Besides my own family (and the youth organiser of the Labour Party in the early 1980s) there were three men who inspired my interest and involvement in the labour movement. One has been politically decomposing for years, another appears to be in a political coma, the third died today. It’s hard to believe this, but Neil (aka ‘Lord’) Kinnock was an inspirational socialist firebrand when I heard him speak at West Ham town hall about 35 years ago, since when he’s followed the well-trodden footsteps of those who use the labour movement to feather their own nests. Ken Livingston retained his political integrity for far longer, but in the week that Bob Crow died, I’ll never forget ‘Mayor’ Livingstone calling on tube workers to cross picket lines and his housing policy was a disgrace. Tony Benn was made of different stuff and if I had heroes any more, he’d be one of them.
I didn’t know Mr Benn, but I did have several encounters with him over the years. I was a bit of a groupie for him when he was challenging for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, going to various halls around east London to hear him speak. I have a dim recollection of him coming to a group of us at a meeting at Ilford County High School and welcoming the fact that young people were showing an interest in politics. I may have invented that memory, but it seems entirely typical of the man. The first great love of my life used to serve and swoon for Tony Benn at the hardware store she worked at in Holland Park, which infuriated me in all sorts of ways. Benn was a very regular visitor to Tower Hamlets where his dad, as he always reminded us, had been an MP. I’ve grown weary of even obscure politicians who put their egos before the cause they supposedly serve – making demands about when and where they speak, turning up late, not turning up at all, leaving early – all as though they’re doing us a big favour. In my experience, Tony Benn was never like that. If you asked him to come to a meeting on something he cared about, he came. He wasn’t without conceit (who is?): I remember him writing to me once with some recommended books, with the ones he wrote in bold capitals. But unlike so many others, Mr Benn never forgot who put him in the position he occupied.
I interviewed him about housing once. He recalled how, in the post-war Labour government, housing was the first item on the agenda of Cabinet meetings, with the Prime Minister demanding updates on the number of new homes built. It was by taking the housing crisis seriously and feeling a sense of responsibility for doing something about it that the Atlee government managed to build a million homes in five years. Compare and contrast with the pathetic reaction of today’s politicians. Tony Benn remained a staunch supporter of council housing and unlike others, never confused it with pale imitations.
The last time I met Mr Benn was when he came to a meeting against academies in Bethnal Green and I’ll now treasure the petition he signed. But my best memory of Tony was about five years ago when, along with him, I was asked to read some names of people who’d died in recent imperialist wars at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. I went with my daughter and we arrived early, to find Tony sitting alone on a camp stool, smoking his pipe and drinking from a flask of tea. We chatted for a while, but he wasn’t interested in me, but in Rebecca and what she was doing with her life. Tony Been was a man of peace, hope and principle – a true friend of the working class.