The first time I met Tony Benn, we were passing each other in a cold grey parliamentary corridor just off Westminster Hall. It was an ordinarily weary Wednesday evening but my debut Campaign Group meeting, as an inexperienced young female researcher, meant that I was dazzled and in awe. A nobody, perched silently unnoticed on a chair in the corner of the room shuffling papers and pretending, probably unsuccessfully, to be nonchalant and at ease. The conference table was ringed by characters that a few months prior, only existed as distant figures of admiration – remote and unreal in the way important people are. Of course I, like everyone else, had already read Benn’s books, cheered him at meetings and even had purchased a copy of his dubious music record consisting of parliamentary speeches mixed to dance beats.
After the meeting, to my delighted surprise, he came specifically to seek ME out and I will never forget his words, as they are still as important to me as they were then;
“Urm..Excuse me…I am very sorry…”
He professed awkwardly in that characteristic well-spoken mumble.
“I haven’t had the chance to introduce myself. My name is Tony Benn and you are?”
“I know who you are”.
I smiled, stood up tall, introduced myself and shook his hand.
That was thing about Tony Benn – he loved people. A politician who likes people shouldn’t really be a radical or rare phenomenon, but I worked with various ‘important’ persons, in and around parliament for five years, after which many still didn’t even know my name – barely acknowledging me other than to stuff pieces of paper in to my hands or ask me to get the coffees. Tony’s interest and passion for people was really very astonishing. Quite breath-taking. Anyone who has spent even a small amount of time with him, will know that the general public would constantly come up, wildly excited, to converse with him – not just in the street but in taxis, restaurants, anywhere…And I mean, literally, all the time. It wasn’t just that he showed such warm respect, saint-like patience and social delicacy in the way he had time for each individual or the incredible talent he had for communicating and relating to all walks of life but that he actually seemed interested and stimulated by these human encounters. He asked questions and nearly always wanted to discuss ideas. As much as he had lots to say, with his extra-ordinary capacity for detail, Tony Benn was an incredible listener.
It is particularly striking that this attentiveness was afforded equally to everyone. He had a certain principled seriousness towards life that stood out as upholding, without hesitation, the very highest expectations. Values of equality and dignity with a beautiful simplicity. All perspectives were important to him, not least for their historical accuracy. He even once suggested that I kept a diary to record my thoughts and impressions. I must have responded by scoffing that no one would, quite rightly, be interested in reading them, because he looked very solemn for a moment and in a matter-of-fact tone, informed me that on the whole, people are very interested in everything, given the chance. Why wouldn’t they be concerned with what I had to say? I smile as I think of him smoking his pipe, surrounded by growing numbers of passers-by, sat on the cold stone steps outside Friends Meeting House where the Labour Representation Committee fringe was being held, engrossed in politic debate for hours and hours and hours. He cared about people and cared what they thought. Genuinely. Not for show – only when the cameras are rolling – or superficially – forced smiling, nodding and handshaking with calculated glazed eyes. But honestly, respectfully and always, in good faith. And as such, people cared for him.
It is this quality, this reasoned integrity, this democratic accountability that ultimately sets Tony Benn apart and explains how a privileged hereditary peer became a working class political icon. Logic dictated that he became more and more left wing, as he became more and more in touch with everyday experiences – responsive to the needs of society and the political mindfulness of the Labour Movement. By the 1970s, Benn and his Bennite policies such as state planning and greater Party democracy were overwhelmingly popular with grassroots activists, exactly because they were drawn from these layers of society. Likewise, as with anyone in touch with the working class population in the 1980s, Benn was profoundly influenced by the heroism of the miners’ strike along with its accompanying surge of consciousness and polarisation of the political trajectory. There was no place that this would become more important, than within the Party itself. When Benn stood for election as Deputy Leader and then later Party Leader, he was a crucial figure-head for the left – standing up for ourselves, face to face with the dangerous pre-cursor to Blairism, in defense of the Party that was meant to represent working class interests.
Undoubtedly, I did not agree with everything Tony Benn did or said and felt I was able, very freely, to express this to him whenever conflict came up. It was refreshing how open he was to criticism especially against the backdrop of a political culture where union leaders, MPs, officials, columnists or whomever invariably feel their role is to speak, to be heard, and object greatly, as if a terrible personal affront has been committed, when one of the ‘plebs’ have the audacity to query them. On the contrary, I questioned Tony many times on many occasions and regarding many different concerns from his remaining faith in the Labour Party to his religious sympathies to pacifism to nuclear power to Keynesian state intervention to social democracy and so on. He had a confidence and wonderful intellegence that was not shaken by such inquiries nor was he too arrogant to feel he had nothing to learn.
I am indeed wary that these reflections are somewhat embarrassingly gushing and sentimental – both of which are very unfashionable and more than a little uncouth. Yet, I cannot write about him in any other way. He moved me and as such, it feels extremely important not to under-estimate the impact that Tony Benn had on our lives and the impact people had on his life. It was true rational two-way communication. As the zeitgeist of the time shaped Benn, a whole Bennite generation, my generation, has been influenced and shaped by him. And how we have clung on to him. As parliament became more and more remote, politicians more and more corrupt and aloof, our Party ripped up and savaged. In this increasingly exploitative and undemocratic consumer society, where we are insulted by the superficial dumbing-down of politics, we have clung to Tony Benn and as eventually, he left parliament in “order to spend more time on politics”, he has clung to us.
Tony Benn has been so important to so many people, because he stood firm, with us, amidst the horror of the slime. He is proof than one does not need gimmicks, identity politics, tokenism, a sharp suit, high heels or the perfect family, to be popular as a political representative. One doesn’t need to trample others down as they climb to the top. One doesn’t ever need to ever stop listening or participating in the wonders of democratic processes. And never under-estimate the importance of caring enough to ask some-one their name.
Thank you, Tony Benn.