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How Movements Succeed and Fail: Andy Beckett

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In the great revolutionary year of 1968, Tony Benn – MP for Bristol – was a respectable Labour minister in his forties, and he was restless. While new social movements were shaking up Britain and much of the world, Westminster politics seemed stuck. It was time, he decided, for a different approach. Over the next half century, the radicalised Benn helped forge a new Left in Britain. He was joined by four other politicians, who would become comrades, collaborators and rivals: Ken Livingstone, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn.

For Andy Beckett, the story of these admired and loathed political explorers – both their sudden breakthroughs and long stretches in the wilderness – is the untold story of British politics in modern times. His new book The Searchers shows their project to create a radically more equal, liberal and democratic Britain has been much more influential than electoral history might suggest and can be seen from the shape of city life – especially in Livingstone’s London – to the causes of our culture wars.

For their many detractors, this influence was and remains dangerous: a form of extremism that must be stamped out. But as these five searchers believed, in politics there is no total victory – nor total defeat. In this interview with Bristol Ideas’ director Andrew Kelly, Beckett discusses Tony Benn and Bristol, the rise of the Left, the impact it had in the elections of 2017 and 2019, antisemitism and the Left, and some of the ideas that worked and some that – so far – have failed.

Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist. He has also written for the EconomistThe New York Times magazine, the London Review of Books and the Independent on Sunday. His previous books are Promised You A Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern BritainWhen the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies and Pinochet in Piccadilly.

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