Tony Benn: A Reflection on a Life in Politics

 

Tony Benn always divided politicians into signposts and weathercocks: those who hold firm to deeply-held principles and point the way forward, or those who flap about in response to events. Benn was most definitely a signpost.

He rose to fame due to his brave decision to renounce his father’s hereditary peerage. He did so in defiance of the law of the land, and battled until this feudal system was ended in 1963. Thereafter, Anthony Wedgwood Benn was just plain Tony Benn.

By that stage, Benn had become a rising star of the Labour Party, appearing in slick party election broadcasts with Hugh Gaitskell and Woodrow Wyatt at the 1959 election. He found favour under Harold Wilson, and was made Postmaster General when Labour won in 1964. However, it was Benn’s next job as Minister of Technology that he enjoyed the most, starting a lifelong fascination with all manner of gadgets.

Benn actually began his political life as a moderate centrist. It was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that his views shifted to the left. He soon began to call for the nationalisation of all major companies and for withdrawal from the European Economic Community, which Edward Heath had joined in 1973. Harold Wilson, facing huge splits in his party, called a referendum in 1975, making the fateful decision to allow his Cabinet to pick either side of the debate. Benn joined other leading figures of the left, including Michael Foot and Barbara Castle in a passionate no campaign. Outgunned and underfunded, they lost.

Wilson had chosen to side line his old ally, and it was in this period that Benn was portrayed in the Conservative tabloid press as a bogeyman figure. He claimed that his rubbish had been raked through by the security services. My own mother wrote to relatives in America at the time, genuinely worried that ‘Wedgie’ Benn (a favourite nickname of his opponents) was going to take over the country. Early in 1975, as Secretary of State for Industry he penned the ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ which proposed creating essentially a siege economy, imposing tariffs on imported goods. A year later, he bitterly imposed the public spending cuts imposed by the Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey.

The early 1980s saw Benn wield his greatest period of influence over the Labour Party. In what became known as the Bennite Ascendancy, leftist elements took over local Labour parties, attempting to deselect more right-wing Labour MPs. Several left in disgust to form the breakaway Social Democratic Party. In September 1981, Benn stood for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party against the right-winger Denis Healey. He lost by less than one percent.

However, Benn’s left-wingers now wielded enormous sway in the National Executive Committee (NEC), the party ruling body. The culmination of his influence was the radical 1983 Labour manifesto which called for the nationalisation of the banks, unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC. Gerald Kaufman, on the right of the party, famously dubbed it ‘the longest suicide note in history’. The Labour Party was crushed at the 1983 General Election.

Neil Kinnock spent the next nine years trying to win back control of the party from the left. Benn routinely stood for the party leadership until 1988 when Kinnock raised from 5% to 20% the threshold of MPs required to put themselves forward as a candidate. No Labour leader has been challenged since. Gradually, Kinnock won back control of the party from Benn. By the 1992 election, only Benn and his friend Dennis Skinner were left on the NEC.

That didn’t mean that Benn gave up. His skills as an orator in the House of Commons were still legendary. During the parliamentary ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, I vividly recall sitting in the Commons gallery, silently stamping my feet at Benn’s oratory, even though I disagreed with every word he said. A favourite phrase in relation to Europe was: ‘These powers are not ours to give away.’ In that distinctive, slushy voice of his, he would take a stand over the ‘ishoos’ (issues) of the day.

Nevertheless, Benn had many faults. He rarely stuck to collective Cabinet responsibility under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He was neglectful of his constituencies, losing Bristol East in 1983 and running down his later seat of Chesterfield (which he held from 1984) so badly that it was taken by the Liberal Democrats on Benn’s retirement in 2001.

Benn stood down from the House of Commons, saying he wanted to devote more time to politics. It was a revealing insight into the extent of his marginalisation that he felt he could achieve more outside the House of Commons than within it. In many respects, he was correct. His political diaries, kept since a schoolboy in the autumn of 1941 right through his political career, and lovingly edited by Ruth Winstone, will remain one of his most enduring legacies.

In his retirement, Benn bitterly opposed many of the changes that Tony Blair wrought on the Labour Party.  In 2003, he was particularly virulent in his opposition to the Iraq War. I had the great luck to interview Benn for a book I was writing about John Smith. At the time, the firefighters’ union were taking industrial action, and Benn railed that Blair was ‘lighting fires in Baghdad’ but wasn’t prepared to pay people properly to put them out at home. That was one of the infuriating things about Benn: he always twisted the conversation around to his agenda, regardless of the question you asked him.

In his dotage, Benn was at his most charming. A younger generation saw him as harmless figure who believed in his principles. He even went on a hugely successful one-man tour of the country. ‘Dare to be a Daniel’, he told packed audiences, reflecting his deep religious faith.

But Benn wasn’t a harmless figure. My mother was right. Had Denis Healey not won that Deputy Leadership contest in 1981 by ‘the hair of an eyebrow’, the Labour Party under ‘Wedgie Benn’ would have descended into a mire of dogma from which it would never have recovered.

 

Mark Stuart is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Nottingham.

Polling Observatory 31: No joy from the polls as festive season approaches

 

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This is the thirty-first in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

Both of the largest parties have had something to crow about in November – the Conservatives have trumpeted growing statistical evidence of a recovery as vindication of their economic strategy, while Labour have received a shot in the arm from the surprisingly strong response to their proposals to freeze energy bills, which have pushed the government onto the back foot. Yet our most recent look at the polling evidence suggests that, despite all the shouting from their cheerleaders, neither party has yet received any meaningful boost in support as a result of these developments. Labour’s support has fallen half a point to 37.8%, giving up half of the one point bounce we noted last month. Over the past six months or so commentators have claimed that Labour, among other things, is in crisis, is resurgent, is surging ahead, is slipping back and is melting away. Yet when the poll data is considered in the aggregate, there is almost no movement at all: Labour have been dead steady at around 37% to 38% for more than six months. The last significant shift in its support came in early spring, around the time of Margaret Thatcher’s death, when Labour lost 2 percentage points of support that they have failed to win back since. It is not clear if the Iron Lady’s demise really lead some voters to rethink their view of Labour, but it is as plausible a theory as any of the others floating around in the comment pages, and has the notable advantage of actually fitting the evidence.

What little movement there is in blue support is also in the wrong direction – and our most recent estimates find Conservative support at 30.9%, down 0.9% on last month. Support for the Conservatives among the electorate has moved around more in 2013 compared to Labour, largely because of a strong link with UKIP support – when Nigel Farage’s party has been up in the polls, this has tended to hurt the Conservatives. This pattern continues this month – as the Tories fall by nearly a point, UKIP have rebounded by 0.6% to 11.9%. UKIP tend to do better when immigration is high on the agenda and when Nigel Farage is highly visible in the media. Both have been the case this month, with the proposal of new restrictive immigration reforms and escalating speculation about migration from Bulgaria and Romania following the lifting of restrictions on January 1st. Mr Farage has been a regular presence across the media spectrum, weighing in on both these issues, and his party seems to be benefitting in the polls once more. The European Parliament elections in May next year will likely produce a similar virtuous circle of rising poll ratings and increased media attention.

The main source of speculation regarding the Liberal Democrats continues to be whether their performance come election day will really be as awful as the polling suggests. The party lost nearly two-thirds of its 2010 support in the months after joining the government, and this month provides no respite. As in nearly every month since early 2011, the Lib Dems are treading water just under 10% – we have them at 8.0%, up 0.6% on last month.

None of the political leaders will enter the festive season with many reasons to be cheerful – aside from the knowledge that 2014 begins with everything still to play for.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

 

Spot the difference: noticing the change that austerity is making to public services.

 

“Public service cuts – did we notice?” asked BBC News back in October, publishing the results of a recent ICM Poll. The item parallels a commonly circulated argument that the unprecedented 28% cuts to local government’s central grant have been delivered without significantly impacting local services.  Can this really be true?

For the Coalition, such polls provide evidence that cuts are necessary for creating streamlined services.  The local government trade press prefer a heroic narrative, focussing on local authorities as the ‘most efficient part of the public sector’.  From an academic perspective, John (2013) has termed local government the ‘great survivor’; out-competing other local organisations through its resilient political and managerial core and flexible menu of administrative functions. The problem with these interpretations is that they share a tendency to over simplify the multi-layered process of delivering local savings.  They also negate deep-seated changes that are occurring under a veneer of stability.

So why haven’t spending reductions translated tangibly to service reductions?

Firstly, it depends on your perspective.  Research by Sheffield Hallam University and Joseph Rowntree Foundation has demonstrated that cuts have ‘hit the poorest areas hardest’, whilst more affluent areas have experienced lower levels of change. Secondly, local authorities themselves are contributing to the impression that ‘nothing has happened’ by delivering massive savings through a root and branch re-appraisal of local services.

Shared services across two or more authorities are increasingly common, raising questions about local political accountability.  ‘Commercialism’ is the contemporary buzz-word as services compete to produce ever leaner business models and lever-in income.  Contracts with the private and voluntary sectors are coming under pressure as authorities adopt a tougher approach to commissioning, rather than the partnership ethos espoused in better-resourced era of ‘network governance’.  Fundamental re-thinking is occurring on the extent to which local authorities can support the ‘big ticket’ issues such as social care, libraries and leisure. Whilst many would applaud such ‘efficiencies’, these changes are not value-free, and represent an extensive reappraisal of the way we deliver public services.

However, efficiencies are not the whole story.  There is also evidence of a continuous, but subtle resistance at an individual and institutional level to mitigate the worst effects of degradation of services.  Janet Newman reminds us that there are “multiple spaces of power and resistance with which actors engage – pragmatically as well as politically” and in some cases these spaces of power are being exploited at a local level to protect the most vulnerable.

For example from a political perspective, decisions have been made in some councils to instigate a living wage for the lowest paid staff, whilst pay freezes have been accepted by higher paid staff as a necessary trade-off.  There has been evidence of ‘gaming’ around elements of welfare reform with authorities exploring the re-designation of bedrooms in order to protect tenants from the bedroom tax, or directly employing benefit claimants to avert a benefits cap.  Despite cynicism about the ‘big society’, new spaces are also opening up for faith and citizens groups to engage with service delivery – organisations such as the Trussel Trust and Citizens UK have seen their national influence grow as the state contracts.

In short, the perception that ‘nothing has happened’ is arguably the result of continuous and strenuous effort by many actors at myriad levels.  This goes beyond a recycling of previous ideas and solutions to genuine attempts to design and enact alternative outcomes.  However, these changes are occurring in a piecemeal fashion, with varying impacts, internal contradictions, and limited national debate or direction.

The LGA and Parliamentary Political and Constitutional Reform Committee have called for a fundamental re-think on Councils’ role and functions; and debate on the powers of English local government will be fuelled by fresh negotiations on settlements for Wales and Scotland.  In the meantime the apparent capacity of Councils to absorb the spending cuts allows constitutional innovation to be metaphorically kicked down the road by successive administrations, whilst spending cuts carve subterranean caverns within local government’s future capabilities. If we fail to spot the differences occurring to our public services now, we may one day awake to find that the local picture of public services we want and expect to see has been altered out of recognition.

Alison Gardner is a doctoral research student in the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics, studying how local public services are responding to conditions of austerity.  Prior to starting her PhD she worked for 14 years as a policy advisor and consultant in and around local and national government.

Polling Observatory #30: Good news for all the parties… except the Lib Dems

UK 05-11-13 low res croppedtytThis is the thirtieth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

 

As the dust settles after conference season the state of support for the parties as 2014 approaches appears to have crystallised a little. Despite the supposed conference bounces and bumps that media commentators identified following Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge and David Cameron’s conference speech, when all the underlying noise has been accounted for there has only been a slight shift since the end of the summer (and – as we have noted before – vote intentions for the main parties had been stable for some time before this).

If there is a winner from conference season, it is Labour, who after making the political weather ever since putting energy prices top of the political agenda have seen their support increase to 38.3%, up one point from our last report at the time of their conference in mid-September. This marks a reversal of the recent trend of a decline in Labour support. Despite the fanfare around the Conservative Party conference and the Godfrey Bloom side show at the UKIP conference, support for both parties has been static in the last six weeks – with no sign of a lasting conference bounce. Support for the Conservatives stands at 31.8% (with no change since our report at the time of their conference in late September), and UKIP at 11.3% (unchanged). There is worse news for the Liberal Democrats who now stand at 7.4% (down 0.3 points since their conference) – close to the all-time low for this parliament. Despite efforts to put clear blue water between them and their coalition partners – such as on green taxes on energy and qualifications for teachers – they are still paying the price for their abandonment of key election pledges early in the parliament. It is increasingly significant that the UKIP vote has been consistently higher than the Lib Dems for six months now – suggesting that there has been a rebalancing of electoral support for the third and fourth parties.

In previous posts (here, here and here), we have sought to urge caution on the lazy anecdotal use of past precedent to predict the outcome of the general election due to be held in 2015. We are keen forecasters ourselves, and some of these important qualifications will also apply to statistical models that look to forecast the likely swing towards or against the governing and opposition parties as the election nears. It is not uncommon for the statistical relationships that underpin these forecasts are context-variant. In other words, the economy might be a critical factor in one election but not in the next. Or leader ratings might matter for some parties but not others. Or voters might move back towards the governing party late on for some election cycles, but not others. In short, aphorisms such as ‘it’s the economy stupid’ and ‘leaders matter’ are based on sound political science, but may not always hold and may lead forecasters to go badly astray when predicting the result. They also provide journalists and opponents a convenient stick to beat parties and their leaders with, when the foundations of electoral support are often more nuanced. There are several reasons why forecasts for 2015 might not stick to the expected script that the Westminster Village has been reciting so far.

Firstly, it is undeniable that both the Conservative and Labour parties have a much lower ‘ceiling’ than in past elections. The Conservatives last won over 40% of the vote in 1992 (and Labour in 2001), and have not looked likely to do so in 2015 so at any point in the current parliament. They would likely have to beat this figure to secure a majority. Yet the party still suffers from an image problem with large swathes of the electorate and has done little to widen its appeal while in office. This makes the prospect of a large final year swing towards the government improbable despite the historical trend for mid-term movement away from the government in the polls to return as Election Day nears. Labour’s prospective pool of support has also looked much lower than its time in opposition during the 1987-1992 and 1992-1997 election cycles, where its poll numbers exceeded 50%. It cannot count on protest votes against the coalition because of the presence of UKIP, and its traditional base is shrinking, and also vulnerable to the challenge from Nigel Farage’s party.

Secondly, it is over-simplistic to suggest that a growing economy will assure a Conservative victory. It would certainly make it more likely, given that many people will be better off as a result, but it still depends on who benefits from the economic recovery. Personal (‘pocketbook’) economic judgments have been shown to be a significant determinant of voting. Even then, parties that have overseen sustained periods of economic growth are not always rewarded by voters. This perhaps explains why the Labour Party have been keen to push the economic debate towards the question of living standards (and the cost of living) rather than focus on the Coalition’s record on reducing the deficit and the impacts of austerity cuts. While much of the public still blame Labour for the economic problems left after the financial crisis, they also are strongly of the opinion that the Coalition is handling the economy badly. This again points to the argument that the sort of pro-government swing experienced at past elections will have to be achieved against much stronger headwinds.

Thirdly, David Cameron has tended to enjoy a comfortable lead over Ed Miliband in survey questions both about the ‘preferred Prime Minister’ and leader approval or satisfaction. Cameron also receives much more positive evaluations on his performance from supporters of his own party. Miliband has not made an impact on substantial parts of the electorate. For some, this state of affairs might point towards a clear-cut advantage on the basis of the importance of party leaders for voters making up their mind late. However, these advantages are observed in a context where all of the party leaders in Westminster have had persistently negative net ratings for the past three years. Indeed, Cameron currently has lower approval ratings (38%) than the St-Remy brandy-swigging and crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford (44%) (no relation) [HT @JoeTwyman]. It is worth remembering that Cleggmania in 2010 stemmed from the public’s previous relative lack of exposure to Nick Clegg. If Ed Miliband is similarly able to put in a strong performance on the campaign trail and also during the election debates that surprises the expectations of voters, it may deliver a last-minute bounce and negate the recent trends.

In short, 2015 remains difficult to call, and it will be a challenge for any party to win a workable parliamentary majority.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

80s nostalgia for the Labour victory of 1945

This post originally appeared on the Observing the 80s blog.

In the wake of Labour’s disastrous 1983 campaign Tony Benn informed readers of the Guardian newspaper that despite appearances it was a great achievement, because, ‘for the first time since 1945, a political party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people’.

During the 1980s Benn was not alone on the left and centre-left in looking at Labour’s first majority administration through rose-tinted glasses. The more Margaret Thatcher dismantled a post-war ‘consensus’ largely cast in the image of Clement Attlee’s government, the better 1945 looked. Benn’s claim that Labour’s 1945 programme represented ‘socialism’ in the same ways as did its 1983 manifesto was however contested. Certainly those Labour right-wingers who formed the Social Democratic Party in 1981 – among whom numbered Attlee’s own son – argued they were the legitimate legatees of the 1945 government. Yet, as Mass-Observation’s research at the time suggested, at least as interpreted by historians like me, few of those who voted Labour in 1945 were overtly socialist or social democratic.

How many Britons were enthralled by these attempts to appropriate the spirit of ‘45 is uncertain. Between 1982 and 1985, however, millions of ITV viewers watched the series Shine on Harvey Moon, written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, one of a number of fictions about politics that I look at in my forthcoming book A State of Play.  As Gran recalled in 2009, he and Marks wrote Shine on Harvey Moon:

because people were so miserable in this country, so sorry for themselves we thought we’d write about a time which was really hard,  but a time when there was hope and we made the central character into a campaigning Labour councillor.  That was really written as an Attleeist piece, full of hope and righteous indignation and a certain amount of laughs.  It was written from the point of view of us actually believing that politics was not a completely ignoble undertaking and actually could do good and, at times in our history, has done good.

It was a remarkably partisan series, one that would have found little favour with the Prime Minister. Yet, because Marks and Gran wrote in a popular idiom, those who reviewed television in the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph did not take it seriously, seeing it as ‘low brow drama’ or ‘a nostalgic little comedy’. Possibly for that reason, even the Daily Express liked it – although one of its critics was irritated by a ‘Dickens-like factory scenes with Harvey arguing trade unionism’. Sadly, Mass Observation’s 1980s surveys failed to pick up what its respondents thought about Shine on Harvey Moon. But responses to its autumn 1988 directive on television watching suggest the series was likely to have spawned hundreds if not thousands of conversations in households across the country.

Interviewed in the Daily Star in 1984, Marks claimed Harvey ‘is just Mr. Average. He’s a Joe Bloggs who’s struggling to get by’. Returning home in Hackney after the war to an estranged wife and two children, Harvey’s is a world of austerity.  But it is also one of optimism, thanks to the Attlee government, one with which Harvey closely identifies. Ambitious for himself and his family, Harvey is however no selfish individualist, and believes his aspirations can be fulfilled only as part of the more general improvement of conditions for the working class, something he hopes will occur under Labour. The series moreover sides with Harvey and his view of the world by pointing out the realities of falling sick before the National Health Service and even, to the chagrin of the Express, showed the role unions played in improving working conditions.

While positive about Attlee’s achievements, and definitely anti-Tory, Marks and Gran present Labour as a rather flawed vehicle of change. On first entering the party Harvey dislikes being referred to as ‘comrade’ and finds its procedures irritating and po-faced. Many Labour members are also middle class. Indeed one leading activist is a posh solicitor who employs Harvey as his clerk and when he becomes a Parliamentary candidate he has Harvey serve drinks at a celebratory reception. There, Harvey engages with a group of left-wing intellectuals so alienating he quotes George Orwell’s comment that socialists were often the reason many people disliked socialism. Moreover, while Harvey hopes for a ‘classless society’, even under Labour, privilege remains, leading him to make a pointed remark about Cabinet ministers sending their sons to Eton. Furthermore, on the night he is elected councilor, Harvey meets Herbert Morrison who mistakenly believes he has won his ward thanks to dirty tricks – of which Morrison thoroughly approves – thereby contrasting Harvey’s idealism with the cynicism of Labour’s real Deputy leader.

This is, then, a strange kind of nostalgia, one that sees the 1940s through the prism of a populist mistrust of representative politics, a sentiment the writers more vigorously mined in their later 1980s comedy series The New Statesman. Running on ITV from 1987 to 1992, this was set in contemporary Westminster and was a work of utter cynicism, which depicted politics as ineffably corrupt. If the central character, Alan B’Stard, is the ultimate personification of Thatcherism, the series’ few Labour characters do not emerge with much credit either.

The vision Marks and Gran have of politics in the 1940s is notably more optimistic than their view of 1980s politics. To them 1945 was a moment of possibility and considerable achievement. But while open to the participation of ‘ordinary’ working men (if not women), Labour is nonetheless shown as over-populated by doctrinaire middle-class intellectuals and cynical machine politicians. In some ways however Marks and Gran better evoked the uncertainty, hope and skepticism that actually existed in 1945 – and which Mass Observation notably picked up in its reports on popular feeling – than did the self-interested perspectives articulated by Benn and the SDP in the 1980s, or much later, in Ken Loach’s 2013 film The Spirit of ‘45.

Steven Fielding