Tony Benn on life on the outside

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Gordon Brown, the Left outside the Labour Party and the power of popular protest - Tony Benn speaks to Lindsey German and Judith Orr

How different is your political life today, recorded in the latest instalment of your diaries, from your time in parliament?

Before my wife Caroline died she said that if I ever left parliament I should say that I left to devote more time to politics. People laugh, but I've never done so many meetings and broadcasts, and I've written four books, so I have fulfilled that objective.

But I've looked at the whole political system from both inside and outside that political arena. When you get to my age you have lots of experience and no ambition. I can go to a public meeting and say, "Relax, I don't want you to vote for me," and there is a great sigh of relief, and people say, "Well, if he doesn't want us to vote for him I suppose we should listen to him." But of course I have had a funny experience: I was young once and then spent 51 years in parliament, including 11 in the cabinet, so I have seen the whole framework, not just from the outside, clamouring to be heard.

I know how difficult it is when you're there. I remember once the US government sent a note to the British government - ie to me - about oil policy, and the whole of Whitehall quivered. It was the thought of the US ambassador coming to deliver a note, because when a foreign government sends a note, it's a very formal thing to do. So I've seen both sides of it and I know it's difficult.

What interests me in a way about the Respect coalition is that when you set up a political party and you move into that arena you begin to be subject to pressures that are not there when you are just campaigning on one issue. I think that to understand the whole process there is a lot to be said for having been inside. I'm glad I didn't resign - I very nearly did - because I learnt so much and it radicalised me, and now at least I see it from a different perspective, having had that experience.

When you were running for deputy leader, could you ever have imagined then that now, when you're 83, you would be talking at gigantic meetings to young people who weren't even born back then?

There were quite a lot of big meetings then. The campaigns that we took part in at the time were really quite big, but nothing on the scale of Stop the War. When I was elected for the Chesterfield constituency I did 70 public meetings in a three-week campaign. They were quite small, factory gate meetings or meetings outside hospitals.

The BBC often rings me up saying it's doing a programme on the death of the public meeting and I say, "Well, that's very interesting, because I've done 20 this month," and then it loses interest. The media don't like public meetings because they challenge the monopoly they have of public attention. If you do an interview they say, "Don't look at the camera," so I never have the capacity to look at the audience in the way that Paxman and all these other people do. It's a subtle transformation of technology, which we have defeated, or you have defeated, reintroducing real politics.

The Stop the War Coalition seems to have become the left. If you do a public meeting the Green Party will turn up, the Labour left, the SWP, trade unionists. You get everybody coming together, and we do talk about things other than the war.

The so called single-issue campaign isn't really a single-issue campaign. If you take the war, for example, it relates to foreign policy; it relates to defence policy; it relates to money, the whole question of welfare and interracial relations.

But what has really changed over the years is that technology has internationalised everything. And I did notice at the collapse of the stock market that no one said, "This is a result of globalisation", which it is. If a company goes bust you have to face the harsh realities and get the sack, but if a bank goes bust the government pours in the money. The most interesting thing now is trying to understand what's happening.

The suffragette movement allegedly only dealt with votes for women, but what it really meant was that all the issues concerning women that hadn't been dealt with in parliament were raised. When my dad was first elected to parliament 100 years ago what were called women's issues in parliament were sniggered at. So the single-issue campaign isn't really different to politics - it's the early stage of a political process that one day has to end up on the statute book.

What do you think is the future for Labourism?

Well because of my age I have seen the Labour Party move left to right, and I actually did meet Ramsay MacDonald, in 1930. During the Labour government my dad was secretary for India, and my brother and I, who were nine and six, were invited to go to Number 10. He sold out, and there were only 51 Labour MPs left - my dad was beaten. Some 14 years later it was a Labour landslide. So the historical perspective helps you.

There is not a railway station called "socialism" or "peace" and if you catch a train driven by Bob Crow you'll get there. New Labour was a deadlier threat than MacDonald because what was done was done from the inside of the party instead of the outside. What saved the party in 1931 was the TUC, who wouldn't go along with it. The national executive went along with it, saying, "Do what you have to do, prime minister."

When I look ahead, the real dangers seem to me now that, if there is a big economic recession of some kind, that's when the BNP emerges out of the woodwork.

We have had ten years of very successful Labour election victories, and you don't really see a revival of the Labour left, yet many are involved in the movements and the anti-fascist campaigns, the trade unions and the anti-war movement.

I think for the first time in my life the public is to the left of what's called the Labour government. People don't want war, they don't want pensions that are means tested, they don't want privatisation, and they do want trade union rights and civil liberties, so I don't feel isolated, and I bet you don't either.

It isn't as if we're a ranting little group on the fringes of politics. But you have to have a proper timescale. People wrote to me that the demonstration did nothing, and asking, was it worthwhile? But four years later Bush was beat, and Blair was in part driven out by that, and there is no doubt that it was effective.

Where we might differ is the question over whether Labour can continue to be a vehicle for change, and even though Respect is very small, whether we need such an electoral alternative.

Well, I think it is an integral part of the process. You are organising in a way the Labour Party isn't. I go on demonstrations and I see "Socialist Worker supports the pensioners" - you never see the Labour Party doing that.

Local Labour Party meetings now are older people, rather like old ladies who stick with the chapel because they have always been there, and a few ambitious young people who think it is the way to get a seat.

Most political life is going on outside the party. But at some stage if you are going to turn a demand into a law there has to be that electoral parliamentary process - parliament is a buckle that links one to the other. If you succeed and if Respect won the next general election you'd have to deal with the International Monetary Fund, with the US, with Europe. Much of what you'd want to do as a government would be illegal. Then you come up against the problems that made me a socialist. One was seeing that just getting rid of Thatcher didn't solve anything.

I hope you have never seen me as critical. I think the role you play is an important one. I haven't joined because I think that at some stage you have to work in a team with people you don't like, to get anything done.

I don't see any problem with there being left wing parties outside the Labour Party campaigning on what the Labour Party should be campaigning for, so long as they don't sink into sectarianism. It's about how you can accept a mosaic of socialist opinion without there being either a monolith or civil war all the time.

You could argue that, with the Stop the War movement and Respect, they are broad coalitions of people. It is about how you get bigger groups of people around you, but then whether you reach a tipping point at which you do what Keir Hardy did when the Liberals were the workers' party. Do you see that happening?

I'm not in the business of forecasting, and I think what matters is what you do. The outcome depends on whether you succeed in persuading people. But if you do get a big majority for what I would broadly call progressive policies, in the end it reaches the prime minister through his spin doctors. He may not like the argument, but when the spin doctors say, "Prime minister, you can't disregard this," then you begin to make progress.

The British ruling class is very, very clever. After the English Revolution the ruling class was so frightened that it decided never to take the route of the French aristocrats, who would rather go to the guillotine than give way. So under pressure they concede and then when the pressure is off they go on to recover the territory they lost.

Thatcher recovered during her period, followed on by Blair. She recovered a lot of the losses they had suffered as a result of strong trade unions and strong local government. For us to win these back again does require a renewal of pressure of the kind you're providing. The Labour Party isn't providing any kind of popular pressure and popular pressure is what progress is about.

You have always been passionate about comprehensive education. When this year's A-Level results came out all the headlines were all about private schools getting better results.

Yes, it's like saying we've done a survey and we've found the rich have more money than the poor or that older people tend to live longer than younger people! I don't really think that the establishment has ever wanted an educated population. With the 1944 Education Act they talked about "gold minds, silver minds and metal minds": the grammar schools, the secondary modern schools and the technical schools. The division is partly politically motivated to make you hostile to other people, but also because they don't want a confident, educated public.

Once you recognise that they don't want an educated population then you see the whole private school, comprehensive school argument in that light. But Caroline would have been shattered by all this, because she devoted her life to it, though in a sense selection is still something the government has a job arguing in favour of.

I suppose in a way you and I try to be teachers - "educate, agitate, organise" is what the trade union banners say and exactly what we do. I think our educational role - Socialist Review and Marxism are part of it - does really shift the balance of argument over a period. The trouble is that people are very impatient, and they are going to die, and want to see it before they die.

You always say that you shouldn't attack Blair personally, but what do you say about him in your diary?

I may be moderate in public meetings, but when I get home at night and let fly the language is sometimes abusive. I've removed it all from the published diary. He's a very clever man. I said in 2001 I wonder when he is going to leave the Labour Party, which I imagine he's probably done now. He said to Alistair Campbell in his diary, "I'm not as Labour as you think I am." But I don't think we should focus too much on him for two reasons.

Firstly it isn't about him alone, and secondly if you are going to win the labour movement over to your view, it doesn't go well if you're always attacking their leader, because there is always such loyalty to the captain of your football team.

How do you think Brown is different?

It's important he appointed Malloch Brown who worked with Kofi Annan. And when he went to Camp David to meet George Bush, and Bush paid warm tribute to Brown, Brown paid warm tribute to the American people, which is a bit different.

Then he went to the United Nations and made his major speech there, and there was one thing I noticed about his speech. He said we have to have a coalition of conscience about world poverty, that governments, churches, voluntary organisations, NGOs and charities have got to work together. He never mentioned the trade unions as potential progressives.

But still, it won't be what he decides that will happen. It will be how pressure builds up. The end of the Blair regime has begun to release arguments that had been suppressed.

What do you think he will do over Iraq, and also Afghanistan, which is getting quite a lot worse?

Brown said in Washington he'd wait for a military report before he decided, but we've lost control of Basra - we're just locked up in the airport. I think he's bound to withdraw from Iraq - it's such a lost war - and so is Afghanistan. What I am worried about now is Iran.

The trade unions have been very firm supporters of Brown and they were obviously very disappointed with Blair.

If I were a trade union leader I would say what we should do is continue to affiliate to the Labour Party, because we get a vote at conference, but put all our money into the campaigns to which we are committed. Then on polling day say, "We don't want the Tories."

But funding a party in the way they have done, which is engaged so much in the destruction of trade union rights, and ignores the Trade Union Rights Bill, and all that, is a difficult thing for them to justify. The RMT is gone, and also the FBU. I think this weakens the Labour Party. If they all left Blair would have been delighted - he would be completely clear of them. But I do agree that if the trade unions became separated from the Labour Party the party as such would not exist.

Looking back, what are you most proud of and is there anything that you would do differently?

I'd like to have on my gravestone: "He encouraged us." I'm proud to have been in the parliament that introduced the health service, the welfare state and voted against means testing. I did my maiden speech on nationalising the steel industry, put down the first motion for the boycott of South African goods, and resigned from the shadow cabinet in 1958 because of their support for nuclear weapons.

I think you do plant a few acorns, and I have lived to see one or two trees growing: gay rights, freedom of information, CND. I'm not claiming them for myself but you feel you have encouraged other people and see the arguments developing.

I'm not ashamed of making mistakes I've made a million mistakes and they're all in the diary. When we edit the diary - which is cut to around 10 percent - every mistake has to be printed because people look to see if you do. I would be ashamed if I thought I'd ever said anything I didn't believe to get on, but making mistakes is part of life, isn't it?

More Time for Politics: Diaries 2001-2007 by Tony Benn is published in October by Hutchinson at £20