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Just Because the LSA was Wrong, That Doesn’t Mean Livingstone was Right

Neil Murray

MARTIN SULLIVAN ("Lessons of the London Elections", What Next? No.16) is right in most of his criticisms of those forces on the left which stood their own candidates in the Greater London Authority (GLA) elections, particularly their downplaying of Livingstone’s victory and hyperinflation of their own results. Like Sullivan, I supported Livingstone and not the London Socialist Alliance (LSA) or the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation (CATP).

However, Sullivan’s approach seems to be that if Livingstone is being criticised by sections of the left, the only thing to do is to uncritically defend him. Rather, there is much that was wrong with Livingstone’s campaign that deserves criticism without endorsing the LSA, CATP etc.

Sullivan’s thesis is that Livingstone could have done no other than precisely what he did if he was to get elected. There is plenty to be said about the character of Livingstone’s election campaign(s), which I will go into below, but the most important question this raises is whether the only issue was to get Livingstone elected.

Those of us in the Labour Party are now being inundated with material that says the only issue in the coming general election is getting (New) Labour elected for a second term and forget your criticisms of the government. Yes, socialists want to win elections and shouldn’t be terribly interested in gestures, but the programme on which they stand/get elected and how they use the election campaign to put forward that programme is hardly irrelevant. While someone who is not elected is not in a position to implement their programme, someone who downplays their politics in the campaign is unlikely to implement anything more radical when in office – and, if they were to do so, would rightly face the accusation of deceiving the electorate.

For socialists, politics is not reduced to gaining office, or to the actions of those who hold office, but is about furthering the interests of the working class, encouraging the active involvement of the working class and using every opportunity (including elections) to raise political issues. Apparently Livingstone’s (and Sullivan’s) sights never rose above winning the election to give any thought to a strategy of using it to take the movement forward.

In the election of Labour’s mayoral candidate, Livingstone spurned all attempts to use the election to raise the political temperature against the Blairites. Offers to campaign on his behalf in the unions were rejected out of hand or ignored in favour of relying on the good offices of a few supportive bureaucrats. The rationale for this seems to have been that any rank and file campaign would have been dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), yet it is obvious that if Livingstone had thrown his weight behind such a campaign it is the SWP which would have been swamped.

The campaign could have been used to raise the twin themes of privatisation and labour movement democracy and to put Millbank and its supporters in the unions on the back foot in such a way that it would have been difficult for them to recover. Instead, despite their members having voted overwhelmingly for Livingstone, the trade union leaders were easily able to reassert control and endorse Dobson, even before Livingstone declared as an independent.

Such a campaign would have lent much more weight to the demand for Dobson to stand aside after his selection victory in favour of Livingstone, the choice of a clear majority of union and party members. Instead, Millbank managed to ride this out rather then suffer an even worse defeat than they eventually did.

In the circumstances, Livingstone was right to declare as an independent, but rather than use this to exacerbate the schism between leadership and the membership in both the Party and unions he seemed to have effectively abandoned a labour movement orientation. Almost the sole message of his campaign was "Livingstone for London", and it was conducted almost exclusively through the media and expensive poster sites. While supporters were crying out for material to use on street stalls and door-to-door leafleting, this only appeared on the last weekend before polling. Livingstone’s constant declamation that he had no machine to match that of the big parties was a facade – what he had was an army of willing and enthusiastic supporters far more numerous than that of any other party. If the tiny LSA could leaflet every household in Greater London (as they claim) then how much more could Livingstone’s supporters have done? But he refused to mobilise them.

Sullivan’s justification for the limited nature of Livingstone’s campaign is that Livingstone would not have won if he had conducted a more socialist campaign, and that his support came from across the political spectrum and was therefore soft and would have been alienated or easily broken away if he ran such a campaign.

Of course, it can’t be proved either way, but this approach sees people’s views as static, and the task of the astute politician as positioning him/herself to win the support of all of them without alienating too many others. It excludes in advance the possibility of winning over people to socialist politics, of breaking them from support for the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Tories or whatever. (I think Sullivan, and Livingstone, play up the level of support from Tories – not that it didn’t exist, but it was much less than they claim. It is obvious that the bulk of Livingstone’s support came from Labour voters.) In fact, by giving them a socialist understanding of the world, such a campaign would have made it less not more likely that these supporters could be broken away from Livingstone. These disparate elements were willing to support him despite his reputation as a lefty; this should have been built on rather than downplayed.

Interestingly, when talking of the issues motivating people to support Livingstone, Sullivan fails to mention the government’s plans for the partial privatisation of London Underground. But for many this was as important an issue as opposition to having candidates imposed on them.

Livingstone appealed above party. Yet this is a double-edged issue. While it was correct to appeal to the electorate against the control freaks of Millbank, there was a danger of being seen as anti-politics rather than standing for a different kind of politics, and Livingstone certainly played up to this.

Sullivan is selective when it comes to asserting that Livingstone did not hide his politics. He mentions Livingstone’s statement that the policies of the World Bank and IMF have killed more people than died in World War II, but not the qualification he immediately put on this that he had been referring to US capitalism, not the City of London. He mentions Livingstone’s support for direct action but not his appeal for people to go to the TUC’s tame event in the Dome (!) on May Day. (Livingstone need not have appealed for them to join the Reclaim the Streets demonstration; he could have given much needed publicity to the London May Day march.) Sullivan fails to mention the craven way in which Livingstone distanced himself from events in Whitehall. And at the time of a racist clamour about asylum seekers begging on the Underground, Livingstone spoke only of how the women are used, not in defence of asylum seekers and against the government’s policies which impoverish them.

Sullivan says that if Livingstone had fought on a hard left programme he could not have won. Maybe, but there is a big gap between fighting on a hard left programme and fighting on an opportunist, populist one.

Livingstone’s distancing of his campaign from the labour movement extended to rejecting and returning donations from those branches and regions of Labour-affiliated trade unions which attempted to donate money to his campaign. The theory runs that Livingstone did not want trade union bodies to be liable to disciplinary action for such support. But Millbank was reluctant (as were some trade unions) to take action against those supporting him, knowing that beneath the surface there was much more support. Livingstone could have encouraged that support to come out openly. Of course that risked disciplinary action, but some risks are always involved, and if defiance had been widely taken up it would have made it more difficult for rebels to be disciplined, not easier.

Similarly, Livingstone’s appeal for people to stay in the Labour Party was correct, but he gave no indication as to what they should do, leaving them passive and liable to drift out anyway after a time. A network of Livingstone supporters, if one had been organised, could have had a real impact on the future of the Party and unions, but this opportunity was passed up too.

You are left with the feeling that what Livingstone least wanted was the active involvement of his supporters because this might have introduced an element of democracy into his campaign rather than one person (and a few hand-picked advisers) deciding everything.

Some chickens came home to roost once the results were announced. Livingstone having refused to put up a slate of supporters for the elections to the Greater London Assembly (backing the LSA was, of course, not the only option he could have taken), he then had to choose a deputy and propose chairs of committees etc. Having rightly said in the election campaign that the Labour GLA candidates were not the best, he then proceeded to appoint one of the worst, Nicky Gavron, as his deputy and Lord Toby Harris as chair of the police committee.

Those on the left who fulminate against proportional representation on the grounds that it inevitably brings coalitions have been strangely quiet about Tory mayoral candidate Steven Norris being brought into Livingstone’s cabinet or Livingstone’s advice to Blair that he should take a lead from Livingstone in inclusive politics.

Sullivan endorses Livingstone’s call to vote Green, defends him having Greens in his cabinet and goes so far as to argue that socialists who cannot stomach the Labour Party should work in the Green Party. Yet surely for socialists the bottom line is the class character of a party, not simply how left its policies are (why else are the likes of Sullivan and myself still in the Labour Party, rather than having decamped to the Liberal Democrats years ago?). Ensuring socialists take up environmental issues is one thing, giving credence to the Green Party something very different.

Sullivan’s defence of Livingstone’s election strategy leaves many questions unanswered. Livingstone’s campaign had the potential to draw in many of those alienated from conventional politics, yet the level of abstentions in the London elections was pretty much as it has been for every other election in recent years. Surely Livingstone’s reliance primarily on the media is at least partly responsible for this?

Why have there been so few repercussions in the Labour Party and the unions since the GLA elections? I would contend it is precisely because Livingstone refused to extend the conflict between the base and the leadership. What is Sullivan’s explanation?