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The Left and Livingstone: Why Socialists Should Support Ken

Martin Kelly

ALONG WITH the battles over selecting Labour candidates for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, Ken Livingstone’s campaign to become Labour candidate for the new position of directly-elected London mayor has become a focus of discontent in the Labour Party to a degree not seen in years. It is like the Liz Davies-Leeds North East battle only more so. For the first time, Labour now has to contend with popular Members of Parliament, rather than prospective MPs or councillors, becoming the subject of conflict over candidate selection.

Livingstone and the left in the Greater London Labour Party have waged a campaign for over a year to ensure that the membership is allowed to decide who the party’s candidate for mayor should be. The London Labour left took the initiative at a very early stage and has consistently retained it in the teeth of massive pressure from the Labour apparatus.

The Blairites have consistently had to defend themselves against the entirely accurate charge that they are ignoring the democratic will of the London membership. As the New Statesman’s political editor Steve Richards argued: "Now [the Blairites] are in a tizzy about what to do over Livingstone’s embryonic candidacy for Mayor of London. So far Ken is walking all over them."

Blair’s problem is that in order to achieve a realignment of British politics, where a permanent centre-right coalition can be maintained, he first has to confront the Labour Party, and ultimately must remove or demolish the left. Thus Livingstone’s campaign, along with similar battles in Scotland and Wales, is a major component, not a red herring or a secondary issue, in the strategic battle of defending the existence of the Labour Party.

Livingstone has employed a strategy of arguing that he would work with the Labour government to solve London’s problems, and simultaneously mobilising the popular opinion in his favour with a typically imaginative media campaign. Many on the left would disagree with the first component of this strategy, particularly the open letter to Tony Blair in the Guardian in which Livingstone pledged to appoint a Blairite deputy and work with the Labour Party elections unit should he be selected. But his promises are pitched at the mainstream of Labour opinion rather than trying to keep on board the far left paper sellers who congregate outside his meetings.

He is correct in promising to work with the government and not wage war on it as if it were a Tory one. Without such a pledge he would place himself too far to the left of Labour Party and trade union opinion – a consistent mistake of the ultra-left. Indeed, on the evidence of his Let Ken Livingstone Stand public rally, at Central Hall Westminster on 15 February, Livingstone should go further in his current strategy.

The basic allegations being cooked up in Millbank were pulled together by the Observer in its 14 February issue, which quoted an unnamed London Labour Party official as saying that Livingstone would be ruled out of the ballot for sharing a platform with Jo Brand the comedian (who had resigned from the Labour Party three years earlier); for raising money without being able to prove that it did not come from "anti-Labour" sources; and for having spoken at a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) meeting in Brent East.

Livingstone rebutted this smear, but the vocal presence of the SWP at his rally, and their open contradiction of his line that he would have to work with the government if elected, could prove problematic. Their ultra-leftism comes from a misunderstanding of the balance of forces and sentiment within the Labour Party and trade unions, combined with a parasitic desire to whip up support for Paul Foot for mayor should Livingstone be ruled out.

Livingstone should publicly denounce these tactics and urge London Labour Party members to have nothing to do with the SWP’s campaign. Furthermore, he needs more, not less, support from right-wing and centre-ground opinion if he is to corner the minority of Blairites who will stop at nothing to block him. The support for Livingstone’s campaign from Derek Draper, disgraced lobbyist and darling of the Mandelsonites, is therefore a positive development. Writing in the Spectator following the Central Hall rally, Draper argued: "One of Blair’s favourite maxims is that ’you must not fight the battles of the past’. If he rules out ’Red Ken’, that is precisely what he will be doing." Draper’s stance reflects a confusion amongst the Blairite faithful and should be encouraged.

The fire-power lined up against Livingstone seems overwhelming. In order to stop him the Regional Board has overturned the London Labour Party biennial conference decision (which proposed that any prospective candidate who received nominations from 10 London CLPs should automatically qualify to go to an OMOV ballot of the party membership) and decided in favour of a vetting panel. The regional office has issued press releases accusing Livingstone of attempting to "dupe" party members and of engaging in "publicity stunts". The same regional office has briefed journalists that Livingstone will be ruled out for setting up a campaign to ensure that he will be allowed to stand! Former SWP activist Jim Fitzpatrick, now an MP and chair of the London Labour Party, has led a number of his backbench colleagues in attacking Livingstone in the media, and former GLC councillor Paul Boateng was wheeled out to argue that Livingstone should remain part of London’s history.

Millbank has trailed a long list of potential candidates: Trevor Phillips, Pauline Green MEP, Chris Smith, Paul Boateng, Nick Raynsford, Tony Banks and most recently Frank Dobson. The inclusion of a heavyweight such as Dobson at this late stage suggests that Livingstone is winning the propaganda battle, and Millbank may be preparing to let Livingstone go forward to a ballot – as long as he loses. An electoral college with added weight for the mainly Blairite London MPs is still an option.

The Evening Standard, whilst occasionally wavering in its editorial line, has unleashed a number of vicious tirades against Livingstone’s track record at the GLC, particularly Keith Dovkants’s two page spread "the trouble with Livingstone – a guide to young voters", in which he raked over the GLC’s invitation to Gerry Adams to visit London, as well as Livingstone’s support for lesbian and gay rights.

Likewise, whilst making noises in favour of democracy, some on the left have waged a campaign against Livingstone’s bid. Jill Mountford, writing in the Welfare State Network’s paper Action, after the London Regional Board had adopted a vetting system, went further than any of Livingstone’s Millbank opponents in soberly describing him as "a totally unprincipled, self promoting scumbag". Worried that her readers may have missed her point, she added "the man is a skunk". Finally, Mountford summarised her view with the comment: "I would not vote for Livingstone for mayor even if he was standing in a head to head against Jeffrey Archer. I’d find someone else to stand with better politics, or abstain."

Mountford’s inability to distinguish between a member of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and a Tory millionaire may seem a quirk but it is not. Her organisation, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), produced a cowardly version of their vitriolic campaign against the left’s candidate under the headline "Livingstone for Mayor?", which they handed out as a leaflet at Livingstone’s rally, to little avail (in fact it was difficult to tell who was more upset at the massive turnout – the AWL or the Millbank spies). Apart from not answering its own question, the AWL statement contented itself by arguing: "as capitalism dips into crisis, and New Labour steadily breaks all allegiance to the working class, we need organisations, candidates and leaders committed to clear socialist policies.... Ken Livingstone does not measure up to those standards."

So the labour movement in London is potentially to be disenfranchised and have imposed on it a shortlist of candidates consisting of Blairite stooges, and the AWL springs to our defence by telling us that there should be "a free and fair internal Labour Party election", without doing the one thing to ensure that this happens, which is to fight for Livingstone’s inclusion on the shortlist. In their irrational hatred of Livingstone the AWL have turned their backs on the genuine mass sentiment over this basic issue of democracy. Perhaps they will be establishing Tony Banks Committees if Livingstone is excluded.

Likewise, Andrew Murray used his tediously long-winded Morning Star column "Eyes Left" to attack Livingstone’s open letter to Blair. Disgracefully floating the idea that Livingstone had not opposed the bombing of Iraq or the removal of lone parent benefits, Murray argued: "If Mr Livingstone means what he says in the open letter – something one cannot necessarily take for granted – then he risks creating a demand for a left candidate for mayor, whether or not his nomination makes it past the Millbank control centre." Murray’s position is thus even more ultra-left than that of the SWP, which at least sufficiently understands the process to pose a socialist candidate only if Livingstone is ruled out.

The systematic campaign of innuendo, smear and anti-democratic centralisation against Livingstone is transparently a battle in which the right wing has chosen to thwart the democratic will of Londoners and Labour Party members. Consequently, whatever the opinions various left groups may hold about Livingstone’s politics, it is a matter of absolute principle that his campaign to be allowed to stand for selection as Labour’s candidate should be actively supported. Indeed, Livingstone’s election as mayor would be a victory for the left, and Marxists should therefore have no hesitancy in also backing his candidature. Any wriggling out of these requirements objectively helps the Labour Party’s Millbank apparatus and separates these groups from the mass democratic pressure now building up in support of Livingstone’s campaign.