Sunday, October 14, 2007

7 Reasons Why I'm Not A Bennite

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.

Unfortunately, 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 Derbyshire.

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.

5. Afghanistan. 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 their minds.

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 from outside.

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 tradition.

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 Derbyshire.

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 serious politics


mrs k said...

For the first time in years I seem to have stumbled on a true Socialist.

Centre left and caring.

Thank you for articulating many of the things I have felt over the years and currently in relation to Iraq and the USA.

Harry Barnes said...

Mrs K; I see myself as an un-reconstucted Bevanite and not a Bennite. The only disappointment some of us had at the time with Bevan was his development of his position on the Bomb when he argued that "we could not go naked into the Conference Chamber". In retrospect a genuine move to multi-lateral disarmament was perhaps the correct stance. Pity he never got the chance to pursue this.

donpaskini said...

I thought this was an excellent post, thank you for writing it :)

Paulie said...

I'd echo Don, and I agree with pretty much everything here.

One thing though Harry. The founding principle of The CLPD was that activists - not MPs - should have an increased role in forming policies - and that MPs should be effectively mandated (this was, I think, the impact of Chris Mullins campaign to have non-compliant MPs deselected).

It would have led to poor policymaking in government if it hadn't made government all-but unattainable. It removed the element of reason (you can't argue with mandates) from debate, and it allowed our opponents to portray us as a party that was in hock to unrepresentative activists.

Whatever reasons people give for the emergence of the SDP, it was significantly formed by moderate MPs who thought they may lose their sinecures.

I'd say that Benn's figurehead role in a movement that aimed to mandate MPs was the single most damaging contribution that he made to the cause of left-wing politics in the UK.

The rest is, by comparison, largely detail.

Liberal Polemic said...

What about

8) He's a crazy old socialist who still believes that the world would be better if ministers and civil servants were planning in advance how much dog food the economy should produce.

Harry Barnes said...

Paulie: oops, my Goldilocks approach means that I might now be seen as leaning in a direction away from your supportive comments. I better point out that although I am not a Bennite, I have often voted and spoken alongside him for my own "Bevanite" reasons.

In the late 1970s I supported the CLPD's proposal for what was then called automatic and mandatory re-selection. But its an old argument dictated by the context of the times.

It meant that sitting Labour MPs would have been required to take on board the views emerging via the delegatory system inside their own Constituency Labour Party. This was in the context of there then being some life in Branch and constituency activity.

It meant that more MPs would have felt a need to actually attend Constituency and other meetings on a reasonably regular basis - which often was'nt happening. If they participated reasonably, they should have been able to shape developments. Numbers of members would have said "well I don't agree, but he/she is OK and I see where they are coming from".

There are, of course, differing mandates to argue over. The views of Annual Conference, those of the Constituency Party, what goes into the election manifesto (which is part of what used to be called the doctrine of the mandate) and the views of the PLP on those few occasions on which it has a vote. Essentially most people who went to meetings just wanted to feel part of the process.

And with a mandate, there still remains the question of just when and how a matter is to be pursued. Then you can always return to a manifesto item, saying things are different from what we thought when this was first decided upon.

Having a manifesto commitment can't just end politics. It just pushes it in a certain direction.

But the days for these arguments are now too far in the past - or too far in the future.

Harry Barnes said...

Donpaskini; thanks.

Tom Papworth; you seem to make him out to be a Stalinist. I don't agree with that. He has been soft on some modern day Stalinists, but this is because he does not see them for what they are - not because he is one of them.

Johnny Guitar said...

"Bennism might be fun for its participants but it isn't serious politics."

That's about as apt a one line summary of Bennism as you'll find. While Tony seems to be an affable old chap he doesn't appear able to adapt to changing circumstances. Perhaps it's that old hard left habit of equating change to surrender. His hopeless position on Iraq is no different to his simplistic solution to Northern Ireland's problems down through the bad old years, namely pull out all the troops and see what happens afterwards. While that was naïve his approach to Yugoslavia was downright appalling. The idea that the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was in a plot to bring down the last 'anti-market economy' in Europe must rank as one of the most shameful positions ever to be taken by someone on the 'left'.

As for Europe, Tony seems to be becoming more anti-EU as the years go by. Why anyone wants to align themselves with half-baked groups like the Campaign Against Euro Federalism beats me but I suppose Tony enjoys his fringe celebrity status. As a vehement Euroenthusiast I would add that the Labour Party should be more openly pro-European. There does not appear to be a party in British politics willing to put itself forward in this area. What ever happened to putting Britain at "the heart of Europe"?

Coventrian said...

4. The Break-up of Yugoslavia.

This started when Milosevic played the Serbian ethnic card in Kosova.'

It's KosovO not KosovA

'Yet in the end effective military action only emerged via a NATO-led response to the Albians of Kosova being driven from their homeland.'

Albanians didn't leave Kosovo until after the bobing started. If they were driven out, why were the refugees overwhelmingly old, young or female? Remember the tales of 100,000 200,000 and even 500,000 missing men? They stayed at home. Not very efficient ethnic cleansing.

As for the real reason for military intervention in Yugoslavia.

John Norris, director of communications during the Kosovo war for deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott - a leading figure in State Department and Pentagon planning for the war - commented on the real motives. Presenting the position of the Clinton administration, Norris wrote in his book, Collision Course: “it was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of Kosovar Albanians – that best explains NATO’s war”. (Norris, Collision Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo, Praeger, 2005, p.xiii)

Strobe Talbott noted in his foreword that “thanks to John Norris,” anyone interested in the war in Kosovo “will know... how events looked and felt at the time to those of us who were involved”.

Johnny Guitar said...

Coventrian, you're only deluding yourself if you insist on sticking to this discredited ultra left line that Belgrade represented some kind of bastion of economic resistance to neoliberalism. It didn't. Milosevic in fact was quite happy to privatise 49% of the Yugoslav telecommunications industry just two years before the war. As for your unsettling attempts to downplay or even deny ethnic cleansing…well, David Irving springs to mind.

Finally, I'm admittedly not an expert when it comes to the linguistic intricacies of the region but wasn't there something about it being spelt 'Kosovo' in Serbia and 'Kosova' by Albanians. Again, I'd be happy for someone more qualified to clarify but I think this is a bit of a shibboleth; like a Balkan equivalent of Derry/Londonderry!

Harry Barnes said...

I give in to Coventrian on the spelling, as it says Kosovo on my maps. But I believe that its bombing and not bobing. And I stand with Johnny Guitar on the politics. You will notice that my reasons for rejecting Bennism arn't with him marching the Labour Left to the top of the hill in the late 1970s, but over his marching us down again afterwards - starting from his developing analysis of the situation in Northern Ireland.

susan press said...

Harry, I find it utterly incomprehensible why at this shameful stage in Labour's history you choose to attack someone like Tony Benn. Look at the posts you have attracted. Someone who decries TB as a "crazy old socialist." Well done.
Let me tell you something. Tony Benn may be 82 but he talks more sense than the current Cabinet combined.I shared a platform with him a couple of weeks ago and, as ever, felt humbled at his good humour,optimism and sheer faith in the Labour Party. His position on Iraq is not "hopeless." It is absolutely right. On Northern Ireland, even Tony Blair acknowledged he had to start talking to Sinn Fein otherwise the game was up.There was no other way... why don;t you start criticising the right-wing clique who currently run this Govt and stop dissing comrades like benn and McDonnell who are worth all of them put together.
Your "soft left" is responsible for Tony Benn NOT becoming Deputy leader in 1981 and, worse, Kinnock's witch-hunts agianst the left in 1985 allowing the Party to fall into the hands of new Labour. Bennite or Brownite? Know which one I'd still rather be......

ModernityBlog said...


an enjoyable read, as ever

still you have to admit that Benn's diaries are funny, even if they are a bit too much "me, me, I said to...."

Harry Barnes said...

Susan: I am not soft left nor hard left - you can have a third way even on the left. I have criticised Gordon Brown's politics on this blog and I am more then likely to do so again. In the end (as there was no other left option) I supported John McDonnell in his leadership effort and if I had still been an MP he would have had my nomination. I supported Tony Benn for the Deputy Leadership in 1981 and stand by that position. You will notice that my list of reasons for not being a Bennite mainly arise from issues that he was involved in after that period. Nor am I purely critical of Benn as you can see from earlier comments. But none of us are beyond criticism. If I can take Benn's criticisms of me in his Diaries, I am sure that he can take my criticisms of numbers of his positions - he has heard them before. The left in particular needs to stand out against acts of sectarianism and terrorism, whether this takes place in Belfast or Baghdad. Yet this has not been part of the Bennite agenda. The point needs to be driven home.

Johnny Guitar said...

His position on Iraq is not "hopeless." It is absolutely right.

I think "hopeless" was my term to describe Benn's view on Iraq. He can make endless 'troops out' calls at StWC marches but I'm yet to hear him say anything with regard to the reconstruction of Iraq. Withdrawing and letting the natives sort out the mess is not a viable position (unless of course you happen to be in RESPECT). When I think of Benn and Iraq I think of that comical visit to Saddam Hussein just before the war when he asked the man who brought you Halabja if he had a 'message for the peace movement'. Leaves you feeling nauseous, doesn't it?

On Northern Ireland, even Tony Blair acknowledged he had to start talking to Sinn Fein otherwise the game was up.

Please don't rework history. Tony Benn's position on Northern Ireland went a wee bit further than simply calling on the British to open up talks with the Provisionals. Benn spoke at Troops Out Movement meetings. He was an open advocate of a total British withdrawal during troubles. He spoke with the Republican Movement when it refused to recognise not only British rule in the north but also the authority of the Dail Eireann in the Republic. The vast majority of nationalists, north and south, have always supported Irish unity by consent, including during the troubles. Attempts by the Provos at an Orwellian rewrite of recent history so as to make out that Sinn Fein and the IRA didn't surrender every single basic iota of principle they had to join mainstream politics have, sadly, been largely successful. Another failing of TB's on Northern Ireland - and a long time flaw of nationalists and the far left - was his failure to properly address the one million Protestants living in Ireland. Thankfully, Benn's ideas for the province were largely ignored by the powers that be in London and Dublin.

Coventrian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Coventrian said...

Johnny Guitar must think that the Clinton establishment was 'ultra-left' as I quoted a government source.

Secondly it is a fact that refugees fled Kosovo in all directions only AFTER the NATO bombing began.

Clearly it is you that has taken a lesson from David Iving in distorting history.

I see from your profile that you are a supporter of the hard right Euston Manifesto gang of warmongers. I don't think we need any lectures from the likes of you.

Harry Barnes said...

Coventarian; my own position on the Euston Manifesto was reflected in a letter of mine which appeared in the New Statesman which was then reproduced as the very first item on this blog, see 4 May, 2006 or via -
I hope that as in my criticisms of Bennism, I was not being uncomradely. Perhaps "Bennite versus Euston Manifesto" disputes could be conducted in a similar (and hopefully) constructive way. Although I don't have to agree with them all the time, I like the likes of Johnny Guitar and John McDonell (who at the start of the year invited me to call in at a Socialist Campaign Meeting next time I am in the Commons). I am all for keeping left debates both tough and comradely.

Coventrian said...

I'm sorry but

1. Mr Guitar smeared me by associated me with david Irving.

2. The Iraq invasion was supported by the Euston Manifestoites and has lead to over a milion deaths and four million refugees. Yet not on of that group has apologised for their part in this genocide.

I am comradely with comrades, not renegades. As a bevanite, you should remember the great man's position on Suez.,,2060161,00.html

Harry Barnes said...

Coventrian: I remember Bevan on Suez well. I was in Basra in the lead up to the Suez invasion. I opposed both it and the invasion of Iraq. Thanks to American pressure we withdrew from Suez, but once the Coalition took-over in Iraq (in its messy fasion) we were into a new ball game. A whole alternative strategy to aid the people of Iraq should by now be on the left's agenda. That might require troop replacments as I have been arguing.

Tom said...

"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."

Looks like he got what he wanted in the end!

As to Susan, "Your "soft left" is responsible for Tony Benn NOT becoming Deputy leader in 1981"

Quite. I'm glad about that. He would have been a disaster for any hope of democratic socialist government in this country.

Coventrarian, "The Iraq invasion was supported by the Euston Manifestoites "

Incorrect. You have obviously not read the manifesto document, anything by anti-war Eustonites, or any of the answers to points such as this given at Normblog.

For my part, I believe that western governments should intervene to depose dictators consistently, including in Saudi Arabia and current western client states. I opposed the war in Iraq because I believe that this can only usually be done by supporting materially the struggles of grassroots movements from below.

I am a Euston signatory.

As to you points Harry, I agree with the bulk of what you say, especially your excellent summary point.

Thomas said...

No, mrs k, this is not 'caring', and no, Mr Barnes, it is not right.

SERBIA - Germany did a lot to provoke and aid Croatia from the beginning, they cleansed 200K Serbs from Krajina, but whoa, they did not get bombed, instead they will probably join the EU soon. There was no genocide in Kosovo, initial reports of tens to one hundred thousand killed were ridiculous. The ICJ's own mission only found evidence of a war between Serb forces and KLA. Now Kosovo has been illegally torn off Serbia (but the partition of Kosovo is not allowed!!!!!). When do you see the Western elite's intentions? Then the US openly (via congressional legislation) financed the Serb opposition, Soros played a large part privately, they overthrew Milosevic, then kidnapped him with paramilitary goons and flew him to the Hague so he could die.

And yes, Johnny Guitar, economics played a part in this decision, as then the IMF imposed horrific austerity plans on Serbia, but it was only one of many reasons.

AFGHANISTAN - The Taliban is NO THREAT to Western civilisation. It is a Wahhabi fanatical, but also Pashtu nationalist, militia. It is against the technology it would need to fight a war with the West. The occupation of Afghanistan is a crime! The US-UK are protecting the DRUG TRADE!

Besides, I do not understand your point, are we to destroy any government that has a reactionary policy towards women? Or is this to do with 'Al Qaeda', which IS NOT AN ORGANISED GROUP. US prosecutors invented this in the 90s and then it was used as a blanket under which to sweep all radical Muslims ... now an excuse for all draconian measures against civil liberties.

IRAQ - You have to 'adjust' always to the situation, apparently. You never take charge. That is why the City of London took over the Labour Party, I suppose. So why did France leave Algeria, why did the US leave Vietnam, why did the USSR leave Afghanistan? How do you make a moral occupation out of an immoral war? Do you think you will build a secular democratic socialist Iraq under the shadow of an American tank?

The Euston Manifesto makes me sick to read almost from the beginning, and I am American by birth. Use the military to crush 'reactionaries' in countries that can't really fight back....shame, shame, shame, shame, shame.