British Labour: what's new and what isn't &amp&amp

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British Labour: what's new and what isn't

TONY BENN has been one of the most important figures of progressive politics in postwar Britain. He became a member of parliament under the government of Clement Attlee, and is likely to remain one under Tony Blair. He was a cabinet-minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, and, together with the latter, was one of the keynote speakers at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Labour victory of 1945. He was interviewed in London by LASZLO ANDOR. Question: The intellectual fashion of the past two decades suggests that class has lost its meaning to describe society and guide political action. Should we take this seriously?

I am not an academic economist or sociologist. If you look at the world as a whole today, however, the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever it was. One fifth of the world population live in extreme poverty, 30,000 babies die every day from preventable disease. If you look at Britain, which is a rich country by world standards, there is now grinding poverty at the bottom and homelessness, and at the top, people just rolling in money.

Thus, it is very difficult to abolish class, but it is true that the social democratic element in the Labour Party, New Labour, as it is called, has abolished class. They speak about serving the nation. It is, however, totally unrealistic in terms of people's actual experience.

The term working class has been deliberately associated with somebody with dirty fingers doing a manual job, but you get people quite high up the scale who depend for their means of life on selling their skills, and the working class goes up to 80% of the population. Only 10 or 20% can buy their house, look after their medical needs, educate their children, safeguard their pensions, without working.

What they do now is to turn everybody theoretically into a middle class, and have an underclass, who they speak of as if they had chosen to opt out of society. They prefer to live in cardboard boxes, they do not want jobs, they are dependent.

The very clever word they developed is consumer. If you do not have any money, you cannot be a consumer. They found a word which dehumanises and depersonalises the poor. They do not exist, they are the slaves in society. In this way, by telling the middle class that they are all right, because they are middle class, they have created a completely artificial structure. They speak about the home owners, for example. You have to distinguish, however, between home owners and home buyers. Home buyer is the one who pays mortgage, and home owner is who actually owns his home. The number of real home owners is far less than suggested by official statements.

Unemployment is, of course, the policy itself. Unemployment lowers wages, undermines unions and boosts profits. Fear is the discipline of a capitalist society. It is very difficult for the people at work to take action, because if they take action they lose their jobs.

Question: Behind the different political discourse, there is thus a new political agenda.

It is very important to understand the nature of the society based on fear. Those who deny class, invent illusions and denounce anyone who talks about full employment, universal welfare or free health and education as extremist, in reality works completely in the command of the international financial markets.

When sterling drops three points, they close hospitals and "Confidence is restored". It is not very hard to realise that this is not an attack on socialist ideology, but an attack on democracy. They do not want the people to use the vote to make a decision that has an effect on their economic prospects.

There is an article in the Financial Times written by the economics correspondent of the BBC World Service, saying that in Africa it would be better if the countries were run by companies rather than by governments.

The more you think about this, the more you realise that the world financial markets are the new raj, the new capitalist empire. How you get out of it is the next question, but I think we have to be absolutely clear, that a century of tentative progress by working people and ordinary people in controlling their economic destiny has been reversed. It is a massive counter-revolution, and that is why the social democrats (New Labour) say, "We cannot do anything about it. The world has changed, you are a dinosaur ..." etc.

But really, globalisation is an attack on democracy. What they say about a short period of hardships is just an illusion.

Question: This agenda of globalisation and the corresponding changes in ideas and language have been set by the conservatives, but it seems the new leadership of Labour have quickly accommodated to it.

That is absolutely right. Without being personal about it, when the public is rejecting Thatcherism, the Labour leadership is absorbing Thatcherism. Tony Blair is a conservative; he is a nice man, but he is a conservative. He is not just not a socialist, but he is not Labour. He does not believe in an organic link with the unions. He is the most popular conservative in Britain, really. He could have applied for the leadership of the Tory Party.

This is the failure of the social democrats. They have failed as much as the communists did. The communists failed by being authoritarian, undemocratic and bureaucratic, but the social democrats very largely have collapsed into the arms of capitalism.

So when we look back on the 20th century, and see the different types of socialism, all of them have failed, because they have not really addressed the question adequately.

You have to start now where you are and begin to understand, just like Galileo understood the universe, and Freud understood sex, and Darwin understood the origin of species, you have the stop and say: "Where are we?". Because at the moment I get the feeling that the Labour leadership is simply trying to replace the present government without any alternative perspective or analysis or objective. They just want office.

Question: Do you expect that the next Labour government will be very unpopular?

I think when they win, which I think will happen, the expectations will go up sharply. Then the disillusion will set in very quickly. Then all sorts of things may happen.

The Conservative Party might split, because there are already two Conservative parties. There are the centre conservatives, of whom Blair is a natural member together with the Liberals. Then there is a right wing now with John Redwood. And then there is the trade union and socialist and green left still in British politics keeping its head down now because of the desire to defeat the Conservatives.

If you had proportional representation, which I think we might have, we could have a complete realignment of politics, because now we really live in a one-party state. The difference from the communist regimes is that under communism you never had a vote between parties. We are heading towards a potentially very exciting, but also potentially a very dangerous period.

Question: Does that mean that the Labour Party could split as well?

I think the right wing will leave the Labour Party. They always do, like MacDonald left in 1931, George Brown with Roy Jenkins and 10% of the Labour Party left in 1981 to form the SDP. I do not say it will happen, but once we are there, then I think you will find a lot of changes, and Blair will be dependent more and more on conservative votes in the House of Commons to carry his policies through.

I think the British establishment now actually wants Blair in order to make cuts in the welfare state, which he would be stronger to make than Major, because Major is weak and unpopular.

Question: Is that why Murdoch supports Blair?

Well, Murdoch supports winners; he wants to sell his newspapers. Blair is now going all the way to Australia to meet the Murdoch editors. He goes to the Transport and General Workers Union, and says: "Do not think we are going to help you; I am off to Australia to help Mr'. Murdoch".

Question: On the 50th anniversary of the 1945 Labour victory, Blair made some very general appraisal of the Attlee government, saying that all governments have to act according to the requirements of the day. Is it possible to draw more lessons from the 1945 experience?

What was different in 1945 was not the charisma of the leader. Attlee was not charismatic, but the people were confident. The one common characteristic of progressive change, is when the people are confident. People said we will never have unemployment again, never have means testing, we defeated Hitler and Mussolini, we will have full employment — and we did. One characteristic of social change is, therefore, when you build confidence, not in the leaders, but in the people.

It is a very idiomatic phrase, but every day the Labour Party unveils a new policy. Sculptures can be unveiled. It is not very democratic to unveil a policy, policy is something to discuss. The whole thing is authoritarian, aristocratic, elitist, undemocratic.

There are two flames burning in every socialist movement in every country of the world: the flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope that you could build a better society. These two flames burn all the time. If you can say nothing about the future except "I will be prime minister", you are reducing the political movement from an historic movement to simply today's headline.

No-one would be loyal to a sort of sound bite. The people want to know where we are coming from and where we want to go. They will not work simply to put Mr Blair in No 10. So his support is very very shallow in the party. The establishment want to bring him up, but it is not really a substantial movement.

Question: What would be required to stop a further shift to the right?

Fascism is a product of two forces. It is a failure of capitalism, and a failure of the left to provide an alternative. Both ingredients are integral. If you give people no hope, they will turn on the blacks, they will turn on the Jews, turn on the trade unions, turn on the gays and so on. That, I think, is a very serious danger today. I know I am slightly exaggerating, but not all that much.

The people are beginning to see through it, but they are not getting alternative leadership to understand it. That is the real failure of New Labour. They have no explanation other than that the Conservatives are wicked. We do not discuss socialism, and I could forget about that, but we do not discuss capitalism, which is the system we live under.

Question: Social democracy traditionally has been a Northern phenomenon. It was about redistribution within the nation-states in the core regions of world capitalism. How do you think this could be changed in the future?

During the Cold War there was a Non-Aligned Movement, which wanted development instead of being locked into a war between America and Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, with the fall of the anti-capitalist superpower, the Non-Aligned Movement dissolved. While the international inequalities are getting more acute, I suppose that this movement would reassert itself. You cannot have globalisation based on the free movement of capital and not the free movement of people.

If you are a rich man in Britain, you close a factory here and open it in Taiwan, where wages are lower. But if you are employed here, you cannot move to Taiwan.

In your speeches, you often mention the need for a Fifth International. What do you mean by that?

I am very keen on that, but I have not got the resources to get it going. There is a lot happening in the world. In every country of the world, people want jobs, homes and human rights. And the number of international conferences that take place is very big.

When we talk about the Fifth International, it is really an eye-catching phrase, but we really need some way to keep in touch with each other. Of course, the Comintern was run from Moscow, and the Second International is very elusive, and this is something that would not have ideological criteria other than "Are you for jobs, justice, peace, and so on?".

Question: The fall of communism and the crisis of social democracy leave the left with the task not only to reorganise but also to reinvent itself.

The collapse of communism is comparable to the Reformation, when Martin Luther attacked the Vatican, which was utterly corrupt and centralised. He created a more popular type of Christianity which was more democratic.

There has to be some real change. Because anything less than a real change in the course of world politics would be a disaster. Politics could move to the right. To build up understanding and support for a real change is difficult, it may take decades, but this is an inherently unstable situation we are in.

It will not last, it will not resolve problems. It cannot do more than create a new social democratic political class which could govern under the control of the international speculative markets. It may sound pessimistic, but actually I am optimistic. We can prevent a further shift to the right.

The reintroduction of a moral element in politics would be very important. Are we just consumers, are we units of production, are we judged by profitability, or are we people with rights? This is becoming quite an important argument, because they turned us all simply into economic units. That may play a part in the recovery of a progressive political movement.