Pipe dream: a 1980 portrait of Benn by Ralph Steadman.
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Tony Benn: A fight for common sense

In a piece originally published in the New Statesman on 31 March 1961, Tony Benn explains the decision to renounce his peerage.

Despite all the legal, historical and constitutional complexities which envelop the struggle in which I am engaged, the issues involved are amazingly simple: does it make sense in 1961 to enforce an inescapable hereditary disqualification from service in the House of Commons and deny to a constituency the continued representation of its elected MP? What happens to me is of no great consequence. But the principles raised are worth fighting for.

The present law has never been embodied in statute. It has developed with uncertain authority from the customs and practices of past centuries. A peer by descent need never claim his peerage, nor go near the House of Lords. But, from the moment he inherits it, he is debarred for life from service in the Commons and can neither renounce nor surrender his title. There is therefore a direct conflict between common sense and the Common Law.

My personal battle against this nonsense is not, of course, by choice, but is dictated by necessity. From the moment of my election for Bristol in 1950, I knew that Father’s death would simultaneously remove us both from parliament. People sometimes ask why a transfer from the Commons to the Lords should be so intolerable. Both are Houses of Parliament so why the fuss? But what self-respecting paratrooper would agree to be seconded to the beefeaters? Both are armed forces in defence of the realm. Why the fuss? Try it and see.

The strength, vitality and attraction of the House of Commons lie in its representative character and not in the chances it offers for the premiership – as so many cynical leader writers assume. Indeed the prospects of office in a Labour government are far brighter for a peer than for an MP. Yet who would not rather serve for life as an elected backbench MP than occupy a cabinet post in a House in which he sat by virtue of an inherited privilege? It would be as fraudulent as wearing your grandfather’s VC on Armistice Day.

This is why I have been fighting this war – on and off – for nearly seven years. Any other House of Commons man would have done the same. Of course, in one sense it is all a terrible waste of time and effort – a diversion from serious political work. I am not remotely interested in the tribal customs of the feudal nobility but have been compelled to mug it all up in search of a reprieve.

It all began in 1954 when I petitioned a Lords committee for permission to promote a personal renunciation bill. They courteously rejected my petition on the grounds that a peerage concerned the whole nation and should be dealt with by a public bill. Two years later the government itself abandoned the hereditary principle in its long-awaited Life Peers Bill. But when someone tried to move an amendment to eliminate compulsory inheritance, the government said it was outside the scope of the bill, and it was ruled out of order. So it went on. It was like trying to wrestle with a fog.

Father and I tackled all these stages together and agreed that there was nothing to be done until he died. This was the most dismal part of it all. Yet, characteristically, he gathered fresh material for this posthumous project with infinite zest, humour and ingenuity, knowing he would not be there to see it used. What a help he would be at this lonely moment and how he would be enjoying it all.

So far everything has gone as we expected. The Committee of Privileges, by confining itself rigidly to a study of the law (some of it going back to the 13th century), has published a report that is of such monumental irrelevance to what is at stake that it will prove most helpful to my case.

Happily the privilege report will not be the only document before the House when the debate takes place. A petition from the electors of Bristol signed by many thousands of them (98 per cent approached have done so) will be presented the same day.

The House will, therefore, after Easter, have a perfectly simple decision to take. If there is a conflict of duty between willing elected membership of the Commons and unwilling inherited membership of the Lords, which should take precedence? Which is more important – the choice of the electors expressed through the ballot box or the notional will of the Crown embodied in an archaic writ of summons?

Knowing the pride the Commons takes in its independence and the sense of fair play of MPs, I have no doubt what its answer would be in a perfectly free vote. Nor evidently has Mr [R A] Butler, or he would not find it necessary to issue a whip. It is almost certain that a by-election will be forced on my constituency “to pick a new MP”.

If Bristol people want me to stand again, this campaign could mobilise all those who are getting impatient with the hidebound traditionalism of which this case is just one tiny example. This is part of a wider malaise of living in the past that is stifling our national vitality today. And when Bristol speaks on polling day, there will be no whips to keep it in line.

I shall accept that verdict as final, even if it goes against me. But will my opponent if it goes against him? Rumour has it that he might seek to win by an election petition the seat he had failed to win by popular choice. If he does I suspect that he, and the hereditary absurdities from which he would hope to profit, might be engulfed together in a gale of laughter which has so often in the past proved to be the most powerful weapon for reform. Because common sense will of course win in the end, as it almost always does – even in Britain.

Postscript: Benn won the by-election but was disqualified. His Conservative rival, Malcolm St Clair, took the seat but resigned it in 1963 after the passage of the Peerage Act allowed Benn to return to the Commons

Tony Benn retired from Parliament in 2001 after more than 50 years to ‘devote more time to politics’. The longest serving Labour MP in the history of the party he served as a cabinet minister under Wilson and Callaghan.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.