Reflections on Tony Benn’s Socialist Ideas & Political Life

Panel Discussion + Q&A

Rose Bowl, Lecture Theatre B

Friday 4 April, 5-6.30 pm

All Welcome

Tony Benn

To register please visit: tsceasrtonybenn.eventbrite.co.uk

Speakers

John Battle was Labour MP for Leeds West 1987-2010, and held ministerial posts at the DTI (Department for Trade and Industry) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In 2002 he became a member of the Privy Council and went on to work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy to all the faith communities until the 2010 election. John is actively involved in community organising.

Hilary Wainwright is a well-known socialist and feminist writer and activist. She is co-editor of the socialist magazine Red Pepper (http://www.redpepper.org.uk/) and research director of the New Politics Project of the Transnational Institute (http://www.tni.org/).

Paul Blackledge is Professor of Political Theory and a member of the Politics & Applied Global Ethics (PAGE) group in the School of Social, Psychological & Communication Sciences at Leeds Metropolitan University. Paul’s research interests focus on Marxism and he has written on the ‘New Left’ in Britain.

 

Tony Benn was a champion of the Labour left and, as such, represented an important strand of socialist thought and action in Britain, one which argued that socialist progress could be achieved through the election of a new type of radical left wing Labour government harnessing the political power of Parliament in conjunction with a mass popular movement for change. It is often said, by way of criticism, that Benn was a ‘divisive’ figure in British politics, for example in relation to his unsuccessful challenge for the deputy leadership of the Labour party in 1981. But this criticism arguably amounts to no more than saying that Tony Benn’s views were controversial, and this is a strange criticism since the essence of politics is that it stems from disagreements about the kind of society we want to live in. In an age when disengagement from political parties and electoral politics is partly based on the perception that the main parties are too similar in their beliefs and policies more controversy is arguably what is needed. It is also often said of Tony Benn that he came to be seen as a ‘national treasure’, a status not normally accorded to politicians. This was in part due to his gifts as an engaging and persuasive political speaker, but it may also be because people do want see politicians with clear convictions that are expressed strongly. Hence being ‘divisive’ and being a ‘national treasure’ were closely related.

First elected to Parliament in 1950, representing Bristol South East as the youngest MP in the chamber, Tony Benn served as a Labour MP for 50 years, apart from short periods when he famously had to campaign to renounce his peerage in order to retain his seat in the early 1960s and in the early 1980s when he lost his seat following boundary changes. From 1984 he represented Chesterfield until his retirement from Parliament (‘to spend more time on politics’) in 2001.

Benn was appointed to ministerial roles in the Labour governments under Wilson, in the late 60s as minister for technology , and again in the 70s as secretary of state for energy. This was the period in which the postwar Keynesian-Welfare consensus was beginning to unravel, in the context of debates about Britain’s relative economic decline, and particularly as a consequence of economic crisis (‘stagflation’) in the 1970s. This was a time of clear ideological divisions in British politics as the consensus was criticised from left and right – from the left as working within the constraints of a capitalist system and therefore being incapable of effecting meaningful and long-term socialist change, and from the right as being the root cause of Britain’s social and economic problems. It was during this period that Benn emerged as a leading spokesman of the Labour left , campaigning for a radical manifesto and democratic reforms to the party, notably to make conference decisions binding on the leadership. For Benn democracy and socialism were intimately linked as he had a strong belief in the potential of mass ‘grass-roots’ socialist movement. Thus he argued that the Labour party lost elections by not being socialist enough and so creating disillusionment.

Thus Benn’s response to the Conservative victory in 1979 was to argue that Labour needed to respond to Thatcherism by adopting a more socialist programme, and he campaigned for the deputy leadership of the party in 1981 on this basis. The early 80s was arguably the period of Benn’s greatest influence (and of criticisms of ‘divisiveness’). However Benn was unsuccessful in the deputy leadership challenge, and the 1979 election turned out to be the beginning of neo-liberal political dominance and thus of defeat for Benn and the Labour left, and for socialism more generally. The Labour party essentially went in the opposite direction, embracing much of the neo-liberal agenda, and culminating in the election of Tony Blair as leader and the advent of the ‘Third Way’ (which, it has been argued, was Thatcher’s greatest achievement). The coalition’s politics of austerity constitutes an intensification of neo-liberalism through its unprecedented public spending cuts, extension of markets and corporate power and increased poverty.

However Benn did not give up arguing and campaigning for socialism and left-wing causes, notably in relation to the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and the campaign against austerity. And this was because he recognised that the political defeats suffered by the Left do not in themselves undermine the intellectual and moral arguments for socialism. Indeed the socialist critique is more relevant and necessary in the world of rampant inequality and corporate power created by neoliberalism.

Tony Benn was a major figure in Labour party and socialist politics, and in British politics more generally. As someone who devoted his life to arguing and campaigning for socialism, it is fitting to mark Tony Benn’s death by carrying on this tradition of argument by reflecting on and debating his socialist ideas and political life. With the 2015 general election looming, this will no doubt include considering what ‘Bennism’ still has to offer to the Left in its endeavour to rebuild itself, and to  Labour as it debates its manifesto.

Paul Wetherly

“In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person–Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates–ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system” (Tony Benn).

 

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