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Lessons of the London Elections

Martin Sullivan

THE MOST important feature of the Greater London Authority (GLA) elections was Ken Livingstone’s success in standing as an independent candidate for mayor.

Now, you might imagine that, as blindingly obvious statements go, you couldn’t get much more blindingly obvious than that. Yet there were those on the far left who had evident difficulty getting their heads around this basic point. Writing in the Guardian at the start of the campaign, Jeremy Hardy, a prominent supporter of the London Socialist Alliance (LSA), argued that all the fuss about Livingstone’s candidacy had distracted attention from the fact that the really significant aspect of the elections was the formation of the LSA and its decision to stand for the London Assembly. Similarly, in a newspaper produced by the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation (CATP) to promote its own slate of Assembly candidates, Pat Sikorski argued that, of all the candidates in the GLA elections (which presumably included Livingstone, as the mayoral candidate), those on the CATP slate were undoubtedly "the most important". When you consider that, in the elections to the Assembly, the LSA got 1.6% in the list section and CATP 1%, I think this only underlines the fact that the capacity of the far left for self-delusion is almost limitless!

Indeed, the attitude of the far left towards the GLA elections (or at least of that section of the left who are committed to electoral challenges to Labour as a central plank in their strategy) was characterised by a general tendency to substitute wishful thinking for objective analysis. In particular, there was an almost total failure to heed Lenin’s advice in "Left-Wing" Communism that Marxists must "soberly follow the actual state of the class-consciousness ... of all the working people (not only of their advanced elements)".

For example, the main component of the LSA, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), argued that the surge of popular support for Livingstone, reflected in the massive lead in the opinion polls that he enjoyed up until the closing stage of the election campaign, was the product of a radical mood of opposition to the right wing policies of the Blair government. The SWP was sharply critical of the cautious, moderate character of Livingstone’s campaign. By accepting the need to work within the framework of capitalism and refusing to fight for socialist policies, the SWP argued, Livingstone had turned his back on his supporters and failed to relate to the prevailing mood of anger against Blair. According to this reasoning, the majority of Ken’s supporters were situated politically to the left of him. This was why it was necessary, the SWP’s argument continued, to stand LSA candidates for the Assembly on a clear left wing programme, for only in this way could the spontaneous radicalism of the masses be given an adequate political expression.

I think this was a thoroughly mistaken analysis. Anyone who worked on Livingstone’s campaign would tell you that the letters of support which flooded into his office – urging him to stand as an independent after he was defeated in the Labour Party’s rigged selection, and then enthusiastically welcoming his decision to do so – did not for the most part back him on the basis of antagonism towards the policies of the Blair government. The overwhelming majority of those who declared their support for Livingstone did so on elementary democratic grounds. This had two aspects – first, sympathy for Ken personally as a victim of Millbank’s stitch-up and, second, outrage that the Blairites had tried to deprive Londoners of their right to vote for the man who was by far the most popular of all the would-be mayoral candidates.

This support certainly represented a mood of hostility to Blair, but it took the specific form of resentment at the arrogance of New Labour’s control freaks and as such lacked a distinctively left wing character. In fact Livingstone’s appeal reached well beyond the left, to the centre and soft right, with Liberal Democrats and even Tories announcing their intention to vote for him. It was this broad range of support that gave Livingstone his initial massive lead in the opinion polls (in the first week after he announced his candidacy, his support was running at over 60%). In other words, contrary to what the SWP maintained, the large majority of those who proposed to vote for Livingstone stood not to his left but to his right. Given this situation, there was always the danger that Livingstone’s support would implode under the impact of a media assault on his leftist politics.

Leaving aside that the limited powers the mayor possesses would have prevented Livingstone from carrying out a socialist programme even if he had been elected on one, the unstable nature of his support made it impossible for him to conduct the sort of uncompromisingly left wing campaign that his sectarian critics demanded. To have done so would have played into the hands of the Blairites and Tories, whose strategy was to break away the centre and soft right from Ken’s base of support by depicting him as a dangerous extremist, a supporter of anti-capitalist "rioters" in Seattle, who would deter businesses from investing in London and hand over vast sums of taxpayers’ money to "minority groups" (a not too subtle attempt to play the racist card).

For his part, Ken could not be accused of hiding his politics. His much publicised statement in favour of direct action, and his factually indisputable accusation that the policies of the IMF and World Bank have killed more people than died in World War II, ensured that his leftist views were given prominence. But in order to hold together the coalition of politically disparate elements that produced his high opinion poll ratings, Livingstone and his advisers evidently concluded that it was necessary to adopt a defensive strategy which emphasised his appeal to the broad electorate. This resulted in the rather bland campaign that so annoyed the far left, in which Ken presented himself as a radical populist – a man of the people, the voice of London etc – rather than as a socialist or even as the candidate of the labour movement. However, that did not stop Ken’s candidacy serving the interests of the labour movement and socialism.

In an article in the What Next? London Election Special ("Livingstone and the London Elections: Questions and Answers"), I outlined the positive consequences of a Livingstone victory. In complete contradiction to Blair’s argument that it was necessary to drive the party to the right in order to get elected, I argued, here was a leading figure from the supposedly unelectable Labour left proving that he was far more popular with the voters than the Blairites’ own handpicked candidate. Following mass abstentions by Labour’s core voters in elections to the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament, a victory for Ken would demolish the myth of New Labour’s electoral appeal and undermine the main political justification for the Blairite "project". By successfully defying Millbank, Livingstone would also demonstrate to the entire labour movement that Blair could be beaten, which would perhaps even encourage the trade union bureaucrats to adopt a rather less abject attitude towards the Labour leadership. The prospects for a fight back within the party, I concluded, would be greatly improved.

If these consequences were to follow, though, it was first of all necessary for Ken to win. From that standpoint, a degree of political compromise in the conduct of his election campaign was entirely justifiable. As I pointed out in the article cited above, "an actual step forward for the working class, however modest, is worth a thousand pure socialist programmes that are incapable of implementation".

It is true that a week before the election Livingstone’s support stood at 51% in an Evening Standard/ICM poll, far ahead of the Tory candidate Steven Norris on 17%, and he looked as though he was heading for a runaway win. Without endorsing the sectarians’ attacks on Livingstone, at that point it did seem arguable that he could have risked a less defensive approach. This, indeed, was a view I put forward in my article in the London Election Special.

In the final week of the campaign, however, Livingstone’s opponents unleashed a barrage of lying propaganda against him, centring on the accusation that he had inspired the May Day demonstrators who had sprayed graffiti on the Cenotaph and trashed a branch of McDonald’s. On the eve of the poll, Millbank placed an advertisement in the Evening Standard which featured a picture of the desecrated Cenotaph and accused Livingstone of encouraging this stupid act of vandalism. On election day itself, the Sun’s front page was given over to a picture of May Day demonstrators clambering over a defaced statue of Winston Churchill, with the headline "A Vote for Ken is a Vote for Them". Meanwhile, the Mirror abandoned its traditional position of support for Labour and urged its readers to vote for Norris in order to keep Livingstone out.

The result was a severe haemorrhage of Livingstone’s support, and a corresponding rise in Norris’s. In the event, Livingstone won with 39% of the vote, and Norris came second with 27%. (After the distribution of second preferences, the final result was Livingstone 58%, Norris 42%.) What appears to have happened is that a substantial number of Lib Dems and Tories who had intended to vote for Livingstone a week earlier were successfully frightened off by the spate of anti-Ken propaganda, and either reverted to their customary political allegiance or, in most cases, just stayed at home. At the same time, many of those who had appeared as "don’t knows" in the Evening Standard/ICM poll were panicked into turning out to back Norris as the candidate best placed to defeat the left wing menace they had been told Livingstone represented. A week more of that sort of thing, and Ken could have been in serious trouble. In this light, criticisms of the cautious approach pursued by his campaign seem rather less persuasive.

It is, of course, possible to argue that Livingstone should have fought the election on a hard left programme, even though he would have gone down to inevitable defeat, as this would have provided the opportunity to make socialist propaganda and put down a marker for future electoral challenges to New Labour. But it is not possible to argue that Livingstone could have fought that kind of campaign and still won, which is the assumption that many on the far left seem to have made, misled by their over-optimistic assessment of the current level of popular political consciousness.

Further proof of the far left’s overestimation of the radicalism of the electorate is to be found in the derisory votes for the LSA and other left slates in the elections to the Assembly. If Blair’s drive to the right has opened up a political space to the left of Labour, as some would argue, then on this evidence it is a very small one.

The humiliating result for the LSA in the top-up section, in particular, was in stark contrast to its earlier claims that there was a real possibility of electing SWPer Paul Foot, who headed the LSA list. Alliance supporters explained this failure on the grounds that the left vote was split – between the LSA (1.6%), Peter Tatchell (1.4%), CATP (1%), Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (0.8%) and the Communist Party of Britain (0.4%). Added together, these votes came to over 5%, enough to get one candidate elected. "Had the left vote been united", Socialist Worker asserted, "the LSA’s Paul Foot would now be a member of the Assembly."

Apart from the fact that, as a political hypothesis, "if the far left were to unite" falls firmly into the pigs-might-fly category, this reasoning is obviously flawed. Many people presumably voted for Peter Tatchell because of his record as a gay rights activist, while others backed CATP as a protest against government plans to semi-privatise the London Underground. Not all of these votes would automatically have transferred to a united socialist slate. The experience of electoral defeat has evidently failed to improve the far left’s capacity for objective political analysis.

In the constituency section the LSA did rather better, but none of its candidates came anywhere near winning a seat. Overall the LSA polled only 2.9%, although its vote was unevenly spread, reaching as high as 7% in the inner-city constituency of Lambeth and Southwark. Here again, the far left demonstrated its lack of political realism, with LSA supporters seeking to portray these results as a ground-breaking achievement which has laid the basis for an even more successful intervention in future elections. Under the headline "A Breakthrough for the Left", Socialist Worker insisted that the Alliance had achieved "remarkable results, given that it was the first time the LSA had ever stood".

But this self-congratulatory attitude doesn’t stand up to examination. The truth is that in the London elections the far left faced far more favourable circumstances than it has in the past or will again in the foreseeable future. First and foremost, there was the Livingstone factor. Not only did the presence of a popular independent left wing candidate for mayor have the effect of disrupting traditional allegiance to Labour, but the LSA went out of its way to identify itself with Livingstone’s campaign, plastering London with posters bearing the slogan "Vote Ken, Vote LSA", which suggested to the average voter that the LSA’s Assembly candidates were Livingstone’s official slate. Then there was the very low turnout. With only a third of the electorate bothering to vote, those that did were obviously the more politically conscious elements who would have been more receptive to socialist propaganda. And, finally, there was the fact that the LSA was almost the only far left grouping to stand in the constituencies (with the very minor exception of the Communist League, which stood in Lambeth and Southwark and got 0.5%) and therefore had the field virtually to itself.

Such a favourable situation is unlikely to be repeated in the next general election. If Socialist Alliance candidates stand in constituencies across England and Wales, as is planned, their vote will probably average out at around 2% – the figure which the far left typically receives in parliamentary elections. (The Scottish Socialist Party may do a bit better, for reasons beyond the scope of this article.)

All of this confirms the general rule that, where a party with mass working class support already exists, a viable political formation to its left cannot be created by denouncing the right wing leaders of the existing party and calling on its supporters to rally to a small socialist organisation. A new formation with significant popular support can emerge only through conflict and crisis within the existing mass-based workers’ party. From the Social Democratic Federation to the Socialist Labour Party, the history of the British labour movement is littered with the corpses of organisations that failed to understand this fundamental point.

If the debacle of the LSA’s electoral challenge to Labour provides a negative demonstration of that principle, the success of Livingstone’s candidacy provides a positive one. Imagine that Livingstone had left the Labour Party some years ago, reasoning that the left had been defeated and that there was no point continuing the struggle against the right wing, and had then reappeared in 1999 to announce his intention to stand as an independent socialist candidate for mayor. What kind of response would he have received? He would certainly have got more votes than the LSA did, but he wouldn’t have stood a chance of winning. The reason for Livingstone’s victory was that he remained in the Labour Party and fought the Blairites over his right to stand as the official Labour candidate, producing a major crisis and a partial split in the party. It was this highly publicised struggle that won him popular support.

The one qualification that should be made to this analysis concerns the Green Party. It is now clear that, under proportional representation, the Greens are able to appear as a credible fourth party. In 1999, having had one candidate elected to the Scottish Parliament, they then got two MEPs in the Euro-elections. For the London Assembly, the Green vote averaged 10% in the constituencies, while in the list section they received 11%, giving them three seats. This growth in the Greens’ political influence is a development which has already taken place elsewhere in Europe but has been delayed in Britain because of the obstacle presented by the first past the post system.

The experience of Germany suggests that, in response to the lure of political office, the Green Party may well move to the right. At present, however, it stands on a left reformist programme and is able to present a radical alternative to New Labour which draws far more support than the likes of the LSA ever could, forming the main pole of attraction for ex-Labour voters disaffected with Blairism. If socialists are unable to stomach work in the Labour Party, it would make much more sense to help build the left in the Green Party than to waste their energies on fruitless sectarian initiatives along the lines of the LSA.

This raises the issue of a Red-Green alliance, and the question of how that is likely to emerge. An electoral pact between the Greens and the far left, which some socialists and greens have pressed for, is a non-starter given the minimal support which the far left commands. The co-operation between Livingstone and the Greens is in fact the concrete form that a Red-Green alliance has taken in London, with the Greens supporting a second preference vote for Livingstone in the mayoral election and Livingstone advocating a Green vote for the Assembly in the list section. Indeed, one of Livingstone’s first acts as mayor was to place the Greens’ Darren Johnson in charge of environment at the GLA. The obvious conclusion is that an effective socialist current in the Green Party needs to have an orientation to the Labour left, rather than to politically irrelevant formations like the LSA.

But the main lesson of the London elections is the need to pursue the struggle inside the existing labour movement, namely the Labour Party and the trade unions. With Blair defeated and humiliated over the London mayoral election, and his credibility further undermined by Labour’s poor showing in elections to the London Assembly and local councils, combined with a slump in his personal rating in the opinion polls, he suddenly looks vulnerable. The fight to readmit Livingstone to the Labour Party, to defeat the 21st Century Party attack on party democracy, to break the trade union leaders from their bloc with the Blairites – these are the issues around which serious sections of the left will organise over the coming period.