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Labour centenary Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 10:29 GMT
Tony Benn: Lessons of history
Tony Benn, MP for Chesterfield, held ministerial posts in the Wilson and Callaghan governments, having first been elected to parliament in 1950.

A former president of the hard-left Campaign Group, he was a member of Labour's National Executive for more than 30 years. He talks to BBC News Online about the Labour Party's history.


Tony Benn
Tony Benn: Fervent critic of New Labour
Tony Benn, Labour's longest serving MP, says the birth of the party 100 years ago was a blending of several factors going back many more years.

The demand for democracy, the writings of Karl Marx, the work of the Chartists - "all those ingredients went into it", he said.

The party came about as working people in the 19th century started to demand representation in the corridors of power.

Mr Benn said they first demanded trade unions to defend them, then the vote and then representation in Parliament.

It was the realisation, however, that without "democratic control" in the country, that representation could be ineffective.

And that is where the foundation stones of the Labour Party - most significantly clause four - came in.

The clause, of course, was one of the victims of Tony Blair's re-branding of the party.

And Mr Benn is a fervent critic of the changes which mean the party starts its second 100 years as 'New' Labour.

'Hammering the party'

Labour had always been a broad church of left, right and centre, he said - but the difference now is that New Labour "spends its time attacking what it calls 'old Labour'."

He says its leadership calls upon the services of senior figures from other parties - among them Michael Heseltine and Paddy Ashdown - while "hammering the party itself".

But Mr Benn, who first became an MP in 1950, says it is not the first time such a situation has developed - he points to the Ramsay MacDonald years and the split which led to the creation of the SDP in the 1980s and says: "It didn't work then and it won't work this time."

He uses the recent demonstrations against the power of "global corporations" as evidence that many of the issues which led to the formation of the Labour Party 100 years ago are being rekindled.

"Their bid for absolute power has been rejected," he said. "There is a feeling that the things for which the Labour Party stood for 100 years ago are relevant now."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr Benn sees the development of the welfare state as Labour's greatest achievement, while its first leader Keir Hardie, "is the symbol of the Labour Party still".

See also:

22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
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