Election '97: The silent revolutionaries

Tea-drinking prophet keeps his profile low and expectations high
  • @kathymarksoz
The fax machine in the kitchen of Tony Benn's constituency home whirs into action. "Ah, here come my instructions from Millbank Tower, telling me what to say about everything," he observes. "They get sent to all the candidates twice a day. I file them away very carefully."

Mr Benn already knows what he wants to tell the people of Chesterfield, the Derbyshire market town he has represented since 1984. His election poster declares that he will "conscientiously works as a committed socialist" for "full employment ... a big housebuilding programme ... a fairer tax system ... trade union rights".

These are not the kind of pledges that are found in the Labour Party manifesto. Then again, Mr Benn has never been noted for being a conformist.

The prophet of the hard left is fighting his seventeenth campaign. He entered Parliament in 1950, when Tony Blair was not yet a twinkle in his father's eye, and has more ministerial experience than any other MP in the Labour ranks.

Now 72, Mr Benn has no plans to retire. One reason is his attachment to Chesterfield, the former mining town that gave him refuge after he lost his Bristol constituency.

He has even been spotted this week wearing a blue rosette - in support of his local Second Division football team, which made it to the FA Cup semi-finals.

"There is something to be said for experience without ambition," he says, puffing on his pipe. "Anyway, there are nine million pensioners and they're entitled to be represented in Parliament."

It must be said that Tony Benn looks fighting fit. He darts around his flat in the grounds of Chesterfield Labour Club, making endless cups of the drink that fuels him from morning to night: tea. "They've introduced a new pyramid tea bag, have you seen them?" he enthuses. On the wall is a painting of a Yorkshire pit village, a present from Arthur Scargill.

He rails with unflagging energy against his favourite demons: Brussels, the global economy, the profit motive. The only hint of declining mental agility comes when he tries to recall the country where Kenneth Kaunda was president. "This is what they call a senior moment. It'll come back to me in the night."

This is the man who 18 months ago accused Mr Blair of trying to destroy socialism. In 1992, he said the Labour Party had lost the election because it was too right wing. But for now, like others on the far left, Mr Benn is keeping his own counsel.

"I'm a soldier in the middle of a war," he says. "If I was putting on my tin hat and getting into the landing craft on D-Day, I wouldn't want to discuss my view of the generals. At the moment, the most important thing is to get rid of a government that has inflicted the most horrific damage on this country."

He cannot, though, avoid the occasional barbed comment. Discussing Edward Heath, he says he respects him because he is consistent. "The people I cannot abide are those who haven't got an opinion until they read the latest Gallup poll." He observes that Nelson Mandela did not succeed "because he had a spin doctor or a new suit".

And, although careful not to predict future party divisions, he warns that a Labour government would face high expectations. "Popular aspirations will surface. It's going to be a hairy time."

Mr Benn says he no longer wants or expects office. "If there are voices to be heard, they're probably better heard with freedom," he adds, ominously. His silence is unlikely to last much beyond 2 May.