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Livingstone and the London Elections: Questions and Answers

Martin Sullivan

KEN LIVINGSTONE'S decision to defy Millbank and stand as an independent candidate for London mayor has provoked a major crisis within the labour movement, the ramifications of which extend far beyond London. It raises a number of important questions which this article will attempt briefly to address.

Was Ken right to defy Millbank and stand as an independent?

To some on the far left, who advocate electoral challenges to New Labour as a matter of principle, this is a non-question. But for those who have a more serious attitude to the Labour Party it is one that requires an answer.

Writing in the April issue of Labour Left Briefing, for example, Colin Hall criticises Livingstone on the grounds that "his action had seriously weakened the anti-Blair forces within the Party at a time when our standing among members and trade unionists was at its highest since Blair became leader". This is a fair point, and I have made it myself in the past. However, as Ken would be the first to point out, it is possible to change one's mind.

You have to ask: would it really have strengthened the anti-Blairite opposition in the Party if Livingstone had accepted the result of the selection stitch-up and campaigned loyally for Frank Dobson as the official Labour candidate? Millbank would have got its way, Blair would have proclaimed that his opponents had been crushed, and outraged members would no doubt have resigned in their thousands, reasoning that there was little point in remaining in a Party whose leadership was able to trample on democracy in such a grotesque manner and get away with it.

By refusing to accept a result that ran contrary to the will of the London labour movement, Livingstone was also standing up for the democratic rights of the people of London, who by a large majority supported his decision to stand as an independent. At the time of writing, he would appear to be heading for a comfortable victory, based on widespread popular support, while Dobson has become little more than an object of ridicule for most Londoners.

The damage a Livingstone victory will cause to the Blairite project is potentially enormous. Blair will have been thoroughly humiliated, and the illusion that New Labour is invincible will have been shattered, thus encouraging resistance to Blairism throughout the labour movement. Even the so far supine trade union bureaucracy may now dare to adopt a rather less compliant approach to the Labour leadership.

Indeed, the whole ideological justification for New Labour will have been undermined if Ken wins. So far as Party members were willing to go along with Blair's drive to the right, most of them did so on pragmatic grounds, grudgingly accepting the argument that the left-wing policies of the early 1980s had made the Party unpopular and that it was necessary to shift politically towards the middle ground in order to get a Labour government elected. That argument is now holed below the water line. Not only have we seen mass abstentions by Labour's core voters in elections to the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament, demolishing the myth of New Labour's electoral appeal, but now a leading figure from that supposedly unelectable ’80s left has demonstrated his ability to win mass support.

All of this greatly improves the situation for a fightback against Blairism within the Party.

Was Livingstone therefore correct to urge Labour Party members not to abandon the Party but to stay and fight?

This is a question which some on the far left answer unequivocally in the negative. The fact that Socialist Worker should call on Party members to resign is hardly surprising, of course. But perhaps less expected is the line taken by Socialist Outlook, the paper of a tendency which has in the past committed at least some resources to work inside the Labour Party. An editorial in the April issue goes so far as to state that Livingstone's appeal to Party members to remain and continue the struggle "is in the direct interests of Millbank"! According to this reasoning, it would be a major blow to the Labour right wing if the socialist opposition deserted the Party, leaving the Blairites a free hand to implement their political project. It is difficult to formulate a comradely reply to this sort of nonsense.

Should Livingstone not have sought to organise his support by launching a new political party?

Again, for many on the far left this is the obvious conclusion to be drawn. A more thoughtful approach, however, immediately reveals the problems. Not only would such a breakaway party be restricted to Greater London, but the proportion of London Labour Party members who would respond positively to such an initiative would be tiny – not even 5%, I would guess. Among rank-and-file trade unionists there might be wider backing, but if trade unions as organisations were to affiliate to a new Livingstone-led party this would require not only a majority on their regional councils but also an amendment of the national union's rules to allow support for a political party other than Labour. In how many trade unions would this be a realistic prospect? In the FBU and RMT, possibly, but in the bigger Labour-affiliated unions – the TGWU, GMB, UNISON? Not a hope.

Of course, if Livingstone had called for the formation of a new party some thousands of people would have been drawn to it. But most of them would have been politically raw individuals who were not even particularly left-wing but merely disillusioned with the main parties and attracted by the idea of breaking the mould of British politics. Then there would have been the familiar collection of ultra-left groups who would have descended on the new party in order to pursue their own narrow aims in their usual disruptive fashion. And finally there would have been those Labour and ex-Labour members who have become demoralised by the lack of progress by the left within the Party in recent years and who are looking for a less harsh political environment to work in.

In other words, you would have ended up with a bizarre combination of the SDP, the SLP and the more sectarian elements around Labour Left Briefing! Such an organisation could not possibly have been politically viable and would undoubtedly have broken apart after a brief period of internal strife.

If Livingstone rejected the idea of a new party, was there not then an argument for co-operation with the London Socialist Alliance, which has brought together various tendencies on the left while stopping short of establishing a unified political party?

This argument ignores the fact that the LSA represents very little politically. Its main component is the Socialist Workers Party, which has formed an alliance with some smaller far-left groups like Workers' Liberty and Socialist Outlook in order to be able to present the LSA as an example of "left unity", thereby attracting support from politically naive people like film director Ken Loach – and from others who frankly should know better, such as Mike Marqusee of Briefing.

The LSA will be lucky to get even 3% in the top-up list for the London Assembly and doesn’t stand the remotest chance of getting a single candidate elected. Of course, if Livingstone were to call for a vote for the LSA this would greatly improve its prospects. But it would also seriously damage Livingstone's own credibility and assist the Blairites and Tories in their efforts to break up his broad base of popular support by portraying him as a political extremist.

The other left organisations contesting the elections to the Assembly are even less significant than the LSA. The Campaign Against Tube Privatisation, for example, comprises a few dozen RMT activists, most of whom have a background in the far left. It has a one-point programme – support for bonds against the Public Private Partnership as a means of funding the Tube, a policy supported not only by Livingstone but also by the Lib Dems, whose candidates are billed as "Liberal Democrat – Against Tube Sell Off". If this is the sole consideration, then it would make more sense to vote Lib Dem, as they will at least get some candidates elected to the Assembly, which is more than can be said for CATP.

There is, in addition, a more fundamental issue at stake here. The fact is that the LSA and other such formations represent an impatient sectarian attempt to bypass the difficult political struggle against the dominant Blairite right wing within the existing labour movement. Anything that gives encouragement to this sort of political diversion should be vigorously opposed. From the standpoint of building an effective Marxist current in the movement, the best result would be for the LSA and the other far-left slates to get utterly derisory votes, thereby forcing some of their less stupid adherents to reassess their political tactics and strategy.

But how is it possible to justify Livingstone's call for a vote for Labour's Assembly candidates in the constituency section and for the Green Party in the top-up list? Surely the official Labour candidates are loyal Blairites, the products of a selection process that was just as undemocratic as the one that picked Dobson, while the Greens are a middle class outfit unconnected with the labour movement?

Labour's candidates are for the most part undoubtedly hardened right-wingers, but the fact remains that in the constituency section of the Assembly the choice is generally between Labour and the Tories – while the Lib Dems might get one seat in this section, none of the other parties stands a chance. In the Brent and Harrow constituency, for example, the Labour candidate is Lord Toby Harris, a down-the-line Blairite. Now, you might suppose that you couldn’t get much worse than that. But you could – the Tory candidate, former Brent council leader Bob Blackman. It would be far better for Livingstone to be faced with an Assembly dominated by New Labourites like Harris than by Tories like Blackman. Not only would the former be rather more open to co-operation with Livingstone, but if they sought to obstruct him then they could be subjected to pressure from the wider labour movement. Tory members of the Assembly, by contrast, would be even more ready than the Blairites to sabotage Livingstone's policies, while no such countervailing force could be exercised against them.

As for the Green Party, its policies are of a left reformist character and many of them, particularly on transport, are close to those proposed by Livingstone himself. Indeed, on some issues, notably their willingness to countenance a tax on employers' parking spaces rather than rely exclusively on a congestion charge on individual motorists, the Greens' programme is to the left of Livingstone's. The question of whether the Green Party is formally part of the labour movement is not decisive.

The Greens have made clear their willingness to work in co-operation with Livingstone, stressing that he is the candidate who stands closest to them politically. The advantage of having a number of them in the Assembly is therefore obvious. And in contrast to the politically irrelevant far-left slates, there is the real possibility of the Greens actually winning a few seats in the party list section.

Writing in the 15 April issue of Socialist Worker Alex Callinicos condemns Livingstone for stating that he "will work with the City corporation and major City institutions". Indeed, Livingstone has gone out of his way to dissociate himself from any anti-capitalist objectives. How can socialists support a candidate campaigning on such a programme?

As mayor, Livingstone will enjoy limited powers and overthrowing the capitalist system will not be one of them. So his announcement that he will have to co-operate with the City is little more than a statement of the obvious. There is certainly an argument that Livingstone could have risked a more leftist programme without losing substantial electoral support. His failure to challenge business interests over taxing company car parks can be criticised, for example, as can the omission from his manifesto of the proposal to penalise police officers who refuse to testify against colleagues facing disciplinary charges. But Callinicos, whose party has no hope of ever occupying political office and consequently can indulge itself in abstract propaganda, fails to address the practical problems that Livingstone will face as mayor.

Whatever the limitations of Ken's policies, the fact remains that his election as mayor will be a real advance for the labour movement – providing one more proof that an actual step forward for the working class, however modest, is worth a thousand pure socialist programmes that are incapable of implementation.