Monday 2 March 2015

Tony Benn's Bandwagon

A charismatic leader. A people's army. A set of "commonsense" policies. An increasingly worried party leadership concerned about the electrifying effect one man's oratory is having among the grassroots. This is not 2015, and the actors are not an insurgent UKIP under Nigel Farage. This is 1981, and the captivating hero of the hour is Tony Benn. The film below, again from TV Eye, tracks Benn and his loyal following on the union conference campaign trail as part of his Labour Party deputy leadership bid. It was very nearly successful too. Only one per cent separated him from the victorious Dennis Healey.

With the benefit of hindsight, Benn's challenge was the postwar highpoint of the Labour left. Already the stirrings of deindustrialisation and the consumer-oriented individuation of popular culture was starting to eat at the institutional feet of our movement. Without the nourishment of much widespread participation in labour movement matters, the left was ill-equipped to resist the disastrous fall-outs of the miners' strike defeat, the mass privatisations and attacks on trade union rights, and the loss of general elections in 1983, 1987, and 1992.

Would it have been different had Benn won the deputy leadership 34 years ago? Playing 'what if' is a very difficult game, but without a doubt a land of milk and honey did not await. Had he proved victorious Labour would have carried on as a deeply fractious party. There would have been battles between the leader's and deputy leader's office so fierce and frequent that anything approaching effective direction was impossible. At this point, the Gang of Four had cast their die and were openly trading as the SDP. It is quite possible that more of the right would have given the Labour Party up as a bad job and thrown their lot in with them rather than tolerate Benn in position. A left split with Benn at the helm would have been less likely unless the differences between the left on the one hand, and the centre and the right on the other proved utterly intractable. It's very difficult, for example, to see how Benn as deputy would have gone along with Michael Foot's support for war over the Falklands. Either way, a left split or a right split, that would have put Labour in an even more perilous and difficult position than it was in after the 1983 general election. Could it be that Healey's victory, albeit a defeat for the left, was actually a lesser evil in the long-run? We will never know for sure.

Once again, many thanks to Dave for digging this one out.


George Hallam said...

"Either way, a left split or a right split, that would have put Labour in an even more perilous and difficult position than it was in after the 1983 general election."

In purely electoral terms, you may have a point.

But there's more to politics than elections.

"Could it be that Healey's victory, albeit a defeat for the left, was actually a lesser evil in the long-run? We will never know for sure."

We can't re-run history so, obviously, we can't know "for sure".

Here's one of many imponderables to consider in the 30th anniversary of the NUM's return to work:
Would Benn have worked to defeat the miners in the Kinnock did in 84-85?

The NCB was close to capitulation on at least three occasions. Each time the Government had to intervene to prevent a collapse.
Had the Labour Party been conducting an active anti-government campaign (instead of an anti-NUM one) they may not have been prepared to take the risk.

John Edwards said...

Another interesting video. I think you are possibly right that a Benn victory in the Deputy Leadership would have led to an intensified civil war in the party and third place in the 1983 election. Had Benn become leader instead of Foot it might have been different but he lost his parliamentary seat in 1983 and so Kinnock became leader and the party moved rapidly to the right to counter the SDP.

I also agree that the Benn campaign was the high point of the left in the Labour Party. The obvious enthusiasm for Benn and his policies is on one level still inspiring - a mainstream charismatic politician putting forward socialist policies. I remember attending his meetings as a student in 1978/79 when he was still a government minister. However, it was apparent at the time that the social basis of the Labour left's support was relatively thin. It is notable that those unions which balloted their members on the deputy leadership tended to go for Healey.

The overall context was one of a decline in the labour movement and in particular a detachment between membership of a trade union and labour voting. This context is well summarised in Eric Hobsbawm's famous essay "The forward march of labour halted" published in 1978. This analysis has stood the test of time.

Phil said...

I agree. It amazes me that the far left, supposedly the most far-thinking section of our movement with the most advanced theory at its disposal, has still not seriously reckoned with Hobsbawm's article. It's been 37 years.

George Hallam said...

Nothing amazes me about the far left,or the near left for that matter.
As far as Hobsbawm's 'The forward march of labour halted' is concerned, I have difficulty in understanding why it should have such a reputation for profundity. There is little factual material on the history of the British labour movement that hadn't been said before and in far greater detail.
Politically, the analysis is flawed by the absence of any discussion of the Cold War.
Economically, Hobsbawm is weak in his grasp of the problems facing Western economies in general and Britain in particular.