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Issue 47, May 2000

Where now for Livingstone?

IT IS UNIVERSALLY expected, as we go to press, that Ken Livingstone will become London's first directly elected mayor on 4 May. A Livingstone victory, just one year before a likely general election, represents a severe blow to Tony Blair's New Labour government.

If Livingstone had put up an independent slate for the London assembly elections, taking place on the same day, it would doubtlessly have received enormous support. The fact that he did not says much about how he will perform as mayor and the role he has cast for himself in London and British politics.

Transport was the central issue of the campaign, but in his election manifesto, with many workers looking to Livingstone to provide an alternative to all of Blair's pro-big business policies, Livingstone was compelled to address a range of issues beyond the limited remit of London mayor. However, given Livingstone's attempts to accommodate himself to New Labour, while failing to put forward a socialist solution to the consequences of New Labour's capitalist programme, workers are likely to be disappointed.

In his manifesto Livingstone spoke of London as one of the world's most successful city economies. But this 'success' has not benefited London's working class. As Livingstone himself acknowledges, unemployment in inner-London is twice the national average. Thirteen of the 20 poorest boroughs in Britain are in London. The gap between rich and poor is particularly extreme, with the chances of dying before the age of 65 almost twice as high in the most deprived areas.

 

At the beginning of the campaign Livingstone threatened to use the mayoralty 'to finish the GLC's unfinished business'. It became apparent, however, that aside from the new London assembly having much less power than the old Greater London Council (GLC), Livingstone, having abandoned support for a socialist alternative to the capitalist market, had no intention of reviving the GLC's left-reformist policies.

It is clear that as mayor Livingstone will adopt a cross-party approach. During the campaign he consistently emphasised the similarities between the candidates and raised the idea that the position of deputy mayor could be rotated between the parties. He called for a vote for the Greens in the top-up list for the assembly but for Labour in the constituencies.

Livingstone has not broken from New Labour politically and has only marginal differences with Blair. Having left New Labour he seeks an all-Londoners-together-never-mind-the-differences approach. At a London business leaders meeting in early April Livingstone promised to be a 'London nationalist' rather than a socialist mayor. In his manifesto he says he will 'stand up for London' and demands the return of the 19 billion a year net 'subsidy' London provides to the rest of the UK.

In the 1980s Livingstone was a left-wing populist offering a radical alternative to Thatcher's Tory government. Even then, however, he failed to galvanise the mass support he enjoyed into an effective campaign in defence of GLC policies and the abolition of the GLC itself - relying instead on celebrity support and slick publicity rather than mass action by London's working class.

 

Today Livingstone retains his populist approach, but has jettisoned the left radicalism of the 'Red Ken' image. This may not be apparent to many workers, particularly young people, who for example read his condemnation of the world financial institutions in the New Musical Express (NME): 'All over the world people die unnecessarily because of the international financial system'. (15 April) However, during the election campaign, while Livingstone astutely adapted himself to his audience, espousing radicalism where appropriate, he overwhelmingly sought to reassure London's city elite that he would be good for business. In his regular column for The Independent in the same week as the NME interview he explained how he 'always found personal relations with business relaxed and refreshingly realistic... A big business deals with billions of pounds. It has no choice but to be objective'. (12 April) He then subsequently qualified the remarks in his NME interview, exonerating the City of London from any responsibility for the plight of the victims of international capital.

Livingstone's manifesto starkly exposes his failure to offer a viable alternative following his conversion to the capitalist market. He talks of working 'with the Corporation of London and major City institutions to ensure London remains the financial capital of Europe', and sees the election of a mayor as 'a unique opportunity to achieve real competitive advantage for London's economy'. He promises a new London Development Agency, which will be dominated by representatives from London businesses, to target regeneration funds, involving private investment, to tackle poverty and inequality.

 

Workers in London, however, have heard all this before. London's rich elite will never hand over the millions of pounds needed to regenerate the run-down housing estates. Even at the height of an economic boom London's hospitals and schools are desperately short of resources. With economic crisis around the corner no amount of meetings with business leaders or government ministers will fundamentally alter this.

Even on the issue of the part privatisation of the Tube, which could be a fait accompli when he takes on responsibility for transport next year, Livingstone will be found wanting unless he leads a mass campaign across London, involving demonstrations and support for strike action by Tube workers.

Notwithstanding his limited populist programme and refusal to campaign for a new workers' party, however, Livingstone's victory will be a blow against the New Labour government. But over the next four years Livingstone will come under conflicting pressures and find that it is not possible to maintain a position of representing 'a coalition of interests' in London. 'London nationalism' offers no way forward for London's working class - the interests of the city millionaires are diametrically opposed to the interests of the millions of workers living in London. On his current programme he is likely to satisfy no one.

Jim Horton

 


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