The John McDonnell Column
The loss of Bob Crow and then Tony Benn made it an almost unbearable week in March.
Even in death they had to attack and seek to demean Tony Benn because they so feared what he stood for. Although it was so moving to watch Jeremy Corbyn’s reminiscences of Tony, I was moved to anger by the way BBC television tried to trivialise the role Tony played in British politics.
I came close to putting my foot through the tv screen when I watched Shirley Williams on Newsnight rewriting the history of the 1980s. She was desperate to shift the blame from the SDP in splitting the Labour vote that allowed Thatcher to hold onto power. It’s typical of the bias of this programme under its new editor that Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t selected to appear on the programme. He is the one person who had worked closely in Parliament with Tony the longest and who intellectually could have taken Williams apart.
Other political hacks were dragged out to traduce Tony. Joe Haines, Harold Wilson’s spin doctor, came out of long retirement to pour out the bile that he had been oozing for decades against Tony. David Blunkett was nauseating in using an interview over Tony’s death to justify his own record of betrayal as he shifted to the far right throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. Neil Kinnock trotted out all the old accusations of “impossibilism” against Tony to justify his own role in helping to turn the Party into a democratic shell and a capitalist party.
The BBC had one aim. It was to slander Tony Benn and distort his story so that they could undermine the political ideas and principles that he stood for and promoted so effectively.
In 1979 Tony published his book Arguments for Socialism, which succinctly set out his view of the history of the labour movement and the issues it had to address in the 1980s. The ideas set out in this book became the raw material he drew upon in his speeches throughout this period.
Appearing on platform after platform with him I heard strikingly coherent expositions of what socialism means and how it could be implemented practically in a modern setting. With wit and humour he demolished the capitalist system and explained what could be achieved if by democratic means we redistributed wealth and power.
In 1991 he returned to this question when he wrote a small succinct booklet called A Future for Socialism. In this Tony prophetically identified that the struggle for democratic control of our economy and society would be the central issue of the 1990s and the 21st century, and he was miles ahead of many others in recognising that social movements would play a critical role in asserting democratic control.
Although an ardent parliamentarian, he made clear that while Parliament can be an ultimate guardian of democracy, its ability to express the popular will of society is exaggerated. He explained Parliament can too easily deflect pressure for radical change by seducing radical leaders with the privileges of the Commons club. That’s why he argued the formal procedures of parliamentary democracy must be complemented by grassroots extra-parliamentary activity.
To quote Tony directly, “Belief in democracy must rest on faith in the ability of ordinary people to engage in political debate and then reach wise, rational conclusions. And if the debate is to be conducted on the streets, the true democrat has nothing to fear.” He was writing soon after the Poll Tax demonstrations and after having observed the first early mobilisations of environmental campaigns in this country. He also reflected that the trade unions were the largest and most important of these social movements.
It was these teachings in particular that terrified the establishment of this country and they still do. If people decided to take democracy into their own hands through strikes, street protests, occupations, direct action and many of the 198 forms of direct action set out in Gene Sharpes’ book From Dictatorship to Democracy, then no government could withstand them.
Just checking my diary commitments over the recent period it was clear to me that increasingly people are beginning to relearn that lesson. The 3 Cosas strikers, the IWGB cleaners and the Bakers’ Union Fast Food campaign are stirring examples of the new political trade unionism that is growing to challenge the oligarchs who control many of the bureaucratised mega unions that have emerged over the last two decades. DPAC, Black Triangle and the War On Welfare petition campaigns have not only launched an effective disability movement but also shown how creatively direct action can be combined with parliamentary interventions. The anti-fracking campaign and the work of the comedian Mark Thomas in his programme 100 Incidents of Minor Dissent have demonstrated how anger can be directed into direct action to contest power.
And so at the end of a dreadful week of personal loss a ray of light broke through. The ideas of Tony Benn live on and are increasingly taking hold. Go well comrade, we will ensure that your work goes on.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.