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Should Respect Stand a Candidate Against Ken?

The luxury of division

Editorial in the Morning Star, 12 April 2007

THE Communist Party is to be congratulated for its early announcement that not only will it not put forward its own candidate to contest the London mayoral position but that it will also urge all other left groups to do likewise.

The resurgent Tory Party has set its sights on defeating Ken Livingstone in next year’s mayoral contest and there are already signs that the election will plumb new depths of depravity.

Tory leader David Cameron has told the Jewish Chronicle in a recent interview, which proclaimed that "my values are Jewish values," falsely accused the London mayor of "borderline anti-semitism."

And the Standard, which monopolises London's evening newspaper market, carried five substantial articles attacking the mayor’s policies in a single fortnight.

These included Mr Livingstone’s links with Cuba and Venezuela, including the exchange of cheap Venezuelan fuel for expertise and advice, which London Tory leader Angie Bray misrepresented as a one-sided deal to benefit one of the world’s most prosperous cities at the expense of Venezuelans struggling below the poverty line.

The Standard also slated the mayor’s transport policies, including free travel for under-18s in full-time education, free travel on buses and trams for under-16s and free travel on Tube and Dockland Light Railway for under-11s in the company of an adult.

Such policies are generally popular in London, but there is a clear intention by Mr Livingstone’s opponents to carry out a drip-drip incessant campaign to distract the public from the essence of his policies and to convince voters that he has character defects that will reflect badly on their city.

Mr Livingstone has been elected twice – the first time as an independent, having been forced out of the Labour Party, and the second time on a Labour ticket.

Although seen largely as his own man, he may still lose some votes on the basis of his party affiliation, as part of the rising tide of dissatisfaction with new Labour.

And some issues – such as the envisaged contracting out of the East London Line that was forced on Transport for London by the government as a quid pro quo for bringing the North London Line under TfL control – have angered the trade unions and risk losing him some support.

On both domestic and international issues, the mayor of London has provided a progressive base around which socialist, environmentalist and other progressive forces have been able to unite.

At the last mayoral election, the Respect candidate polled 4.67 per cent, with just 26 per cent of her second preference votes going to Mr Livingstone.

In the event of a close-run contest next year, such a tally of more than three missing percentage points could prove decisive in working out whether we have a progressive mayor – warts and all – or a disastrous return to the discriminatory and divisive policies associated with Tory rule.

The left cannot afford to indulge in the luxury of division.

A unified popular movement, shattering the narrow confines of new Labour neoliberalism, could deliver a Livingstone victory and open the way to further successes based on unity of the left.

Time for Respect

Morning Star, 23 April 2007

LINDSEY GERMAN and GEORGE GALLOWAY respond to calls for Respect to step aside in favour of current Mayor Ken Livingstone at London elections next year.

WE were surprised to see your April 13 editorial on the London mayoral election, still more than a year away, when you urged that Respect stand down in the contest to allow Ken Livingstone a free run against the Tories.

You cite the Communist Party’s decision not to stand a candidate as the basis for such a move, but, since the party has never stood a mayoral candidate, it is giving up rather less than Respect would be giving up if it agreed to this proposal.

The Respect candidate came fifth in the last election, beating both the British National Party and the Greens. Yet you do not direct your appeal to the Green Party, which could also be accused of splitting the vote.

The electoral system for London mayor actually makes it very hard for the vote to be split, since it operates on the basis of transfers – all candidates bar the top two have their second preference vote distributed to eventually determine the winner. Respect’s candidate was the only one to call clearly for transfers to Ken in 2004 and more than a quarter of those voters responded – a relatively high proportion.

And there is no reason to suppose that, if Respect does not stand, its voters will turn out in a greater proportion than our transfers and vote for Ken.

Many will, like other disillusioned Labour voters, stay at home. Some may vote Liberal believing them to be anti-war. Some may vote Green as the only alternative to new Labour. Ken did better when we stood last time, as is proven by his advisers’ request in the 2004 election – with which we complied – in the last week of voting to write a letter to the Guardian underlining our call for second preferences to go to Labour.

Not to stand for mayor would put Respect at a disadvantage in relation to these other parties, especially with regard to the list for the assembly, where, last time, we narrowly missed the 5 per cent that would have got us elected.

Without a mayoral candidate, the party has no access to the booklet which goes into every London household, no chance of appearing at hustings, little media exposure and no television and radio broadcast. That would mean Respect standing with one hand tied behind its back.

Of course, we should all take seriously the possibility of a Tory winning, although the failed attempts to persuade Greg Dyke to stand as a Tory and Liberal-backed independent show that David Cameron is not confident that a Tory candidate could come anywhere near unseating Ken.

As The Independent editorialised last week, "it is difficult to see a serious rival to Ken Livingstone emerging now." In the event of such a threat, this would be something that all the left candidates, including Respect, would have to take seriously.

In the meantime, it is important that a strong left voice is heard round many of the issues facing Londoners – the acute housing crisis, which is not being dealt with, the transport system, which is both the most expensive and one of the worst in the world, the privatisation of the East London Line and the business agenda, which is making London a worse place for many of the poor to live.

Those are the issues that were the basis on which Respect unanimously selected its prospective candidate for mayor at a large and representative meeting of London Respect members last week. We hope that you will respect their democratic decision at a time when Labour has never been more unpopular.

Ken’s popularity, on the other hand, tends to be over those issues where he differs from the Labour government – his anti-racist and anti-war stances, his support for countries such as Venezuela and his commitment to equal rights. On these, we agree with him. But, surely, we have the right to say when we disagree.

Ken has a year to bolster his own support by stressing these elements of his programme and further distancing himself from Blair and Brown.

Meanwhile, the breadth of Respect candidates selected for the list demonstrates the support which Respect has across London. Our candidates include black, Kurdish, Muslim, Sikh, Irish, trade unionists, environmentalists, LGBT and disabled people.

It is likely to be the most ethnically diverse of all the parties. Some 50 per cent of our candidates are women.

Many Londoners are dissatisfied with the record of new Labour in government and will not turn out to vote Labour in the numbers that they once did. A vote for Respect by these people will help the left and can help Ken by lifting the left vote overall from people who might otherwise abstain.

A good vote for Respect will also help to keep the fascist BNP off the assembly. More votes for new Labour will not keep the BNP off the assembly, because the proportional representation system favours the election of smaller parties. So, the only way of keeping the BNP off is to vote for a left-wing, smaller party.

Respect is the obvious candidate for this vote – but its chances will be undermined without the publicity that comes from standing a mayoral candidate.

These are all important reasons why Respect should stand with as high a profile as possible. All of us on the left want to defeat the Tories and the BNP in next year’s elections. A strong voice for Respect will help such a process.

George Galloway is Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. Lindsey German was the party’s candidate for mayor of London in 2004 and was recently selected again as Respect candidate for the 2008 contest.