It is 4 years since the death of my friend and mentor, Tony Benn. I could argue that he turns up in every article I write, but that’s a poor substitute for the daily conversations into which he poured tea and optimism in equally copious quantities.
Tony would be as excited as anyone about Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s leadership of today’s Labour Party. But he would be no less anxious about the bigger canvas upon which a new politics needs to be written.
Many of Benn’s post-parliamentary reflections took account of the time he had to be with his grand-children, and of the uncertain legacy we might leave them. His thoughts increasingly focussed on setting lifelong themes – peace, democracy, equality, international solidarity and social justice – into a context that grasped how runaway climate change could sink everyone’s boats.
In doing so Tony was, as ever, pre-scripting Corbyn and McDonnell’s most incisive recent speeches, and addressing the real opportunities that Labour’s colossal growth in membership brings with it. As ever, Benn’s thoughts would invite us to look outwards rather than inwards.
Beyond the Brexit debacle
I doubt Tony would have wasted much time on the acrimonious exchanges between Tory factions in the Brexit debacle. His focus would more have been on two different ends of the debate.
At the macro level, Benn would surely be urging Labour to rebuild some of its European fences. Benn understood how a retreat into narrow nationalisms twice dragged Europe into catastrophically destructive wars. He had warned that EU obligations to reduce Europe to a delivery mechanism for free market capitalism could do the same again. Today, he would almost certainly be pointing to the resurgence of populist movements on the Right – in Italy, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, France…and in the UK – that could threaten to do so again.
Against this, Benn would be urging Labour to seize the unique opportunity it has created. Corbyn, McDonnell, Momentum, and a mass of others, have turned Labour into Europe’s biggest progressive populist movement. Labour has become the embodiment of what ‘Another World is Possible’ means – a populist movement of the Left. But the movement needs to establish itself at a European level as well as a domestic one.
Brexit distracts us from a wider European crisis. The EU’s single market has delivered for corporations what it refuses to share with citizens. The recent EU offer to Balkan States works on the same misguided premise; markets that would undermine the local to the benefit of the transnational. In contrast, China has stepped in with huge direct investment; a new rail infrastructure stretching from Athens to Belgrade and Budapest.
The EU, lacking a coherent anti-austerity Programme of its own, simply opens a Balkans door that Russia and Turkey would use to create mischief amongst divided religious communities. Benn would be the first to see this danger, urging Labour to give a European lead into a different anti-austerity politics.
‘Questions of Power’ – the missing sixth question
Domestically his invitation would be the same. Many will remember Benn’s ‘5 Questions of Power’ – his interrogation of the powerful on behalf of the public. My guess is that, today, Tony would be adding a sixth.
It is no longer enough for Labour to ask those in power how they use it, or how we get rid of them? Today’s popular movements also want to know ”What part do I play?”
Labour’s burgeoning Party membership is not made up of passengers or frustrated bureaucrats. There is no queue for the (largely neutered) Policy Forums, no squabbling over questions of who gets to write Branch minutes or distribute national leaflets. You don’t have to scratch the surface to see that today’s hunger is for a more meaningful democracy.
Labour’s window of opportunity is to turn almost everything the Tories have come to stand for upside down. Instead of giving Frackers the right to overrule local objectors, Labour has to do the opposite. Instead of capping local authority borrowing powers for social housing, these should be unlocked. Instead of voluntary ‘sweetheart’ deals with polluters there should be statutory duties and statutory penalties. And wherever possible the lines of accountability should be to localities rather than commercial lobbyists. Democratic credibility must be rebuilt from the base, not the top.
Who better to do this than Corbyn and McDonnell?
Not since the days of Clem Attlee has there been a Labour Leadership with direct experience of local government. Corbyn and McDonnell are uniquely placed to help grass-roots activism morph into a level of democratic engagement Britain has long resisted. Other countries, with longer traditions of decentralised governance, recognise that restoring the credibility of fractured national politics has to begin with democratic renewal at a devolved level too. If the Left does not do so, inclusively, the Right will do it with bile.
The good news is that a whole raft of today’s technologies would allow Labour to drive social renewal in ways that hugely enhance public engagement and accountability. This isn’t restricted to major cities. It can work, at a cooperative level, in schools, neighbourhoods and villages.
One planet democracy
Democratic renewal must walk hand in hand with climate repair. It needs a new politics; one in which national leadership sets down climate (and carbon) obligations, and localities are given the power to determine how best deliver; from food security to housing and water supply, from transport and air quality to health and energy systems.
National ‘safety net’ infrastructures must underpin this, but revolutionary technologies are making it much easier to hold great swathes of the economy to wider levels of public accountability. Benn would have been the first to grasp this.
Mesmerised by gadgets and gizmo’s, Benn would now be singing the praise of smart grids and smart homes, of renewable energy, zero-carbon vehicles and blockchain technologies. But he would also want to test everything against his ‘Questions of Power’. So too must Labour.
Forty years ago, in his Arguments for Democracy, Benn observed that –
“… if the people are supposed to lack responsibility, it may be because they have too little power. Perhaps the remedy lies in decentralising power by moving it down from the top, instead of shifting more of it to the top.”
Those currently jockeying for positions within the Labour Party, and those hungry for a more just, inclusive and sustainable future, would do well to reflect on these words. Four years after Tony Benn’s death, our best tribute to his life would be to pick up ideas he had floated four decades before we were able to catch up.
It was ever thus.