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Breakfast with Frost Sunday, 21 July, 2002, 14:45 GMT 15:45 UK
Tony Benn, former Labour Cabinet minister
Tony Benn, former Labour Cabinet minister
Tony Benn, former Labour Cabinet minister

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

PETER SISSONS: Now yesterday's Conference of Union Leaders in Central London also heard from a former MP, a very distinguished former parliamentarian at that. Tony Benn is with is in a moment.

Tony Benn left the Commons a year ago saying he wasn't abandoning politics, in fact he's been busier than ever, there have been one-man performances at theatres and yesterday he was making his presence felt at the Union Conference in London. A couple of weeks back he was at Glastonbury talking to young people there and listening to what they had to say.

Meeting people away from Westminster has been a feature of Tony Benn's life in politics and back in the '80s during the miners strike he was at the forefront of the resistance and relishing it.

And the man is here, Tony good morning.

TONY BENN: Morning.

PETER SISSONS: What's your take on this, this conference yesterday?

TONY BENN: Well I think there's been a big chance of public opinion, you speak as if it's just the trade unions but most people in Britain today want the railways publicly owned because they're concerned about safety. Most people think pensions should be linked to earnings because it's a big pensions crisis. Most people in Britain don't like seeing students landed with a huge debt and most people don't want the public services privatised and most people think that those in the public services should be properly paid. So I think that yesterday's conference reflected public opinion not just the opinion of, of people in the trade union and Labour movement.

PETER SISSONS: But there are dangers here for the unions aren't there because they did make Labour unelectable last time round?

TONY BENN: Did they, let me just ask you that. You see I was in the Labour Cabinet in 1976 when the IMF told us we had to cut 4 billion off our public expenditure. Denis Healey was the Chancellor, very fair man, wrote afterwards it wasn't necessary, it led to huge cuts in public expenditure which triggered the trouble over that winter. So I think the, what you might call the conventional view that it was the left or the trade unions that destroyed the Labour government, I think it was the IMF myself.

PETER SISSONS: But when we had in 1983 a very left wing Labour manifesto, a lot of the aspects of which I should imagine you thoroughly approved of, the party went down to its worst defeat since it began?

TONY BENN: Well Tony Blair supported the 1983 manifesto, Tony Blair supported me for Deputy Leadership, Tony Blair was absolutely, it was his first election, I went to speak to Cherie and remember that 10 per cent of Labour MPs left the party and formed the SDP, that's never mentioned.

PETER SISSONS: What would have happened if you'd become Deputy Leader 21 years ago?

TONY BENN: Oh I'm not interested in that at all, I'm interested, I'm not interested in that, come on...what I meant, what I meant, what I'm interested in is this, people don't want to go back to the past, they don't want to go back to the Thatcher years with mass privatisation, with the trade unions hammered, with local government strangled and what happened yesterday was the trade unions and Labour people they were looking forward. What do we do after this New Labour period...which is in a way coming to an end because remember the collapse in the support for, well the collapse in the stock market has shaken people's confidence, this idea that if Enron ran the NHS we'd be better off - nobody believes that anymore.


TONY BENN: And you see there are a million council workers on under 5 an hour, now the chairman of the BBC gets 1,284 a day, so some public servants are properly paid and I think, I think it's time that people looked at this not in terms of dinosaurs or union...but in terms of what people want, they want security, they're very anxious, they're very worried...

PETER SISSONS: They've been organised in trade unions...

TONY BENN: Well there's seven million.

PETER SISSONS: What do you want the trade unions to do, do you want them to put arm lock on the Labour Party with the money that they provide, to cut it off or...

TONY BENN: The money that the Labour, New Labour got is from Bernie Ecclestone and what's that guy who runs the newspapers and so on, no I think the, the trade unions set up the Labour Party to represent working people, the people who create the world's wealth and, and all people want is a home, job, decent wages, good health care, dignity when they're old and care when they're sick... That's what the Labour Party's about.

PETER SISSONS: But are you saying that the New Labour bubble has burst or that, or that it needs another kick to get it to burst from the trade unions?

TONY BENN: Well no what I'm saying is New Labour, the Prime Minister said was a new political party, he said it himself, now I'm glad he said that because I'm not a member of New Labour, I'm a member of the Labour Party, I've been there 60 years and the Labour Party is about looking after the interests of the overwhelming majority of people who can be very badly treated by big business which now runs the world. You know this as well as I do, multinational companies have far more control over what happens than all the trade unions in Britain put together.

PETER SISSONS: But do you, do you want to see New Labour buried as John Edmunds said.

TONY BENN: I agree with Derek, I think he's a marvellous guy, he's been elected by his own members, surprised everybody...I'm a Labour man, always have been a Labour man, but I want the Labour Party to be true to what it's about which is the protection of people from those who run the world, those who run the world now, the multinationals, the world trade organisation, the bankers, the speculators and they have no interest in the, in the lives of ordinary people.

PETER SISSONS: Do you think a change of leadership of the Labour Party might be a good idea?

TONY BENN: No I don't, I'm not in favour of that, I mean this is the trouble, you see, all this, no, you see I tell you what's switching people off at the moment, if you're unemployed or your aunty's waiting for a hip operation, or your grand-dad can't get a pension and you switch on the telly and all you hear is stuff about who'll be leader, what's the conflict between the chancellor and switches you off and one of the reasons I'm going round the country now which I am...

PETER SISSONS: So you're happy with the leadership?

TONY BENN: Well the leadership was elected by a system I introduced, one member one vote, in the old days it was only MPs elected the leader, I campaigned for that, that was the...

PETER SISSONS: So he should, he should be unassailable 'til the next?

TONY BENN: Well I mean he's elected and like every elected person you're answerable to your electorate. But the truth is what we've got now to do is to see that we tackle these appalling problems of insecurity - and war, people are very much afraid that Bush is going to drag us into a war with Iraq which could inflame the Middle East. I mean these are problems that people are talking about and if you just discuss it in terms of leadership and dinosaurs and trade union...well I think you're misleading people. That's why I'm going round doing all these meetings.

PETER SISSONS: Glastonbury, theatre stages, star of stage and...

TONY BENN: Well I mean...public meetings, if you want to call them a star of stage and screen I'm quite happy but if I'm a star of stage and screen how could I possibly have undermined the Labour Party in the seventies? People want, want to come and hear me speak, there must be some audience and I think people aren't apathetic, I think they're antipathetic, they don't like the spin doctors, they don't like punch ups on Newsnight. They don't like yahoo Prime Minister's, they want an opportunity to discuss things and that's why Derek won you see and it's a tremendous event.

PETER SISSONS: Tony Benn thank you.


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