Ruskin student Robin Hanford explains how Tony Benn inspired his political activism.
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, LGBTQ 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?
The man I regarded as a lifelong friend and mentor has gone. I was born into a family firmly in the Labour left; my dad had been an editor of this magazine. I attended my first Party meeting as a baby and, each conference season in Brighton, was whisked from the conference hall to fringe meetings night after night. The voice of Tony was a constant. He was at almost every fringe meeting I can remember. One time I heard him say that we should “give up protesting,” then to dad’s embarrassment (but to the hilarity of those assembled), I let out a large “Ohhh” of disappointment. Of course Tony then said that we should be
demanding instead, which to a toddler sounded ever more exciting than the protesting that I was so fond of.
Tony played a huge part in my political and personal development. When I was at primary school I wrote to him saying I wanted to start a new political party and I wanted him to be in it. He replied saying he would never leave the Labour Party and I should join it too in order to change it. I’m still trying. I also
remember saying to him that I wanted to launch a school socialist group but that my teachers probably wouldn’t let me. His response was that I “should do it anyway!” This spirit of rebellion is something I’ve had to draw on a lot in later life.
Then there was his famous address at the Stop the War rally in Hyde Park. I was there. My dad bought me a CD of Tony’s speeches set to music. I insisted on playing it to any of my schoolmates who came over to my house. This may not have won me many friends but I hope some of the confused children I subjected to this may one day realise the importance of what was said.
I owe so much to Tony for providing the basis for my outlook on life. I have moved away from ‘Orthodox Bennism’ (if there is such a thing). I identify as a Trotskyist, which is something Tony never did and, unlike Tony, I believe that the UN will struggle to be more than the mere sum of its parts under capitalism. However I still take much inspiration from Tony Benn as a teacher. I’m also a Unitarian Worship Leader. The last service I gave was in the Chapel of Harris, Manchester College, Oxford, where I preached on the life and teachings of John Ball. I certainly couldn’t have done this if it wasn’t for Tony’s infectious enthusiasm for the Peasants’ Revolt which excited me from such a young age. In fact I might not even be studying in Oxford if it wasn’t for Tony.
For me Tony Benn represents the flame of hope, both in my life and in humanity as a whole. With the light of this flame we soldier on towards a New Jerusalem of which he would be proud.