‘You know I was once called the most dangerous man in Britain?’ says Tony Benn with a sparkle in his eye. ‘Now I’m in danger of becoming a national treasure.’
At 85 years old, the history of Tony Benn is the history of 20th century Britain. When he was born, the sun hadn’t set on the British Empire and women couldn’t vote until 30. The son of a member of parliament, he remembers pushing leaflets through letterboxes in the 1930s Depression. He lost his 22 year-old brother in the Second World War, survived the Blitz and witnessed the founding of the National Health Service. He became a Labour MP in 1950, served in the Cabinet in the 1970s and campaigned hard against Thatcher in the 1980s. When he finally resigned in 2001, after 52 years in parliament, he said he was quitting to devote ‘more time to politics’.
A strident anti-war campaigner, he has repeatedly said he felt betrayed by the ‘imperial’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he’s spoken out publicly against New Labour. But this doesn’t seem to have shaken his faith in the role of MP, or party politics:
‘I wasn’t disillusioned when I left,’ he says calmly. ‘Every generation has to fight the same battles. There is no final victory and no final defeatÖ The advance of the human race has always been through struggle. Even if you lose a battle, you leave a trail of courage and determination that will encourage future generations.’
‘All the power is being sucked upwards’
The truth is that Benn can’t just give up on democracy. For him, it is bigger than Blair, or Labour, or putting a cross in a box every five years. It is about power, and the fair distribution of it. ‘We don’t really have a democracy,’ he says. ‘The gap between rich and poor is wider than when I came into parliament, and globalization is handing power over to big corporations and institutions. All the power is being sucked upwards. Who elected the IMF? The most striking thing about the United Nations is how undemocratic it is.’
Nevertheless, Benn still believes passionately in the work of MPs, and opposes the proportional representation system of voting (common in many other democracies) because it breaks the direct link between representatives and their constituencies. Although he supports small parties, he does not believe in coalitions, arguing that the liberal end of the group always ends up getting swallowed. For him, the widening of the franchise and the election of Labour is still associated with something revolutionary:
‘Before the vote the only way people could get things was through money. People used their vote to buy healthcare, social services and everything else. These victories are now under attack. The Conservatives see democracy as a threat.’
Benn finds it hard to swallow the idea that the British people chose the Conservatives’ anti-democratic agenda, or the notion that a tabloid-reading public might actually vote for policies that widen inequality and perpetuate injustice. But even if democracy doesn’t always produce the best policies, he still believes it’s a great way of holding leaders accountable for the worst ones:
‘When I was an MP meeting my constituents, I felt like I was meeting my employers,’ he says. ‘The bus drivers, the street sweepers, the district nurse – being an MP is the only instance when you can have 60,000 employers and just one employee. These employers are free to get rid of you at any time – and that’s an effective check on the abuse of power.’
Benn remains radically committed to democracy, even when it means respecting the views of authoritarian partners. ‘Change always follows the same pattern,’ he says. ‘If you come up with something new they try and put you off. If that doesn’t work they call you stark raving bonkers. If that doesn’t work they lock you up like the suffragettes. Then, after a pause, the change happens and you can’t find anyone that doesn’t claim to have been fighting for it with youÖ Climate change will happen in the same way.’
Benn might have retired, but his wisdom continues to shine through: ‘There are two things that motivate all of us in the fight from generation to generation – the flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope to build a better world. My job is to fan both flames.’
In the May general election, Caroline Lucas was elected Britain’s first and only Green Member of Parliament. She is now having to adjust to an entirely new political environment. She pulls no punches in describing the current state of electoral politics. ‘This place is essentially curtailing democracy,’ she states, referring to the House of Commons which looms just out of sight of her office. ‘Once you get here, the processes almost beggar belief, with a chamber that can’t even seat every MP, archaic voting procedures and a Speaker who can decide which amendments get discussed and which don’t.’
Her irritation is even more evident when she discusses the proposals for voting and social reform put forward by the new ruling coalition: ‘While the referendum we’re being offered, on ìAlternative Voteî, represents a small step forward, it is nothing like the change we ultimately need. It won’t transform politics, and it won’t open up this building to diverse and new voices. And the coalition’s so-called ‘Big Society’ is clearly not compatible with its savage cuts to everything that moves. A real Big Society has to mean community empowerment and engagement. That isn’t cheap, and this government simply isn’t interested in spending the money to make devolution of power meaningful.’
‘I don’t advocate direct action lightly, but Ö’
No-one could accuse Caroline Lucas of not taking activism seriously. She has recently been in the headlines as a witness for the Smash EDO campaigners. They were subsequently acquitted of criminal damage against the Brighton-based arms company, having appealed to international law as a defence. ‘I don’t advocate direct action lightly,’ Lucas explains, ‘but when people have pursued all other avenues for raising an issue, and where international law is being broken, then it certainly is legitimate. I think it is incredibly important for progressive politicians to speak up for the movement from which we are supported and elected.’
She continues: ‘One of the dangers of this place is that you spend all your time trying to work out arcane processes, and run the risk of losing touch with the reasons you came into politics. I am determined to maintain links with the movement outside of Parliament, and to empower activists from the UK and across the world to be able to speak up and be heard in places where, otherwise, they might not have a say. MPs shouldn’t be spokespeople for the movement, but should be enabling others to speak. My role here is to unlock the doors of Parliament and get more voices heard.’
In the run-up to the British general election, I drove around in an open-top bus, shouting through a megaphone like every political party. However, our ‘battle bus’ had a slightly different message on its side: ‘Spoil your ballot. Voting only encourages them. Reject the lot of ’em!’
Why? Because in our ‘democratic’ system we’re given the choice to vote once every five years, to choose between red and blue, (perhaps even a little yellow). But let’s not be fooled by the colour of their ties. They’re all the same. Whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. Where’s our ‘none of the above’ option?
We didn’t get to vote on the Iraq war, on banking regulations or MPs’ expenses. This isn’t democracy – it’s a bad joke! Parliamentary politics is a self-protecting machine. We’re given a chance to vent our anger, but then it’s back to big business as usual.
Taking part in elections simply legitimizes this sham. In May we got a hung parliament. Perhaps we’ll finally get proportional representation. But things will not suddenly become ok with politics – that would be like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound.
Government works for the banks, big business and the rich; not us, the voters. While there may have been some great reforms in the past, nowadays none of the current parties have the will or intention to bite the hands that feed them. All of them were planning massive public sector spending cuts. All were going to bring more market mechanisms in. God forbid any of them would consider making the companies which have profited so much from us pay more tax, or clamp down on rich individuals hiding their wealth abroad. No, it’s us that will bear the brunt of this recession. The lack of jobs will be used to keep us fighting each other, and finding new scapegoats; whilst the real culprits will be banking their bonuses.
So I didn’t vote this year, as I couldn’t bring myself to legitimize any of them. As spoilt ballots get shown to every candidate in the constituency, I decided to write them a short letter on my ballot paper instead, explaining what I thought of them all.
‘Take your politics to your community’
Don’t wait to be given a voice once every five years! Take your politics to your community. Get organized, get active, get vocal and give ’em hell. Join up with local campaign groups, oppose the corporatization of your local high street, harass a local arms trade sponsor, spread the word on your rights when stopped by the police. The government gets scared stiff when the population gets self-organized: so let’s organize.
Action and Resources
A pick of books, websites, and films relating to democracy.
This documentary on social movements by Michael Fox and SÌlvia Leindecker is outstanding. It’s distributed by progressive publishing house PM Press. See www.beyond elections.com or on YouTube bit.ly/conGhM
The No-Nonsense Guide to Democracy
New Internationalist writer Richard Swift delivers a radical and succinct take on the topic (New Internationalist Publications).
Daily TV-radio programme hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. Excellent interviews and good international range.
A major, comprehensive undertaking, with an impressive line-up of international contributors, pulled together by Boaventura de Sousa Santos (Verso Books)
Hope in the Dark: the Untold History of People Power
Activist Rebecca Solnit can re-inspire the most disheartened (Penguin Books).
Hip-hop against drugs and poverty and for democracy in this seminal movie by Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary: www.favelarising.com
A related book, Culture is Our Weapon: Afro Reggae in the Favelas of Rio by Patrick Neate and Damian Platt, is available (LAB Small Books). www.lab.org.uk
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