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The forgotten Benn

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Most of the reactions to the death of Tony Benn have focused on the man who turned left in the 1970s, embraced union militancy and became by the early 1980s, according to The Sun at least, 'the most dangerous man in Britain'. That was, however, Benn Mark II, arguably the less interesting version, and certainly the one less relevant to our own times, one in which the political parties are desperately seeking to regain a connection with society.

My book, Labour and Cultural Change (2003), charted how the Labour Party reacted to the many transformations generated in the 1960s. During that decade Benn emerged as one of his party's few leading figures who tried to seriously think through how it might engage with at least some of these changes.

Benn Mark I was a fairly conventional politician. In the 1950s he was something of a revisionist and in the 1960s an enthusiastic if idiosyncratic member of Harold Wilson's inner circle. Benn had been a BBC producer and had great faith in the political significance of the medium, helping mastermind Labour's innovative 1959 election broadcasts, which many in the party nonetheless thought too clever by half.

Despite Benn's efforts, Labour lost the 1959 election. Party membership had also been in decline since the start of the decade with few members doing more than pay their subscriptions. Official rhetoric emphasized the party's close ties to the working class but in reality Labour increasingly only represented the small number of activists who ran it.

Benn's constituency of Bristol South East was managed by a left-wing gerontocracy of about 15 activists: he considered it 'effectively dead'. This was by no means untypical of big city Labour parties of the time: in 1961 Glasgow's 15 constituency parties were kept running by an average of just 35 activists.

When Benn contested his elevation to the House of Lords in the early 1960s, he benefitted from a non-partisan local campaign, which reached social groups hitherto reluctant to identify with Labour. The first concrete expression of this progressive non-Labour movement was the New Bristol Group, a body designed to debate issues of importance in the city.

Benn thought there was some way Labour could more permanently tap into those unwilling to join what was often an unwelcoming organization. So unwilling were established local cliques to let in strangers, it was by no means unusual for aspirant members to be told they couldn't join because the party was 'full up'. Benn's idea was 'Citizens for Labour', which he envisioned as comprising associate party members who could contribute to but remain outside its official bounds. Benn confided to his diary that he hoped Citizens for Labour would ultimately become the basis for 'a more or less new party'.

Such a body had to be approved by the national Labour Party, specifically, the Organisation Sub-Committee of the National Executive Committee (NEC). After what Benn called an 'appalling row' it was rejected, with the long-standing NEC member and future Cabinet minister Ray Gunter warning it had 'subversive' potential. Even so, Benn was allowed to launch his initiative on an experimental basis in his constituency.

Unfortunately the very activists Benn wanted the new group to ultimately replace were given responsibility to manage it. With Benn otherwise engaged in Westminster, the Bristol South East General Management Committee (GMC) ensured Citizens for Labour went nowhere: it was, the minutes of the GMC record, believed to be 'out-of-line with general thinking'. In the same spirit the GMC had opposed municipal libraries stocking pamphlets produced by the New Bristol Group.

Benn was not quite alone in seeking new ways for the party to engage with society. When the NEC debated reviving the party's moribund youth wing it considered sponsoring a movement with no direct ties to the party but with a commitment to 'progressive' ideals so it might appeal to more young people. But, as with Citizens for Labour, the party was too timid to embrace such an initiative. The re-launched Young Socialists remained firmly under NEC control and attracted no more than 22,000 members, many of them Trotskyists who only joined so as to take over the Labour Party from within.

The 1960s was a modernizing moment for the party, but one it did not seize. Instead Wilson used the rhetoric of 'white heat' as a substitute for action. The failure of his government led the party to fall back on faith in a proletarian militancy that was more myth than reality.

Benn, rightly disillusioned with Wilson, persuaded himself that the unions represented the vast majority of working people and so he allied himself with them. In the context of the 1970s - when union membership and shop floor militancy reached unprecedented levels - this was perhaps an understandable mistake. Yet, membership participation in union decision-making was even lower than in the Labour Party, meaning that most were run by self-perpetuating cliques. Given their central role in Labour decision making, the unions also offered Benn a route to power within the party.

As a consequence, instead of looking outwards to society as did Benn Mark I in the 1960s, Benn Mark II looked inwards to a decaying labour movement. We can now see how wrong he was.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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