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Lessons of the Livingstone Campaign

Matthew Willgress

IN THE last issue of What Next? I put forward the perspective of a Livingstone victory in the struggle for the Labour candidacy in the London mayoral election striking a blow against Blairism that would advance the situation for socialists in Britain (Livingstone's London: Millbank's Nightmare"). There is no need for me to state that, despite winning the overwhelming majority of votes cast by trade unionists and Labour Party members, due to one of the most repulsive examples of gerrymandering ever seen in the Labour Party Ken Livingstone is not the official Labour candidate for mayor.

Inevitably, some comrades have seen this as proof that continuing work in the Labour Party is a complete waste of time. Yet, in my opinion, Ken's campaign has shown why we should stay in the Party. The majority of members are against Blair, to the extent that they could even make such a stitched-up contest a close run thing. And it has been this campaign inside the Labour Party linked to a fight in the trade unions that has really had Blair in trouble – not the London Socialist Alliance or any of the other left varieties outside Labour.

This campaign has exposed Blairism to wider layers of the population than left propaganda could ever do. The Blairite modernisers have been seen as pro-privatisation and anti-democratic, two points which epitomise New Labour – putting profits before people, and their own selfish interests above the concerns of the labour movement. Any success that the LSA might achieve in the GLA elections (although I am sceptical of even that) will be due to the crisis resulting from the left's campaigning in the Labour Party and will be wasted if it is not thrown back into a struggle in the unions and through them in the Labour Party.

The Livingstone saga, and the wide support given to his independent candidacy, has also underlined the fact that any development towards a mass left alternative to Labour is likely to come from within the Party itself. However, an objective analysis of the situation nationally shows that the conditions for a split in Labour do not yet exist. Indeed, it seems that even in London there is little support amongst Party members for such a move.

Some will no doubt drop out of the Party in protest at the mayoral stitch-up, and of course these people can’t just be ignored. But there is also a mood in the CLPs (which extends far beyond the traditional left) that this mustn’t happen again. Many activists still see the Labour Party as their party, and want to reclaim it from Tony and his cronies. There are important battles ahead in which the future of the Blair project could yet be decided. Though the campaign over the selection of Labour's mayoral candidate was lost, we have shown the potential for a real fight against Blair in the labour movement. 21st Century Party and a possible struggle over the Jenkins consultation are coming up. These battles are part of a process which will determine whether the project of recomposing British politics back into the 19th century just as we enter the 21st will succeed.

Meanwhile, out of understandable frustration, some comrades advocate the age-old "tactic" of effectively provoking expulsions. From the late ’50s to today, all those who have acted this way have failed to get anywhere. Yet, in the name of "principle", some seem determined to shout from the rooftops their support for Livingstone's independent candidacy. Comrades who do this aren’t helping anyone, least of all the independent candidate himself, who is running his campaign on the basis that he doesn’t want anyone to leave the Labour Party! And if people do succeed in getting themselves chucked out of the Party, where do they intend to go?

Far from abandoning the Labour Party, comrades should be trying to organise, on a non-sectarian basis, the opposition to Blairism that exists inside the Party. It is also clear that the best way to get things moving in the trade unions is not to call on them to disaffiliate from Labour but to turn them into organs of struggle inside the Party against the Blairites. If the alliance between Blair and the union tops is split, victory is possible.

Although at times this movement will no doubt break out of the narrow organisational boundaries of the current Labour Party, it will certainly not develop directly towards the revolutionary groups in the foreseeable future – especially when the Marxist left is in the theoretical and practical mess it is today. But if the left can break from propagandism, sect-building and ultimatums, and move towards an approach of facilitating and encouraging struggle within the existing labour movement, then it can make real progress.