Can Tony Benn’s ideas still find a receptive audience?

Tony Benn at the Cambridge Union in 2012Tony Benn at the Cambridge Union in 2012 (Source: Chris Bolan)

Amidst complaints of growing disconnection from the public, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats face the prospect of fighting a general election where voters will turn to the smaller ‘outsider’ parties in record numbers. Overshadowed by the already existing and bigger problem of low voter turnout, popular discourse is increasingly turning to the question of the representativeness of parliamentary politics. It is within this context that some of the political ideas which the late Tony Benn advocated should be reconsidered. Admired by friends and foes alike, Benn was and is still regarded as an important standard bearer of the left in British parliamentary politics. However, rather than socialism, it is his passionate advocacy of a radically broad conception of democracy – one which includes but is not limited to merely voting – which can offer the most useful lesson for politicians of all stripes.

Having been one of the Labour Party’s most important players in the twentieth century, Benn’s ability to influence the political direction of his party swiftly diminished after narrowly losing out in the battle to become its Deputy Leader in 1981. By the time Labour’s other Tony had gained leadership of the party, the political ideas which the former minister advocated were painted as irrelevant and belonging to a bygone past, in contrast with the vibrancy and vigour of New Labour. Though the former minister’s socialism was caricatured by his opponents within Labour (Roy Hattersley) and without (Margaret Thatcher) as that of central planning, nationalisation and the ‘nanny state’, it is important to note the self-described democratic socialist’s advocacy of democracy. Even Tories such as Daniel Hannan and David Cameron have praised Benn’s commitment to the idea of democracy (the latter calling Benn’s Arguments for Democracy “a very powerful book”).

‘Incidental Socialism’

Benn’s democratic socialism was predicated upon a belief in the primacy of the democratic process. In his mind, a society where democracy was fully-realised would naturally result in socialism. Indeed within the logic of conceptual paradigm, the term ‘democratic socialism’ is arguably tautological. Advocating democracy – which only incidentally led to socialism – on the basis that it allowed for the clearest expression of the natural equality of all humans, Benn believed in it as a good which should be pursued as an end in itself. His support for the idea democracy rested upon the notion that it enables all humans, including the poor and the weak, to have an equal say on the trajectory of society, and therefore transform it to suit their needs. He was thus diametrically opposed to the conception of a limited democracy as advocated by thinkers such as Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman who had laid the intellectual foundations for the new right. For Benn, their conception of democratic choice as something which should be exercised chiefly within the confines of the market was deeply unfair, as it disadvantaged those who may lack resources such as capital and information.

This deontological belief in democracy drew its inspiration from the activism of the Levellers, the Chartists and the Suffragettes, as well as those of Thomas Paine and the Reverend John Ball. They had all put forward powerful arguments for democratic rights and against domination by unaccountable elites within their respective historical contexts, and Benn saw himself as an ideological heir to this long line of English democratic radicalism. His particular reading of democracy therefore led him to argue against both capitalism and state socialism, systems which he thought permitted the domination of the general population by a narrow segment of society. Criticising neo-liberals, who see politics as a way of maximising the role of the market, and social democrats, who sees politics as a way to benevolently construct a fairer society on behalf of the public, Benn conceptualised politics as one of the few ways in which people could reconfigure society for their own needs. This conception of politics led to him arguing for the maximal dispersal of power as the goal of politics. Though neither the sole originator nor gatekeeper of these ideas, Benn was and remains one of their most powerful promoters.

The current picture

Recently, this conceptualisation of democracy has begun to drip back into contemporary political discourse. Even though it has lost much of its traction, the prominence of the Occupy movement a few years ago enabled discussions about the relationship between democracy and power inequalities to be created in popular discourse. The movement’s perception of an elite taking advantage of structural imbalances paralleled many of the ideas which Benn were concerned with. As well as creating the notion of the 1% versus the 99%, leading to a spate of what Boris Johnson labelled “banker bashing”, it also brought up questions about the efficacy of democracies which allow the generation of such gross inequalities. Ed Miliband’s promise “to stand up to” the Big Six energy firms by freezing prices, and his vow to stop Britain becoming a country which “only works for a tiny elite few at the top” also tentatively hints at his former work experience boss’s influence on his thinking, though his suggestions may be too moderate and too limited for some.

The rise of Russell Brand’s increasingly prominent politics share common roots with Benn’s own politics. Brand’s denouncement of what he perceives to be the domination of unaccountable institutions such as multinational corporations and banks, compounded by the political class’s inaction, have led to energetic discussion about the current politico-economic configuration of society. His diagnosis of the problems of society has much in common with Benn’s, and both share considerable popularity amongst one segment of society which is least likely to vote: the young. However, the former’s encouragement for people not to vote and instead turn to extra-parliamentary ways of participating in politics would have probably put off one of Britain’s longest serving parliamentarians. Whereas Brand sees parliamentary politics as being inherently ineffectual and corrupt, and thus an impediment to the sort of broad democracy which both he and Benn advocate, Benn saw parliamentary democracy as a hard-won victory in a protracted historical struggle for democracy. For him, the election of Labour MPs to Parliament indicated the political success of a social movement which long predated the party’s formation.

This historical view of democracy as a “constant struggle” from below plays an important role in informing Benn’s conception of democracy. For him, democracy was not only a matter of voting once every few years, but rather a continuous dialogue between politicians and the public which has temporarily empowered them. Thus he emphasised the importance of accountability of politicians to the public, and ran on a platform of mandatory reselection of Labour MPs during his deputy leadership campaign. Moreover, he stressed the centrality of grassroots organisations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War Coalition, as well as the constituency Labour parties, which he believed parliamentary politics must draw their policies from. Conversely, Benn criticised what he perceived to be the Labour Party’s increasing disconnection from the members that founded it, which he thought was treating its members as a source of revenue rather than potential policymakers. Indeed, the rising popularity of minority parties such as United Kingdom Independence Party and the Green Party as electoral forces has partly stemmed from voters’ perception of the traditional ‘Westminster’ parties – which includes include Benn’s own Labour Party – as being disengaged from and uninterested in the views of the general public. As politicians try to combat Brand’s platitudes by dreaming up of initiatives such as lowering the voting age and talking to the public in ‘a language they understand’, perhaps the best and most elegant solution would be simply to actually listen to people and act on their wishes.

‘Linking the streets and the statute book’

As politicians and commentators from all sides express their concerns for what they perceive to be an apathetic public which is alienated from the political process, perhaps Benn’s belief in the relevance, importance and the meaning of democracy should be reconsidered. His broad of a democracy where conversations between the electors and the elected should and must happen constantly rather than every five years offer some very useful lessons to politicians afraid of electoral disengagement. So profound was his confidence in the dynamism of the democratic process that he argued for its extension to all spheres of society, most notably the workplace. Though this may be too radical for some people, the principles underlying Benn’s thoughts on the arrangement of power in society still have much to offer. His emphasis on the importance of Parliament being “the buckle that links the street to the statute book”, as well as his arguments for politics to be a bottom-up process, offers much in a political climate where the main parties are seen as increasingly stale and detached from the public. On the first anniversary of Benn’s death, and as we approach the general election, it would be wise for politicians of all stripes to study more closely ideas he advocated.