Thursday, 10 April 2014

Tony Benn's legacy: ideas that could shape our future

Andrew Fisher

Last night I was privileged to speak at the People's Parliament meeting on The Legacy of Tony Benn to a packed meeting of over 200 people, alongside John McDonnell MP, Ian Lavery MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Ellie-Mae O'Hagan and Hilary Wainwright via Skype from South Africa!

Below is roughly what I said ... 

Tony Benn said Parliament should be the buckle between the street and the statute book. There's no better example of that buckle than the MPs on this panel tonight - but in recent years Parliament has overwhelmingly acted as the buckle between finance capital (the City of London just up the river) and the statute book.

Tony Benn understood political economy. He believed that the economy was not something that was separate from politics, but something that had to be brought under political control if we were to truly live in a democracy.
"Democracy transferred power from the wallet to the ballot, from the marketplace to the polling station. What people couldn't afford to buy, they could vote for."

If we look at what democratic gains the vote achieved: comprehensive education, the NHS, the welfare state, council housing, trade union rights ...

But then look at the what capitalist class has achieved in the last thirty years: the transfer of electricity, gas, water, the railways, bus services, telecommunications (not to mention companies like BA and BP) from the ballot box to the market place - and increasingly the NHS, schools, colleges and universities are being put back into the marketplace too.

This is a huge redistribution from the democratic public realm into the private profit realm.

To get true democracy you have to democratise the economy too. In his 1979 book Arguments for Socialism, Tony asks:
"Do the British people really want a society in which industrialists and bankers have more power over Britain's economic future than the government they elect?"

The fact that in the years since that was written every government have had an economic policy of handing over power to bankers and big business - through privatisation and deregulation.

I read Arguments for Socialism  again recently. It's astonishing how prescient Tony was in foreseeing the rise of monetarism and the dominance of finance capital and indeed how much of an influence Tony's ideas had been on what I'd written in my book.

So in the spirit of Bennism, I want to suggest some new economic rights of which I hope Tony would have approved. In The Failed Experiment I call them rights for an economy as if people mattered:

Right to co-operativise: Workers should also have the right to co-operativise their company - in other words to transfer the company from private ownership to co-operative. This could operate through a majority vote of workers, which if passed would give workers the right to co-operativise their company.

This could operate in two ways: state-backed whereby, the government issues Treasury bonds to the owners as compensation; or by the workers collectively buying out the owners, perhaps through their union.

Right to job security: a proposal put by left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the 2012 French Presidential election that profitable companies should not be allowed to make compulsory redundancies. After all, Mélenchon argued, if the company is profitable what need is there to lay off staff? The provision does not of course preclude staff being re-trained or moved into a different role to reflect technological advances or changing public needs. But what it shifts is the primary purpose of a business operation - from making profit for a few to ensuring stable employment (and therefore decent income) for many. And, if technological advances necessitate fewer jobs and the company remains profitable, why not reduce working hours of staff while maintaining wage levels?

Right to sell: Should mortgage holders who get into financial trouble have the right to sell? If someone is at risk of losing their home as they can't keep up their mortgage payments, should they have the right to sell the property to the council, and the accompanying right to remain in it under an assured tenancy. The property would become a council home meaning the council gains an asset, and the householder stays in their home. All that would happen is a transaction between the council and the newly public bank offering the mortgage.

And if we have to keep the right-to-buy - though I think we should abolish it - then let's extend it to those living in the private sector too, with the same discounts. Let's see if they want to keep it then?

Right not to live in poverty:  living wage for those in work; and end poverty-level benefits. Currently we institutionalise poverty - we set benefit levels below the poverty-level and we set a minimum wage at just 70% of the living wage.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: in whose interests should our economy be run? Is it all about ever-rising stock values on the FTSE or is it about raising living standards for all? Is it about bigger profits for a few or better pay for the many? Is it about cutting taxes or about better public services and welfare?

If we want a just society, we need to democratise the economy - give people power. And that also means public ownership. I think there's a simple test: if something would have to be bailed out if it collapsed then it should be in public ownership.

Because if we want the railways, energy markets or water industry run in the public interest, they need to be under our control. As John McDonnell said in paying tribute to Tony Benn:
"What a world we would have created if we had listened to him. But more important, what a world we can create now if we listen to him."
 Let's create that world.

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