are successful)) and especially in the trade unions (which they wish to drive out of the party in any case). Their control over the party’s bureaucracy, though they still have a presence and remain a corrupting influence, has weakened considerably. Their control of Young Labour looks very vulnerable and even in Labour Students no longer looks unassailable.

      What the Bennites have to do is:

    2. create an effective alliance of the CLP Left with trade union activists
    3. campaign in the party from constituency level upwards for democratic reforms in the party and progressive polices
    4. give backing to those Young Labour battling to liberate it from Progress clutches and create a healthy, campaigning youth section
    5. demolish the Progress career structure which results in the selection of so many Blairite robots
  1. Robert says:

    Did I get this one wrong then the funding deal being worked out now between the Unions and labour which is a stitch up.
    Also has a bit in which the Unions will not go up against Progress candidates, I may have got this wrong or my Union rep may have, but they said that the Union will not go up against Progress.
    Kane who is a total right winger won his battle did he not and I have seen a few others.

  2. Rod says:

    Thanks for your response, Jon, very much appreciated.

    The question for me then, as an older chap with a limited amount of time, is whether it is more useful to devote what’s left of my political life to campaigning for internal LP reform.

    Or instead, continue to work outside the LP to save the NHS and to build support for Veterans for Peace UK. http://veteransforpeace.org.uk/

    That is the question.

  • John reid says:

    Rod,three leading progress NEC candidates in2010′ Luke Akehurst,Ellie Reeves Peter wheeler,like Tony Benn backed Ed M for leader, good article I don’t agree with everything, the one thing about the CLPD, was that it was formed after Wilson refused to accept the 1974 NEC decision to scrap the police SPG and nationalise the 25 biggest industries,or leave the EEC settling on a referndum,which Benn Persuaded Wilson that if the pulbic accepted to stay in,then he wouldn’t question it,I accpet the CLPD formed on that but they got their way on policies in 1983′

  • peter willsman says:

    I phoned Jon when he was sat with Tony three months ago and Tony agreed to come to CLPD’s AGM.Tony was a CLPD member from 1978/79 and throughout that time he constantly encouraged us.Every year he spoke at our rallies and wrote in our magazine.Nothing was ever too much trouble.We will now organise even more effectively,with Tony’s encouragement carrying us forward.

  • Dave Roberts says:

    I think the main problem the Bennites, as you now seem to be calling yourselves, have is that the public simply won’t vote for you, it’s as simple as that. Benn was the darling of the left but after he lost his seat he was gerrymandered into a safe one to get him back into Parliament.

    It was precisely Benn type politics that kept Labour out of office throughout the eighties and most of the nineties and if they revert to that era politically they are destined for the wilderness again. All of the points that Jon Lansman puts forward as a way to move Labour left are unachievable given the current party structure which was designed precisely for that purpose.

    Beginning with Kinnock and reinforced by every leader since, party structures have been adapted to keep out the far left because it was the far left that kept Labour out of power. My family from East London have always voted Labour but couldn’t personally stand Benn. He came across as arrogant and condescending, whether he was personally or not I don’t know but that was the way he was perceived.

    The left are back to the dilemma they have always found themselves in in the UK. If they get control of the Labour Party they make it unelectable. If they leave and join one of the even far lefter groupescules they end up politically isolated in the dead end of Trotskyist factionalism.

    It is a bitter pill to have to swallow and accept that what you are selling the vast majority of people in your country don’t want to buy but that is the way things are. I seem to recall reading somewhere on the web that Jon Lansman was involved in drafting the 1983 Labour Party manifesto [you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the web, it’s not true – Ed]. Haven’t you learnt anything or like the Bourbons forgotten nothing either?

  • Sharon Bennite Wentworth says:

    Interesting tribute, thank you. Jon, On Saturday in Crawley at the CLPD Fringe you asked me if I had met you before I believe I may have met you during ‘The Battle for Bermondsey’ fighting against ‘The Straight Choice’ Whenever I grumbled to Wedgie about the Labour Party which was often, He said to me “Don’t give up on The Labour Party, Stick with it, its only the Right that leave the Party, Never The Left, We must remain active and involved in order to Oppose when necessary, Support when necessary and Persuade when necessary. Good Luck and Keep Going.

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