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Issue 46, April 2000

Can Ken deliver?

    How Red is Ken?
    Resisting Tube privatisation?
    The GLC experience
    'The rate-capping fiasco'

Barring an unprecedented collapse in his popularity and a correspondingly miraculous rise in support for the hapless Frank Dobson, Labour's candidate, it is virtually certain that Ken Livingstone will achieve his personal ambition of becoming mayor on May 4. JIM HORTON, below, looks at what Londoners can expect from Livingstone as mayor while PETER TAAFFE examines what the Livingstone phenomenon means for the prospects of building a new mass socialist alternative to Blair.

top     How Red is Ken?

KEN LIVINGSTONE'S DECISION to stand for London mayor has transformed what had promised to be a lacklustre election into an acrimonious battle being fought out to the bitter end. Moreover, it has brought into sharp relief the underlying processes within society: a deep discontent towards establishment politics combined with confused political consciousness, giving this opposition an inchoate character.

Livingstone has said the mayoral election will be a referendum on the issues of London democracy and the Tube - the capital's expensive, overcrowded underground railway system. But for many workers, who view Livingstone as a radical alternative to the openly Thatcherite polices of New Labour, the election is seen as a referendum on Blairism itself.

While it is true that many people will vote for Livingstone as the anti-establishment, 'stuff Blair' candidate, thousands of workers will be expecting Livingstone to provide solutions to the myriad of problems they currently face. For their own purposes, Livingstone has been portrayed by his opponents inside and outside of the labour movement as an uncompromising left-winger. The 'Red Ken' label, coined by the media in the early 1980s because of his radical policies, has stuck with him since the heady days of the Greater London Council (GLC). Many workers also still consider him as a rebel, someone who stood up to Margaret Thatcher in the past and who will now stand up to Tony Blair. At the same time, many Tories will mischievously vote for Livingstone confident that he will be a thorn in Blair's flesh.

 

Can Livingstone live up to the expectations of those looking for a real opposition to Blairism? Will he be able to provide a programme to solve the problems of low pay, under-resourced schools, an under-funded health service, and neglected and run-down housing estates? Having made the break from New Labour, will Livingstone lead a campaign against all the anti-working class attacks of Blair's pro-big business government?

Livingstone himself has contrasted the enormous fuss over who should be mayor to the very limited power attached to the post. As a US-style mayor paid nearly 100,000 a year, Livingstone will have sole responsibility for initiating policy and appointing committees to run transport, the police, fire service and land-use planning. The new London assembly's powers are even more restricted, limited to either ratifying or rejecting the mayor's proposals, requiring a two-thirds majority. The assembly is being elected on the same day as the mayor. Blair has made sure that it will have no resemblance to the old GLC, which was abolished by Thatcher in 1986.

With a budget of just 3.5bn ($5.12bn), the mayor will have no direct responsibility over health, education and housing, and will have no tax-raising powers other than levying a congestion tax on motorists. However, even with these limited powers many workers will expect Livingstone to use his position and popular mandate to carry out progressive measures and mount a challenge to Blair.

During the selection process, however, Livingstone gave out mixed messages. While condemning the government for cutting local authority grants, which have resulted in job losses and cuts in services, he also prostrated himself before Blair. In a notorious Open Letter to Blair, published in The Guardian (29 January), Livingstone said he "would work with your government, not against it... There is simply no question whatever of my seeking to use the mayorship as a platform to wage political warfare against this government".

 

This was when Livingstone was still campaigning to be accepted as Labour's official candidate. Many workers will undoubtedly have viewed this as a ruse designed to prevent his exclusion from the Labour shortlist. But in the same Open Letter, Livingstone went further in his praise of Blair: "I am convinced that your administration has the potential to be a great reforming government on a par with those of 1906 and 1945". The reference to the 1906 government - a Liberal administration - is significant, echoing Blair's claim that the labour movement's split with the Liberals was a historical mistake. This idea is one of the themes of Blair's 'Third Way' thinking, and the conversion of New Labour into an openly capitalist party.

top     Resisting Tube privatisation?

LIVINGSTONE'S CURRENT PROGRAMME, while an advance over New Labour's, is quite minimal: the removal of racist police officers, an open mayor via the internet, more frequent trains, guards on Tube trains and conductors on buses. More controversially, Livingstone says he would immediately introduce a congestion tax on motorists, while Dobson would wait until a second term. However, a congestion tax without radical improvements in affordable public transport, while aimed at companies, will also hit hard workers and the self-employed.

Livingstone's only real policy difference with Dobson is on funding London Underground, which Livingstone has made the centrepiece of his mayoral campaign. He opposes Tube privatisation, but argues for funding through bond issues. There are huge expectations that Livingstone could prevent the privatisation of the Underground. Leaving aside Livingstone's flawed alternative, which still involves private finance rather than public investment and democratic control, can he deliver even on this one issue?

 

In fact Livingstone will be powerless to stop the sale of London Underground. The mayor will take responsibility for some transport services in July, but not for the Tube until after privatisation at the beginning of 2001. Legislation states that the contracts cannot be altered for seven-and-a-half years, well into a second term. From his past record and recent statements, it is clear that Livingstone will not organise an effective struggle against privatisation, which would have to include using his position to argue for strike action. Instead, he intends to rely on a combination of the 'democratic pressure' of the electorate and the threat of a judicial review through the courts if the government fails to choose 'the best funding deal'.

In an interview with the Evening Standard, Livingstone said that if privatisation of the Tube goes ahead "you are stuck with it, you have to make the best of it". (19 October 1999) In other words, his role will be restricted to the hiring and firing of staff and setting fares, although 'Public/Private Partnership' contracts stipulate how much the Underground must raise from fares to pay private operators to run it. Livingstone has been reduced to boasting of his power to determine which companies in future will get the contracts, namely those who operate 'worker-friendly' policies. But there will inevitably be a conflict between the profits of the privatised Tube companies and the wages and conditions of the workforce. An effective struggle against privatisation would require the building of a mass campaign with Tube workers taking industrial action. Livingstone could use his position to support striking transport workers and fight any victimisation of activists. Demonstrations would be necessary to rally the support of public transport users. Public meetings, leaflets and the internet would all have to be used to cut across the inevitable mass media smear campaign that would follow such militant action.

 

Livingstone's position on the Underground reflects the fact that 'Red Ken' has moved away from support for an alternative to capitalism. In the interview with the Evening Standard he explained: "Twenty years ago I would have said a central planned economy could be made to work better than the Western capitalist economy; I don't believe that anymore". (19 October 1999) Rather than argue for genuine democratic socialism following the collapse of the Stalinist states, Livingstone has succumbed to the ideological pressure of capitalism. Taking his pro-market conversion to its logical conclusion, Livingstone has said he will work with big business and invite representatives of the CBI (Confederation of British Industry - an employers' organisation) into cabinet positions if he is elected.

Livingstone stands for a 'European model' of regulated capitalism. While opposing further privatisations, he does not call for the re-nationalisation of the privatised industries, including the rail network, where profit before safety resulted in the horrific Paddington rail-crash. For Livingstone capitalism is triumphant: "I think it is quite clear that as a system for the distribution and exchange of goods the market can't be bettered". (Evening Standard, 19 October) Yet he argues for the setting up of a mayor's task force to tackle the inner-city poverty that precisely results from the failure of the market to fairly distribute goods. Livingstone will find that accepting the market means accepting the effects of the market - poverty pay, job losses, privatisation and cuts.

 

Livingstone as mayor will not be able to satisfy both London's working class and its business elite. If he fails to use his authority to lead a challenge against capitalism he will lose the mass support he currently enjoys. Today there is a huge layer in society that feels alienated from politics generally. Significantly, the number of Londoners who (according to the polls) will bother to vote in the mayoral elections has not risen since Livingstone decided to stand.

top     The GLC experience

NOTWITHSTANDING LIVINGSTONE'S ACCEPTANCE of the capitalist market, many workers' perception of him will be shaped partly by his occasional anti-establishment rhetoric and increasingly his opponents' attacks on him. When Dobson says Livingstone is anti-police and against big business, despite Livingstone's protestations that he wants more 'bobbies on the beat' or his boasts of support amongst London's business elite, he will be regarded as striking a chord with all those who suffer from police brutality and discrimination, and with those who are victims of the market economy.

There are also many workers who recognise the limitations of Livingstone's programme, but believe he can be put under pressure to challenge Blair's 'Third Way' agenda, citing his past record as GLC leader. During Labour's selection process both Livingstone's opponents and his supporters also evoked the memory of the GLC of the 1980s to bolster their respective positions.

 

In one outburst, former Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, predicted: "When people get down to remembering Ken's real record as the man who brought about the destruction of the Greater London Council, the man who invented the London loony left, then they'll say we really don't want this guy to represent the greatest city in the world". Most workers in London have a different perception of the GLC, hence Livingstone's current popularity. Blair launched a more veiled attack, but both Blair and Kinnock in effect endorsed Thatcher's undemocratic abolition of the GLC.

The election of a Labour-controlled GLC in May 1981 reversed four years of job losses and cutbacks under the previous Tory administration. It set about introducing a number of welcome reforms, becoming a focal point of opposition to Thatcherism. However, when it came to a serious defence of the flagship of GLC policy, cheap fares for public transport, as well as a campaign against cuts in government grants to local authorities and the abolition of the GLC itself, Livingstone was found wanting. That experience gives important indications of how Livingstone will act today.

Workers enthusiastically greeted the implementation of the GLC's manifesto commitment to cut fares by 32%. However, the Law Lords (the highest court of appeal) ruled that London Transport (LT) should be run on ordinary business principles, making any social subsidy illegal. This reactionary decision threatened fare increases of 200% and a loss of a quarter of LT's workforce. The Socialist Party (formerly Militant) at the time called for all-out strike action by LT's 40,000 workers supported by a 24-hour regional general strike of all London's workers. Such action linked to a genuine mass campaign by the GLC could have compelled the courts and the Tory government to retreat.

 

Unfortunately, in what was to become a consistent feature of the left leaders of the GLC in general and Livingstone in particular, this strategy was rejected in favour of the 'Keep Fares Fair' propaganda campaign. Meetings were organised that attracted hundreds of ordinary workers. As Livingstone himself admitted, the mood existed to build a mass campaign led by the LT unions, but this was not done. An opportunity to inflict a major defeat on the Tories was missed. The weakness of the GLC left was rewarded with moves by the Tory government, after its re-election in 1983, to abolish the GLC.

Livingstone, despairing at Thatcher's 140-seat parliamentary majority, concluded that: "there was no chance of defeating the abolition proposals... There seemed to be no chance of industrial action by the trade unions at County Hall". (If Voting Changed Anything, They'd Abolish It, Ken Livingstone, 1987, p259) Livingstone, lacking confidence in workers' preparedness to struggle, deflected responsibility for the defeat of the anti-abolition campaign onto trade unionists.

While Livingstone was ruling out the idea of struggle in London, Liverpool city council, under the dominant influence of Militant, mobilised a mass campaign for more money and against rate-capping (limiting the maximum level of local property tax which could be levied by councils and cutting government grants to local authorities) involving a city-wide general strike in March 1984. At each stage of the campaign in Liverpool there was the full democratic involvement of the council workforce.

 

The mood amongst workers in London was no different. In November 1984 100,000 workers came out on strike in the boroughs threatened by rate-capping and in opposition to the abolition of the GLC. Thirty thousand marched in the capital. Opinion polls showed over 70% opposed to GLC abolition. Yet rather than mobilise this enormous latent support into a mass campaign to defend the council, Livingstone launched the 'GLC Roadshow', as it became known, involving celebrities, fun days, festivals, glossy adverts and opinion polls. All demonstrated the potential for an effective campaign against the government but such a campaign was never organised.

top     'The rate-capping fiasco'

NO STRUGGLE CAN guarantee victory, but victory was only possible by mobilising the organised working class linked to a mass campaign in the communities. But this was alien to Livingstone, who preferred a slick, high profile, allegedly 'broad-based' campaign, including wining-and-dining the feudal relics in the House of Lords. This defeat prepared the ground for what Livingstone himself described as the 'rate-capping fiasco'.

In 1984 Liverpool city council had already, through strike action and mass demonstrations, compelled the Thatcher government to return the 30 million stolen from it in central government rate-support grant. Before this victory Livingstone and the other Labour lefts accused Liverpool of 'jumping the gun'. Livingstone's advice had been to set "the minimum necessary rate increase to get them through this year", and wait for other councils to join them in battle the following year.

 

In 1985, 25 Labour councils faced rate-capping. Liverpool councillors argued for the tactic of setting a deficit budget, which in 1984 had clearly shown workers what had been stolen by the Tory government, and a mass campaign, mobilising workers around the clear demand for a return of the stolen money. Livingstone and other left council leaders opposed this, arguing instead for not setting a rate until the Tories had made concessions. While this tactic appeared to be a more dramatic gesture of defiance, it actually obscured the issues involved, making more complicated the task of explanation. Coupled with a reluctance to mobilise council and other workers, the 'no rate' tactic doomed the campaign against rate-capping to failure.

In fact the Labour left had no intention of not setting a rate. The gesture of defiance was just that: a gesture. In February 1985 the Tories on the GLC (in a manoeuvre to wrong-foot Livingstone) unexpectedly announced they would vote against the government's rate-capping limit. It became clear that even with the Labour right voting against illegality, the left would have a majority not to set a rate.

With astounding frankness Livingstone later explained how this presented difficulties for the GLC left: "Suddenly, for the first time we faced the possibility that the GLC might really refuse to set a rate. This presented several problems, not least of which was that as everyone had assumed that behind all the rhetoric there was no real possibility of this happening, none of us had even begun to explore the question of how to run a bankrupt council. Certainly, no one had given any thought to how staff would react to no pay or how we would provide essential services to the public". (If Voting Changed Anything pp313-14)

 

Not preparing for such an eventuality was at best irresponsible. At worst, it exposed not only the falsity of the 'no rate' tactic but also the political bankruptcy of left reformism in general and Livingstone in particular: verbal, symbolic opposition until the commencement of battle, and then capitulation.

Livingstone's decision to stand as an independent for mayor does not contradict this. He is an astute politician who will not miss an opportunity to advance himself. Back in 1985 Livingstone also had personal considerations for capitulating on rate-capping: "I was dammed if I was going to allow the money I had saved to be seized by the district auditor (an official with powers to surcharge councillors for 'illegal' expenditure)... The parliamentary selection procedure was about to start in Brent East and if bankrupted I would be barred from standing as a candidate". (If Voting Changed Anything p314) Livingstone's expected career move was given precedence over a principled and serious fightback to defend jobs and services.

The GLC became the first council to cave in. Livingstone attempted to take refuge in the fact that the London boroughs did not have to set their rates until later and claimed that it was therefore unreasonable to expect GLC members to break the law alone. But Livingstone knew this when he originally argued for the 'no rate' strategy. It also ignored the fact that Liverpool council had been left to fight alone the previous year and London boroughs were facing the option of going illegal or instituting cuts. The GLC's capitulation encouraged all of them, with the exception of Lambeth council, to carry out the latter.

 

Unlike Livingstone, the Liverpool councillors were surcharged by the auditor and debarred from office, and ultimately expelled from the Labour Party. Having fought a heroic battle alongside the council workforce, they were unable to withstand the combined onslaught of the Tory government, the state and the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracies.

In different historical circumstances Livingstone now finds himself outside the Labour Party. But while Livingstone has given up membership of the Labour Party, he has broken neither politically nor organisationally from New Labour. Livingstone has no substantial ideological differences with Blair. Offering a potent populist agenda based on capitalism, he wants to appeal to workers, the middle class and London's business community. As a populist Livingstone will veer left and right. In true chameleon fashion he adapts himself to his audience, espousing the relevance of socialism and opposition to tuition fees at radical student meetings while supporting the market economy and the euro at forums for financiers and business leaders.

The GLC experience shows that Livingstone has always had a populist approach. He has prided himself on being an empiricist without theoretical baggage. But this has been his weakness, making him prone to cynicism about building mass movements and easily swayed by the latest trends and moods. With socialism out of fashion, Livingstone has embraced capitalism.

 

A win for Livingstone, however, in spite of his limited programme, will be a devastating blow to Blair. The domination of New Labour has been broken and the idea that there is no electable alternative to Blairism on the left is being dispelled.


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