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Issue 37, April 1999

Labour's Livingstone dilemma

IN AN OPEN letter to Tony Blair published in The Guardian earlier this year, Ken Livingstone MP publicly declared his loyalty to the Labour leader. In apparently unequivocal terms he stated: "I want to give you a categorical assurance that, if Londoners voted for me to be their first elected mayor, I would work with your government not against it... I have never given such a commitment and failed to honour it". (29 January)

Yet notwithstanding Livingstone's prostration before the openly Thatcherite Blair, the Labour Party officialdom is desperately seeking to prevent Livingstone from becoming mayor: why?

Labour's NEC has deferred making a final decision on its arrangements for selecting candidates until after the European parliament elections in June. But at some stage Labour's right-wing will have to choose between either keeping Livingstone off the shortlist from which London Labour Party members select the candidate for the mayoral election next year, or put up some 'heavyweight' figure of the right to challenge Livingstone for the nomination. The former could involve a bitter feud inside the London Labour Party, while the latter offers no guarantee that Livingstone will not be selected.

There is no question that Livingstone is immensely popular amongst Labour Party members in London, given his past record and the discontent that is brewing against New Labour modernisers who are now carrying out Tory policies with devastating effects on London. Reductions in local authority grants have resulted in savage cuts across London's poorest boroughs in education, jobs, the fire service, care provision for the elderly, the disabled and children, grants to the voluntary sector and cash for road maintenance.

Livingstone's popularity was indicated at the 'Let Ken stand for Mayor' rally on 15 February. To rapturous applause from the 1,000-strong crowd, Livingstone declared: 'Londoners are not going to be told who they can and can't vote for'.

  Livingstone reminded his audience that as leader of the Greater London Council (GLC), which was abolished by Thatcher in 1986, he had introduced the 'fares fair' policy which cut London Transport fares by 32%. One speaker claimed Livingstone would as mayor continue where he left off at the GLC. Such a belief illustrates the contradictory messages coming from Livingstone as he makes a vain attempt to face both ways towards the discontented layers in the London Labour Party and a Labour leadership determined to block him by any means.

Under the leadership of Livingstone the GLC did introduce some important reforms, most notably the fares fair policy itself. Yet even then Livingstone revealed the inadequacies of his left-reformist approach. At each critical stage in the GLC's battle against the then Tory government Livingstone was unwilling and unable to mobilise a mass movement of workers in defence of the fares fair policy, against rate-capping (which strictly limited the GLC's income from property taxes), and against the eventual abolition of the GLC.

The contrast with Liverpool city council could not have been starker. Under the leadership of Militant supporters (now the Socialist Party), Liverpool council mobilised thousands of workers in demonstrations and strikes resulting in the winning of concessions worth up to 60 million from the government in 1984. The superiority of a Marxist leadership revealed itself concretely in the homes, nurseries and leisure centres built by the council and the jobs created in a city blighted by mass unemployment. Ironically, it was the capitulation of Livingstone over rate-capping which paved the way for the isolation of Liverpool council and its eventual defeat as it faced the combined onslaught of the Tory government, the judiciary and the right-wing labour and trade union leadership.

In any event, Livingstone has no intention of returning to the reforms of the GLC. He has argued that, given the pressure of the number of commuters using the London public transport system today, a fares policy which results in increased use is not viable: in other words Livingstone as mayor will not cut fares.

  The truth is that only with an imaginative definition of the term could Ken Livingstone still be described as left-wing. Livingstone has said that he has no ideological differences with Blair and has praised the market as being good for the distribution of goods, merely requiring regulation to ensure decent education, health and workers' rights.

In falling over himself to heap praise on Blair, Livingstone incredibly claimed that Blair's government had the "potential to be a great reforming government on a par with those of 1906 and 1945". But the introduction of tuition fees, disability and single parent benefit cuts, the measly 3.60 minimum wage and the privatisation of health and education through PFI could hardly be described as great reforms.

But it is the reference to the 1906 Liberal government that is most significant. Blair has led the way internationally in changing the once traditional parties of the working class into openly capitalist parties. For Blair, the split in the political centre at the end of the last century, which resulted in organised labour turning away from liberalism with the formation of the Labour Party, was a mistake he intends to rectify. Does Livingstone also believe that the historical separation between the Liberal Party and the labour movement was a mistake? If not, then why cause confusion by the reference to 1906? Yet in March Livingstone was at it again, extolling the virtues of the 'Third Way' at an international local government conference in Barcelona.

Livingstone has also admitted that his Manifesto for London is broadly similar to that of Lord Archer, the likely Tory candidate. In a populist fashion, Archer has promised free milk and a muesli bar for every primary school child in London. Millionaire Archer has also pledged to give his 100,000 mayoral salary to charities for the homeless. In contrast Livingstone has publicly mocked the idea of working class representatives agreeing to accept only the average wage of a skilled worker, a policy strongly identified with Militant supporters Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall, who were Labour MPs in the 1980s. Livingstone is not far off the mark when he says that the only difference between himself and Archer is that if Archer wins he will be 'deeply critical of the government', whereas Livingstone would aim to work with the government.

  In spite of Livingstone's self-proclaimed moderation, however, he is still viewed with deep suspicion by the New Labour right. At the rally in February Livingstone gave his support to tube workers on strike against privatisation of London Underground and declared that as mayor he would not be part of a transport strategy which meant services on the cheap through cuts in wages and conditions.

It now looks likely that privatisation of the Tube lines will be delayed until at least after the mayoral election next year. New Labour's officialdom fear that, despite Livingstone's intentions following his 'third way' conversion, he could become a focal point of opposition on this and other issues, as Blair's government becomes increasingly unpopular in a period of recession and attacks against workers.

The big question is: what will Livingstone do if he is not shortlisted? Livingstone has warned of a legal challenge if barred, but at this stage, given scepticism concerning his loyalty, he has ruled out standing against New Labour. However, in an interview in The Guardian last year Livingstone hinted that he might stand against the official Labour candidate (14 November 1998). He calculates that he has less to lose than Blair with the threat of this ultimate weapon. This is a high risk strategy, however, which would not only result in his expulsion from the Labour Party, but would probably also fail to achieve his aim of becoming mayor, while losing his position as MP in the process.

If he campaigned on a socialist alternative to New Labour he could obtain a strong vote. But his attempts to reconcile with Tony Blair, added to his failure to organise the left after ten years in parliament, strongly indicates that he will not do so. New Labour certainly has a difficult 'Livingstone dilemma' to deal with. But Livingstone, because he refuses to break with Blair's openly capitalist party, has a bigger 'Labour dilemma' to confront.

Jim Horton


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