Although I was a member of the Socialist Campaign Group for the bulk of my 18 years as an MP, I have never been a Bennite. In a similar way, I have been a member of the Labour Party for 50 years, but I have never been an uncritical fan of its "leaders" in that time. With both organisations, I have attempted to be a loyal grouser. My words below are said in this spirit.
The last time there was a
significant left presence in the Labour Party, it was divided into two
main camps - the hard and soft lefts. It always seemed to me that the
latter could be outmanoeuvred or absorbed by the right and centre of the
Labour Party. This finally happened under Blair. For the hard left, the
prospect was that of being outmanoeuvred and isolated. This was again a
Blairite achievement, aided by acts of self-destruction.
my Goldilock endeavours (neither too soft nor too hard) never became
part of an effective trend, so I was usually obliged to choose between
whatever remained on the passing agendas of what was left on the left.
Although I kept trying to spell out alternatives.
I give below 7 of my main reasons for not being a Bennite.
1. Northern Ireland.
Even in the days of Provisional IRA violence, Tony was actively linked
with Sinn Fein. At Chesterfield May Day Rallies, he was involved in
fringe meetings which were supportive of Sinn Fein. In contrast, I
firmly opposed all forms of terrorism in Northern Ireland and gave
active support instead to those working for peace and reconciliation via
such bodies as the local Trade Unions, the Peace Train Movement and New
Dialogue. Tony and I once argued out our alternative positions at a
joint meeting of the Constituency Parties of Chesterfield and North East
2. European Union. When Harold
Wilson provided a referendum as to whether Britain should continue its
membership of the Common Market, I supported the "no" vote. But once
this position was overwhelmingly defeated, I felt a need to adjust my
position to meet the new circumstances. Since then I have always argued
for the democratisation of the European Union, which is the proper fully
fledged federal position. Tony's position became that of replacing the
European Union with a loose treaty where common agreements can only be
reached by a unanimous decision of the members' parliaments. I argue for
feasible internal reforms to the European Union, Tony argues for root
and branch transformation.
3. Leadership Contests.
In 1988, Tony stood for the leadership of the Labour Party against the
incumbent Neil Kinnock. Tony got 11.4% of the vote. His decision to
throw his hat in the ring seemed to me to be mistaken. It was a
counter-productive move, which led to the threshold for nominations
being raised above the 10% level which existed for the 1988 contest. The
debate inside the Socialist Campaign Group over whether he should stand
lasted over several meetings, as I wasn't the only person with
reservations about this form of politics. Hence my efforts to seek a
defendable third choice to Brown and McDonnell recently.
4. The Break-up of Yugoslavia.
This started when Milosevic played the Serbian ethnic card in Kosovo.
Tudjman gleefully moved in to play the Croatian card and Izetbegovic was
forced to defend the Muslim population in Bosnia. The case for
effective intervention by the United Nations to stop the conflict was
overwhelming. Yet in the end effective military action only emerged via a
NATO-led response to the Albians of Kosovo being driven from their
homeland. By that stage, there seemed to me to be no option but to
support the NATO action whilst being ready to highlight any of its
excesses. These soon arose in the bombing of Serbia when civilian
targets were to the fore and it was only the Serbian military who
experienced the collateral damage. My criticism of Tony's approach was
that he saw no dilemma in all this for socialists. Seemingly we could
put our faith in comrade Milosevic.
The left was again faced with a dilemma over Afghanistan. If the
Taliban and Al Qadia were to have their controls and bases removed, then
action had to be taken. But a military dominated by the United States
and its allies is liable to use unacceptable methods - especially
over-the-top air strikes. I upset both Tony Blair and Tony Benn. That
neither of the Tony's saw the dilemma I stressed, nor looked for means
to bridge it seems to me to involve failures of vision. Seeking means to
contain both Western Imperialism and the fascism of the terrorists,
seems to me to be something socialists should have at the forefront of
6. Iraq After The Invasion. I was
on the platform with Tony Benn at the launch of "Labour Against The
War." I fully opposed the invasion of Iraq. For as hideous as Saddam
Hussein's regime was I appreciated the complexities of Shia, Sunni and
Kurdish conflicts and their internal divisions.Then there was the impact
of an invasion on understandings elsewhere in the Middle East.
Furthermore, I believed that there were clandestine forces in Iraq who
had hopes of undermining Saddam's rules given support and understanding
But once the invasion took place, we
were in a new situation. In addition to excessive action by the forces
of Western Imperialism (including mercenaries) the Iraqi people were
faced with the insurgency and the horrors of terrorism. I then resigned
from "Labour Against The War" who continued with only a one-sided
analysis. Alternatives to a "troops out" position (such replacement
troops with Iraqi agreement) were never considered.
7. Local Experiences.
When Tony won the Chesterfield seat in 1984, he achieved a fine victory
in an adverse political climate. His public meetings were packed.
People who went in order to "sort him out", left with leaflets and
posters to try to spread his support. But after his victory, local
attitudes changed over time. He developed a hot bed for the hard left
with people coming from all over the country for the May Day
celebrations. He made use of a section from Keir Hardie for one of his
election addresses. His constituents saw him regularly on TV pressing a
socialist revivalism. The problem with all this is that Chesterfield is
into small town politics and comes out of an old moderate Lib-Lab
Between Eric Varley winning the seat at the
depth of Labour's terrible national performance in 1983 and Tony's last
victory at the height of Labour's electoral victory in 1997, the
Chesterfield Labour vote only increased by a mere 2.7%. This compares
with a national improvement of 15.6% in Labour's vote. Whilst in Dennis
Skinner's nearby seat of Bolsover, the comparative increase was 17.7%.
In North East Derbyshire which is a huge "C" shape encircling
Chesterfield, the improvement was 19.7%.
It was little
wonder that the Liberal Democrats went on to capture the Chesterfield
seat in 2001. Yet it should be one of the strongest Labour seats in
What Bennism teaches us is that we
need a left strategy in the Labour Party which is directed to both (1)
winning elections and (b) re-opening the long and difficult road to
socialism. Bennism might be fun for its participants, but it isn't