Britain - Livingstone's bid for mayor and the revolutionary left

Jan/Feb 2000

At the time of writing it is still unclear whether Ken Livingstone will be standing on the Labour party ticket in next May's mayoral election in London, or as an independent - as he threatened to do some time ago - or indeed whether he will be standing at all.

So far, the Labour leadership's attempt to block Livingstone from the party's internal selection contest has been a complete failure. Under the pressure of a media campaign - in which the London Evening Standard played a prominent role - Livingstone eventually passed the vetting process and was admitted to the shortlist of prospective candidates. In the meantime, however, Blair had changed the rules for the final selection. The "one man, one vote" system has now been replaced with an electoral college which gives one third of voting rights to London MPs, MEPs and Assembly candidates and another third to trade union bodies, thereby reducing the London party membership to the last third. And already the technicians' union MSF and the railway union RMT, whose London executives had both declared openly in favour of Livingstone, have been barred from taking part in the vote - under the pretext of unpaid dues. This obviously means that Blair will spare nothing to secure a victory for his own candidate, former Health secretary Frank Dobson, against Livingstone - whether the party membership likes it or not.

It seems, however, that despite these manoeuvres and the violent attacks made in the media by the Labour establishment against Livingstone, the result of this selection contest is not a foregone conclusion and Livingstone might still be selected. On the other hand, in case he fails to be selected, it remains to be seen whether Livingstone will be prepared to face certain expulsion from the party (and the loss of his parliamentary seat) by standing as an independent.

Such is the context in which many groups on the revolutionary left have chosen, from a very early stage, to launch a campaign backing Livingstone's bid to become London's mayor. At the time some of these groups at least must have thought that Blair would never allow Livingstone to go through Labour's selection process. The fact that he did made the left's campaign look premature, to say the least, since no-one would know whether Livingstone would be standing, nor on what platform, at least not before next February, when the results of the selection contest in the Labour party are due to be announced. Nevertheless, the left's campaign bounced back to supporting Livingstone's bid to be selected as Labour candidate - a policy which is rather paradoxical, since most of these groups have been arguing for some time in favour of the left standing candidates in elections against Labour.

But even leaving aside this last twist in the left's campaign, there are very fundamental reasons to argue against any support for Livingstone in the first place. There is, on the one hand, the dubious nature of Livingstone's politics, his "left" posturing and reformist demagogy - in other words, the fact that he does not express or represent in any way the interests of the working class. And on the other hand, there is the political and social situation created by eighteen years of attacks on workers by the capitalist class under the Tories, followed by over two years during which these attacks have been intensified under the present Labour government. This situation requires from the revolutionary left that it fights with more determination than ever against illusions within the ranks of the working class - which implies getting rid of any ambiguity concerning the Labour party and its political role in society. But it also requires from the revolutionary left that it seeks to offer a policy which could allow the working class to rebuild its strength and change the balance of forces in the class struggle in its favour. And even the limited framework of an election campaign such as the mayoral election should be an opportunity to put forward such a policy. And yet, this is the exact opposite of what the left's campaign for Livingstone does.

The GLA election in perspective

Going back, however, to the background to the Livingstone controversy, what is this new Greater London Authority (GLA) which is at the centre of next May's election?

On the one hand, the GLA will relieve the government of any official responsibility (and therefore blame) for a number of thorny areas. Thus the GLA will oversee public transport, which has already tied Blair and Prescott into knots due to the planned semi- privatisation of the London Underground. It will take responsibility for administering the taxation of vehicles driving into Central London - something unlikely to be very popular among the middle- class electorate. It will manage the Metropolitan Police - and take the blame for any future scandal such as the Stephen Lawrence case. It will also run the Fire Brigade - and take responsibility for the current programme of job cuts. But it will not have the power to interfere with areas currently managed by London boroughs (such as housing, education, etc..) - and therefore, will be unable to affect existing austerity programmes in local government.

On the other hand, in reality, the government will retain many ways of controlling what the GLA does. Ministers will have sophisticated mechanisms to control the GLA's expenditure - similar to that used with local authorities - but in addition, the GLA will have no power to raise taxes directly. The Home Office will even have the right to force the GLA to increase the funds allocated to the police if he thinks this is necessary (ironically, the Act does not even envisage a case where the police might be allocated too much money!).

To all intents and purposes, therefore, the GLA will be similar to the devolved assembly set up by Blair in Wales. But in addition, it will really operate as a kind of elected quango. While the mayor will have to report to the 25-strong assembly, he will not actually be accountable to it in the sense that the Assembly will have no power to impose decisions on him, except by a 2/3 majority, and even then only in certain specific circumstances. All the executive powers will be concentrated in the hands of the mayor and the GLA's non-elected officials working under him, while the assembly will be confined to producing reports on what will be done with or without its consent.

Obviously, in designing the GLA, Blair's advisers have used the lessons learnt by the Tories in the 80s. When Thatcher decided to clamp down on local government public expenditure, she was faced with a certain amount of resistance from the then Greater London Council (GLC) and other Metropolitan councils - even though these councils stopped short of using their potential to even start building up a fightback among working people and the jobless. So the GLA will not have the same political and economic clout as the GLC. It will have much more limited powers and resources, with tighter government controls on its operation. At the same time, while the GLC had a certain, albeit limited, responsiveness to the electorate through the ability of its 100- strong assembly to make policy decisions, this will not be the case for the GLA.

On the other hand, of course, the new GLA mayor will have a comparatively higher political status than the old GLC leader. First of all because he will be elected by all Londoners. But also, and this is far from being negligible, because he will control the GLA's £4bn or so budget personally - including the appointment of the hundreds of board and committee members working under the GLA, the distribution of subsidies to public and private organisations and the vetting of contracts with private firms, for instance.

From this point of view, the newspapers' description of the London mayor as the "second most powerful politician in Britain" is probably accurate.

Livingstone's record

The comparison between the new GLA and the old GLC is all the more relevant as Livingstone's high profile and "left" credentials today come partly from his role as leader of the GLC, from May 1981 until its final abolition in December 1985.

In 1981, after two years of Tory power, the GLC was one of the Metropolitan councils taken over from the Tories by the Labour party riding a wave of discontent against the government - the others being Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands. The election manifesto on which Livingstone and the GLC Labour majority were elected included many promises. Most were merely pledges to call on the next Labour government to do all sorts of things. Some were more concrete - like cutting transport fares, freezing council rents, creating jobs through reviving London's economy and increasing housing programmes. But there was nothing particularly radical about these commitments and in fact, they merely reflected the guidelines agreed at Labour's local government conference in February that year.

There was nothing particularly radical either in the way these commitments were implemented - or rather not implemented in most cases. Promises on housing were soon forgotten simply because by then most of London's council houses had already been transferred to boroughs and the GLC had no legal power to reverse this process, nor did it have the power to allocate significant funds for a new housing programme.

The issue of transport fare cuts, on the other hand, led to a legal saga in which the Thatcher government resorted to the courts to reverse a 32% cut introduced in October 1981. Despite Livingstone's heated call in the Labour Herald that "Labour councils must refuse to vote for cuts in services or rents or fare increases. But they must also refuse to vote for rate increases under the Tories' new system", he certainly never suggested that the GLC should organise commuters or transport workers to defy the Law Lords' ruling. And in January 1982, the first act of the saga ended when the GLC voted a budget which doubled transport fares and cut services by 15%. Of course Livingstone did not vote personally for this budget, but since he did not propose a fighting strategy to oppose it either, it amounted to the same thing. And in fact, a year later, he sponsored a "balanced budget" which included a 25% fare cut but also a large rate increase to make up for it. Thus ended the saga of the "Fair's Fare" policy which Livingstone still boasts about so much today - but the "Fair Fares" were effectively paid for by unfair rates.

By 1984 some councils, mostly in crisis-stricken working class towns, found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy due to Thatcher's austerity measures and threatened to defy the law. Twenty-five of them (including Sheffield, then led by none other than David Blunkett) formed a loose alliance along those lines. That same year, the miners' strike broke out. The government was in a difficult position. Ministers were worried that a "second front" might emerge and link up with the miners. Thatcher's attacks against councils were met with large demonstrations, mainly in London and Liverpool. By that time, the Tories' plan to abolish the GLC had been announced and, of course, Livingstone made many "radical" speeches against this. But far from trying to organise the discontent across the country, or even across London, against Thatcher's austerity policy, Livingstone went on to seek allies among politicians across the whole political spectrum to try to save the GLC as a specific London institution. And of course these respectable allies were not of the marching type. So Livingstone's "radicalism" went the same way as it had over the "Fair's Fare" policy. Only this time, he failed to fall back on his feet - at least not into the GLC, which disappeared at the end of 1985, but he did fall into Parliament, as MP for Brent- East, in the 1987 general election.

One last example, which exposes another aspect of Livingstone's approach is worth mentioning. One of his hobbyhorses during the GLC days was the Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB), a body which was meant to save and create jobs in London by subsidising ailing private companies, cooperatives and new private enterprises. In most respects, this GLEB was not very different from today's regional development agencies, or in fact similar bodies set up while Tony Benn was industry and energy minister in the 70s. One report, published by the GLEB in 1985, expanded on one of Livingstone's favourite and rather nationalist-flavoured themes - it blamed job losses on competition from abroad. And it went on to boast about what the GLEB could achieve: "We will seek to demonstrate the productivity gains via enhanced flexibility and greater use of workers' skills that flow from increased worker participation in production decisions". Such a statement could be signed by Brown with both hands today. But at least Brown does not try to pull wool over anybody's eyes. He does say what his priorities are - profits first and then only, if it is "prudent", jobs. Livingstone's policy was identical, except that he claimed that his objective in increasing productivity was to boost jobs, not profits. As if companies did not push profits first, themselves. So much for Livingstone's "radicalism" and concern for working class interests!

Livingstone's "flexibility"

Livingstone's record at the GLC speaks for itself. He is first and foremost an outright reformist whose occasional outbreaks of "left" rhetoric are merely aimed at building up his image and reinforcing his position within the Labour establishment. He has proved more flexible about his choice of allies than most Labour politicians. In the days of the GLC, when it was convenient for him, he was prepared to use left- wing factions and currents within (or without) the Labour party - i.e. people that many other so-called "left" Labour politicians would not have touched with a bargepole. But just in the same way, Livingstone has, over the past years, used the columns of the Sun to publicise his views - as has Blair - while many Labour politicians, including "right- wingers", still stick to their traditional boycott of Murdoch's papers. In other words, Livingstone is a populist demagogue with all the political "flexibility" that this implies. But scratch the surface and inside there is the same fundamental loyalty to the capitalist system and its institutions and the same suspicion towards the working class.

Livingstone's political "flexibility" - or opportunism to use a more accurate term - has been particularly visible since he launched his bid to become London's mayor. On the election itself, Livingstone insists on the fact that just like Blair, he is a friend of business. For instance, he boasts about a MORI poll of 250 company directors based in London which gave him an overwhelming majority. And in a four-page interview published by the Evening Standard last October, he explained that "I would also be quite happy to have an ambassador from the CBI in the mayor's headquarters, having an input at all levels of policy so that you don't make a mistake that costs jobs or alienates the business community. They would get an early sight of all the policy papers coming along". To our knowledge Livingstone never made such an offer to working class organisations, let alone to London workers!

In fact, when it comes to the mayoral election, Livingstone has already pledged in advance that he will campaign on the basis of the election manifesto written by the Labour leadership. In fact, he insists that his only point of disagreement with the government is the future of the London Underground. But what is the real content of this disagreement?

So far, Blair seems to have given up the idea of privatising most of the Underground, as was originally planned. This is partly because he cannot find adequate bids that will guarantee a minimum level of investment and services without a huge fare hike, and partly because, in the wake of the Paddington crash, transport privatisation has become so unpopular among voters that it could be a liability in the next general election. So, for the time being, the government wants to resort to public-private partnership in order to fund the modernisation of an investment- starved Underground, without increasing state expenditure in the short term. Of course, this will amount to piecemeal privatisation through the back door, with the state retaining more control overall, but private consortiums effectively turning the Underground into a milch cow, necessarily on the backs of workers, passengers and safety.

But what is Livingstone "difference" on this issue? What he proposes, instead of Blair's privatisation by stealth, is that the GLA should issue bonds and that the proceeds could then be used to modernise the Underground. In other words, instead of paying for the dividends of shareholders, Underground passengers would have to pay for the cost of interest to bondholders. The only advantage would be that the state would retain closer control over the operation of the Underground. But what about using taxation to take the resources needed from the fabulous profits made by City firms? But this would "alienate the business community", which is no doubt why neither Livingstone nor Blair would consider such an option.

In fact, Livingstone is showing his flexibility by mimicking New Labour's rhetoric on a more general level. In the same interview to the Evening Standard, he explains for instance: "Politics is very different from twenty years ago and I think this is primarily because of the Cold War; all the rigid class blocks are being eroded really rapidly. (..) Twenty years ago I would have said a central planned economy could be made to work better than the western capitalist economy. I don't believe that any more. I think it is quite clear that as a system for the distribution and exchange of goods, the market can't be bettered." This "conversion" is all the more over the top as Livingstone often defended the need for state intervention but seldom, if ever, the idea of a "central planned economy", even twenty years ago. On the other hand, it is ironical that he should make this apology for the market economy, when, only a few years ago, he shared many platforms with the left against Blair's drive to ditch Labour's Clause Four and argued vehemently against the recognition of the market being enshrined in Labour's constitution. But then isn't the aim of his interview precisely to demonstrate that Livingstone is a "changed man", that is, someone who will not clash with Blair's government if he becomes London's mayor?

Blair's problem

In reality, Livingstone owes his "left" image much more to the media than to his acts. For most of the Tory years he was the papers' favourite bogeyman against the Labour party. In particular, his support for the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland and negotiations with the Republicans made him an easy target, despite the fact that his positions on this issue were no more radical than those of some "respectable" columnists writing in the business weekly The Economist, for instance. But even then, one can only wonder how much of Livingstone's stance was dictated by his desire to build up popular support among the north-west London Irish electorate that he was aiming at.

But unlike many other "left" Labour politicians who do their best to avoid unwarranted media coverage and prefer to act through official party channels, Livingstone has always gone out of his way to get media publicity. Even when this publicity was hostile, he always made the best of it to get his name in the headlines, thereby boosting his profile inside and outside the party as a politician "with his own mind", who "won't be dictated by anyone".

Over the years, this policy has produced some results. Today, Livingstone is popular among Labour's loyal electorate because he is a well-known outspoken party figure. He is popular among those Labour voters who are disgusted by Blair's policies because of the myth of his permanent "opposition" to the party leadership spread by the media and because he appears to be a potential thorn in Blair's side. And his appeal extends far into the middle-class electorate of the Tories and Liberal-Democrats because he appears as a pragmatic maverick rather than a "party" man. Hence Livingstone's huge majority in every opinion poll against all other potential candidates. The fact that Richard Branson was the only contender who got close to Livingstone in any of these polls is, in itself, significant of the nature of this populist appeal.

At the same time, Livingstone is also probably the only Labour politician who does owes neither his profile nor his popularity to the party apparatus or even to being an MP. And this is precisely where Blair's problem with Livingstone lies.

First, within the Labour party itself, Livingstone presents Blair with a serious problem. With a platform such as that of London mayor, Livingstone will be in a position to challenge Blair's leadership of the party. There is probably enough discontent caused by the iron-fist internal regime imposed by Blair on the party machinery at every level for Livingstone to build up a large coalition of allies inside and outside the party, based on his prestige as London mayor. And this opens the prospect of internal fights that Blair would rather do without.

Blair's problem, however, goes beyond party politics. Of course, the government has no reason to fear that, as a mayor, Livingstone might endanger its policies. Their ring-fencing of the GLA's powers is probably strong enough to provide ministers with the ammunition they need to keep Livingstone under control. Besides, Livingstone has shown time and again that he would not resort to the only effective weapon against the government and the courts - mass mobilisation in the streets. And if it comes to the crunch, Livingstone can certainly be relied on not to rock the boat - as he did for instance, in the run-up to the last general election.

Nevertheless for Blair and his ministers, Livingstone is a caree-seeking loose cannon whose moves are not so easy to control. In the end they know that they will have the last word and that Livingstone will back down. But there is always the risk that he might choose to make a big show of his opposition to the decisions which are demanded from him, if only as a face-saving device. And this is in itself a danger for the government. Conditions are getting worse for millions of working people and jobless. Popular discontent has been growing steadily over the past two years. This was reflected in the record level of abstention in every ballot (with the exception of Scotland) since May 1997. All the conditions are present for a powder keg of discontent to develop. No-one knows in advance what could trigger this powderkeg to explode - neither Blair, nor Livingstone. But in that context, even the kind of gesture politics favoured by a maverick like Livingstone could prove a hazard and a trigger - entirely unwittingly on Livingstone's part - to expressions of rebellion among those who are at the receiving end of this government's policies.

A victory for workers?

The argument used by the revolutionary left to justify its support for Livingstone is presented in various ways but always with the same logic - that, according to them, a victory for Livingstone in Labour's selection contest would be a defeat for Blair and a victory for those who want to fight his policies.

Thus for example, the SWP's weekly Socialist Worker explained at the end of October:

"Livingstone will become a symbol to all those Labour supporters who are frustrated and disillusioned by Blair's failure to break with Tory policies. For that reason, the left should back Livingstone against Dobson and the other candidates loyal to the party leadership. That does not mean that we should forget Livingstone's past betrayals or that we should trust him as far as we could throw him. Whatever Livingstone himself may say, his selection would be a defeat for Blair and New Labour and a victory for all those who want to build a real alternative to the Tories and the bosses."

That Livingstone's selection as Labour candidate would be a setback for Blair is unquestionably true. But it would be a personal setback confined to the Labour party structures. It would only mean that after all Blair has not got the total control of the party that he claims to have in front of the electorate - particularly the middle-class electorate that he took from the Tories in the last election.

But Livingstone's selection would not be a setback for Blair's policies since his opposition to these policies is purely token. Having no other perspective to propose to the working class, he cannot put the government's or the bosses' attacks against workers at risk.

However the SWP's prediction that Livingstone will become a "symbol" for all disgruntled supporters and his selection a "victory for all those who want to build a serious alternative to the Tories and the bosses" should - if it came to be true - be a cause for serious concern for all revolutionaries. Because the implication of this would be that these disgruntled Labour supporters would look to Livingstone for delivering the "serious alternative" mentioned by the SWP. Yet, as they point out themselves - and no-one among Livingstone's left supporters seems to disagree on this point - Livingstone should not be trusted in any way due to his past betrayals.

So shouldn't the task of revolutionaries be to devote all their efforts to fighting these illusions in the first place? Shouldn't they go out of their way to expose the political forgery which is behind Livingstone's anti-Blair image? And by not doing so, aren't they in fact reinforcing these illusions among working class Labour supporters who might be looking for some way out of the present social degradation?

In reality, the fact that these comrades give their backing to a "better" contender and invite their readers to push model resolutions through their union branches in favour of his selection, already amounts to encouraging illusions in the Labour party. And it is also giving credit to this very old deception which is built into the Labour party structure that the only possible political representation for union members, and by extension for the working class, is by the Labour party. As if, on the contrary, it was not the task of revolutionaries to expose this deception and to argue that workers should not allow their hands to be tied by it!

Another method used by the Labour party leadership to deceive the working class almost since its inception, has been to cultivate the illusion that it could be changed from inside. The role of the so-called "Labour Left" - of which Livingstone was a prominent figure in the 1980s - was to give substance to this illusion. It made it more difficult for revolutionaries to convince workers that if the Labour party did not defend their interests it was not due to having the wrong leadership but because of its very nature - as a party whose aim is to manage the affairs of the capitalist class within the capitalist system. Most of those who had doubts about the Labour party were reassured by the "radical" speeches of the Labour Left and saw no point in looking towards revolutionary politics.

Since then, under the pressure of circumstances, first Kinnock and then Blair have reduced the room for manoeuvre, which was allowed to the Labour Left, to almost nothing, thereby depriving it of much of its appeal inside and outside the party. Indeed, these days, even Livingstone does not sound much more "radical" than a long-standing right-winger like Roy Hattersley, for instance. If anything, this should be an opportunity for revolutionaries, by making them more convincing when arguing that the Labour party is a political apparatus geared to serve the interests of the capitalists and that the working class needs a party of its own, geared to defend its class interests - that is "a real alternative to the Tories and the bosses", as the SWP suggests in the article quoted above, but also to the Labour party itself (one can only wonder whether this omission was really accidental?).

Why hide behind Livingstone?

Some of the left groups who give their support to Livingstone have launched a "Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory" (SCLV). Action for Solidarity (a paper connected to the magazine Workers' Liberty) explains the purpose of this campaign in the following terms: it "aims to bring together all those who want to campaign for Livingstone as part of a broader campaign for working class policies and working class representation - not as part of a fan club for Ken Livingstone, or as a one-off effort to propel him in to office. (..) Win or lose the Labour nomination, win or lose the Mayoral election, and whether he ultimately helps or hinders us in office, right now we must use the movement around Ken Livingstone to try to turn the tide against New Labour." (Action for Solidarity #15)

In fact the SCLV is a revived version of a campaign that was set up on the same basis in 1979. This is how two former activists of the old SCLV describe their experience in Action for Solidarity: "The SCLV grouped the left to campaign for a Labour victory on a serious left wing platform. (..) In the course of campaigning for Labour re-election we pledged ourselves, and those we organised, to fight for those positions against the Labour government whose re-election we advocated. Livingstone was one of those who worked in the SCLV - only to jettison its politics when he became leader of the GLC." (Action for Solidarity #14)

At least, given this experience, the SCLV activists seem to be clear as to the real nature of Livingstone's politics. But are they?

The same article published in Action for Solidarity sketches the political platform proposed for the SCLV. Here are some of its points: "A Livingstone victory would (..) help loosen the iron grip of Downing Street on the labour and trade union movement. (..) Livingstone should be prepared to mobilise the working class majority of Londoners to take back from central government and the Corporation of London all the powers needed to run London in the interests of that majority. The idea that you can rebuild services and provide jobs in partnership with big business and a government committed to "the discipline of the market "should be rejected. In its place we need an unambiguous commitment to use the position of Mayor as a platform from which to launch a campaign of mass action for jobs, public services and democracy."

Yet all this is at best wishful thinking.

The first point is in the same league as the SWP's argument discussed above. But underlying it is the assumption that there is a militant mood in the working class today which identifies with Livingstone's campaign. However, there is no sign of this, judging from the public meetings organised by Livingstone himself whose audience was mostly his own fan club plus the revolutionary left. Besides, this is assuming also that the "labour and trade union movement" is democratic enough to reflect the desire of the membership - as if the union machineries had not played a decisive role in helping Blair to secure full control of the party in the first place.

As to the other points, they are ambiguous, to say the least. Is the SCLV really hoping to get such commitments from Livingstone? Do they really imagine, given what they know about him from direct experience, that Livingstone would seriously commit himself to "launch a campaign of mass action" or "mobilise the working class majority of Londoners" against the government? Surely not. So this must be what they call using "the movement around Ken Livingstone to try to turn the tide against New Labour."

There is obviously nothing wrong about the objectives that the SCLV puts forward - except precisely the role that Livingstone is supposed to play in all this and the support for his bid to become London's mayor that this implies. Why does the revolutionary left have to hide behind a reformist and a demagogue like Livingstone to put forward a policy for the working class? Why take the risk of encouraging illusions in such politicians? Why not say clearly to the working class that Livingstone is on the other side of the fence, that his conflict with Blair is a matter of rivalry between politicians, which has nothing to do with worker's interests? Why not state without any ambiguity that "turning the tide against New Labour" will only be achieved through working people and the jobless launching a fight to defend their own interests, on the basis of a programme of objectives designed to reverse the catastrophic social situation created by the capitalists' attacks of the past decades? And that for this fight to have any chance of success, it will have to be carried through to the end, without expecting anything from "left" phrase-mongers like Livingstone?

If the grip of reformism - that is that of Blair's and Livingstone's Labour party - on the working class is to be loosened, this is the only language that revolutionary activists should be using today.

4 january 2000