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The London Mayoral Election: How Do We Defeat the Tories?

Martin Sullivan

Ballot papers for the selection of Labour’s candidate in the 2004 London mayoral election go out on 4 October. What strategy does the left need?

THE STARTING point in a discussion of the tactics the left should adopt for the May 2004 London mayoral election has to be a recognition of the fact that the Tory Party, for all its apparently hopeless position at the national level, poses a definite political threat in the capital itself.

A Tory victory in the election, it should hardly need stressing, would be a disaster for the London labour movement. Steven Norris, who we can safely assume will be standing for the Tories once again, is a director of Jarvis, the company implicated in the Potters Bar train crash, on whose behalf he went around loudly proclaiming that the accident was the result of sabotage – a self-serving lie, intended to prevent a collapse in Jarvis’s share price. And this is the man who could be in charge of the London Underground! If Darren Johnson of the Green Party really believes that Ken Livingstone is guilty of putting "the interests of big business and corporate financiers ahead of those of ordinary Londoners and the environment", as he recently claimed ("From Red Ken to New Ken", Red Pepper, August 2002), he wants to see what will happen if Steven Norris gets to be mayor. Indeed, under Norris, all the positive achievements of Ken’s mayoralty – the strategy of shifting the travelling public from cars to buses, close relations with the trade unions, hard bargaining with developers to extract the maximum amount of affordable housing, the Respect festival etc – would be smashed.

Norris, in short, is a real menace, all the more so because he is undoubtedly a credible candidate. He’s not one of those backwoods homophobic racists that infest the Tory Party, but a social liberal who knows how to pitch his argument to a fairly sophisticated metropolitan electorate. He has a relaxed, easy-going manner and to the superficial observer comes across as a reasonable bloke, a sort of patrician version of Ken. Standing in 2000, Norris got 42% of the vote as against Livingstone’s 58%, after the distribution of second preferences, and this was in circumstances that were overwhelmingly favourable to Livingstone.

Last time, Ken was able to rely on a surge of sympathy, which extended far beyond the labour movement and traditional Labour voters, because of the way he’d been stitched up by the Blairites and deprived of his right to stand as the official Labour candidate. That factor will carry much less weight in the 2004 election. Although the Labour NEC’s refusal to readmit Ken to the party was yet another example of the leadership trampling over the rights of party members and trade unionists in London, the vast majority of whom wanted Ken to be the official Labour candidate (as did two thirds of the party’s Assembly members and most London Labour MPs), it was nevertheless a far less dramatic and high-profile stitch-up than in 1999-2000. Last time, too, there was the issue of Ken’s opposition to government plans for the semi-privatisation of the Tube, which won him widespread popular support – again, in 2004 that will not apply. In addition, the Evening Standard, which under the editorship of Max Hastings was distinguished by its largely fair-minded reporting of the 2000 mayoral contest, has under its new editor become a London version of the Daily Mail, a right-wing rag intent on waging a vicious political vendetta against Livingstone with the aim of removing him from the mayoralty. As the capital’s daily paper, the Standard is bound to have an adverse impact on Ken’s support, particularly in the outer-London commuter belt from which it draws most of its readership.

More generally, I think it’s true to say that among those who voted for Ken in 2000, many of them with great enthusiasm, there is a certain mood of disappointment with his record in office. The average punter, who isn’t necessarily clear as to how limited the mayor’s powers actually are, will ask sceptically what real changes have resulted from Livingstone’s four years at the head of the Greater London Authority. Norris will extract the maximum political advantage from this. "Well, of course, we all like Ken", he’ll say. "He’s an entertaining character and we laugh at his jokes. But, frankly, what has he achieved, apart from wasting vast sums of public money on futile legal challenges to central government? What we need is not some cheeky chappie indulging in gesture politics, but a serious politician like myself who can make a material difference to Londoners’ lives." This line of argument will have some resonance among the electorate.

And then there is the congestion charge. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Livingstone would have been better advised to leave this until after the election. But if he goes ahead and brings in the charge from February 2003, as is planned, this is an issue that will loom large in the election campaign, and it’s worth taking a moment to consider the implications.

The need to reduce the weight of traffic on London’s roads by moving passengers onto public transport, before the situation reaches total gridlock, should be self-evident. However, there are some general objections to the congestion charge, in the form in which it will be implemented. This is not to say, as some have claimed, that it is an entirely regressive tax – attempts to dub the congestion charge "the poll tax on wheels" will be well wide of the mark. The most oppressed, exploited, downtrodden sections of the proletariat – people like this writer – do not own cars, and will benefit significantly from a policy that sharply reduces the traffic on the capital’s roads and boosts the speed and efficiency of public transport. However, there are many Londoners – not just highly paid professionals, but manual and white collar workers on relatively modest incomes – who do depend on their cars, and some of them will be seriously disadvantaged by congestion charging. The rich, on the other hand, will not be greatly inconvenienced by paying an additional Ł5 a day to drive their large petrol-guzzling vehicles into central London.

There is the further problem that the original plan, to improve "capability" on the London Underground before bringing in the congestion charge, is no longer practicable if, as now seems fairly certain, the Public Private Partnership contracts are finalised in November. Under the PPP, it will be seven years at least before any improvements, in terms of the volume of passengers and the speed at which they are carried, are seen. And anyway, even if the government were to throw in the towel tomorrow and accept Ken’s own plan for funding an entirely publicly-run system by issuing bonds, it would still take ages to turn the situation around. So, if Livingstone put off the congestion charge until the Tube was sorted, he’d be waiting for the best part of a decade.

The only option, therefore, is to persuade people to use buses instead of cars. But the main reason car-users are reluctant to transfer to buses is the fact that these are so slow. Certain improvements can be and have been made here, by rigorously policing bus lanes, and by employing conductors and encouraging the use of pre-paid tickets so that buses no longer have to wait for ten minutes at each stop while the driver collects the fares. But the main obstacle to a fast and efficient bus service is that the roads are clogged with cars. In these circumstances, although Transport for London has successfully put hundreds of new vehicles into service, getting more and more buses onto the road is not in itself the answer. There has to be a reduction in traffic congestion before the bus can become an attractive alternative to the private car. So major improvements in bus services will have to follow the implementation of the congestion charge.

Also, nobody knows for certain what impact the congestion charge will have on traffic flow around the central zone in which the charge applies, as nothing like this has ever been tried in London before, or indeed in any of Britain’s major cities. There is always the possibility that chaos will result on the edge of the zone, as motorists skirt central London to avoid the charge, or search for a place to park before changing to public transport.

Quite clearly, there is a lot that can go wrong here. The danger is that, with the congestion charge being introduced little more than a year before the 2004 GLA elections take place, all of the teething problems will have become evident by then, while major improvements in public transport will not have had time to feed through. Norris will really have a go at Ken on this issue, presenting himself aggressively as the motorists’ friend. Of course, if the congestion charge does prove to be a total disaster, Livingstone has made it clear that he’ll quickly pull the plug on it. But his reputation would be severely damaged all the same. This issue, then, however things pan out, has the potential to peel away a substantial section of Ken’s vote.

In addition to Norris, other candidates will be queuing up to have a pop at Ken. In his Red Pepper article, referred to above, Darren Johnson – who will presumably stand again as the Greens’ mayoral candidate – gave an indication of the tactics he will employ, by launching an attack on Livingstone as a willing servant of the City whose attitude to globalisation and multinational corporations is supposedly no different from Blair’s. Hopefully, Johnson can be persuaded to take a less confrontational approach during the actual election campaign, but the signs are not promising (see his response to Daniel Blaney’s criticisms in the September issue of Red Pepper). Paul Foot, who will almost certainly be the Socialist Alliance candidate, health permitting, will take a similar line, denouncing Livingstone as a renegade from socialism, a convert to New Labour policies and so on. A number of obviously planted letters by prominent SWP members in Socialist Worker, making gratuitous attacks on Livingstone’s record as mayor, are clearly intended to pave the way for a Socialist Alliance challenge in the mayoral election, and illustrate the kind of campaign the Alliance intends to fight.

Of course neither the Green nor, in particular, the Socialist Alliance mayoral candidate will get much of a vote, but they have the potential to break away a small section of Ken’s support. If they do so without emphasising the importance of a second preference vote for Livingstone, as seems likely, the actual beneficiary of their "left" criticisms of Ken will be Norris. Perhaps more important, they will persuade potential Livingstone supporters that there’s no point voting for him or anyone else (less than a third of the electorate turned out to vote in the 2000 mayoral election and I don’t think we can expect the level of abstentions to be much lower in 2004). The Lib Dems, too, can be expected to fight a campaign aimed mainly at criticising Livingstone, using their characteristic combination of left and right demagogy, depending on who they’re talking to and what they think will yield the best results.

If, on top of this, we have a Labour mayoral candidate who spends his time joining in the denunciations of Ken, rather than concentrating his fire on Norris and warning what a calamity for Londoners a Tory victory would be, then the prospects for Livingstone – and for the London labour movement as a whole – begin to look decidedly shaky. It is absolutely essential, therefore, that Labour Party members and trade unionists should select a Labour candidate who will campaign in a way that maintains the unity of the labour movement and places the main emphasis on defeating the Tories, rather than on attacking Ken.

In the Labour selection ballot the choice for party members and trade unionists in London is between the leadership’s anointed candidate, Tony Banks, and Nicky Gavron, who has the full backing of Livingstone.

Apparently Charles Clarke, the (unelected) chair of the Labour Party, had to work hard to persuade a hesitant Tony Banks that he should throw his hat into the ring. Given the humiliation heaped on Frank Dobson when he stood as the official Labour candidate in 2000, Banks’ reluctance is perhaps understandable. But so is the leadership’s concern to cajole him into standing – for, from their point of view, he is the ideal candidate.

As the former sports minister, Banks has name-recognition among party members, which will give him an advantage in the selection process. His days as a leftie on the Greater London Council are now far behind him, but Banks is still something of a loose cannon, and not an obvious New Labour clone. As we know from elections to the NEC, he is the sort of candidate who can win support among the party membership, by presenting himself as an independently-minded individual, while in practice acting as a leadership stooge.

Of course, there isn’t the slightest chance of Labour’s mayoral candidate getting elected, as even Banks himself (a man not deficient in the ego department) must be well aware. The only candidates who can possibly win are Livingstone and Norris. So, from the leadership’s standpoint, what is the point of insisting on standing a Labour candidate?

To understand this, we have to look back to the Labour campaign in 2000. On the eve of the election, when it became clear that the only candidate with the remotest chance of beating Ken was Norris, certain leading figures in the Labour Party apparatus approached Mirror editor Piers Morgan and persuaded him to withdraw his paper’s support from Frank Dobson and urge its readers to vote for Norris. (On the advice of my solicitor, I wish to stress that I am not suggesting that either Margaret McDonagh or Alastair Campbell was in any way implicated in this disgraceful affair.) The reasoning was that, with Livingstone out of the way, four years down the line Labour could stand against Norris and defeat him. A tactical bloc with the Tories to defeat Ken was therefore necessary.

This political reasoning will inform the strategy adopted by the party apparatus for 2004 (and no doubt also explains Trevor Phillips’ decision to withdraw from the selection contest and put his mayoral ambitions on hold until next time). If Banks gets to be the Labour candidate, we can expect an endless succession of malicious attacks on Ken, outdoing even the scandalous precedent set by Frank Dobson’s campaign in 2000. In Banks’ own case, this will be fuelled by his deep personal animosity towards Livingstone, and will no doubt take on an even more spiteful edge as his own overwhelming rejection by the voters becomes apparent from opinion polls. In short, Banks will go for Ken with everything he has. He is therefore ideally equipped to perform the role allotted to him by the ultra-Blairites, of discrediting Livingstone and opening the door to Norris.

Those voters who make up Labour’s electoral base – the class-conscious section of manual and low-paid white-collar workers, together with progressively-minded people from the professional middle class – will of course in their large majority back Livingstone. Nevertheless, there is a substantial minority of traditional Labour voters who always support the party come what may, and the official Labour candidate can expect to get perhaps 15% of the vote. How these Labour supporters cast their second preference vote could well be decisive for the outcome of the election. They have to be convinced that the main enemy is the Tories, not Ken. Even if Banks were to formally call for a second preference for Livingstone, which he might possibly do, just to cover himself, the effect would be entirely negated by a campaign that devoted itself to political attacks on Livingstone.

A further consequence of a Labour mayoral candidate yet again devoting his campaign to slagging off Ken will be the demobilising effect it will have on party members. As happened during the GLA elections in 2000, some will operate a down tools policy and simply refuse to participate, while others will turn their backs on Labour’s official campaign and go off and work for Livingstone. This will have a damaging knock-on effect for the party’s Assembly candidates, whose fortunes will be tied to the Labour mayoral campaign. Last time, party members who balked at supporting Dobson for mayor, but would have been ready to work for Labour’s Assembly candidates, were faced with the alternative of distributing joint leaflets for the mayoral and Assembly elections or refusing to do any political work at all for the party. Many chose the latter option, and this was a contributory factor in Labour’s failure to emerge from the election as the largest party in the Assembly.

If Tony Banks has any sense, of course, he’ll keep quiet about all of that during his selection campaign. But this is, in reality, what will happen if he gets selected as the Labour candidate. A vote for Banks is, to put it bluntly, a vote for Norris – and, moreover, a vote for minimising Labour’s representation in the London Assembly, generally demoralising the party membership and giving the Tories a boost in the run-up to the next general election.

Nicky Gavron, by contrast, has summarised her case as follows: "In my view the National Executive Committee’s decision by 17-13 to reject Ken Livingstone’s application to reapply for membership – and therefore to participate in Labour’s selection process – was a mistake.... Fortunately the selection process for the mayoral candidate gives us every chance to stop a rerun of 2000 and thus prevent Labour digging a new hole for itself. The strategy flows logically from the second preference voting system established for the mayoral election. What Labour has to do is call for a first preference vote for the party and a second preference vote for Ken Livingstone, with a candidate that means it, and concentrate the two-year election campaign on keeping the Tories out. If we do this, Labour has every chance to improve its position significantly in the capital.... It will begin to heal the party, while shutting the door against the Tories. Conversely, if the party conducts another campaign with Ken Livingstone as the main enemy it will be the Tories who will gain and Labour who will lose at every level" (Tribune, 13 September).

The conclusion to be drawn from this is surely obvious. There is an urgent need for all Labour activists who have the party’s best interests at heart to campaign vigorously for Nicky Gavron in the selection process that is now under way.

Some, admittedly, will need persuading. One argument I have heard from party members is that Gavron is just Ken Livingstone’s pawn and her campaign in the mayoral election would therefore necessarily be subordinated to his own, whereas Banks would be a real Labour candidate, fighting independently on behalf of the party. It is necessary to patiently explain to these comrades that their loyalty is being abused in order to harness them to a suicidally sectarian strategy – "after Norris, our turn" – which, if it succeeds, will be massively damaging to the party in London.

Among some left-wing party members and trade unionists, too, I get the impression that there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Gavron, who is herself of course no hard leftist. Patient explanation is perhaps less appropriate with these comrades, most of whom are hardly new to politics and in some cases would claim, laughably, to take their inspiration from Marxism. Frankly, if the Labour left is so utterly devoid of an elementary sense of tactics that they cannot see the need to pitch in and assist Gavron’s selection campaign, then they would be well advised to give up on politics and seek some alternative pursuit in which to engage their energies – doing jigsaw puzzles, perhaps, or knitting. These comrades need to have it banged into their heads that there are some important issues at stake here, and self-indulgent displays of pseudo-leftism only play into the hands of our political opponents, inside and outside the party.

Let me conclude by quoting Livingstone himself, writing in the September issue of Socialist Campaign Group News: "London will face a simple choice at the Mayoral election in May 2004: to elect a Mayor committed to massive public investment in housing and public transport or a Tory committed to further dismantling London’s public services. It is vital that Labour selects a candidate who will focus on that real confrontation and between now and then work with my administration to deliver the progressive agenda which London needs."