Social Democracy's Paradox

an interview with Tony Benn

Tony Benn was first elected to the British House of Commons in 1950 and has subsequently been re-elected fourteen times. He was a member of the National Executive of the Labour Party from 1950 to 1960 but resigned over differences. In 1962 he was re-elected to the National Executive and has served in all National Executives since, in 1964 he served in the Labour Party Cabinet, and from 197579 he was secretary of state for energy. He has challenged three times for the party leadership. Benn is also the author of eleven books and pamphlets, the most recent, Fighting Back appeared in 1988.

Tony Benn was interviewed for ATC by writer Dan La Botz on May 25, 1990, at the University of Cincinnati. Benn had been invited by the university to give a Taft Lecture, part of a series delivered by distinguished scholars.

ATC: Can you give us an idea of what the “poll tax’s movement has been like? What has its impact been on the left?

Tony Benn: The poll tax was begun in Scotland last year as a trial, and it precipitated the appearance of a lot of little opposition groups. I met with one in Aberdeen last year that had begun with seven women the previous June. It had grown to seventy in September, and by the time we marched through Aberdeen it had about 7,000. Whoom! The movement absolutely exploded.

In little villages people would put an ad in the paper saying, “If you’re worried about the poll tax, come to a meeting.” There have been enormous meetings up and down the country, and there have been no problems of disorder – in Scotland anyway.

The All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation was set up, linking the small groups together. It was pioneered — or rather led —by a group of people represent in a socialist group, some in and some not in the Labour Party.

ATC: What group is that?

TB: It’s argued that members of the Militant Tendency are the leading figures, and some of the members of the committee certainly are. But it was really a self-generating movement; there is no question of that I spoke at the Poll Tax Rally we held March 31 in Trafalgar Square, where 200,000 people turned up —probably the biggest demonstration in London fora hundred years. The demonstration in Trafalgar Square paralleled one in Scotland the same day of about 60,000 to 80,000 people.

People came to London from all over the country. It was totally peaceful in character. When we got as far as Whitehall, which is next to Downing Street where the prime minister’s house is and before Trafalgar Square, they let a lot go through, and then they threw a police block across the road. After I had made my speech, I walked back down Whitehall to go to the House of Commons; I found a police block, which I was able to go through because I was a member of parliament.

There were a lot of frightened people in the middle, because just below the mounted police, the riot police had been released on the crowd and were squeezing them into one area. There is no doubt that stones were thrown. I suspect some groups were there who were agents provocateurs. But it was a tiny minority of a hundred or two out of 200,000. Of course the media concentrated on that and the thing was presented as “Poll Tax Riots in London” and so on.

In general, when you have student demonstrations or miners’ strikes, I think the government responds in such a way as to create violence, in order to be able to belittle and sidetrack the real impact of the protest In this case, a lot of people simply cannot afford to pay the tax. I think 79 percent of the population is worse off than they were.

Because it’s a tax per head, you get some people, perhaps a couple of pensioners who live in a house with two or three unemployed youngsters, who have to pay five poll taxes, which pushes them up from a tax of a few hundred pounds to perhaps 2,000 pounds; whereas the wealthy people living in the big homes where they paid high local taxes have had their tax cut.

It’s grossly unfair, and very undemocratic, because it takes power away from the elected council. Also, a lot of people are not registering for the vote, for fear they’ll be caught for the poll tax, so the electoral register is shrinking. It’s also, I think, almost unworkable But the Labour Party officially has been cautious; they want to look respectable.

ATC: What about the poll tax movement’s effect on other parts of the left? On the Militant Tendency or the Socialist Workers Party, for example?

TB: Well, I think the Militant Tendency has undoubtedly played a part in the movement, but to imply that they could organize hundreds of thousands of people around the country —no they can’t.

The Militant Tendency is totally opposed to violence; its members are very severe in their attitude toward that The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was one of the other groups involved. Like Class War — also active on this issue — the SWP is a left group outside the Labour Party, whereas Militant Tendency has tended to work inside the Labour Party. But it would be a great mistake to think that either the SWP or Class War could have organized this upsurge alone. I know you don’t say that, but that’s what the general media story has been.

ATC: So this movement isn’t reviving the Labour Party at its base?

TB: It is in the sense that ordinary members of the Labour Party are very much involved in it. But the Labour Party nationally has stood aside, hasn’t organized demonstrations. It has said, quite sensibly, that it will repeal the poll tax. But in effect it is saying, pay the poll tax for now, even though it is clear that people can’t pay it.

ATC: So the Labour Party has rejected the boycott idea?

TB: Officially yes; very much so.

ATC: Has this movement yet produced any new leadership in local Labour Party chapters or trade-union organizations?

TB: Strangely, I think the public is now ahead of the Labour Party. It’s always been argued that the activists were ahead of the leadership. But! think now that the public, an awful lot of people, want a real change, and the Labour Party is so cautious in its presentation of its policy that to some extent it is being led by its own voters, which is a very unusual event I think that could be sufficient to carry Labour into power, but on a very cautious program.

ATC: if it does mean the end of Thatcherism, how do you see that happening? Is there a particular process?

TB: The economic situation is very bad: we have a huge deficit, the interest rates are high, home loans are at an enormous rate of interest People who had a job and bought a house on a home loan find that the high interest rates have closed their factory; they can’t keep up with their home-loan interest payments, and they become homeless and so on. And the public services — health care and education — are in a poor state So I suppose there is a general disenchantment with the government which is going to express itself in the general election in a way favorable to Labour. But Labour’s response on the whole is to be very cautious and try to look respectable.

ATC: Why isn’t the Labour Party being more aggressive and more left wing? Why is it being so conservative?

TB: I think the reason is that we have lost three elections, and people are desperate to win. It is obviously absolutely essential that this government be removed, and the general thinking of the pollsters and the advisors is that if you’re going to win you’ve got to tone down and dilute your policy, distance yourself from struggle, and expel people on the left. That’s the philosophy of it. I don’t personally think it’s the right response even to a desire to win, but it is the response, and that explains very largely what the Labour Party National Executive has been doing.

ATC: Not only the Labour Party, but European social democracy seems to be extremely conservative — Francois Mitterand and especially Felipe Gonzalez in Spain Do you see any likelihood that these parties will change their character as a result of the developments in Eastern Europe?

TB: In the post-war period, successive American governments more concerned with defeating communism than anything else recognized that there was a great wave of radicalism, and thought the best thing to do was support and to some extent control social democracy. So social democracy became an agent of American policy. The British Labour Party has always stayed rather close to Washington, the German Social Democratic Party, similarly; the French rather less so, but still close So social democracy has now become a way of administering capitalism without actually changing it Gonzalez, Craxi, Papandreou to some extent, Mitterand, and Callaghan in Britain have all been of that ilk.

Now the problem is that it may be a way of containing and defusing popular opposition, but when it fails, it usually leads to a further swing to the right, as with Thatcher. So what has to be rediscovered is a perspective that is morally based, democratic, egalitarian and internationalist, moving forward to that is the project for socialists. Because, as you quite properly say, European socialism has been as conservative as the American Democratic Party in a way. There’s not a lot of difference between the two.

ATC: Is there a development of a left-wing tendency of any significance within the social democratic parties?

TB: Yes, after a discussion in Britain we set up Socialist Movement [an organization — ed]. We had a conference in my district in Chesterfield and then another, and then last summer we decided to form a movement It’s a broadly based left movement in favor of socialism. It’s not a new political party because, strangely, political parties tend to reproduce the same weaknesses as social democratic parties; all parties do this because they want to get elected.

What we felt was lacking in Britain was a proper movement for socialism, like the peace movement, the women’s movement, or the anti-Vietnam War movement. And that movement is growing. This November in Manchester, we’re going to have a Second Socialist Movement Conference, with representatives from East and West Europe. There are some very good people who will turn up. We’re trying to look at the whole of Europe with a post-Cold War perspective and see what sort of structures we would need, how we can link up with the trade-union movement.

I’m scheduled to go to Moscow in June or July for Boris Kagarlitsky’s conference. We’re trying to build these links with Eastern Europe. The situation is very fluid at the moment, and we’ve had a number of visitors from the Soviet Union and from Poland and from Czechoslovakia, but everything is moving so fast and they’re so busy with their elections that it hasn’t really developed in the way that it should have. Basically our idea is the re-creation of genuine working-class solidarity around the whole of Europe and a socialist perspective around certain fairly clear and straightforward objectives.

ATC: What is the impact of the developments in Eastern Europe on Western European and British society and the left?

TB: The first point would be that the end of the Cold War has removed what has been the main prop of right-wing propaganda for forty years: that if you criticize capitalism you must be a communist spy. That’s gone. The argument for military budgets at the present level is gone and that’s wholly beneficial.

And certainly the growth of a united Germany is clearly a new force in Europe that has to be watched very carefully.

As for the impact of popular movements on our movement — people have said for years, what can you do against Thatcher? The poll-tax rally of 280,000 people was triggered because for a year people have been saying, ”A million people in Tiananmen Square; when are we going to have a million people in Parliament Square?” And you can feel this confidence coming back.

That’s much more of a factor in Britain than anybody realizes. It’s not that the Labour Party’s alternatives are terribly effective, but there is that feeling, that if they can do it we can do it. Arid just as after the French and Russian revolutions there were repercussions in the West, so similarly now. People say, “If you can do it in South Africa for Mandela, if you can do it in Eastern Europe, why can’t we do it here?” Popular confidence is growing.

If you look at the economic situation clearly, the effect of shifting all the loose capital in the world to Eastern Europe to colonize it will leave us out on a limb, so that will have an effect on our economy. I think it’s going to be a very fluid situation. I’m generally hopeful, and I think all this triumphalism about Thatcherism and Reganomics winning the world is absolute eye-wash, but it’s designed to hammer home the lesson that socialism of all kinds at all times will always fail.

September-October 1990, ATC 28