Tony Benn was one of the most important figures on the socialist left in Britain throughout the last four decades. There has hardly been an important working class gathering for many years that has not tried to secure Benn as a speaker. And whenever possible he would speak.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was proud to welcome Benn to its Marxism event for many years, and to work with him in countless campaigns. While other Labour MPs moved to the right, Benn moved left.
The media reviled Benn during the 1980s as a “loony lefty”. He eventually achieved a status as a respected if ineffectual figure. That’s not how campaigners and socialists saw him.
A lot of people genuinely loved Tony Benn for his commitment to working class politics and socialism.
I was once lucky enough to speak at a meeting with Benn and share a train with him. Throughout the journey people begged for photos or asked him to “speak to my mum on the phone—you’re her hero”.
I don’t imagine that happens to Ed Miliband or Ed Balls—or that they are as accessible or friendly as Benn was.
Benn had that happy knack that, even though you might have heard the speech many times, it never lost the power to cheer you up. He supported every significant working class struggle in the last 30 years and played a major role in building the Stop the War movement after 2001.
He campaigned across Britain, giving people inspiration and confidence.
Benn did not begin like this. As a newly-elected MP in the 1950s he described himself as “a sort of New Labour man”. He backed right winger Hugh Gaitskell against the left’s Aneurin Bevan.
Benn then became embroiled in a constitutional hiatus. The wartime government had made his father a Viscount and on his father’s death in 1960, Tony Benn inherited this peerage.
As a member of the House of Lords he was not allowed to be an MP in the Commons. He fought a three-year campaign before being allowed to renounce his peerage.
As Postmaster General in Harold Wilson’s government his high point of radicalism was seeking to remove the queen’s head—from stamps, not her shoulders. The plan was dropped when the queen made her disapproval clear.
Benn refused to back left wing campaigns against nuclear weapons, wage controls, proposals for anti-union laws or backing for the US war against Vietnam.
He changed through discovering something about socialist thought and, crucially, through the experience of workers’ struggle in the early 1970s. Leading SWP member Chris Harman wrote, “He visited the Clyde in 1971 as opposition spokesperson when an enormous one-day strike against the attempt to close shipyards was followed by a work-in.
“He was soon echoing some of the language of the protests and being seen as a banner bearer of the left inside parliament.”
Benn reflected on the changes in his views in a diary entry from 1976: “There is no doubt that in the years up to 1968 I was just a career politician and in 1968 I began thinking about technology and participation and all that; it wasn’t particularly socialist and my Fabian tract of 1970 was almost anti-socialist, corporatist in character with a democratic theme—management and labour working together.
“Up to 1973 I shifted to the left and have been driven further and further towards a real socialist position.”
Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan led Labour governments from 1974-9. Labour presided over a huge rise in unemployment and imposed cuts dictated by the International Monetary Fund. It laid the basis for what would become known as Thatcherism.
Benn complained and argued inside the cabinet. But he stayed, accepting demotion from industry secretary to energy secretary. He acted as left wing cover for the government and made it easier to blunt resistance—for example during a firefighters’ strike in 1977.
As energy secretary Benn prepared troops to break a strike at the Windscale nuclear plant.
The bitter experience of Labour in office sparked a huge debate among Labour activists—and Benn moved further to the left. He stood for deputy leader in 1981 and his campaign attracted all those angry at Labour’s betrayals.
Thousands of people came to hear Benn at meetings across Britain. Socialist journalist Paul Foot described the campaign as “exhilarating”.
He said Benn was “talking socialism in terms at once more easy to understand and more powerful than anything which had come out of the Labour Left in my adult life. And the result was to electrify the political scene. Interest in politics on the Left soared.”
There was a venomous media onslaught against Benn and a betrayal by a group of MPs led by Neil Kinnock.
He lost the election—by 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent. Benn wasn’t dismayed. Many of his supporters were and they steered right.
Benn threw himself into supporting the miners’ strike in 1984-5, but its defeat accelerated Labour’s surge rightwards.
As Kinnock and then Tony Blair forced Labour into open acceptance of capitalism and the “war on terror”, Benn stood against them. He marked himself out as an opponent of imperialist war in 1982 when he opposed the Falklands War.
He opposed war on Iraq in 1990 and was one of very few MPs not to back the Kosovo war in 1999.
Benn did not stand at the 2001 general election. He said he was “leaving parliament in order to spend more time on politics”.
Why didn’t he leave Labour and help to build something better? Again and again he despaired about Labour.
His diary entries show he raged not just about this or that decision or leader but about the entire project.
On 15 January 1978 he wrote, “The whole Labour leadership now is totally demoralised and all the growth on the left is going to come up from the outside and underneath. This is the death of the Labour Party.”
On 5 May 1989 he wrote, “The Labour Party has never been a socialist party.” And again, on 29 November 1993, Benn wrote, “The Labour Party is dead; it just criticises the Tories and has no policy. If I am asked what Labour policy is I say I don’t know what it is on anything.”
Benn sometimes recognised that power lies outside parliament.
In 1994 he told David Miliband, "In order to get anywhere, to be a legitimate leader of the Labour Party, you have to come to terms with MI5, the City of London, the monarchy, Brussels, the press lords and the senior civil servants.”
In the introduction to his 1963-7 diaries he wrote, “The UK is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them.
“Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact.”
But he remained imprisoned by the belief that outside Labour there was only a wilderness populated by feuding sects.
He didn’t argue for an approach based centrally on action outside parliament.
Every time his diaries record anger at Labour, they are followed by the latest manoeuvres and respect for parliamentary institutions.
He records friendly talks with Tories and bigot Ian Paisley. He defends going to the funeral of “a friend”—Enoch Powell.
Such contradictions never stopped Benn playing a very important role for the socialist movement.
But it did stop him showing those enthused by his arguments how they could change the world.
It will be a long time before we grow used to Benn not appearing at meetings, campaigns and strikes. He will be hugely missed.
In 2009 Benn told an interviewer, “All I would want on my gravestone would be: ‘Here Lies Tony Benn: He Encouraged Us.’”
Tony Benn did that and a great deal more.