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7 July 2021

From the NS Archive: Tony Benn and a Labour leadership challenge

2 February 1988: Run, Tony, run. Now is the time.

By John Lloyd

In 1988 Neil Kinnock had been leader of the Labour Party for five years and was still seeking a route to electability. In this piece, John Lloyd argued that Labour under Kinnock was no longer a socialist party but a social democratic one. The one man able to define what a socialist Labour Party for the late 20th century could and should be was Tony Benn; therefore, he said, Benn should challenge for the leadership. Regardless of the outcome, such a challenge would do two things: lay out Benn’s vision of a socialist Britain (“public ownership plus realignment” in the international sphere) but also force the existing leadership to define exactly what it is and wants to be. Kinnock’s Labour, said Lloyd, might be “quite capable of appealing to the working class, to progressive bourgeois opinion and to whatever constitutes the centre ground”, but it would never be socialist.

***

Tony Benn should stand for leadership of the Labour Party. He is the only person on Labour’s left with the experience, force and sweep of intellect to attempt the job. And it should be attempted. If he were to do so, he would have the chance to give shape and expression to a socialist programme which he has been promising to make flesh for not much less than two decades, but of which he has always stopped short. To define “real” socialism in and for the closing years of the 20th century is a mission from which nearly all major figures in other socialist, labour or social democratic parties have shrunk, or have explicitly consigned to history’s dustbin. He is thus poised on the edge of an endeavour with very high stakes and with momentous consequences, win or lose.

The value of such a project to politics, and not just British politics either (always assuming it is carried through with vigour and honesty), is that it will demonstrate what “real” socialism might look like and how it might operate in our society; and even more valuably, it would force those whom he correctly perceives to be seeking to elide socialist aims into a social democratic programme to come clean, define what they mean, and get on with it.

He was prevented from mounting such a challenge by the sheer quantity of extraneous matter that got in the way of his deputy leadership bid in 1981. It was launched when the leadership was at its weakest, when there was a steadily advancing forest fire of condemnation of the last Labour government, fed above all by Benn himself and a ludicrous struggle, with which Benn’s candidature was conflated, to change a selected number of the Labour Party’s constitutional mechanisms from one sort of fixing to another. Further, much of the argument on both sides habitually referred to conference decisions, or to the mandates of other forums, in order to “prove” that no further argument on the matter should be entertained. The result was that there was very little political debate whatsoever.

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Now (though there are always reasons found by British politicians not to have political arguments of any depth), these inhibitions do not or should not apply. We might thus be about to benefit from a debate of substance. We partly know, or can reasonably infer, what the bones of the Benn argument are likely to be. His ten-point indictment of the current leadership, delivered to the Nottinghamshire members of the National Union of Mineworkers over last weekend and printed in the Guardian on Monday, reduces to this: that Neil Kinnock and the shadow cabinet are presiding over the abandonment (or at best serious dilution) of socialism, evinced by their lack of support for trade unionists and local councils in struggle, their attacks on, amounting to attempts to expel, “good socialists” from the party; bypassing or downgrading the national executive and unions by an overweeningly arrogant leader’s office, coupled with weakness and indecisiveness in the mounting of “Labour Listens” campaigns; a present capitulation to public relations techniques and a putative capitulation to coalitionism. The result: unelectability.

His alternative is less clear, and needs more interpretation; not least because it has so far been phrased in terms of “looking at”, “arguing for”, “examining and explaining”, “analysing”, “discussing”. This is dishonest: all the matters on which Benn calls for analysis and discussion have been decided by him and his political associates for many years. That outline is this: “common” ownership should be extended further in all directions (though it should take an undefined but different form from that of public corporations) so that huge and growing extra-parliamentary centres of private power may be challenged or dissolved; an undefined but massive increase in democratic control should similarly act as a solvent to such allegedly public centres of power as the civil service, the judiciary, the House of Lords, the monarchy and the BBC; this would be paralleled by a decentralisation of power to regional and local levels, while civil liberties and free speech should be protected and extended. Ireland should be united in independence from Britain. The environment should be protected. Britain should leave Nato and the European Community, break its alignment with the US and other Western democracies, and seek a non-aligned status.

There is much that has to be made precise in this mix of policies which presently is not; that would be Benn’s task during the campaign, assisted by his opponents and by the media. But as the only politician in Britain, and one of the very few in the advanced democracies, who could lead such a movement, Benn owes it to himself and to the left to do so as energetically as he has ever tried anything in his energetic, rich and dramatic political life. In doing so, he would do the second service of forcing his ideological opponents in the Labour Party to define, in their turn, what they are about.

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If he does make clear what he wants in the way of common ownership, in the way of new international alignments, in the way of democratic and constitutional reforms, he will – or should – force the leadership and those who stand with it to make a declaration of their own over that range of issues. And that would be a very good thing. For this reason, above others. Ever since Aneurin Bevan ceased, in the Fifties, to propose a programme similar in some respects to Benn’s – public ownership plus realignment – Labour’s right and left have squelched through many ideological bogs, only rarely finding hard ground. The social democratic party which Crosland’s “Future of Socialism” would have required as a vehicle for his policies has never quite emerged ­– in part because of the increasingly oppressive trade union link; in part because right and left did not, as Gaitskell and Bevan had both at one time wished, slug it out to defeat or victory.

It should now be clear that Labour is not now being prepared to usher in the kind of society Benn and his comrades would define as socialist. There are different levels of reasons for this. First, and usually most salient, the right and most of the soft left think that Benn and the Campaign Group of MPs are shaky on the democratic part of democratic socialism. That is because they support the continued membership of at least one organised Trotskyist group, Militant, and because they broadly support at least the political campaign of the Provisional IRA.

Second, the right and soft left, differing in much, agree that parliament is the prime mover for change. Benn, again like the early Bevan, sees it as one vehicle for working-class emancipation among others; with extra-parliamentary activities – such as demonstrations, strikes and other popular manifestations – as more important.

Third, the right and soft left have lost most of their faith in public ownership of everything other than monopoly utilities. They think that some features of popular capitalism are popular, and may stay that way. They think the market is a superior allocative mechanism in many areas of the economy, though they are not starry-eyed about it. They want British business to be productive and strong, and they are willing to take on the unions (at least in theory) to ensure that it is. They want to make deals with capital: deals to increase the social wage, to widen the scope for workers’ participation. But they are aware that such deals can only be made once they are seen by the capitalists to be sound managers of the national economy, here and abroad.

Fourth, they do not, by and large, want to change the international alignments. Some are left-wing Atlanticists; some increasingly enthusiastic European Communitarians; a few Commonwealth First people. Worse (from Benn’s point of view) many who had been unilateralists are now changing into multilateralists, if only because they have seen that they cannot persuade the electorate to their beliefs.

In summary, Labour is emerging as a social democratic party, quite capable of appealing to the working class, to progressive bourgeois opinion and to whatever constitutes the centre ground. It will retain a large will to reduce inequalities and restore a sense of responsibility to public life; it should also be able to channel its own radicalism along the lines of necessary constitutional reforms – of the voting system, of the Lords, of the monarchy – which would begin to liberate Britain from the decaying absurdities of its past, still pressing powerfully on the present. It has a huge job to do, and it might well do quite a lot of it. But it will never be socialist in the terms defined by Tony Benn. Now is a great time for Neil Kinnock to tell him, and the country, so: clearly, openly and unmistakably. And in articulating his opposition to Benn, Kinnock will fully define his alternative to the right and his ability to capture the vacated centre.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)