Socialism Today - Livingstone after the elections
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Issue 48

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Issue 48, June 2000

Livingstone after the elections

    What will Livingstone deliver?
    Livingstone and New Labour

FROM THE OUTSET it was clear that Livingstone, short of being run over by a Routemaster (London's old-fashioned double-decker bus), was going to walk it. He had the support of a variety of strands of the London electorate, many of them overlapping one another. A master of ambiguity on policy, Livingstone operated as a one-man coalition, with different personalities stepping forward as the occasion demanded.

Ken the cheeky rebel: Quite a few Tories were motivated by the delightful prospect of Livingstone, previously a thorn in Thatcher's side, becoming a painful irritant for Blair. Many more voters, completely disillusioned with Blair and angry at New Labour's Tory policies, backed him as the unmistakable 'stuff Blair' candidate. Blair actually reinforced this effect by attacking Livingstone as a 'disaster' for London, while his Millbank aides worked overtime to demonise Livingstone - spotlighting him as a vehicle for opposition.

Independent Ken: The rigging of the selection process and his expulsion from Labour as soon as he declared as an independent candidate was a huge bonus for Livingstone. It strengthened his support among all those disillusioned with established party machines, and especially with those alienated by New Labour's control-freakery (trying, for instance, to dominate the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly). Similarly, Norris's relatively good result was largely due to the Tory candidate distancing himself from the Tory leadership.


Red Ken: Not a persona projected by Ken himself in the mayoral contest, except in off-the-cuff remarks such as: "Every year the international financial system kills more people than world war two. But at least Hitler was mad". (Guardian, 11 April) This was in response to questions from readers of New Musical Express (NME). In any case (as we analysed in Socialism Today No.46), Livingstone's left reputation as leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s was more based on rhetoric than campaigning substance. Just before election day, Livingstone denounced the Reclaim the Streets anti-capitalist May Day demonstrators. The "mindless yobs defiling monuments dedicated to those who gave their lives for our liberty" would "find the new mayor distinctly uncuddly", he said, at the same time attacking drug dealers, racist thugs and robbers. (Guardian, 6 May) Refusing to support the London Socialist Alliance, Livingstone called for a Labour vote in the constituencies and a Green vote for the all-London top-up list.

Some of the right-wing capitalist dailies continued to denounce Livingstone as a dangerous socialist (helpfully bolstering his support in some quarters), but serious capitalist commentators recognised his real complexion. "He has", said The Independent (7 May), "wisely dropped much of his old rhetoric and alliances and now stands as a vaguely leftish Keynesian: hardly the stuff of tabloid nightmares". The Sunday Observer(30 April), which gave highly qualified support to Livingstone, commented: "He is the candidate who most nearer expresses the values of the liberal-social-democratic Left". Nevertheless, contradictory as it is, many people still see Livingstone as a socialist, in spite of his current stance, and they voted for him as a left alternative to Labour.


Friend of Business and the City: In this new role, Livingstone energetically courted business organisations (London Chamber of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry and London First) touting his business-friendly agenda. "In pressing London's case - for transport investment, regeneration funding, a skills plan better geared to employers" needs - I will build a strong partnership with every section of London business, the City, large employers and small firms", he said. The Financial Times reported (1 May) that "On several leading issues business endorses, or is relaxed with, Mr Livingstone's position" - referring to congestion charges, his call for greater public spending in the capital, and his acceptance of a fifth terminal at London's Heathrow airport.

London Nationalist: Speaking to a London Confederation of British Industry (CBI) lunch on 6 April, Livingstone proclaimed that he was a 'London nationalist'. He had not endorsed any of the 'mad slates of Trots' for the GLA, but was looking for a broad consensus which had to include business. The mayor's extensive powers of patronage, he cynically commented, especially through the London Development Agency, would enable him to find more allies.

Livingstone frequently drew attention to London's ?19.5 billion net contribution to the national exchequer (London's total tax contributions, less government expenditure in the capital), complaining about Gordon Brown's favouritism towards Scotland, which gets a net subsidy. A 'balanced' settlement, he claimed, would give London an additional ?600 million. As mayor, Livingstone proclaimed, he would lead the campaign to get extra money for London.


Champion of Public Transport: Livingstone opposed New Labour's public-private-partnership (PPP) plans to modernise the Tube (allocating construction projects to contractors in return for a guaranteed long-term profit), committing himself to 'fight to retain a unified underground system in the public sector'. Undoubtedly, this stance was crucial to Livingstone's popularity (even though the government is not actually proposing franchising lines to private companies as it did with the railways). Livingstone favours financing modernisation of the underground through issuing municipal bonds (on the New York model), in reality, a different form of private investment. Yet Livingstone's language, however ambiguous, taps the enormous discontent with the capital's outdated, overcrowded transport system.

Ken, the New-Style Radical Populist: Livingstone stressed his independence, plain-speaking and irreverent, not tied to a party-machine 'message'. Ken is currently immensely popular with a big swathe of London's cultural glitterati, the media's chattering classes, and chic radicals enjoying the fruits of the 1990s boom, all disenchanted with Blair (whom they adored in 1997). Livingstone "makes people laugh", commented the Financial Times ('London's Joker', 3 May). "He can even raise a smile in the financial sector with his anti-capitalist nonsense", the editorial lamented, noting that "the least suitable of the four main candidates" was depressingly certain to be elected.


Livingstone promised that he would be 'inclusive', involving Labour, Liberal Democrats and other talents in his administration. On election, he announced: "The job of the mayor is to unite all of the capital, so I will immediately be taking measures to involve all parties in the government of the city". (Guardian, 6 May)

Paradoxically, while Livingstone's victory is essentially contra-Blair, the Livingstone phenomenon shares many features with the triumphant Blair of 1997. Deep disenchantment with New Labour is the key to Livingstone's victory, just as widespread hatred of the Tories explained Blair's triumph in 1997. With Blair then and Livingstone now, style and image predominate. There are few concrete promises, policy commitments are vague, wrapped in ambiguity (in Blair's case obscuring a determination to continue Tory policies). Livingstone promises inclusiveness, a new style of politics, but so did Blair in 1997.

For a moment, Blair was able to win broad support across traditional party loyalties. Reacting against the consequences of 18 years of Tory government, a broad spectrum of voters all believed that their expectations would be matched by Blair and New Labour. There has been a similar effect with Livingstone. While winning the backing of 46% of voters who said they normally voted Labour, Livingstone won 33% of Liberal Democratic voters and an extraordinary 24% of Conservative voters. Exit polls showed that 37% of ABC1 voters (professional and managerial) voted Livingstone, while his support among DE (manual workers) voters stood at 43%. As with Blair and New Labour, however, the Livingstone phenomenon will rapidly be tested by events and realities.


top     What will Livingstone deliver?

THE PROLONGED BOOM in London's financial sector has brought the re-emergence of 'Swinging London' (according to a recent Newsweek cover story), symbolised by an unprecedented series of grand construction projects: the Tate Modern and Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, the fabulous stations of the Jubilee Line extension, and the modernist glass 'orb' or 'soapdish' designated as the Greater London Assembly's headquarters (criticised by Livingstone for its extravagance - ?150m to build, ?8m a year to run).

Most Londoners, however, are not enjoying the 'swinging' prosperity. "London's social and economic problems are severe", writes Dan Hawthorn, a local government expert: "There are more unemployed people in the borough of Islington than in Newcastle, and more in the whole of London than in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales put together. Nearly half the children in inner London come from families on income support, more than twice the average for the UK as a whole. London contains 13 of the 20 most deprived areas in the country, and 94% of the poorest council estates. Over the last year, street crime in the city has risen by 30%... London's roads are congested: the city is regularly exceeding government standards on sulphur dioxide and particulate air pollution" (London Review of Books, 13 April).

Despite his limited promises, Livingstone has aroused great expectations. A huge section of workers and young people, and a strata of the middle class too, are looking to Livingstone for real improvements in the quality of life in the capital, and they are looking for radical solutions.


What will Livingstone deliver? With a directly-elected mandate, the mayor could potentially be a powerful advocate, using his position as a platform to mobilise mass support for radical policies. As soon as he was elected, however, Livingstone said "I really want to make this system work" (Independent on Sunday, 7 May). Within 'this system', the mayor has very little room for manoeuvre. The Greater London Assembly, of which he is the dominant chief executive, is not a legislative but an executive body, responsible for running some aspects of London and operating within a rigid framework which it has no power to modify.

The mayor's budget is ?3.6 billion a year, but most of this will be absorbed by the London Development Authority, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, the Metropolitan Police, and Transport for London. Strategic regeneration funds (under LDA) may provide some scope for housing improvement, for example. But the budget directly under the mayor's control may only be around ?20 million, mostly for cultural spending (Economist, 6 May).

"The mayor", said Livingstone before the election, "is going to have to lead the campaign to get extra money... the mayor needs to have a bare-knuckle fight..." (Observer, 30 April) But Livingstone has given no indication that he has any plans for the kind of mass campaigning that would be necessary to extract extra funds from the Blair government.

Transport will be a make-or-break issue for Livingstone. He has opposed the government's public-private partnership funding proposals. New Labour, however, has framed legislation so that the mayor will not take responsibility for London Underground until after the implementation of PPP. Again, Livingstone has outlined no strategy for fighting this. At the same time, his only alternative is to finance improvements through municipal bonds, a different form of private financing which he claims would be cheaper.


The mayor does have powers to impose congestion charges on vehicles using central London (a ?5 a day charge would raise about ?250m a year). Such revenue could be used to improve the bus service, freeze bus and Tube fares for three years, add new cycle routes, and improve pedestrian facilities. But congestion charges are currently opposed by the Blair government, and improvements are likely to be quite limited in the immediate future.

top     Livingstone and New Labour

THE SCOPE FOR radical policies, even if Livingstone posed them, would also be limited by the composition of his cabinet. Through gritted teeth, Blair said that New Labour would work with Livingstone. Hard bargaining with the GLA Labour group resulted in a deal, undoubtedly involving compromise on Livingstone's part. Labour claims Livingstone has accepted that his Labour cabinet members will be free to pursue their own policy agenda and disassociate themselves from any of the mayor's policies they oppose. Livingstone also accepted a panel of experts to assess different proposals for financing modernisation of the Underground.

On that basis, Livingstone (salary ?75,136) appointed Nicky Gavron (salary ?51,743) as deputy mayor, which was undoubtedly approved by New Labour's hierarchy. Serving on eleven different government bodies and quangos, Gavron is an influential if little-known member of New Labour's establishment. Lord (Toby) Harris, former leader of Haringey council and also a Blair loyalist, has been appointed chair of the Police Authority. Darren Johnson, from the Green Party, who strongly supports congestion charges and improvements in public transport, will be responsible for transport.


The Liberal Democrat, Lord (Graham) Tope, will be responsible for equality and human rights. Lee Jasper and Kumar Murshid, veterans of the race-relations industry, will advise the mayor on race, policing and immigration.

Agreement with New Labour and the Liberal Democrats gives Livingstone a 16 to 9 majority in the GLA advisory body. Tory London assembly member, Brian Colman, complained of a 'stitch up'. (Guardian, 13 May) But Livingstone had not forgotten the representatives of capital. The new mayor also "delighted the City - and eased some of the qualms felt by the major financial institutions over his pre-election anti-capitalist mutterings - by announcing the appointment of the effective leader of the City of London Corporation [the completely undemocratic ruling body of the City, London's financial borough], Judith Mayhew, to his inner cabinet" (Evening Standard, 19 May). "Continuing her role at the Corporation", Mayhew will be "acting as the mayor's link with the City".

How long Livingstone's cohabitation with New Labour will last remains to be seen. Unless he retreats, the government's refusal to come up with more cash for London is likely to lead to extreme tensions, if not head-on collision between the mayor and the government. Yet at present, Livingstone is clearly attempting to win the support of Blair.

After his election, Livingstone said "He did not intend to become a focus of opposition to the government" (Financial Times, 8 May). He also said that he intended to apply to rejoin the Labour Party, having been expelled for a minimum of five years for running against Dobson. Because he "didn't want to embarrass Blair", he would wait until after the summer. "I know a lot of people in the party want me back in, and I'm sure there will be some sort of debate about this at the party conference". (Observer, 7 May)


There is a glaring contradiction in Livingstone's position. He owes his overwhelming electoral support to disillusionment with New Labour. The fact that he stood as an independent reinforced his support (as the derisory vote for Dobson indicates). For a big section of the electorate, a vote for Livingstone expressed a desire for a left alternative to Blair's government, one of the trends pointing to the need for a new vehicle for the political representation for the working class.

Livingstone himself, however, refuses to draw this conclusion. By wooing the Labour leadership and demanding reinstatement in the Labour Party, Livingstone has clearly turned his back on any moves to develop an organised, mass alternative to the bourgeoisified Labour Party. While big sections of voters have turned to the left, Ken has quickened his dance to the right.

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