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Free radical, by Joseph McHugh

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10 June 2005

Labour Party refusnik Tony Benn, the veteran ex-MP and prolific political commentator, talks to Joseph McHugh about democracy and New Labour

Tony Benn shows me into the paper-strewn den of his handsome Notting Hill home. 'I'm an enthusiastic archivist,' he confides. It is rather like Marx admitting to dabbling in economics.

In the bunker-like room, shelves sag under the weight of books, boxes and files, papers lie wilting on every surface, cabinets bulge with yet more records of his extraordinary life. No doubt a mental Dewey Decimal Classification system tracks every last tape and document.

In a corner by the window is a desk, laden with sheaves of papers, a futuristic telephone and an antique computer that looks as though it has been pilfered from a skip.

Benn protests 'I'm not an academic' at one point in the interview, but this room, a monument to his life's work, betrays him. It is a study that should belong to a university don. Full of clutter and eccentric charm, it reveals Benn as an intellectual and man of ideas.

The most important idea – the thread that has held together Benn's 51 years as an MP and the four since he retired from the House of Commons – is democracy. He mentions it repeatedly and clearly believes it is under threat. It is likely to figure prominently in his speech to next week's CIPFA conference.

'People feel in Britain that they're not represented, they're managed. You elect an MP to fight for you, you don't elect an MP to tell what you've got to do. You can't wear a hood, you can't wear a baseball cap, it's reached absurd proportions.'

Benn blames this controlling, managerialist style of government for the collapse of faith in parliamentary politics, which has, in turn, provoked outbreaks of hand-wringing and head-scratching across the party divide. He has no time for the diagnosis of apathy put forward by politicians unwilling to face their own culpability for this failure of democracy.

'This theory that people are apathetic is nonsense. I don't think anyone is apathetic, a lot of people are angry that no one listens to them and they don't believe a word they're told. Anger and mistrust are highly political but they're not connected to the mechanism for putting it right,' Benn explains.

'People didn't want the war, they don't want privatisation, pensioners don't want to be on means-tested benefits, students don't want to be saddled with debts, so the argument is making itself, but someone has to articulate it in a constructive way to point the way forward.'

Those advocates, according to Benn, will come from a broad-based coalition of trade unionists, the environmental lobby, anti-war activists, anti-globalisation campaigners, pensioner and student protesters, and members of the public angered into action.

'Now, for the first time in my life I think public opinion is to the Left of what's called a Labour government.'

But, strikingly for a man who has devoted his life to parliamentary politics and who spent 11 years as a Cabinet minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments, he assigns no role to elected politicians in developing this alternative political vision.

When he stepped down as MP for the Derbyshire seat of Chesterfield in 2001, Benn famously quipped that he was 'leaving Parliament to spend more time on politics'. The joke is beginning to make sense.

He has shifted his attention away from an increasingly marginalised House of Commons and is focusing instead on issues that he sees as expressions of a wider discontent.

Benn, who wears his 80 years lightly, is certainly doing his bit to reconnect these disparate movements with the political process to harness their potential power. 'Since leaving Parliament I've done 600 speeches, 1,100 broadcasts, published three books and 200 newspaper articles, so I haven't been lazy,' he says modestly.

He is optimistic that democratic accountability will be revived. 'I think New Labour is finished, I think it's over and Blair will abdicate. He's a monarch and he'll abdicate. Even so-called Blairites have come back to Parliament and they've realised that New Labour is out of touch. It will come to an end. Everything comes to an end.'

While many would take issue with Benn's roseate view of people power, there is an uncanny ring of truth about much of what he says. 'The thing about democracy is that you have to be patient and impatient at the same time – impatient to get it done but you have to realise it takes a bit of time.'

Benn is sucking on his trademark pipe as he hands down his death sentence on Tony Blair. The other Benn trademark, the cup of tea, is also on display. For someone seemingly dedicated to the destruction of the government, he is distinctly kind-eyed and avuncular: revolution goes respectable. He is also much funnier and down-to-earth than, variously, the sclerotic Stalinist or the idealistic toff of political legend.

Benn's books, including nine volumes of diaries, a collection of his Morning Star columns – Free Radical, and his memoirs, Dare to be a Daniel, exude warmth.

The impression is reinforced by frequent references to his family. He proudly declares that all four of his children are public servants: one is a parliamentary officer for a charity, one works for the Housing Corporation, another is a journalist and his son Hilary is international development secretary and MP for Leeds Central.

There are also ten grandchildren, ranging in age from eight to 24. If any of them should squeeze on to the green benches of the Commons in years to come, they will be the fifth generation of the Benn family to do so. Both of Tony Benn's grandfathers were MPs, as was his father, whose title the son fought to renounce so that he could re-enter the Commons.

With such a pedigree, it is no surprise that politics is Benn's all-consuming passion. The fate of the public services takes up much of his intellectual energy, not least because he regards resistance to increased privatisation as one of the main fronts in the battle to preserve democracy.

He traces the development of the modern public sector from the successive extensions of the electoral franchise in the nineteenth century. 'When people had the vote, they used it to buy what they couldn't afford personally. So you got municipal housing, municipal hospitals, municipal schools, municipal fire brigades, museums and so on. What democracy did was to transfer power from the marketplace to the polling station, from the wallet to the ballot, and it was a huge political revolution,' Benn explains.

'Power is now shifting back from the ballot to the wallet, from the polling station to the marketplace and that is called modernisation. But, far from being modernisation, it is a throw-back to the nineteenth century.'

The means of redistributing that power, according to Benn, is the government's increasing use of market mechanisms and private companies in the public sector, whether for independent treatment centres in the health service or city academies in education.

According to Benn, the ideology underpinning the project – 'New Labour is neo-Thatcherite, there is no doubt about it' – is exposed by the language used to sell it. In the lexicon of modernisation, money means power.

'That's why the words "consumer" and "customer" are so popular, because they are the language of the market and not the language of service,' he says. 'How can you be a customer of the health service? If I go in for an operation, am I a customer of the health service? If I go to school, am I a consumer of education? The language of the private sector is being injected into the public sector when it really isn't relevant.'

Benn says one of the reasons he accepted the invitation to speak at the CIPFA conference is that he wants to explore ways of resisting the rush to embrace the private sector and the 'obliteration of democratic accountability' that entails.

In fact, accountability is at the very core of Benn's politics. He laments the breakdown of the traditional relationship between civil servant and minister precisely because he believes it has led to an accountability deficit. His contempt for the proliferating ranks of blue-sky thinkers and advisers – who 'think the unthinkable and then have to be told it's unworkable' – is unalloyed.

'The combination of the professionals and the democratically accountable provided the tension in government out of which policy emerged. Now you have advisers and management who are neither elected nor professional and they are a real threat. They are people who live secretly and they're quite unaccountable.'

Benn's opposition to the European project – back in the news exactly 30 years after the 1975 referendum for all the wrong reasons – is founded on the same bedrock of outrage. 'You have a bureaucratic structure supervising a neo-liberal economy. Who elected Mandelson? Nobody.'

Benn believes this dissipation of democratic control and its accompanying move to market mechanisms has had a pernicious effect on public servants. 'There is a wholescale privatisation going on and that is very demoralising for the public sector because they feel that the real nature of their work is not appreciated. I want to explore that problem.'

But, for all that, Benn is an optimist. For him the solution is to develop an alternative philosophy that recognises the true nature of the public sector while meeting legitimate demands for good husbandry.

'I want to explore how to develop criteria that allow the public sector to develop efficiently, properly and without wasting money, without jumping back into the market as a philosophy,' he says enthusiastically. 'Public servants have been hammered into the ground and it's time the importance of their work is recognised, not just by the people who use the services but also by the people at the top who make the decisions.'

Tony Benn will be speaking at the closing summit of the CIPFA conference on Thursday, June 16

PFjun2005

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