Prospects for Bennism

Simon Hewitt, Hendon CLP.

Tony Benn was de facto leader of the Labour left during its most creative and influential period in the Party’s history. As a teenager, reading Benn’s Diaries and other books about the Labour Party, I was enthused at the achievements of the Bennite left, excited by the reports of internal Party struggles, and intrigued by the breadth of social movements with which the Labour left of the ’70s and ’80s engaged. I couldn’t wait to get involved in Labour politics and experience some of this for myself. In this respect, my entire adult life has been a disappointment.

The Bennite left brought together a broad coalition of interests into the labour movement. Internal pressure, focused around Benn, pushed the Party to the left at a time when feminism, gay liberation, nuclear disarmament, and movements for racial equality were flourishing. These diverse social movements fed into the Party at constituency level, alongside left groups old and new.

This made the Bennite left a very different beast from previous Labour lefts. As Graham Bash and Andrew Fisher put it in their 100 Years of Labour, this left “embraced and responded to newly emerging forces”. The generous, and instinctively radical, figure
of Benn helped to keep the coalition of interests together, and encouraged a grassroots-based approach to politics.

Things are very different now. At a local level, the Labour Party is often little more than an organisation of electoral volunteers. Political debate is absent; links with wider social movements are frequently non-existent.

What is striking, though, is that there has recently been something of a revival of the kind of movements that fed into the Bennite left. The student movement, feminists, LGBT Q activists, UK Uncut, local campaigns around housing and food poverty – the list goes on – have responded to the ConDem Government. But, apart from a modest leftward shift in Young Labour, these movements have had no impact on the Labour Party.

The reason is quite simple. Very few left wingers who grew up in the Blair years view the Labour Party as a place where their cause can be forwarded. Blair was successful in establishing a presidential view of party politics. Labour is equated with the leadership; few people see the Labour Party as a potential place of struggle or debate. Until we challenge that view, both by winning the argument with people outside the Party and reviving pluralism within, there is no prospect for a revival of Bennism.

Am I doomed to remain disappointed?

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