Healey v. Benn: They Won, You Lost

By the time you read this the battle will be over. The mud-slinging will have subsided and victory will have gone to the ‘right’ (Healey) or to the ‘left’ (Benn). But whichever side has won, the battle they fought will not have been over basic differences of principles as to how we should live but over personal ambitions and minor details of political administration. In fact what divided the two candidates for Labour’s deputy leadership was nothing like as important as what united them.

What united them—and what will continue to unite them—is their common commitment to a political party that exists to defend and manage the system by which a small minority of the population owns a large majority of the wealth. What divides them is not the question of whether this system is the best way of organising human affairs—both are convinced that it is—but the details of how this system (capitalism) is to be organised.

Making the best of it

So neither Healey nor Benn argue that they can get rid of capitalism, but rather that they know how to make the best of it. They promise they have ways of solving some of its major problems—unemployment, inflation, poverty, threat of war. Healey says he can improve things by cutting interest rates, cutting VAT, cutting the National Insurance surcharge, increasing state spending and negotiating for world disarmament. Benn favours getting out of the Common Market, extending nationalisation, bringing in import controls and disarming Britain unilaterally. Both men pledged that as deputy leader these were the policies they would work for.

Both men also—and this is another thing that unites them—talked as though they were unaware of the extent to which any party in government is forced to adopt not the policies it might like to but those dictated by the conditions it finds. Yet Healey and Benn should know this, for they were both ministers in the last Labour government, which, like others before it, made extravagant promises about social reform and wealth sharing then very quickly found that capitalism would not allow these promises to be carried out. In 1973 the Labour Party publication Labour’s Programme for Britain, with which both Healey and Benn were closely associated, promised ‘a massive and irreversible shift in the distribution of both wealth and power in favour of working people and their families’. The following February Benn said: ‘The crisis that we inherit when we come to power will be the occasion for fundamental change and not the occasion for postponing it.’ And when Labour got to power later that year, Healey made his famous pledge to ‘squeeze the rich until the pips squeak’.

Dismal failure

A measure of what actually happened in the five years of Labour rule that followed was given on the 30th of January 1979 when Robert Sheldon, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, stated in the House of Commons that an average family of four were £2.65 per week worse off in real terms than in 1974. Then in July 1979 the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Wealth and Income reported that in 1974-76 (the first two years of Labour rule) the richest one per cent of the population increased its share of the national wealth from 22.5 per cent to 24.9 per cent and the richest 10 per cent increased theirs from 57.5 per cent to 60,6 per cent. (The gap between rich and poor had actually shrunk a little during the previous Heath administration — further evidence of how capitalism has a mind of its own regardless of which party is in power.)

Neither Healey nor Benn resigned their Cabinet posts during that dismal failure of a government, and Healey now even denies that Labour failed at all. In his deputy leadership manifesto (Socialism with a Human Face, September 1981), he is not ashamed to call the 1974-79 government ‘quite a remarkable success’—which, if it was, makes one wonder what actual failure would be like for a Labour government!

False morality

That Healey lacks modesty and the capacity to admit failure is further illustrated by the form of his manifesto, a ‘put-up’ interview with a political friend, and by the breathtaking statement (p. 14): “The only reason why I’m a politician rather than the things I’d like to have done (such as being a film director or writing a book on the theory of beauty or about art) is that I do want to change the world” (our emphasis). Benn is not so far behind either. In an interview in the Sunday Times (6 September 1981) he did not shrink from volunteering the information that ‘When I was ill I had 5000 letters’ and that he aimed to be Prime Minister.

In professional politicians none of this should perhaps be surprising. But what does make you sit up is the high-sounding moral formula they use to dress up their meanness and self-concern. Healey’s manifesto for example is littered with pious appeals to such things as ‘human brotherhood’, ‘the moral objective’ and ‘the tradition of humanity and common sense’. Yet it fails to explain what happened to these high ideals when, during Labour’s last term of office, 45,000 old people died from hypothermia each year, seven million people were living at or below the official poverty line, thousands of hospital beds were cut, prices and unemployment doubled and council house building was reduced to its lowest rate since the war.

The unspoken answer is that the world market and the property-protecting laws of capitalism made nonsense of ‘human brotherhood’, ‘the moral objective’ and ‘humanity and common sense’. They showed as always that you cannot have capitalism and escape its consequences. You cannot administer a system based on the principle of ‘no production no profit’ and hope that people will not suffer from the application of this principle. You can’t do it, as Benn would like, by nationalising things. Nationalised concerns—like private ones—as we are constantly being told, must be ‘viable’. Their function anyway is not to abolish or attenuate the effects of the profit system but to get it to work better as a whole.

Giving the game away

Yet, despite their lofty morality, if you listen to the Healeys and the Benns long enough, in the end they give the game away. Benn did it when, after the first flush of the last Labour government’s enthusiasm had died down, he said: ‘The government does not dictate the pace of industrial change. It interacts with reality” (Guardian 21/5/75). Healey did it last month in his manifesto: “I don’t believe that socialism is compatible with a fixed body of doctrine. Society changes from year to year, from country to country; the essential thing in politics is the moral objective. The means by which you seek to achieve it are bound to be different in different countries at different times”. What they were both saying here was “give us carte blanche to do what we like when we get to power and we’ll call it socialism.

Leave a Reply