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If Ken’s Campaign was Right, Why Haven’t Things Changed?

Neil Murray

AT THE risk of boring, and losing, readers of What Next? I’d like to respond a last time to Martin Sullivan’s rejoinder to me in No.17 on Ken Livingstone’s mayoral campaign ("A Reply to Neil Murray").

In amongst the requisite jibes – "you wouldn’t expect him to campaign on workers’ militias would you?"; I "condemn the conduct of the campaign from the sidelines" (if I was on the sidelines, which is debatable, it was only because like many others, I was excluded from greater involvement); and, obviously the coup de grâce, "we can only be thankful that it wasn’t comrade Murray who was organising Livingstone’s campaign" – Sullivan grudgingly accepts some of my criticisms of Livingstone’s campaign, although insisting that, overall, the approach of Ken and his "advisers" was correct. Yet, despite his bluster, many of his "concessions" to me conceal deeper recognition of the fundamental problems of Livingstone’s campaign.

In one of these concessions, Sullivan accepts "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". Although why the organ grinder himself should be absolved from all blame escapes me.

Democracy should be integral to any socialist campaign (even if it rarely is among the British left). Yet who decided on Ken’s "campaign committee" or the eclectic group of "key people" in each London borough? This certainly wasn’t put to the meetings of supporters which were held, and the "key people" were such a closely guarded secret that most supporters were never aware of their existence, let alone who they were.

"Actively engaging" people in the campaign of course means different things to different people. It can mean their involvement to the extent of being given the task of delivering leaflets, running stalls etc, or it can mean also being given the opportunity to determine the content of those leaflets and the nature of the campaign.

Sullivan seems to be of the former school, since his comment about active engagement contrasts rather sharply with his rejection of my argument that greater involvement of rank-and-file Labour Party and trade union members in the campaign would have had a greater politicising effect. Here his fear of the far left, in particular the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), overrides any residual feeling that people should have been actively engaged in the campaign. (This fear of the involvement of the far left is, however, selective – one "far left" group was always at the heart of Livingstone’s campaign.)

Sullivan’s only reply on the question of participation by rank-and-file trade union members is to claim that setting up "trade unionists for Livingstone" bodies would have led to them being taken over by the SWP. Yet even if we accepted this argument (and I don’t) there is a lot more that could have been done. There are plenty of unions in which the SWP has very few members, where people were asking the Livingstone campaign what they should do, or offering to campaign among members if Ken wrote the necessary material. They got zero response. Rather than involve, to the slightest degree, rank-and-file trade unionists, Ken preferred his conduit to be left-leaning bureaucrats.

While this, by and large, delivered the vote in the Labour Party selection, it meant that the membership never really engaged with the campaign, and were hardly educated in the issues involved, nor was the ground laid for support for Ken’s independent campaign. Sullivan downplays the short-lived "Stand Down Dobbo" demand, but one of the things which undermined this was the quick declaration by the trade union leaderships that they were throwing their weight behind Dobson as the "official Labour candidate", despite the rigged ballot and their memberships voting in their overwhelming majority for Livingstone. They would not have been able to get away with this so easily if branches and members had been more actively involved in Ken’s campaign.

Such ignoring of the grassroots of the Labour Party and unions was repeated many times over. Even members of Ken’s own constituency party, Brent East, got no response to questions as to how they should proceed. At the stage in the internal selection battle when there was an impasse over the issue of Labour’s manifesto for London, one might have expected Livingstone’s campaign to provide Party and union members with model resolutions against the Public Private Partnership (PPP) for the Tube. Nothing. Sullivan claims that a network was established in the constituencies during the selection campaign. Yet this was a very loose "network" indeed.

One of Sullivan’s surprising omissions is any response to my question as to why Livingstone called on people to attend the TUC’s "family day" at the Dome on May Day rather than the London May Day demonstration. Instead he concentrates on justifying Livingstone’s denunciation of Reclaim the Streets’ actions on May Day – and I would argue there is a big difference between dissociation and condemnation. Ken’s call for people to attend the TUC event came at a time when many trade union bodies were condemning the TUC for this subvention of the crisis-ridden Dome. Surely another case of Livingstone putting his relationship with trade union leaders above that with the rank and file?

On the active involvement of Labour Party members, Sullivan comes out with the amazing claim that "there was a shortage of reliable comrades able to carry out public activity" once Ken announced his independent candidacy. Not in my experience. Comrades were queuing up, but were given nothing to do! Those worried about expulsion were more than willing to do door-to-door leafleting, yet by Sullivan’s own admission leaflets were not available until the last few days of the campaign. Yes, large numbers of posters, badges and car stickers were distributed, but these were no substitute for a simple leaflet, which could have been put through every door in London.

Moreover, of course, the posters etc simply said "Ken for London". Sullivan’s argument against a more political campaign, beyond the workers’ militia dig, is that it would have led to Ken being seen as a poser for raising issues not in the powers of the mayor. Yet the future of the Tube is not in his hands either, as far as the government is concerned. Contracts for the PPP are supposed to be signed and settled before control of the Tube is handed over to the mayor. That hasn’t stopped Livingstone, rightly, making it the central issue of his campaign for selection, election and since. A similar argument can easily be made for Ken raising, for instance, the issue of renationalisation of the rail network. It is not an issue over which the mayor has powers, but it is one of crucial importance to transport in London and beyond. Where Ken chose, he did not accept the government’s limitations of his powers, so why should Sullivan?

Perhaps our biggest disagreement is over whether a slate should have been stood for the Assembly places. Sullivan argues that it would have meant Livingstone forming "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."

This is breathtaking. Better for Livingstone to be all things to all people than to stand with a slate of left wing Party and trade union supporters. The positive aspect of such a slate – that it would make it clear the campaign was one over what was right for Londoners rather than simply about one person winning a position (something reinforced by the "Ken for London" slogan) – is seen as negative by Sullivan. Better not to antagonise this "broad spectrum" than to attempt to politicise them.

Where would such a slate have come from? There was a ready-made pool of people who could have been approached – those rejected by Millbank as unsuitable for selection as candidates for the Greater London Assembly for being too left wing or independent. In Ken’s words those allowed to stand were (at best) "Labour’s second eleven". This would not have automatically meant forming a new party in opposition to Labour any more than Ken’s independent candidacy did (a political organisation can mean a lot less than a new party). Candidates could have stood on an explicit platform of being Labour Party members fighting the gerrymandering and business-friendly politics of Millbank. If they had been expelled, not only could they have fought for readmission, as Ken is doing, but there would have been widespread support among activists for them.

Sullivan goes on to argue that (a) the election of anyone from such a slate would not have made a difference and (b) anyway Ken has been extremely astute in putting together his administration. It is hard to credit the idea that having closer political allies would not have aided Ken in the various fights he will have with the Assembly. His including the likes of Steve Norris in the mayor’s cabinet is brushed aside by Sullivan because it is only an advisory body anyway and Norris has been neutralised by being absorbed. So that’s alright then. Haven’t social democrats who form governments with right-wingers often argued that the right are in a minority anyway, and how was Norris’s opposition to the recent Tube strike neutralised by him being in the administration?

At the centre of our disagreement is whether Livingstone’s campaign could have had wider repercussions. In Sullivan’s words: "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." Yet even Sullivan would be hard put to argue that Livingstone’s victory has in fact altered the course of the labour movement, even if the question of the future of the London Underground has still to be settled at the time of writing. For the moment, at least, it looks like Blair & Co have weathered that particular storm.

My argument is that if the campaign had been conducted differently that outcome, in terms of its effect on the labour movement, could have been very different. In defending – in its general approach, if not in every detail – Livingstone’s campaign, Sullivan can have no explanation for why this is so. For Sullivan, Livingstone might not walk on water, as a recent writer in Labour Left Briefing claimed, but he is still up there with the (nearly) infallible.