Melissa Benn

British journalist and writer (born 1957)

Melissa Ann Benn (born 1957) is a British journalist and writer. She has worked as a journalist for City Limits magazine, The Guardian, the London Review of Books and Marxism Today. Benn has written several novels and non-fiction books. She is the daughter of Caroline and Tony Benn.

Quotes edit

  • There was something unsettling about the serried ranks of New Labour women elected on 1 May last year [1997]. All those structured smiles and cheerful jackets gathered round our leader made me feel like a bad-tempered Daily Mail reader or one of those glorious man-hating feminists of myth who live in Hackney and refuse to shave their legs. What I hadn’t realised was that this unmonstrous regiment of women came much closer to representing the end of something – feminism as a natural ally of radical politics – than to representing a key moment in the long march through the institutions. Nor had I imagined that so many of them would become part of that blancmange known as one-nation politics.
    There are many reasons why they have proved such a disappointment. Personal ambition is one. Most new MPs live in fear of marginalisation, of being banished to the Siberia of consistently applied principle, of having to face up to the fact that they will never be a bag-carrier for an Under-Secretary of State. Sisterly solidarity, too, plays a part. Top Labour women are ferociously loyal to each other, but their loyalty has so far furthered no cause greater than the right of cabinet ministers to send their children to selective schools or to have their minds changed over tobacco sponsorship of Formula One.
    • "Making It", London Review of Books, Vol. 20, No. 3 (5 February 1998).
  • I did not start out in state schools. Like so many children of Labour politicians in the 60s, my brothers and I began our education in the private sector. My parents, Tony and Caroline Benn, decided to move us all to state schools around 1963 on the grounds that it was hypocritical to back comprehensives for everyone else and then educate your own children privately. In some people's eyes, this made us four children a collective sacrifice, a living social experiment. We felt only lucky.
    Our nearest comprehensive was Holland Park, which cynics so enjoyed deriding as a showcase comprehensive and therefore a place of privilege. (If I had a pound for the number of times people have said to me, "Holland Park? Oh that wasn't a real comprehensive!" I could have paid for a year of private schooling, easy.) Holland Park was one of the first purpose-built comprehensives in the country but it was also, by the time I got there in the late 60s, a large rumbustious institution, which drew in a small, albeit highly publicised, section of the middle class who lived around the school. Some of these, like my mother, Caroline, became passionately committed to both the school itself - she was governor of Holland Park for 35 years - and the wider comprehensive cause.
    My brother Hilary remembers the strangeness of arriving at Holland Park for the first time after attending Westminster preparatory school, where he and my eldest brother Stephen had been usefully designated as Benn I and Benn II. He can still remember how huge the school buildings looked to him and the strange sound of so many boys - and girls - laughing and running and talking in the vast playgrounds.
  • "Child of a dream", The Guardian (30 January 2001).
  • A quarter of a century on, the Grunwick dispute remains one of the most significant in modern industrial history. In a sense, the strike was typical of a pattern of similar disputes before and since: a factory with a few hundred workers, a slowly building sense of injustice and a long standoff between employer and worker. But even then, Grunwick seemed a different kind of battle. This was a historic meeting between a traditional trade unionism, still relatively sure of its power, and a growing band of black and Asian workers who were beginning to find an industrial and political voice. Arthur Scargill bought down his Yorkshire miners in a bus - there was even fighting talk of shutting the pits. Grunwick workers travelled to more than 2,000 workplaces over 40 weeks to enlist support.
    The strike seemed to draw in every progressive movement of the day. "Black and white unite and fight" demanded the banners in Chapter road. Socialist feminists did their picket duty and wrote sternly of the military tactics of their trade union brothers. Jayaben Desai, in her sari and white cardigan, handbag crooked over her arm, was a feminist heroine of the age. Yet perhaps the most lasting consequence of Grunwick and other mass disputes during the 1970s were some of the anti-union laws of the 1980s, particularly those outlawing mass pickets.
    Today, it is possible to see more clearly the fraud that lay at the heart of the argument advanced by what was then called the "new right", particularly over Grunwick. A few hundred Asian men and women asking for the right to join a union and negotiate from within it was hardly the best example of an overweening and arrogant union movement it claimed was running the country.
    By any reckoning, Grunwick was a just cause, whose supporters included moderates such as Shirley Williams. In 1977, an independent court of inquiry chaired by Lord Scarman criticised mass picketing but upheld the workers' claim to union recognition. But it was a lost cause: George Ward, the Grunwick owner, refused to give in. This, despite a last-ditch hunger strike by Mrs Desai and four colleagues on the steps of the TUC.
    The strike fizzled out in early 1978. No walkout since, bar the miners' strike of 1984-5, has quite achieved Grunwick's fame or progressive significance. In the early 1980s, I went to a small factory near Birmingham to cover a similar dispute, led by a group of Asian workers protesting about pay and conditions and the right to union recognition. This time, the streets were empty. As union power declined, so did media coverage - if there's no punch-up, so what?
  • If a week is a long time in politics, a century can seem surprisingly short. With uncanny timing, the centenary of the death of Keir Hardie, Labour’s first leader and arguably its most towering figure, falls at the end of this month, on the very weekend that Labour delegates will gather in Brighton for this year’s annual conference, the first under the party’s new leader.
  • When it comes to the politics of agitation, Jeremy Corbyn is Hardie’s clear heir. Were Hardie alive in the 21st century he would surely have opposed the Iraq war, visited the Occupy encampments, supported those activists fighting against the "social cleansing" of London and denounced austerity. A charismatic public speaker who frequently addressed huge crowds, he would have recognised the enthusiasm and fervour of the mass audiences that Corbyn has attracted across the country, which so many thought dead in the age of Twitter and Facebook.
  • But Hardie’s political trajectory also serves as an important warning to any contemporary radical leader in parliament, the one bit of the job many claim Corbyn cannot do. A strong believer in representative democracy, Hardie nonetheless loathed the deal-making and elitism of parliament itself and was widely acknowledged as a poor leader of the party in the Commons for the very short period he undertook the job from 1906 to 1907.
  • There’s no doubt that a Corbyn win would pose an enormous challenge for the centre-right of the party, but the many MPs who oppose him can surely sit on their hands or plot, or both, for only so long. The task is even greater for the member for Islington North, borne in on a wave of popular feeling.
    If his leadership were to succeed, it would need to be exceptionally generous, imaginative and inclusive. It would have to forge fresh alliances, take surprising positions and make unexpected compromises. Hardie the seer, the agitator, inspires those of us who believe Labour needs to present a bolder alternative to the Conservatives. Hardie the diffident party leader reminds us that we still have a lot to learn about how to shape “divine discontent” into a credible and popular programme.

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