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Oh Yes It Does (Well, Mostly): A Reply to Neil Murray

Martin Sullivan

I WOULD concede that my article on the London elections in the last issue of What Next? may have been a tad uncritical in its defence of Ken Livingstone’s mayoral campaign. However, in view of the repeated attacks on the campaign made by Livingstone’s opponents on the far left, I felt it was necessary to bend the stick the other way. (Some might argue that this particular defence is just an excuse for shifting one’s political position in the face of legitimate criticism. But, what the hell, if it was good enough for Lenin, it’s good enough for me.)

Although Neil Murray’s analysis of what he sees as the defects of Ken’s campaign ("Just Because the LSA was Wrong, that Doesn’t Mean Livingstone was Right")is a good deal more reasoned than some others I’ve read, he still fails to think the issues through. After all, the London mayoral election was a serious business and a lot was at stake politically. A successful outcome to Livingstone’s challenge to Blair had the potential to alter the course of the labour movement; if he lost, it would have been an utter disaster. So, for those organising the campaign, there was an absolute necessity to get it right. Of course, the conduct of campaign was not immune to criticism, but Murray condemns it from the sidelines, without taking account of practicalities.

First of all, I think he underestimates the threat of disruption by the ultra-left. Sectarians always try to worm their way into a high profile campaign like Livingstone’s in order to gain publicity and recruits, usually with little or no concern for the outcome of the campaign itself. At best, even if their intentions are good, most far left groups are devoid of an elementary sense of political tactics. Either way, they invariably screw things up.

In the Labour Party itself this danger wasn’t so great, most of the entrist sects having abandoned ship some years ago, and it was possible to find a number of sensible comrades who could be relied on to organise Livingstone’s selection campaign in the constituencies. In the trade unions, however, it was a different matter. Not only was there a lack of reliable political contacts, but if a rank and file organisation of a "Trade Unionists for Ken" type had been set up, it would inevitably have been used as a flag of convenience by the likes of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). To claim, as Murray does, that the SWP would simply have been "swamped" by a broad-based trade union campaign backed by Livingstone is over-optimistic. If they had found themselves in a minority in any London-wide body, the SWP would undoubtedly have formed local groups in areas or branches that they could control.

Even as it was, the SWP’s antics caused problems. At the height of the selection campaign, Hackney South MP Brian Sedgemore issued a press release accusing SWP members of barging into his surgery and abusing him because of his support for Frank Dobson – these are the sort of left wing hooligans who are behind Livingstone’s campaign, was Sedgemore’s line. The story was taken up by the London Evening Standard, and Livingstone’s office had to waste several days rebutting it. In the circumstances, it was possible to show that Ken had no connection with the SWP. However, if the SWP had been able to set up shop as part of an officially endorsed pro-Livingstone campaign in the unions, the trouble they could have caused doesn’t bear thinking about.

Nor do I agree that a campaign along the lines proposed by Neil Murray "would have lent much more weight to the demand for Dobson to stand aside after his selection victory in favour of Livingstone". While it was important for Ken to show that he had exhausted every avenue for compromise before declaring as an independent candidate, there was never any realistic possibility of Millbank agreeing to Dobson’s withdrawal. Most people could see that, and the "Stand Down Frank" campaign consequently lacked credibility. No doubt that was why Livingstone decided to abort it at an early stage.

After Livingstone announced his independent candidacy the "active involvement of his supporters", which Murray argues for, became even more problematic. The network that had been established in the constituencies during the selection campaign was of limited use here, as Millbank had warned that any Labour Party member caught campaigning for Ken would be automatically expelled. So although some Party members were able to set up parallel organisations at a local level, in which non-members staffed high street stalls etc, there was – initially, at least – a shortage of reliable comrades able to carry out public activity.

To have thrown the whole thing open, in the interests of "democracy", and allowed anyone who declared their support for Livingstone to form a local campaign committee, would have been potentially suicidal. The SWP-dominated London Socialist Alliance (LSA), which was plastering London with "Vote Ken, Vote LSA" posters in a dishonest attempt to identify their own candidates with Livingstone, would have descended mob-handed on such an open campaign and politically discredited it.

Murray’s charge that Ken "abandoned a labour movement orientation" is unfair. Union branches, trades councils and many individual trade unionists and Labour Party members actively participated in Livingstone’s campaign. It is also one-sided to claim that supporters were left "crying out for material to use" in the campaign. Large numbers of posters, manifestos, badges, car stickers etc were distributed, and on election day itself some 200,000 leaflets were handed out at Tube stations across London.

On the question of programme, Murray argues that Livingstone should have "conducted a more socialist campaign", but without specifying what policies he should have campaigned for. Presumably we can agree that, given the present level of class conflict and political consciousness, there wouldn’t have been much point in Ken standing on a full socialist programme, calling for factory occupations, the formation of a workers’ militia and the like, in preparation for the seizure of state power and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. Perhaps, then, he should have campaigned around the kind of left reformist programme that the LSA advocated?

But one of the problems with this programme was that it contained policies – increased funding for the NHS, abolition of racist immigration laws etc – which the Greater London Authority (GLA) had no power to implement. These demands could only have had any resonance among the electorate in the context of a general upsurge within the labour movement which aimed at the removal of Blair and the formation of a left Labour government. Unfortunately, that is not the situation we’re in.

If Livingstone had campaigned on policies that had no direct relevance to the mayoral election, most voters would have seen it as confirmation of the accusation made by his New Labour and Tory opponents that, rather than having any serious interest in improving the lives of Londoners, he just wanted to use the position of mayor to engage in gesture politics and futile confrontations with central government. To maintain his widespread but politically unstable support, it was necessary for Livingstone to put forward a moderate, practical programme which concentrated on those issues which the mayor’s limited powers would give him some control over.

And, incidentally, if we are seeking an explanation for the high level of abstentions in the elections, the GLA’s lack of substantial powers was a major factor. The average punter tends to have a pragmatic attitude to such matters, and doesn’t bother to vote unless the outcome will make some material difference to his/her own situation. Elections to a largely toothless body like the GLA are therefore unlikely to produce a high turnout. To blame Livingstone’s "reliance on the media" for voters’ lack of enthusiasm is scarcely reasonable.

Murray’s condemnation of Livingstone for sending back donations from branches and regional committees of Labour-affiliated trade unions I find frankly incomprehensible. There is a good reason why unions have a rule prohibiting their funds being used to back political parties other than Labour – it prevents right wing branches from giving money to the Tories or Liberal Democrats. For Livingstone to encourage branches to break this rule would have been politically irresponsible. Furthermore, not only were the branches who made such donations leaving themselves open to disciplinary measures from their union, but Livingstone’s campaign itself would have been liable to legal action if it had accepted the money. Union branches who wanted to assist the campaign financially could do so by taking collections from their members – which is what many of them in fact did.

As for Ken dissociating himself from the "Reclaim the Streets" protest, which resulted in anarchists, Maoists and other politically brain-damaged idiots defacing the Cenotaph, there was nothing "craven" about that. It was obvious for weeks in advance of May Day that the capitalist press would attempt to pin responsibility for any resulting disturbances on Livingstone, given his widely publicised expression of sympathy for the principle of direct action. A few days before the demonstration, he used his column in the Independent to pre-empt such attacks, arguing firmly in favour of the democratic right to protest but opposing rioting and stupid acts of vandalism. On the day itself, it was no more than basic tactical sense to put as much distance as possible – geographical and political – between himself and the "Reclaim the Streets" farce. Despite all this, the flood of lying propaganda against Livingstone which followed the May Day events led to a massive loss of electoral support. If he hadn’t treated this threat seriously, and taken evasive action, the political fallout would have been much worse.

Murray’s proposal that Livingstone should have stood a slate of candidates for the London Assembly is equally ill-considered. By putting up candidates against the Labour Party, Livingstone would have formed a de facto political organisation. This would have made sense only as part of a plan to launch a new party in opposition to Labour – something that Murray correctly opposes. And, in any case, who would Ken have chosen as his candidates? If they had all been left-wingers this would have alienated voters at the right wing end of his broad spectrum of support, while the inclusion of non-leftists on the slate would have antagonised Labour Party supporters and trade unionists.

I would also argue that, given the balance of forces in the Assembly (which would not have been significantly altered by the election of a few independent "Kenite" candidates), Livingstone has acted astutely in putting together his administration. Offering Nicky Gavron the position of deputy mayor and asking Toby Harris to chair the police committee had the effect of splitting the Labour Group and isolating those ultra-Blairites who wanted to use the Assembly to obstruct Livingstone. Other potential opponents like Steven Norris have similarly been neutralised by absorbing them. The mayor’s cabinet (which in fact has a predominantly left wing political complexion) is only an advisory body anyway, and doesn’t possess any independent political power. Contrary to Murray’s claim, there is no parallel at all between Livingstone’s administration and a Lib-Lab coalition government at Westminster.

I would also reject Murray’s knee-jerk opposition to the Greens just because they are not a traditional workers’ party. According to this reasoning, in the United States he would have found himself in a bloc with the most sectarian sections of the far left in refusing to call for a vote for Ralph Nader in the presidential election. There is no more comparison between the Greens and the Lib Dems than there is between Nader and the US Democrats.

Having said all that (here comes the bending-the-stick-back-again bit), I think some mistakes were made by Livingstone’s advisers which prevented the campaign from realising its potential, dissipated the political enthusiasm that it aroused and restricted the impact it had on the labour movement.

In the final weeks of the campaign, by which time a network of active supporters was in place, a concerted attempt should have been made to organise mass door-to-door leafleting, as Murray suggests. But the leaflets (consisting of a window poster with a useful summary of Ken’s manifesto on the back) were made available only grudgingly and in very limited quantities, leading to considerable frustration on the part of activists and partially derailing the developing grassroots campaign.

Two arguments were used to justify this – the need to restrict expenditure so as not to overshoot the legal spending limit, and the fact that a campaign on the ground would not materially affect the election result. The answer to the first objection was to produce cheaper leaflets in place of the unnecessarily expensive, glossy material that was used. The second argument, though undeniably true (witness the derisory results achieved by the LSA’s mass leafleting), was an example of the bureaucratic mind-set afflicting some of Ken’s advisers, who tended to see only the dangers inherent in mobilising supporters and overlooked the positive effects of politicising people by actively engaging them in the campaign.

After Livingstone’s election, the political crisis that the mayoral election had provoked in the London labour movement was allowed to go off the boil. No attempt was made to organise a rally to celebrate Ken’s victory, to thank those who had supported him and, most important of all, to put forward a perspective for continuing the struggle inside the Labour Party. Murray does have a point when he argues that, while Livingstone rightly appealed to people not to abandon the Party, "he gave no indication as to what they should do, leaving them passive and liable to drift out anyway after a time". As Murray says, this is one of the reasons why Blair has been able to ride out the debacle of the mayoral election without suffering more serious political damage.

Overall, however, Neil Murray’s critique fails to come to grips with reality and shows little understanding of the tactics necessary in a difficult and unprecedented political situation. Even if some of his arguments are not entirely wrong, we can only be thankful that it wasn’t comrade Murray who was organising Livingstone’s campaign!