Planting the flag
Working class fighter takes on New Labour Weyman Bennett is our London Socialist Alliance candidate for Tottenham in the June 22 parliamentary by-election. Peter Manson spoke to him
What has been your record in fighting for the working class?
I got involved in politics at the age of 14 or 15. I grew up in Newham - a solid Labour area - but Asians and blacks were being attacked, and the National Front came third in an election. I got involved with Schoolchildren Against the Nazis and from there in broader demonstrations and music festivals, etc.
My family background was a mixture of Labour and religion. Two of my uncles were shop stewards - one at Fords and the other in a bus garage. I used to hear my dad and uncles going on about Enoch Powell, and wondered what it was that could make them swear - definitely unusual in my family.
Today I get a whiff of that time in the 70s with the scapegoating of asylum-seekers. I don't want my son to go through what I did - I was always fighting at school. That's why racism is the touchstone. But it's no longer the Labour Party Young Socialists outside the school gates - the responsibility of forging an alternative has fallen on our shoulders.
In 1984-5 I was involved in the miners' support group. I remember how shocked the miners were when they came to address us and found the local MSG was fronted by blacks and Asians. At the end of the strike I joined the Socialist Workers Party.
I also played a role in the anti-poll tax campaign, helped lead the protests over Joy Gardner's killing, and was involved in the ambulance workers' fight against cuts in pay and the service. Then in the 90s I formed the Coalition Against the Criminal Justice Bill. In 1998 we called the first demo outside the police station after the killing of Roger Sylvester.
I am an IT teacher and a member of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education. In my first week working in Waltham Forest I was part of a strike to defend the conditions of part-time lecturers.
How do you view the formation of the LSA?
We have pulled together in a united front. Originally we didn't necessarily work together. Now there is a pressing need to pose an alternative to Blair's project - people feel ostracised by New Labour. Socialists and revolutionaries must unite to oppose Blair - together we can give hope to working class people.
If people feel there is no alternative they become demoralised - "I'm not going to vote," they say. The LSA has helped combat that. I know two people who have rejoined their union after joining the LSA. They feel encouraged again.
The responsibility is on us socialists. It's not enough to say there's a problem: we have to do something about it. And the LSA brings us together to do it.
How have you found working with the other groups?
It's been surprisingly easy to work together, considering that there's been a long tradition of struggling against each other most of the time. But there's a sense coming from the working class too - a sense of unity: "For god's sake, don't sell out," is what they tell me again and again. Instead of each of us raising our own small voice, we are shouting out together - we are striking together.
I've been impressed by the things I've learnt in the campaign from people in the Labour Party. I used to sneer at the idea of knocking on doors. I thought canvassing was easy. It's not, but it's a good, worthwhile activity - asking working class people where they stand. It's an excellent thing when you persuade one person that it's the bosses, not asylum-seekers, who are to blame.
It's all about rebuilding the sinews of the working class - making people feel part of the working class again. Potentially we are much stronger than those who are attacking us. For example, today I've been talking to firefighters. They told me they backed Livingstone for mayor. Of course this is different from the Greater London Assembly elections: we're no longer in Livingstone's slipstream. But today I feel we have more access to workers than at any time over the past 10 years. There is a feeling we can resist Blair by acting together.
LSA candidates like Cecilia Prosper, Theresa Bennett, Anne Murphy and Candy Udwin have shown we can pose the working class alternative. We must spread this unity across the whole of the country. We have to make sure we stand at least 50 candidates against Blair in the general election. I used to think that elections were just concerned with local issues - cleaning the streets and things like that. But through standing you can raise the real big issues.
Is there perhaps a danger of electoralism?
We're not standing just for the sake of it: we want to integrate with the working class - that's not electoralism. If we weren't speaking out for asylum-seekers, if we weren't campaigning consistently, then perhaps. People are frustrated and want to resist - even the Women's Institute gave a little glimpse of that. If we get a good vote, then people can take heart from that - you can't just say voting doesn't matter. A massive vote against Blair would make a big difference: Tommy Sheridan's election to the Scottish parliament was not electoralism.
Of course, if we said change could come through elections, we would be dishonest. Elections are just a part of what we are doing.
Can I ask you about your attitude to Bernie Grant, the former Labour MP in Tottenham? Your election leaflet says he was "a socialist and a trade unionist". Surely that was a long time ago. In his later years he was a Blair supporter.
Well, we voted for Ken Livingstone despite the fact he backed the Gulf War. The main thing is, you have to defend the things people feel proud of. They remember Bernie Grant for his stand over Broadwater Farm, although he backed down over that actually. But we talk of the Bernie Grant who spoke out for Broadwater Farm, not the one who backed Dobson or the police.
We have to make the distinction and ask why working class people liked Bernie. We defend the best in him and claim it as our own. We have to start by agreeing with the people around us. That way, we can bring more towards socialist politics all the time.
But isn't there a danger, if we tell people Grant was a socialist, they will think we are like him and get a completely false impression of what socialism is? Shouldn't we criticise him as well?
We openly stated our disagreements. We backed Livingstone, not Dobson. Look, we need to address the big arguments, so where do we start? If people tell us they admired Bernie, should we tell them where we differ or answer, 'Yes, I agree, but this is the way to fight'? We want to promote leadership from below, not impose it from above.
The LSA is an organisation for fighting back - like when you go on strike - not at the moment a political party. We're a united front - that's the platform we stand on. So what the LSA says publicly is not the same as a political organisation fighting for the overthrow of the state.
That doesn't mean we had no differences with Bernie Grant. But when we knock on someone's door and they say they hate Blair, we don't say Bernie Grant was no good.
You said the LSA is not a party "at the moment". Should we be looking to establish a party in the long run?
I don't know. I'm not supposed to say that, but it depends on what happens outside. For example, if there were a big strike or mass demonstrations, that could spark a new movement for a party.
The problem is, to say that we want a party now is to speculate beyond where we are at the moment. It could break up the unity we have built up. At present, people are saying, "I'm not sure about joining a political party", so we have to convince them. I'm not sure which way it will go. Just three or four months ago we were talking about building an alliance for resistance against Blair. To be honest, we've got to get someone elected before we start talking about going further.
I'm sceptical about forming a political party, but I've got no problem with uniting everyone on the left. If we formed a party straightaway, people would think we were hoodwinking them into joining us - the SWP is the biggest left party around here.
I wasn't suggesting that a new party is on the cards immediately, or even that the LSA can form one alone, but I see that as the aim. For me it must be a Communist Party, based on democratic centralism - one where you and I can both be members.
We'll have to wait and see on that. I would say, let 1,000 flowers bloom, to use an expression. You have to put forward your ideas - the tradition of the socialist movement is one of polemic and debate.
It's like they say: who will educate the educators? In the LSA I've learnt more than I've taught. I can get my friends to agree with me, but the test for the LSA is to get hundreds involved. It's a question of how much we succeed in planting our red flag.