Just over a quarter of a century ago, shortly after Ted Heath’s surprise defeat of the Wilson Government, Tony Benn addressed a Fabian Society meeting in a gloomy Westminster basement. With his usual happy choice of language, he described how fired-up he had been on eventually becoming a minister in Wilson’s Cabinet; he had always wanted to get his hands on the levers of power, he said, and at last he was going to do just that. And sure enough, when he walked into his office at the Ministry of Technology for the first time, there they were in all their gleaming majesty – the levers of power. With a glad cry, he had leapt forward and started tugging at them in a frenzy of pent-up enthusiasm. It was quite a long time before he realised that, however hard he pulled, nothing actually happened. It was even longer before he discovered that the levers weren’t actually connected to anything.
This seemed to me at the time to be a delightful example of Benn’s unrivalled ability to entertain as well as to instruct, and the story I wrote for the Guardian that night described him as the Labour Party’s would-be philosopher king. What I did not register was that Benn’s lecture that night marked the public beginning of a long intellectual journey. It eventually transformed him from a fairly orthodox left-of-centre Labourite to the front man for a form of radical socialism which few contemporary party colleagues – and even fewer of their predecessors – would have recognised as compatible with Labour’s traditional, vaguely Keynesian approach. As he has said more than once, the journey marked him as one of the few people who have defied normal human experience by moving further to the left as they grew older.
Far from being Labour’s philosopher king – a term which implies a certain cool detachment – Benn turned out to be its would-be messiah. Wrapped in the tattered robes of poverty and wielding his staff of truth, he trudged endlessly through the wilderness with his band of apostles, bemoaning the state of the Labour Party and pointing the road to salvation. His purpose was to find converts, and at first sight it seemed that he was succeeding on a spectacular scale. Indeed, at one point in his journey it appeared that he had won over a majority of Labour’s active membership in the constituency parties. But this eventually proved to be an illusion; what had really happened was that a rag-tag-and-bobtail army of assorted Trotskyists, single-issue fanatics and plain old-fashioned troublemakers had spotted Benn and his apostles and had attached themselves to him as their ‘leader’. He didn’t take them over, they took him over. And when the mass of the Labour movement at last became fed up with these people’s antics they threw some of them out. Most of the rest have since mended their ways, and have become models of moderation. A few have even embraced Tony Blair and New Labour with such enthusiasm that they now hold high-ranking commissions in Blair’s praetorian guard.
This, I concede, is a very different account of the Bennite saga of the Seventies and Eighties from the one which is recited in Panitch and Leys’s book. Their approach to the matter can be gauged from the fact that they dedicate their work to the memory of Ralph Miliband – a Marxist (though non-Communist) theoretician who had very little time for the Labour Party as an instrument of socialism and was dismissive of Parliament as a viable means of reaching the promised land – and also by the names they list in their acknowledgments. Very few of the people identified could be described as mainstream Labour.
If Miliband is the book’s dead hero, its living hero is Benn. Its villains are such notorious right-wing hatchetmen as Michael Foot – whose villainy seems to be compounded in the authors’ eyes by the fact that he managed to retain the affection of Labour’s rank and file. Fellow offenders include most of the members of the old Tribune Group of Labour MPs. Their crime was that they failed to join forces with Benn. To the authors, the fact that Benn refused to join forces with the Tribunites until he urgently needed some allies at Westminster is of no account.
These remarks will have established where I stand, and will help the innocent reader to lay off for wind, as they say on rifle ranges. But I have one other more general criticism of Panitch and Leys, uncoloured by my view of Benn and Bennism. It is that their book is excruciatingly boring. Parts, to be fair, are not too difficult to read. But others are composed in the kind of pseudo-Marxist jargon which characterised much of the discourse of left-wing intellectuals in those mercifully far-off days, complete with references to authorities of whom one has never heard. The probability is that one of the two authors can write and the other can’t. It would have been nice to have been told which was which, if only for future reference.
A more political judgment is that it is a deeply depressing book. This isn’t just because it is the story of a defeat, as told by the defeated. More depressing still is the discovery that it is possible for two sets of observers to examine the same events and come to such wildly different conclusions about them. In my eyes, Benn’s crew not only came close to destroying the Labour Party in the early Eighties, they also created the conditions for Mrs Thatcher’s triumphant onslaught on the Keynesian consensus which had been the foundation for the achievements of the postwar Labour Government. In the eyes of the authors, the internal split which made the Party unelectable in the Eighties was brought about because people like Foot had the temerity to resist Benn’s crusade. It wasn’t Benn’s fault, it was Foot’s – and, of course, that of Foot’s protégé Neil Kinnock, aided and abetted by Eric Hobsbawm, of all people.
This analysis seems to me wildly perverse. Indeed, even former Bennites have repudiated it with their feet, if not always with their tongues. Now that public apologies for past misdeeds have become fashionable, it is possible that we will one day get a public apology from the ex-Bennites. In the meantime, it is enough to run your eye down the names of the members of Blair’s Cabinet, and still more those of their juniors, to see the extent of the repentance among many former followers of Tony Benn. There is nothing like defeat for clarifying the mind.
But to be fair to the authors – something that does not come easily to me – they have done a tremendous amount of hard work. The 61 pages of notes at the back of the book are eloquent testimony to their academic rigour. Perhaps the most interesting, and best written, section of the volume is their detailed examination of Benn’s early development from Wilsonian apparatchik and skilled spin-doctor to the shriven penitent of the post-Wilsonian period. Departing somewhat from strict Marxist theory, they insist that their hero really did have a personal impact on the course of history. As they say: ‘It is a mistake to put too much emphasis on the role of any individual, but it is also a mistake to deny it.’ Too true; but unfortunately, the change in the course of history brought about by Benn and his allies was quite other than the one they set out to achieve. They did not capture the Labour Party for radical socialism. Instead, they helped to keep it out of office for so long that, in desperation, it swung all the way back in the opposite direction. If New Labour has now dumped even the remaining shreds of the Keynesianstyle socialism which it once espoused, and pretends to be enthusiastic about the global free market, that is the direct result of the Hard Left’s disastrous crusade in the Eighties.
What is entirely missing from the book is the flavour, one might almost say the smell, of those awful years. It was bad enough at the Party’s national conferences, but it was often even worse at constituency level. Perhaps Panitch and Leys never attended such meetings – they are described on the dust-jacket as professors at Canadian universities. But if they had sat in on constituency management committees in which the New Left (as the authors call the Bennites) was in a majority they would know what mainstream party members had to endure. The sheer hatred, often spilling over into outright intimidation, was a disgrace to a party which professed to believe in fraternity and comradeship. Worse, the ill-feeling was even more bitter towards the Old Left than it was towards the Old Right – the true mark of sectarianism down the ages. For many ward delegates, attending these meetings became an excruciating or even a frightening experience. Moreover, the New Leftists hit on an even more effective method of wearing down their opponents than simple abuse: they kept the meetings going for as long as they possibly could – GC meetings routinely went on until midnight, and sometimes later than that. It took stamina just to sit through them as well as courage to carry on voting against the tide.
One of the direct consequences of this poisonous atmosphere was a precipitous fall in the Party’s rank-and-file membership, and in the number of trade-union branches which were affiliated to their local parties. This is dutifully recorded in the book, but the authors somehow fail to draw the obvious conclusion. They report that total constituency membership halved between 1982 and 1984. Improbably, however, they seem to suggest that this was a reaction to the election of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley to the leadership. But it wasn’t disillusioned members of the Hard Left who left; many of the deserters were old-fashioned mainstream socialists disgusted by the nastiness of what they had experienced or witnessed. Most of the rest were simply bored.
The book also notes that since Blair became leader there has been a dramatic reversal of this decline, with no fewer than 113,000 joining the Party in a single year. No explanation for this phenomenon is offered. Instead, Panitch and Leys note that the newly recruited members were the instrument which made it possible for Blair to win the ballot approving his redrafted version of Clause IV of the Party constitution – something they compare to removing the Book of Genesis from the Bible. Implicit in this judgment is the view that very few members of the Labour Party actually believed in the old Clause IV and its commitment to wholesale public ownership, any more than members of the Church of England take the Book of Genesis seriously. But Panitch and Leys clearly feel that Clause IV’s abandonment conveys a sorry message about the soul of the modern Labour Party. As one who voted against its abandonment, I can sympathise with that view. But the Bennites must at least share the blame for precipitating the issue.
If the main narrative of the book is depressing, the concluding chapter verges on the pathetic. The authors appear to recognise, sadly, that the kind of socialism espoused by Tony Benn and the Hard Left during the Eighties is off the political agenda for the foreseeable future. The penultimate page contains an assessment of the future of socialism which suggests, contrary to earlier impressions, that Messrs Panitch and Leys have after all learned the lesson of the story they have told. It is worth quoting at length:
A socialism that offers no credible vision of an alternative future is meaningless; constant reductions in social services, chronic unemployment, increased stress, longer hours and increased insecurity at work will eventually rob market society of its appeal, but in the absence of a credible alternative it will still seem inevitable. Any alternative must be credible not only to ascetics, saints, anti-car crusaders and treelovers but also to people with ordinary desires and dreams. In particular, it will be important to work out what people really want and are willing to sustain in the way of democratic participation – in what areas, taking what forms, shared with whom, occupying how much of their time. On the other hand, ordinary people have deeper feelings, more regard for the society they live in, longer historical memories and higher aspirations than professional politicians often give them credit for. It is on these things that the renewed socialist project must ultimately be founded.
If the Left has made the belated discovery that what ordinary voters actually want really does matter, then perhaps the dreadful experience of the Eighties was not utterly wasted. For the conclusions drawn by the Bennites from past electoral defeats was that when people voted against wishy-washy socialism they were actually yearning for a dose of more robust socialism, and should be offered it next time round. It was a barmy idea then, and is still a barmy idea. But instead of ‘working out’ what people actually want – a somewhat a priori, even élitist procedure – New Labour has decided to do it by way of opinion polls and ‘focus groups’. A better idea would be to adopt a practical programme of social action and then go out and persuade people it is right, and therefore what they want. I always imagined that was what political parties were supposed to be for.
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