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Ed Miliband: damn right he’s not a Bennite


2:10 pm - August 24th 2010

by Dave Osler    


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Hilary Benn famously fought the Leeds Central by-election campaign that gave him a seat in parliament on the slogan ‘a Benn but not a Bennite’.

Given that even Tony Benn’s offspring feels the need to emphasise repudiation of his old man’s politics, it’s safe to pronounce that particular 30 year old brand of leftism completely dead, with the stake driven through its heart and the reburial ceremony at the crossroads duly completed.

But in a fit of maliciously motivated playground name calling, there are some who seem determined to stick the label Labour leadership contender Ed Miliband, who is like his brother David the son of the prominent Marxist academic Ralph Miliband.

Indeed, if their late dad’s recondite brand of non-Stalinist left eurocommunism had ever achieved more than the limited currency it did, they would both be styling themselves Milibands but not Milibandites.

Yes, it is a fact that Ed’s leadership bid has been endorsed by Tony Benn. I’m told that the main reason was Benn’s high regard for Ed’s father, combined with a slight preference for the younger Miliband over his sibling.

But when Guardian writer Decca Aitkenhead suggests some sort of political affinity, the contention is denied as strongly as a wrongly-attributed charge of breaking wind:

When I mention the whisper that he’s really a Bennite, he goes off like a shotgun.

“That is such nonsense! It’s pathetic, genuinely, I think it’s pathetic. If we think that the way we should conduct political debate is by caricaturing people we disagree with as Bennites, I think it is an absolutely hopeless way to conduct a political debate. Are we really getting to a stage where if an aspirant leader of the Labour party has policies of the centre left, we then say they’re a Bennite?”

As an ardent young Bennite of the early 1980s, I can vouch for Ed  Miliband’s indignant denial. To quote Lloyd Bentsen’s immortal smack down of Dan Quayle: ‘I knew Jack Kennedy. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy’

The reason for the strong reaction is that in the lexicon of New Labourism, the charge of Bennism is second as a insult only to the dreaded word ‘Trot’. This is, in itself, a yardstick of how far the Labour Party has moved to the right.

Bennism as an ideology was entirely within what would until that point have been accepted as mainstream democratic socialist Labourism. For much of the hard left of the period, such ideas as workers’ control, economic planning and Labour Party democracy were seen as all very well, if a bit wussy and reformist.

But the way that Labour Party history has been told since circa 1994, Bennism was solely responsible for four successive election defeats. Such a conception is entirely revisionist, airbrushing out of the equation as it does the SDP split, the Falklands conflict, the miners’ strike and the sheer ideological traction that Thatcherism was consequently able to obtain. There was, in short, nothing intrinsic to Bennism that guaranteed Labour defeat.

Of course the clock cannot now be turned back, and a neo-Bennite programme would find few takers. But really, Ed could have been a little more polite in his disavowal of a man who was in his day an inspiration to many, myself included.

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Reader comments


I can’t see why he should “have been a little more polite in his disavowal of a man who was in his day an inspiration to many, myself included” given that “a neo-Bennite programme would find few takers”.

Rudeness towards such failed ideas – and towards a man who believed Mao to be the greatest figure of the 20th century – seems more than fair!

2. Steve Haynes

‘Are we really getting to a stage where if an aspirant leader of the Labour party has policies of the centre left, we then say they’re a Bennite?”’

Considering that’s what the left has been doing with the Centre Right since Thatcher, I can’t help but find Miliband Minor’s outrage somewhat hypocritical. Or is has he stopped the Labour tradition of declaring ‘ same old tories’ and decrying them as Thatcherite whenever they say something even vaguely right of centre?

Labelling him as Bennite as a term of attack is as dodgy as labelling all Tories as Thatcherites. How about we have a nice clean debate from all sides instead of Punch and Judy attacks?

As Benn’s diaries relate, both Milibands got their start in politics as teenage interns in Benn’s office. No doubt the fact that Ralph M and Tony B were buddies didn’t do them any harm. There’s an entry in the Diaries along the lines of (I quote from memory) ‘Met Edward Miliband on the train. Such a pleasant young man.’ Anyway, as I must hasten to add, the hereditary advantages of this kind of lefty networking are as nothing compared to the silver spoons of Cameron, Osborne etc., so honi soit qui mal y pense and all that.

I’m intrigued by the intellectual dishonesty that is implied an attitude which conflates Bennism (a never realised programme) with election defeats unders Messrs Foot and Kinnock. It suggests that certain people in telling the history of the socialist/Labour movement are more concerned to marginalise opposing points of view and to scapegoat people than to learn key lessons (which is to be fair what I would expect of a lot of explicitly left-wing history).

And there is that wonderful old saw about history – those who will not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. If the Labour leadership contenders really exist in a world where Tony Benn is to blame for everything, then they may fail to understand why people vote for Conservatives and how they can turn around the current decline of Labour. Not the best news for the party in that case…

5. John Meredith

Decca Aitkenhead is surely the worst, most cynical and fourth rate feature writer ever to rise to prominence at the Guardian.

6. Grimsby Fiendish

Yes, it is a fact that Ed’s leadership bid has been endorsed by Tony Benn. I’m told that the main reason was Benn’s high regard for Ed’s father, combined with a slight preference for the younger Miliband over his sibling.

Ahh, the Old Boys Network in action.

7. Chris Baldwin

Indeed. Better a Bennite than a Blairite.

8. ex-Labour voter

“Yes, it is a fact that Ed’s leadership bid has been endorsed by Tony Benn. I’m told that the main reason was Benn’s high regard for Ed’s father, combined with a slight preference for the younger Miliband over his sibling.”

This is interesting and rather disturbing. Why would anybody vote for somebody because of his father? It does not really make sense at all. Similarly, we have Paul Routledge giving his first preference to Ed Balls out of friendship. Again, this is a situation that should be resisted. People should vote for the candidate who has a combination of the best ability and who is nearest politically.

If we allow ourselves to be distracted by other considerations, then we cannot be surprised if we do not get the policies that we actually want.

Ed Miliband is the best right wing candidate in this election and may well make a good second preference. Politically, Diane Abbott is the best candidate because she opposed Trident replacement, 90/42 days, the Iraq war and, to a certain extent, ID cards. There is also no evidence that she has less capability than the other candidates.

9. Shatterface

‘Ed Miliband is the best right wing candidate in this election and may well make a good second preference.’

Sorry, but ‘best right wing candidate’ makes him as an attractive a prospect as ‘my favourite kind of clap’.

10. Shatterface

‘Indeed. Better a Bennite than a Blairite.’

Or, indeed, a Thatcherite.

Tony Benn: No Iraq war, regulation on the banks and big, corporate business, tax those who can afford that tax, NHS safe as houses, social democracy, to name but a few.

Ed, I know Tony Benn, and you are no Tony Benn. Yep – rings true and good.

‘Indeed. Better a Bennite than a Blairite.’

Or, indeed, a Thatcherite.

Better a Bennite than a Blatcherite?

13. Arthur Seaton

“Rudeness towards such failed ideas – and towards a man who believed Mao to be the greatest figure of the 20th century – seems more than fair!”

I quite agree, you tedious, Pinochet-supporting prick.

Tony Benn is a marxist socialist, labour/nu labour were/are not, unfortunately we have never had a socialist state but all major parties always point to the failure of socialism. Nu labour now identify with the centre left (whatever that means) and have dropped all allusions to socialism, preferring to demonise it’s supporters including Benn, even his son appears to distance himself while riding on the bandwagon of a party that pretends to represent the working-class.
I have little interest in this leadership campaign and even less in the meaningless semantics of whether a party is left, right or centre. Socialist models have evolved since Marx’s original analysis of society, I am waiting for a political party to run with that.

Minor correction:

unfortunately we have never had a socialist state

Having just read Labour’s 1983 election manifesto:

http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/man/lab83.htm

I have to say, if you strip away some of the dafter bits about withdrawing from the EEC and unilateral nuclear disarmament. Then much of it actually sounds fairly sensible. Indeed many of the ideas seem to be coming back into fashion. Especially the bits about energy conservation and a national strategy to boost manufacturing, which sound particularly prescient. So perhaps it has been unfairly maligned.

One wonders whether we would currently be in the mess we are today if we had had public control of banking.

@16 Graham: “One wonders whether we would currently be in the mess we are today if we had had public control of banking.”

There are too few hours in life to contemplate whether a communist banking system would have taken the risks to create a system where ordinary families could borrow the money to buy a family house.

Adventurist capitalism provided home ownership. Some people have taken on ridiculous debt to establish a family home. It is a gamble that they have knowingly adopted. To suggest that they are unknowing is insulting to them and their friends.

@17

There are too few hours in life to contemplate whether a communist banking system would have taken the risks to create a system where ordinary families could borrow the money to buy a family house.

Adventurist capitalism provided home ownership. Some people have taken on ridiculous debt to establish a family home. It is a gamble that they have knowingly adopted. To suggest that they are unknowing is insulting to them and their friends.

Yes and it’s our ‘adventurist capitalists’ who lent money to people who who had no income, for the sake of short term bonuses, polluted the global financial system with worthless ‘derivatives’ based upon the aformentioned worthless mortgages, and managed to nearly destroy the global financial system in the process. What a big success that experiment was!

I don’t think anyone was advocating a ‘communist banking system’. Rather one where investments could be carried out rationally on a basis of long term benefit to the nation rather than short term profit for shareholders.

19. Squirrel Nutkin

“Decca Aitkenhead is surely the worst, most cynical and fourth rate feature writer ever to rise to prominence at the Guardian”

I think we could all come up with numerous counter-examples of dross at the UK’s least-worst national newspaper, but surely Mad Mel Phillips is the undisputed holder of this title?

20. Silly Billies

I’m intrigued by the intellectual dishonesty that is implied an attitude which conflates Bennism (a never realised programme)

Actually, the essentials of Bennism were implemented by the Callaghan government and proved a disaster. You might remember it using dictat and union power to control wages and prices?

As for who lent to people with no income, that would be Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who were commanded by politicians to loosen underwriting standards and lend to the poorest in the name of social equality.

20
Actually, the essentials (really there is only one) of Bennism? is that he is a socialist, there was nothing in the Callagan government which moved the system towards socialism, if anything, that period showed, without a shadow of doubt, that tweaking with capitalsim was a waste of time for the socialist cause. Because that is what is meant, by the often bandied statement “socialism was a failure” and Tony Benn would agree that the route to socialism isn’t found in a state attempting to make capitalism fair.
Even now, all of the main parties still take a corporatist view to the economy, even Thatcher could not wholly disengage with that approach, the only advantage for the tories and lib dems and those on the ‘right, is that when it fails, they all cry “socialism has proved to be a failure”

steveb,

Bennism was not outright socialism, since it believed in democracy (both internal to the party and in the country) which could therefore undo socialist work. Socialism in its pure sense has to be the only system (hence the lack of properly socialist democracies).

This is Decca Aitkenhead though. Dreadful pretender of a journo.

@14 steveb

“Nu labour now identify with the centre left (whatever that means) and have dropped all allusions to socialism”

It says “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party” at the top of party membership cards. That’s rather more direct than a mere allusion, I admit. But it does rather comprehensively destroy your “point”.

Surely the point is that “Bennite” is being used as a sort of clumsy shorthand for “old labour”, “80s leftie” and, almost explicitly for “unelectable”.

Whether or not this is a fair use of the word “Bennite” is neither here nor there.

That is the way journalists (and, dare I say, certain candidates) are using the word when talking about the leadership debate.

And that is what Ed was responding to- being called an unelectable old labourite.

@24
Democratic socialist is a term that has often be used to describe the Libdems, but socialism it is not. The Labour Party may now describe themselves as such but they are not socialists. – hint, it refers to an economic system.

27. Arthur Seaton

“Bennism was not outright socialism, since it believed in democracy (both internal to the party and in the country) which could therefore undo socialist work. Socialism in its pure sense has to be the only system (hence the lack of properly socialist democracies).”

Puerile gibberish.


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  1. Derek Bunce

    How sad Labour supporters reject the wisdom of Bennism http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/08/24/ed-miliband-damn-right-hes-not-a-bennite/

  2. Robert Morgan

    @Grabcoque Interested in what you make of this: http://is.gd/eERvF Would you say the modern Labour party is, well, Left Wing?





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