An example worth following:
The life and politics of Tony Benn

It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.

Tony Benn

Tony Benn

Tony Benn

The world is a little bit darker place this week, after the death of Tony Benn, a shining light of progressive politics and one of the truly iconic figures of British politics. Benn, 88, passed away Friday, after a career of 50 years as an MP in the House of Commons and a lifetime spent ceaselessly campaigning for all the best causes.

As the preeminent representative of democratic socialist ideas, Tony Benn was on the losing side of an epic battle within the UK Labour Party. He came very close to winning the party’s deputy leadership back in 1981, one of the myriad defeats the left would suffer over that decade, in which Margaret Thatcher aggressively implemented neoliberalism and attacked the power of trade unions. By the 1990s, the left of Labour had been pushed aside, disparagingly dismissed as “Old Labour” and overwhelmed by “New Labour,” personified by Tony Blair, who swept to power in 1997.

Ultimately, the Labour Party chose the wrong Tony to lead. While Benn, a former cabinet minister, moved steadily to the left over the course of his long life and spent his last decade relentlessly opposing unjust and unpopular wars, Blair steered Labour even further to the right, maintaining much of Thatcher’s economic policy and dragging Britain into the disastrous US-led invasion of Iraq. Benn spent his final years supporting grassroots, activist campaigns, while Blair has spent his years since leaving office rubbing shoulders with dictators and oligarchs – often as a highly paid consultant to venal and powerful figures. Benn will be remembered kindly by history; Blair will go down in infamy as a war criminal.

I met Tony Benn back in 2007. It was a rainy, cold December night in London, and I had just picked up a tea to warm up before heading in to listen to speakers at an international anti-war conference. I grabbed the first empty seat I could find, only to realize that I was sharing a table with Benn who, having by then retired from Parliament, was in attendance as the honorary President of the UK Stop the War Coalition. I asked him when and why he had retired from being an MP, and in turn he quizzed me about Canadian politics; he was especially interested in foreign policy and the state of the NDP.

Even in just a few minutes of conversation, it was clear that Benn was a remarkably unpretentious man and a remarkably youthful octogenarian. His enemies read this as naïveté, but his friends knew that his enthusiasm and energy flowed from his sincere convictions, and from his profound sense of the long history of movements for social justice.

I can’t recall exactly what I said to Benn about Canada’s social democratic party, but I know the answer today would be less encouraging. The British Labour Party has always been a point of reference for the NDP; in 2014 it must be said that the NDP, at least at the leadership level, has more in common with Tony Blair’s politics than with Tony Benn’s.

For example, today’s NDP offers only occasional and tepid opposition to Harper’s aggressive foreign policy, and sometimes joins in support of NATO military adventures, like when the NDP voted with Harper on Libya. Benn was at the front of every anti-war rally in recent decades, and advocated for pulling the UK out of NATO altogether. Today’s NDP, at the federal level, refuses to talk about increasing income tax on the rich, an essential measure for combating inequality. Benn helped launch the recently formed People’s Assembly Against Austerity.

At least a couple of NDP Members of Parliament posted articles about Tony Benn on social media, and many more party members noted Benn’s passing with sadness. Tellingly, however, federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair said nothing about Benn’s passing last Friday. Contrast this with Thatcher’s death last year. When that archenemy of labour died, Mulcair tweeted his condolences and the party immediately issued a formal statement. It’s as if the leader of the NDP has forgotten who was a friend and who was an enemy of working people.

Tony Benn was a good friend to everyone struggling for a more peaceful and less unequal world. His political traditions were dismissed as “old,” but, if humanity is to have a long and decent future, new generations will need to take up and spread socialist and democratic ideas with Benn-like enthusiasm and dedication.

I offer my condolences and solidarity to all friends and comrades in Britain who worked alongside Tony Benn in the movements for peace and social justice. His was a life well-lived and his memory should put a spring in all of our steps.

2 thoughts on “An example worth following:
The life and politics of Tony Benn

  1. Hear, hear. While many media pundits have glibly dismissed Benn as a kind of Old Testament prophet railing impotently against neo-liberal modernity, he had many notable accomplishments to his credit. While self-aggrandizing businessmen and clapped out politicians often go to great lengths to obtain a seat in the House of Lords, Benn successfully fought for legislation allowing members of the upper house to renounce their peerages. (In 1960 he had forfeited his seat in the House of Commons on inheriting his father’s peerage.)

    In the 1980s he was reviled for his campaign in the Labour Party for a directly elected leader–until 1981 the leader was elected exclusively by Labour MPs–and for the mandatory re-selection of sitting MPs. Both of these measures are now taken in stride, yet they were strenuously opposed by senior members of the party who abandoned it shortly after to found a rival party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP). While many blame Benn for Labour’s electoral losing streak in the 1980s, the SDP bears most of the responsibility as it split the anti-Conservative vote.

    As Secretary of State for Energy in the Wilson-Callaghan government of the 1970s Benn re-negotiated North Sea oil agreements reached by the Conservatives so as to give the public treasury a fairer share of the proceeds.

    There is much more to be said in praise of Tony Benn. It is troubling indeed that Thomas Mulcair chose to say nothing on the occasion of his death.

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