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On Luke Akehurst’s charge sheet against Benn

Luke Akehurst presiding over the Benn trialI was not at all surprised to see an article on Labourlist, by Luke Akehurst, rehashing many of the old arguments about “the damage” that Tony Benn allegedly did to the Labour Party.  Akehurst presented a “charge sheet” against Benn (and, by implication at least, against Bennites).

Every point on his “charge sheet” is – I would suggest – just plain wrong. To summarise they were:

  1. The policy agenda was wrong;
  2. It was undemocratic not to abandon that policy agenda after the 1983 election;
  3. The constitutional reform agenda of the late 70s/early 80s was also undemocratic;
  4. He was soft on Militant;
  5. He encouraged nasty sectarianism and bullying.

Here are my responses:

1) The policy agenda was wrong?

Without dealing in counter-factuals we’ll never know if the policy agenda was wrong for Britain, but I doubt it. Staying outside of the EU (and nationalising North Sea Oil, I might add) doesn’t appear to have done Norway much harm.  Luke’s hero Neil Kinnock also advocated nuclear disarmament (before quietly dropping this once fundamental and core principle a few years later). Actually the policy was not unpopular, and nobody seriously now thinks that it would have made a difference to the Cold War. After all, there is rather a large list of successful developed economies that “managed” without nuclear weapons, some of whom weren’t in NATO either. Leaving NATO would have allowed us to join the Non-Aligned Movement, and would have given us more authority in any attempt to exercise the once much-talked-about “ethical foreign policy” that vanished as soon as it was announced in 1997. There is nothing incompatible with such a policy and internationalism.

The Alternative Economic Strategy (as constituted in the late 70s and early 80s) was a strategy to halt decline in a particular economic context and was always mischaracterised as “a siege economy”. Was it worse/would it have been worse than an IMF loan, 3 million+ unemployment, industrial decline, public services cut and demoralised? I don’t think it would have been, but again let us not deal in counter-factuals. All we can say is that eventually even Denis Healey concluded that the IMF deal was unnecessary, and Margaret Thatcher ultimately introduced her own version of import controls: structural mass unemployment. While the Labour Party still talked about full employment then, only the Bennites were promoting policies that actually aimed to try and secure it.

2) It was undemocratic not to abandon that policy agenda after the 1983 election?

Much of this section of the Akehurst article was just factually wrong:

Tony Benn was never a Gaitskellite. He turned down an invitation to join the Bevanites on the grounds that, as a new backbencher, he wanted freedom to choose his own positions, but not on ideological grounds. He wrote speeches for Gaitskell and was immensely useful as a moderniser in terms of changing the way we communicated with the public immensely for the better (he was actually a trail-blazer for modern political communication – another item on his list of achievements that nobody seems to want to talk about) but he actually resigned from Gaitskell’s front bench and from the NEC, both over the issue of nuclear disarmament.

With regard to the 1980s – Luke’s other hero, Mr Blair, is fond of saying that sometimes you have to do what’s right, even if it isn’t popular. Tony Benn did not subscribe to a version of democracy where you blew in the wind of focus groups and polling data – he believed that you set out an argument and you try and win it. And the truth is that – on many of the issues you previously listed – when that pesky polling data was collected without ‘left/right’ or ‘Benn/Healey’ labels they were often very popular. Tony was doing a pretty good job of winning those arguments.

But it has to be remembered that this was not a fair fight between Tony’s arguments and Luke’s; it was a fight between Tony’s arguments and the full weight of the establishment and press that was mobilised in the most sustained and personalised attack on any political figure that this country has ever seen.

Tony was “the most dangerous man in Britain” (I actually agree that he was dangerous to the establishment, I don’t react to that headline quite as others do); he was “mad“, “bonkers“, he was pictured variously as a Nazi or a Stalinist; his party colleagues openly briefed against him (and in doing so openly briefed against their own party policies but, in the twisted version of 1980s Labour history to which some subscribe, it was Benn who was the “splitter” and was disloyal).

They pretended they had psycho-analysed him. They bugged his phone and went through his bins; they attacked his kids and made up false stories. They pretended this democratic radical was an apologist for the Argentine junta, a communist, a member of Militant. Some of the absurd charges were repeated by people who should know better even this week, of all weeks.

As Luke says, it is profoundly undemocratic not to listen to your electorate – but Benn did listen to his electorate; he furiously and uncompromisingly represented his constituents during the Miners Strike, for example, while many others equivocated and ignored their voters in the vain quest for positive headlines. It is utterly absurd for people to keep blaming Tony for the elections that others lost and others won, especially in the light of the fact that those same people so unrelentingly fed the headlines that made Tony (briefly) unpopular with some. You can understand the bitterness.  These people created a narrative and immersed themselves in it whereby they were unpopular by association.  Tony Benn made them unpopular.  And yet they remained unpopular, while Tony Benn was selling out theatres and was one of the most popular politicians in the country.

3) The constitutional reform agenda of the late 70s/early 80s was undemocratic?

The constitutional reform agenda was not “cliques and caucuses versus OMOV” as the right often like to pretend, it was a decision between only MPs voting for leaders and deputy leaders and starting to bring in the wider movement into that decision-making process. There was no weight behind OMOV in 1981, and it has its problems anyway, as we’ll no doubt discover in the coming years; I was surprised to hear “roundhead” Luke so contemptuously dismiss activism as sitting through interminable meetings.  Furthermore, Tony Benn and his supporters were fully in favour of unions democratising their internal processes, but did not believe in imposing this from the outside.

The truth is that the reform agenda in the early 80s that Benn became associated with (although it was not “his idea” or some scheme to get himself elected, whatever Joe Ashton might say on the subject) established the principle of extending internal party democracy which ultimately even the Tories had to accept. ‘Luke’s lot’ were still arguing that MPs should make the decisions alone, and when losing that principle argued for as large a PLP section in the college as possible; nothing remotely democratic about such an argument.

4) Benn was soft on Militant?

The Militant thing is ridiculous and people should just behave themselves on this. I am not, never was, a Militant supporter, but it was just a group of people who had a different view and tried to push it forward. No different from the Euro-communist and SDP people who came in and tried to push the New Labour agenda in the 90s. It is intellectual cowardice to expel ideas rather than debate them. And I say that too to the people who think that Progress should be proscribed – it’s pathetic and the NEC was pathetic in the early 80s, dragging kids to some sort of McCarthyite inquisition; telling the public that we were somehow infected with some revolutionary disease. It is utterly wrong to blame Tony Benn for the disagreements on that; he was absolutely right to try and save the Labour Party from the disgusting spectacle that it was idiotically engaging in. It is instructive that when Hatton tried to thank Benn and Heffer for their stand on Militant, Benn snapped back “this has nothing whatsoever to do with you“. It wasn’t about Hatton; it wasn’t about Nellist (who’s written a tribute nearly as heart-warming as Luke’s) – it was about the principle. It was absolutely wrong for the Labour’s executive to drag people through these appalling show trials because they disagreed with them. And to pretend it was about something else is disingenuous. Hilariously, Kinnock said that they had to be expelled because they didn’t agree with Clause IV!

5) Benn encouraged nasty sectarianism and bullying?

Oh, of course, the arguments and divisions were all the fault of the “bullying” hard left. Not the bullying leadership that treated ordinary members like they were in court on criminal charges; not the fixers and the briefers who poisoned not only the Labour Party with their machine politics but poisoned the public’s good opinion of the Labour Party with a constant diet of saying our best communicator was a dangerous lunatic and our party was full of wicked Trotskyists.

The fact is that occasionally the left/right pendulum swings in the Labour Party; what is sadly quite clear (and I say this as somebody who believes the party should be a broad church and needs to hear from people like Luke even though I fundamentally disagree with him) is that quite contrary to the picture painted in this Labourlist article and in some of the “tributes” this week, the left is far more accommodating of a right ascendency than the right is of a left one. Cripps, Bevan, Foot – all expelled.

The SDP betray us (oh, apparently that was Tony Benn’s fault too; Williams and Owen and the like weren’t the splitters – oh no!) the NEC re-enacts the Crucible. Tony Benn not only endured the long right ascendency that followed, but reached accommodation – even with Blair – in a way that the caricature is presented that it never could. If in fact he had left the party and there had been a much bigger split in 94, I don’t think many of the people who blame Benn for the SDP would be saying ‘that Peter Mandelson split the party’.

The fact is that Tony Benn was a brilliant politician. A brilliant speaker and communicator, yes, but that wasn’t the most important thing. Being a brilliant speaker doesn’t win you the “iconic” status Tony acquired.  Kinnock was an excellent speaker (not entirely to my tastes – always seemed too much like Rory Bremner doing Bevan to me, but a great rabble-rouser), but nobody now remembers much of what Kinnock had to say because he was self-aggrandising and self-justifying.

Tony is remembered so fondly because he was visionary; he was an ideas man; he would ‘think the unthinkable’ (which apparently is an admirable quality if the ‘unthinkable’ is cutting benefits or privatising everything but is simply undemocratic if it is designed to help people or make power more accountable). And he survived the most sustained onslaught the British establishment has ever thrown at a political figure, unbeaten (if not entirely unscathed).

I might add, for somebody whose democratic credentials Luke chose to question, he was also a remarkably successful politician winning more by-elections than any other British politician and I would be interested if someone would do the maths to see whether he has won more parliamentary elections than anybody else too.

Actually, despite all that has been said, Tony was a unifying figure in the Labour Party. For a brief period, because he was popular in the party and could have won, he was personally and politically attacked in such a way that he found himself at the centre of a great division, but that was not what characterised his politics or his attitude to the Labour Party. And so, while I’ve been quite robust in some of this comment, I do want to say – because I think it’s what Tony would want people to say – that while I will correct this misrepresentation of 1980s Labour politics wherever it is presented, and particularly at a time like this, the important thing is not where we’ve been but where we’re going. And the best tribute to Tony would be for us to be a lot more thoughtful about policy and ideas in the future and to accept elections and debates as positive and democratic rather than fear them as divisive and dangerous.

18 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    Today was not the day to be asking these question Luke shown his hand and the fact is thank god I’m out of the labour party.

    he’s not even been laid to rest yet and people are picking over his political bones.

    Thank god I’ve retired.

  2. Ric Euteneuer says:

    I have to say that anyone from Progress and the Labour centre right who accuses Bennites of disloyalty, bullying, and sectarianism needs to go and have a long, hard look at themselves .

  3. Mr jeffrey l davies says:

    Luke Akehurst’s charge sheet against Benn another blairite then if the party got rid of these then its half way there back to wearing red ties not little tories jeff3

  4. John P Reid says:

    The 3 replies.Ric I don’t think Luke was being discourteous to Tony, they’re valid points.

    1 I’m not going to dispute Benns policies didn’t have an appeal, as there wasn’t much difference between 83′ and the 74 manifesto, but the public had moved in,and those policies were part of the past, saying its undemocratic not to listen to ones voters, but mentioning the miners strike in the same breath, when Scargill didn’t ballot his members and the public who had sympathy for the miners in 74 had all but lost it by the end of ’84’ and that’s why the small amount still on strike voted to return to work,

    2 it was the Left of the parties right, to argue that the policies of the 83 manifesto weren’t wrong and that the public later would vote for them fter all, despite losing millions of votes, but it was also the right of those who if not disagreed with them felt they were electoral suicide,unilateralism, was unpopular in 83′ by 87′ less so, but It was never going to be an election winner, Kinnock changed his tune as he felt different, Benn swung to the left, Kinnock to the right it happens,

    3 we’ve been through the block vote discussions before yes it was good the party ,not the members voted for leader, but until 1993 OMOV, it wasn’t OMOV,

    4csaying militant was no different to the SDP or the right of the party,is ridiculous, militant infultrated meetings, used their own militant branches to enforce policies by using their block power they had their own groups that were then used to pick policies on councils , picket the NEC to do so, and deselect undemocratic ally members, Benn was never a member of militant,but he backed them, he knew they were intimidating and kept quiet about it, if militant weren’t a non socialist group who just were interested in power (see GBH) then I don’t know who were,in fact the description of some sot of disease is apt,
    I can’t recal Benn ever calling for unions to be democratic,a thatchers reforms to have secret ballots that had to have a percentage of members in them in a work place,seems a lot more democratic

    I have never known Benn to be a unifying figure, post 1966′ O.k he had the EU referndum in 1975′ which was sold if the public voted to stay in the EEC, then the euro sceptics, would accept it,and wouldn’t push for it again 7 years later,but they did, so that unity lasted a few years,regarding the SDP, Owen backed the Tories in 1992′ Williams Jenkins would have just joined the liberals had they not formed the SDP, Reg underwood presented a policy on militant to Benn and the NEC in 1980′ it wasn’t even read,and Benn could have stopped the bullying of militants, he turned a. Blind eye to it, and a such they deselected members they disagreed with, a such the asDP were driven out,and Benn not only introducing block vote powers,turning a blind eye to them and ignoring reports on militants, drove the SDP out ,the labour machine has controlled the party from 1983′ such as in Scotland a constituency where labour was third labour supporters told people to vote lib dem in 97′ they were expelled from the party, the way Livingstone was expelled for backing Lufthur in 2010′ why is Mandleson a de unifying figure, it took several years for people to like him on the brown wing they,did, and when he came back in 2009 he undermined George Osbourne straight away , he also returned to govt twice

  5. peter willsman says:

    Luke has a cheek.This is the ‘comrade’ who has written that the Party’s staff should not be impartial,as per their Code of Conduct,but should ‘give the Left a good kicking'(see ‘shenanigans’on Grassrootslabour for the full quote from Luke).Sadly, some of the staff are doing what Luke wants and interfered with the CAC ballot against Katy C and myself.This is effectively ballot rigging and belies the warm words of Ed.I do not intend to let this matter rest and, in the interests of all members who do not agree with cheating,will fight until justice is achieved and staff behave in accordance with their Code.

  6. John P Reid says:

    Why was their ballot rigging against Katy Clark and yourself, I thought local parties were asked to endorse, their preferred choice,and they voted for the other ones, as for Benn being dressed up as a nazi, I recall 50 different members of the Labour Party on a Harringey council, after the death of a cop, said on 50 different occasion ,the police were like Nazis, in Tottenham,

  7. peter willsman says:

    As I have reported elsewhere on Leftfutures,we have proof that staff were recommending delegates to vote for the two whips.This is in breach of their Code of Conduct.I assume JPR would want the Code upheld,as do the vast majority of Party members,but perhaps not my new neighbour,Luke.

  8. swatantra says:

    A very robust defence of Tony Benn from Duncan Hall! It just shows how divisive a figure Tony really was in the Party! And not a Unifier!
    I would agree with Tony on a few points of Foreign Policy and Defence such as Unilateralism and Leaving NATO, but on Domestic Policy and Europe and Reforming the HoL and the Constitution, Tony got it completely wrong, and in fact did his best to stimy and sabotage any Reform at all.

  9. Ric Euteneuer says:

    I’ve expressed this view before, but the centre right of the party are perfectly happy for party officers to be partial and break the rules (they CERTAINLY told Stevenage CLP members how to vote in the election Peter is referring to) EXCEPT if the partiality cleaves to the left. At which point it miraculously becomes sectarianism, bullying, and, er, disloyalty.

    Tony Benn is the reason I joined the party and the reason I remain in the party, and there are plenty more like me.

  10. Ric Euteneuer says:

    Swatantra and his fellow Progressistas call Tony Benn a divisive figure with a straight face – and I presume Tony Blair “united the party” ? Whilst we’re discussing history, here.

    I know plenty of people who can easily define Bennism and Bennites. Blairism, in the other hand, is just a byword for hypocrisy and ideological inexactitude….

  11. John P Reid says:

    Ric, Blair did unite the party in 94 as everyone rallied around him,to win, yes lots of people left the party over Iraq, and he was unpopular to the end, but those who left ,never made labours vote go doen to 27%’ when facing an un popular Tory govt! who were destroying! the Country, the way, we did when thatcher was re elected

  12. John P Reid says:

    Come to think, didn’t Unite get a coach load of their wing of young labour shipped into their conference to vote on bulk, and through, sheer show of numbers and fearlessness ,use undemocratic ways to get young labour to reject the Collins review

  13. John reid says:

    When Gordon Brown went back on ACAS agreed pay rise they’d promised the police in 2008′ give Benn and Diane Abbott credit they both joined the police federation, on their march through London for the pay rise they’d been promised,

  14. Gerry says:

    This article is a clear, truthful and balanced analysis to rebut Luke Akehurst’s arguments against Benn

    The 1983 manifesto was the most honest socialist document ever put towards the UK electorate, after the 1945 manifesto..and yes the sheer level of lies, hatred, propaganda and vitriol heaped by the powerful and their media on the heads of Benn, Foot et al proved just how truly socialist and therefore dangerous (to them) it was.

    Sadly, as we all know, the lies and hatred worked, especially amongst working class and lower middle class voters in the South, South East, and Midlands – in 1983 Labour managed to get just 38% of the working class vote, scoring just 28% of the electoral vote.

    But Labour was 100% right to offer the electorate a real socialist alternative in 1983, and Britain would be a better, fairer and more just country today if we had left the EU and Nato, given up nuclear weapons, nationalised the key industries, and promoted co-ops, mutuals, employee owned companies, small businesses etc.

    We lost in 1983, and yes – for the majority of voters – we lost the arguments for socialism and even social democracy..hence the creation of New Labour and the election successes of 1997, 2001, 2005 whose agenda was a “fairer” capitalism: Blair calculated (and who is to say he was wrong in 1997?) that this would be the furthest left most UK voters would go en masse.

    RIP Tony Benn – democratic socialist and conviction politician.

  15. John reid says:

    Gerry , the 87 manifesto, excluding staying in Europe and buying back council homes, wasn’t much different to the 83 one, infact as the so called far left of London labour councils, buying back of the privatised industries, the general public felt the labour pary was more of an extremist party in 87 than 83′

    Yet the 87 election saw labour use it’s best ever campaign in terms of media and PR, such as the red rose, which even most Tories said of the 87 Electiom, they won the campaign, and had lost the election, so if it was just media ,that lost Labour the 83 election, and there wasn’t much difference between 83 and 87′ and in 87 labour won the campaign, then it can’t have been the press that destroyed labour in 83′ it must have been the public have never wanted those policies .

  16. Gerry says:

    John – I agree with the last part of your post: yes of course many working class and lower middle class voters abandoned Labour in 1983, and stayed loyal to the Conservatives and SDP/Liberals in 1987 (and even more so in 1992 when the Conservatives achieved their highest vote ever, under Major!) ….but you know that the media, esp the print media, helped the Tory and SDP/Lib case enormously, portraying the Left (and Benn and Foot and trade unions)as mad extremists destroying Britain from within: all this resonated with lots of people, as I said, esp in the South/Midlands.

  17. Chris says:

    People like Akehurst have offered nothing but surrender to Thatcherism. They’ve made it irrelevant whether we win or lose elections, because the Tories win either way.

  18. John reid says:

    Chris, when did the Tories have FOI, HRA Macpherson, Scottish Welsh, Northern Ireland devolution, links with the EU,save the NHS, minimum wage, London Assembly

    Akehurst and Co, took Labour from 27% in 1983′ and it was people like Blair and Brown, who stood by labour in 1983′ Ken livinstone and co backed others like the SWP in the 2000’s and we still did better than when the left had their go in 1983′ there is an alternative to labour if you don’t like us TUSC, of course you may feel standing on a manifesto like 1983 and getting destroyed is better than winning in 1997′ as it’s a morL victory, maybe you should ask yourself Why we lost so badly in the 80’s and some of the people who voted labour in the 70’s couldn’t bring themselves to vote labour in the 80’s and either voted SDP, Tory or abstained, but maybe you feel labour losing on a left wing manifesto is better than winning on a centre manifesto, as 1983,s loss was a moral victory, but that’s up to you,

    Gerry I’m not disputing you, but the BBC CH4 guardian mor I g star independent, the Mirror were on outside, and comments from Tony Benn”labour lost in 1983″ because it wasn’t left wing enough”Stalin didn’t kill anyone”,”chairman Mao was the greatest man of the 20th century” hardly encouraged us, nd gave the Tory press stuff to print.

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