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International Socialism, Summer 2000


Peter Morgan

The morning after the night before ...


From International Socialism 2:87, Summer 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Ken Livingstone achieved what we are often told is the unachievable – to break with the Labour Party, be seen to run as an independent socialist, and win. His victory as mayor of London against Labour’s official candidate, Frank Dobson, and in the face of political and personal abuse from Labour’s leadership represents a triumph, not primarily for Livingstone, but for the many hundreds of thousands of people who voted for him, and who are fed up with the policies of New Labour.

When I went to the press conference in central London on the day Livingstone finally announced he was to stand as an independent, he made it clear what he thought the main issue was to be. ‘This is an election,’ he declared, ‘that I want to be a referendum about the future of the tube. The voters of London can decide – do they want it to be in private hands, or do they want it to stay in the public sector?’ So Londoners were given a choice – and they have overwhelmingly shown that they want someone to stand up against the free market and pro-privatisation policies of New Labour. But this was also a vote rooted in the people’s conditions of daily life. Wherever you go in London today there are poverty and squalor, schools that are crumbling and an NHS that is under strain, as well as the worst and most expensive transport system in Europe. It is this that most ordinary Londoners want Livingstone to do something about, and this largely explains his overwhelming victory on 4 May.

Livingstone has shown there is life outside the Labour Party and he has, often despite himself, created an opportunity for opposition to be built against the Blair government. His appointment of a number of left wingers as advisers, including left wing Labour MP and former colleague from the GLC John McDonnell, shows that the new mayor may well create problems for the Blair government. But at the same time there are clear signs that he is already making concessions to the very people who opposed his election. He has appointed Labour right winger and millionaire Nicky Gavron as his deputy (reneging on his promise that this post would be given to the Greens); Blairite loyalist Lord Toby Harris has been put in charge of the Metropolitan Police; Livingstone has begun the retreat over his opposition to the privatisation of the tube by agreeing to refer the tube’s future to an ‘independent panel of experts’; and he has appointed the Tory Judith Mayhew from the Corporation of London to his cabinet to be in charge of relations with business.

So there is a dilemma facing the new mayor of London. Livingstone’s victory has shown there is a real mood to the left of New Labour. He has a huge mandate and an overwhelming endorsement from the people of London to oppose the government – of that there is no question. Yet the paradox is that not only has this created problems for Tony Blair, it has also created problems for Ken Livingstone himself. On the one hand he recognises the popular mood to resist the Labour government and do something about it, yet on the other hand he is prepared to make concessions which will disappoint those who voted for him. There is a space to the left of New Labour and Tony Blair, but it is one that Livingstone seems incapable of filling.

For those of us who voted for him, and who campaigned for the other socialist candidates for the Greater London Assembly (GLA) [1], this creates tremendous challenges. It has shown that more people are now looking to the left of the Labour Party. But the question over the coming months is whether this mood can be translated into a genuine movement that will reverse the pro-market policies of New Labour. Or will the anger against New Labour be whittled away, and despair and demoralisation replace the hope and desire for change that were shown on 4 May?

The weight of responsibility on Ken Livingstone is great. If we look back at his political history it may give us some idea of what is in store and, more importantly, what socialists can do about it.

It’s party time

The starting point for Livingstone’s political career was Harold Wilson’s leadership of the Labour Party in the early 1960s. Wilson was meant to be a dynamic new leader of the party, but by the mid-1960s, and just a few years into his term of office, disillusionment was already setting in. The promises of the 1964 Labour government had turned to dust. Livingstone held off a few years before joining, but the timing of when he did says a lot about his early political life.

It was the beginning of 1969, the time when the campaign against the Vietnam War was in full swing and after the mass strike and student uprising in France. Livingstone had attended anti Vietnam War marches, but by February 1969 he joined the Norwood Constituency Labour Party. As his biographer, John Carvel, says, ‘Every other socialist of his age was deserting Labour for the headier comradeship of Trotskyism and other brands of insurrectionist politics.’ [2] But for Livingstone change was going to be achieved through a long, hard career with Labour, as he admitted:

Half the people had resigned in protest about what Wilson was doing. They’d gone off to join other left wing groups like IS [International Socialists] or just devoted themselves fully to trade unionism ... I recognised that you weren’t going to achieve social change other than through the Labour Party. No outside grouping was going to replace it. I joined thinking there would be a really good chance in about ten years of getting on the local council if I worked really hard ... Everybody else had left [Labour]. It was incredible. At general management committee meetings there were only about 25 people present. [3]

It is remarkable, given the level of industrial and political struggle happening at the time, that Livingstone saw his future with Labour. But why did he go this way? Partly it was an obvious desire for a political career, but it was also due to that fact that he rejected political, and in particular Marxist, theory. During this time there was a thirst for radical ideas, and the debates over the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara or Mao dominated not just student politics but, in a myriad of different ways, the mass protests and demonstrations that were happening at the time. For many, the late 1960s were a time to break with Labour and look towards a revolutionary alternative. Livingstone, however, saw things differently: ‘There was no way you were going to build anything without the Labour Party. Perhaps because my interests in politics were geared to psephology and things like that, rather than pure ideology, it was more obvious to me than to others at the time.’ [4] Indeed, he admits that by the end of the 1960s he was more concerned with reading the local council minutes than he was with reading theoretical works. As John Carvel states, ‘He had not studied the works of Karl Marx and, by the time that he might have wanted to start, he was immersed in the minutiae of council agendas and the daily business of practical politics. He was more concerned with policies and the exercise of power than with theoretical analysis.’ [5]

Doing it the London way

So this was the beginning of Livingstone’s long political career with Labour. But his reputation with the left only soared when he led the Greater London Council (GLC) during the 1980s. This is why many people today remember Ken Livingstone as a left winger. During the recent mayoral campaign the right wing felt it necessary to try and resurrect the Tory image of the ‘loony left’ GLC. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock said, ‘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.’

There were two events which shifted Livingstone to the left during the 1970s. The first was the experience of the Labour GLC administration of 1973–1977. Livingstone was appalled by the way it abandoned its election manifesto and started attacking the fares subsidy and housing policies on which it had been elected. He was at the centre of the revolts and arguments against the Labour administration. Livingstone was determined to push the right wing out of control of the GLC. In 1979 he wrote, ‘Those who have a commitment to a socialist GLC need to start organising now if this motley crew are to be prevented from discrediting the Labour Party in the eyes of the electorate for a second time in a decade.’ [6] The other influence was the sell outs that occurred under the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974–1979 – unemployment doubled, real wages fell for the first time since the Second World War, and the Labour government urged trade unionists to break picket lines. The Tories took control of the GLC from 1977 to 1981, and Thatcher was swept to power in 1979.

The conclusion that many drew, including Livingstone, was that the left had to fight to take control of the Labour Party. It was no good having a rerun of the Wilson-Callaghan administration. So it was that Michael Foot was elected as leader in November 1980. There was also a fight for constitutional change in the Labour Party making MPs and the leadership more answerable to the membership. The left won this at the Special Conference held at Wembley in January 1981. On top of this, though, many saw local government as an opportunity to hold power and find a haven from the onslaught of Thatcher. Labour controlled more than 150 cities, towns and boroughs – this included virtually all the major cities such as London, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle, Leeds, Edinburgh and Bradford. Some were controlled by the right, but many came under the influence of the left. The jewel in the crown of these so called ‘socialist town halls’ was the GLC which saw Livingstone and Labour take control in 1981.

Nearly a million Londoners voted for Labour and there were high expectations that Labour would deliver. However, Livingstone tried to make sure that expectations were not too high. Just after his election, when interviewed in Socialist Review, he said:

We try to avoid people rushing away with the idea that this is going to be a revolutionary council that’s going to bring down the government or transform the life in London ... The manifesto is not revolutionary. If it’s carried out it will be a major breakthrough, because in simple reformist terms it will be a bold step forward. It is a step that a capitalist society could live with – wouldn’t like, but could live with. Most of the things in that manifesto have been done somewhere else, usually under governments which are in no sense socialist. [7]

Yet in the same interview he showed his other, more radical, side, when he was asked what attitude the GLC Labour group would have to industrial disputes:

Most of the incoming members seem to have read and taken a lot of lessons from [Red Bologna]. In Bologna, in any industrial struggle, the local council puts the facilities of the council at the use of the strikers and is down there on the picket lines with them and so on. If there is an industrial dispute in London and there are GLC facilities that can be used for the benefit of strikers, they’ll be made available. [8]

In coming to power Livingstone and the GLC set about a number of reforms. The first was the Fares Fair campaign. The GLC cut bus and tube fares by 25 percent. The policy was a brilliant success. After 30 years of steady decline passenger traffic increased by 1 percent on the buses and 7 percent on the underground. The GLC and Livingstone also became important symbols of opposition to Thatcher and the Tories – they erected a giant sign on top of their headquarters in County Hall to show the unrelenting increase in unemployment. They funded a whole host of so called ‘minority’ groups and projects such as gay and lesbian groups, independent theatre companies, and black and Asian groups. Ken Livingstone also met Sinn Fein representatives in 1982 in the search for peace in Northern Ireland. For this, and for many other things at the time, he was branded a ‘loony’ by the media, although today they are considered mainstream. Despite these attacks support for the Labour Party in London rose – in the 1984 Euro elections London produced Labour’s best results, and a survey conducted just before the abolition of the GLC found almost three quarters of Londoners were opposed to abolition when the Tories sought to remove the GLC from the political landscape in 1983.

Why was it that Thatcher and the Tories were able to abolish the GLC? Part of the blame lies with the right wing Labour opposition during the 1980s under Neil Kinnock. Labour’s defeat in the 1983 general election saw the right wing reassert control and the party shifted even further to the right. Its defence of left wing councils at the time was lukewarm at best, and Labour’s leadership refused to head a co-ordinated fight of all Labour-controlled councils which could have stopped Thatcher in her tracks. But more important was the fight that was conducted by the Labour left, including Ken Livingstone. It is this that shows his real political weaknesses.

At no time in his political history has Livingstone sought to build a base of mass support or a mass following around him – or around his politics. He has always been very concerned with the manoeuvrings at the top – whether in the Labour Party or within the GLC. His defiance – whether it be of the law, the ‘establishment’ or Tory governments – has always placed at its centre the need to win over the wide spectrum of public opinion through publicity campaigns. Quite often this is done at the expense of strikes or demonstrations. When defending the GLC this proved to be disastrous. When the Law Lords ruled that the GLC’s Fares Fair policy was illegal, Livingstone said the law should be defied, but any idea of building a real movement that could win was ruled out. And there were times when there was the potential to mobilise workers in defence of the GLC. Two weeks before fares were forced to rise due to the Law Lords judgement there was a one day strike by transport workers in defence of low fares. It was a magnificent success with not a single bus or tube running. But Livingstone refused to deepen the struggle. Instead the GLC launched a consumer boycott campaign against the higher fares, and with only a few hundred Londoners refusing to pay, the campaign ended in dismal failure. Although Livingstone did not support the campaign, he had no alternative strategy that could have taken the struggle forward, besides negotiation and an appeal to public opinion.

This strategy was even more disastrous when it came to defending the GLC from abolition. The Tories published plans to abolish the GLC in October 1983. In January 1984 over 30,000 marched in central London on a weekday to oppose the plan – many workers went on strike to demonstrate. But the campaign was centred round a ‘people’s crusade’ and a Tory GLC member was allowed to speak on the platform.

The campaign to defend the GLC reached its peak during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. Some 25 councils banded together to try and stop the Tories’ ratecapping which would have led to huge cuts in services. Livingstone was at the head of the movement, and in November 1984 up to 100,000 workers struck across London and over 20,000 marched in protest at the Tories’ plans. With the Tories embroiled in the biggest industrial dispute for decades there was a real possibility Thatcher could have been defeated. However, there was no attempt to link the two movements. The campaign was centred around a publicity drive – the GLC spent over £3 million and, while it led to huge levels of support in its defence among the public, there was no attempt to mobilise the tens of thousands of GLC workers or working class Londoners into an ongoing campaign of mass strikes and protests. At the time Livingstone combined radical rhetoric about defying the law and occupying town halls with practical activity aimed at winning the propaganda war. He was even reduced to appealing to Tory peers and addressing fringe meetings at the Social Democratic Party (SDP) conference in defence of the GLC. So while in January 1985 he spoke of a ‘city in revolt’ and of operating ‘within the state in defiance of the state’, just two months later he turned and led the climbdown over ratecapping. At the time Neil Kinnock and the rest of the Labour leadership urged compliance with the law. Initially Ken Livingstone and the GLC held out, but the pressure from Labour’s leadership continued and there was no attempt to mobilise support in favour of the councils. Faced with this Livingstone was the first to crack and ended up voting with the right. From initially calling for defiance of the law, he now argued for compliance with the law. The result was that a rate was set which led to huge cuts in services.

The retreat was a severe setback for the left – if the largest and one of the most left wing councils wasn’t to fight, what hope would there be that the other Labour councils could hold out? And so one by one rates were set by councils throughout the country, which led to the decimation of local services. The retreat by the GLC led to the collapse of the anti-ratecapping movement, and ultimately to the decline of what became known as ‘municipal socialism’. Labour’s leadership let the movement down at the same time as the unions were betraying the miners and Thatcher was let off the hook.

It was only a few months after this climbdown that Livingstone was leading the call for unity behind Neil Kinnock. By then he had been guaranteed the safe Labour seat of Brent East. His comments on the ratecapping revolt show how conciliatory he had become. In Marxism Today he said, ‘The movement is not going to achieve anything without the coalition and agreement of all the various trends within the party together.’ As for those councillors who advocated breaking the law, Livingstone says they ‘overlooked the strong element of principle in both wings of the party in the debate. It wasn’t all heroic people on one side, and scabs and traitors on the other.’

But it wasn’t just political opportunism that meant Livingstone backed down. It was also his belief that the working class had changed. He agreed with the argument prevalent at the time, and advocated by Kinnock’s favourite Marxist, Eric Hobsbawm, that the manual working class had declined and was less likely to fight. On top of this, he argued, the growth of white collar workers meant the working class was politically and economically weaker. Livingstone therefore believed that a serious base for political change had to be built among those who are disadvantaged by the system – blacks, gays, Irish, single parents and so on. While support for these oppressed groups can lead to popular support at the ballot box – as indeed it did for the GLC – it becomes less useful as a way to mobilise working class people when the need for a fight is there.

Furthermore, Livingstone’s lack of any working class constituency makes him vulnerable to shifting fashions and ideas. Because he isn’t bound to any set of ideas or ideology – even less so than Tony Benn or Arthur Scargill – it means his shift to the right, when it happened after the demise of the GLC, came very quickly indeed. Shortly after the GLC defeat Livingstone said in The Guardian, ‘We have in Neil Kinnock a Labour leader who is infinitely more open to persuasion.’ Livingstone led the way in ensuring the left made peace with the Labour leadership in the run up to the 1987 election.

When it came to Labour’s unexpected defeat in the 1992 general election, Livingstone supported the conclusion argued strongly by the right wing of the Labour Party but also supported by sections of the left, that the working class had changed and was less likely to vote for Labour. Labour’s defeat, it was argued, showed that workers were less loyal to their traditional party and were too concerned with self interest and greed. Livingstone was one of the most vociferous in arguing that working class people would not vote for and support redistributive tax policies. And so with the left weakened, both organisationally and ideologically, in the Labour Party the right wing was able to assert control and shift it even further to the right during the 1990s.

Economics is the spice of life

Livingstone has spent time and resources on developing his understanding of economics. After becoming an MP in June 1987 he was elected to Labour’s NEC and was responsible for Labour’s economic policy committee. He said, ‘The biggest problem facing national governments is the economy. There’s no point coming to parliament and just being a councillor translated to the national stage. Your responsibility as an MP is to make sure the economy works, not run by local government ... The 1964 and 1974 Labour governments clearly failed because they did not get the economy right. It’s the overwhelming issue. If you are an MP, all the other things are nice and interesting, but unless you have an idea of what to do on the economy, you are totally dependent on someone else to tell you what to do.’ [9] So Livingstone worked on developing his understanding of how capitalism works. He spent £35,000 on what at the time was the biggest computer in private hands in Britain, so as to establish a database about all the major world economies since 1860. This he updated each month with statistics from the OECD, the World Bank and the Treasury (part of the finance from this came from his earnings from advertising Red Leicester cheese, and promoting Poundstretcher shops and animal-friendly paintbrushes). On the face of it this seems like a rather pointless exercise. But the result of this theoretical drive was an alternative economic strategy set out in his second book, Livingstone’s Labour: A Programme for the Nineties. [10] The book is now out of print, which is no great loss as it is a rather turgid and long winded account of the decline of British capitalism with Livingstone’s remedies, which are vaguely similar to that advocated by the likes of Will Hutton and Larry Elliot today (although the latter are much more articulate, insightful and interesting).

Much more interesting though – and much more relevant to the debate as to what Livingstone will deliver as mayor of London – have been his constant attacks on the economic polices of the Blair government over the last few years. During this time he has built a reputation of being very critical of the government. One of the factors which his opponents used against him to stop him standing as Labour’s candidate for mayor is his ongoing criticism of Gordon Brown and Labour’s economic policy. For example, in August 1999 he wrote, ‘Labour has governed now for two years without a redistributive economic strategy. This is not only the cause of a great deal of angst in the Labour Party, but raises serious questions about the ideological content of New Labour’s economic policy. Indeed it raises the question as to what extent “New” Labour has very much in common with traditional social democracy.’ [11] On the world economic crisis of 1998 he said:

No one denies that the world economy has a major bearing on our domestic problems. The enormous shifts on financial markets are driven by fundamental international economic forces, demonstrated over the summer by the failure to contain the east Asian crisis ... The devaluations in Asia are unleashing a wave of much cheaper Asian manufactured goods onto world markets, turning the high pound into a fast acting poison on our exports. What makes no sense in this situation is that the government will not take any action ... Nothing could more drastically demonstrate the inadequacy of New Labour’s economic project than the seemingly clueless response to the unfolding domestic and international economic problems. [12]

And just a few days before the mayoral election this year in an article entitled Gordon Brown Must Reverse his Disastrous Economic Policies, he said, ‘ [Brown] is contributing to the destruction of the British car industry and risks causing the most severe crisis in manufacturing industry since the early years of Margaret Thatcher. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon is responsible for the single biggest “tax” on UK jobs and business today: the significantly overvalued exchange rate of the pound.’ [13]

The problem comes, however, when a left reformist such as Livingstone is not only confronted by the horrors of the market, but has to buck the workings of the market. In Livingstone’s case this is made worse by the fact that in his position of mayor he has very little economic control, as this is overwhelmingly dictated by the policies of the Blair government. Nevertheless his response to the decision by Ford that it was to scale down production with the loss of thousands of jobs is indicative of what we can expect.

Whilst Livingstone was quick to denounce the decision – the day of his election victory he was strongly critical both of the Ford bosses and of the government – just a few days later he was at pains to stress there was little that could be done if, ultimately, a multinational wanted to move investment abroad and scale down production. When he was interviewed about the Ford announcement on the local news programme Newsroom South East he said, ‘Governments can’t do anything about multinational corporations – that’s the world we live in at the moment.’ There is little doubt that Livingstone will apply as much pressure on the government and Ford bosses as possible, that he will argue as vehemently as he can about the long term social and economic consequences if Ford pulls out, that he will rush in and out of meetings and consultative committees to stop the closure of Ford going ahead. Indeed, he has said as much: ‘One of my first decisions as mayor was to hold the earliest possible meeting with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It was obvious that the most effective response requires a co-ordinated approach by national government and the mayor. The meeting was fruitful.’ [14]

The problem arises, however, as to what he will do if Ford proceeds with the redundancies. What Livingstone perceives as the problem of globalisation means that very little can be done. And in this there is a thread of consistency with the political beliefs he has held for some time. For what dovetails with his argument during the 1980s and 1990s about the decline in the manual working class and the change in the structure of the working class is his belief that workers are weaker now than they were in the past and have neither the power nor the desire to fight. And what dovetails with the strategy he undertook for defending the Fares Fair policy and the campaign to defend the GLC during the 1980s is his belief that it is the great weight of public opinion, and not a campaign of industrial action, that is the way to halt the attacks from the right and the bosses.

If there is one thing in which Livingstone has been entirely consistent throughout his political life it is that he has always relegated the agitational and industrial campaign below that of useful propaganda. In the case of Ford – or indeed any other multinational that places the jobs of Londoners under threat – the question we have to ask is, will he call for, back and build a campaign of strikes, occupations and solidarity to defend the jobs at stake? Will he call together not just the higher union officials, but the stewards, activists and campaigners, to build a co-ordinated campaign of mass protests and demonstrations to force the bosses to back down? Unfortunately all the evidence so far strongly suggests that the answer will be no. There will be strong words, denunciations, propaganda and even economic logic put our way, but no attempt will be made to mobilise the one real power we have on our side – the working class people who live and work in London and are on the sharp end of the workings of the market.

In office, but not in power?

Part of the problem – and for this Livingstone is not entirely to blame – is the institution of the London mayor and the GLA. The Blair government has set up a form of local government in London that has a lot less power – both economically and politically – than has traditionally been the case with local government.

There are three distinct phases in the history of local government into which the activities of Labour councils fall. First there was the attempt to use councils as bases from which to defy the government in the 1920s and 1930s. The most famous case was Poplar council, where 21 councillors were jailed in 1921 for defying the law. During this time the local council had a lot more control over the economic lives of working people who elected them than they do today. They administered the running of the ‘Poor Law’, as the equivalent of social security was then known, and were responsible for improving living conditions such as housing, sewerage and public baths. They were also responsible for wage rates – in the case of Poplar, the council instituted a £4 a week minimum wage for adult local employees – men as well as women. They also started building council housing and kept rents below the national average. At the time this produced substantial improvements in the lives of local people. So when it came to defying the law (the root of the problem was the fact that Poplar council was spending large sums of money finding useful work for the unemployed) the direct and immediate relationship between the councillors and local people made it easier to mount a campaign of strikes and protests in their defence.

The second phase was the large public spending and mass housing projects of the 1950s and 1960s where Labour councils played a key, although often unpopular, role in the modernisation and development of many of Britain’s cities. Council housing mushroomed and spending on public works reached a peak which has not been equalled since. Finally there was the period from the late 1970s to the 1980s when left wingers in the party thought that by taking councils over they could provide themselves with a base from which to take on the government – as with the GLC and Livingstone.

Over this period there have been important changes in the powers of local government which make a rerun of the case of, say, Poplar much more difficult. Local councils, (and now the London mayor and the GLA) no longer have any direct responsibility for the maintenance of the unemployed, nor administering social security for local people. Councils today are much more directly dependent on central government finance (as is also the case of the London mayor and the GLA). Central government also has a much more direct role in administering such things as education and health. And so there are real limits to Livingstone’s power.

But, having said that, it doesn’t mean he is powerless to take on the might of the Blair government. There are a number of real and important factors in his favour which show that the office of mayor could be put to use to oppose the free market policies of New Labour and Tony Blair – if the political will was there to do so. The first of these, as has been mentioned above, is the overwhelming vote in his favour. The fact that despite the vilification and smears, and the fact that Livingstone had to fight the campaign as an independent, he still won a huge majority shows how deep the anger goes against the government and how deep is the desire for some form of opposition. Livingstone can quite rightly claim to be the most popular directly elected politician in Britain, and he could quite legitimately claim that any opposition to Blair is based upon a popular mandate – after all, New Labour’s candidate in the mayoral contest, Frank Dobson, did come a sorry third.

But there is something even more significant than the vote in favour of Livingstone – and that was the number of those who did not bother to vote at all. The fact that only just over 34 percent of those eligible to vote did so is an indictment on the way the government promoted the whole process. More importantly though, it says something about the level of discontent many people have with bourgeois politics. Many of the people who voted so enthusiastically to kick out the Tories a few years ago could not even bring themselves to vote this time. And none of the main parties – whether Labour or Tory – could motivate their supporters to mount a campaign. What was significant during this election was the lack of political posters, campaigning, leafleting and door knocking that is normally associated with elections (although the London Socialist Alliance is one notable exception to this).

One conclusion that could be drawn from the poor turnout is that ordinary people don’t care and are not interested in what their elected representatives do for them. Therefore they will do little to support the London mayor if he chooses to take on and defy the government. But there is another conclusion that can be drawn – that the anger and disillusionment go so deep that many people believe that politicians do nothing in favour of working class people, that the needs and desires of ordinary people do not find an expression in the institutions of government. It is this conclusion that could give the London mayor the strength and power to take on the government. The significance of the poor turnout is that it is yet another reflection of the anti-capitalist mood that has mushroomed over the last 12 months, and which reached its peak in Seattle last year when the protesters brought the WTO meeting to a halt. Today the term ‘anti-capitalism’ has become commonplace in everyday political jargon – and it is one of the terms that could appropriately be used to describe the poor vote in London.

The important question is what conclusion Livingstone will draw. Part of the answer to this can be gleaned from the campaign itself. The fact that he fought a very low key campaign, and in the last few days he was virtually absent from the campaign trail in the knowledge that his victory was assured, gives a pointer as to where his priorities lie (and for this he must also shoulder his share of the blame for the low turnout). Also as his campaign progressed Livingstone became increasingly right wing – whether it be denouncing anti-capitalist protesters [15], emphasising his business-friendly credentials, or stressing the need for more and better paid police. The term ‘socialist’ virtually never entered his political propaganda. Indeed it was reported during the mayoral campaign that the low key approach by Livingstone led to a degree of demoralisation in his camp, with the number of active supporters decreasing as the campaign went on.

Part of the answer can also be gleaned from his relationship to the Labour leader over the last year or so. For a while now he has adopted an extremely conciliatory approach to Tony Blair, and he has been at pains to stress that he would not be in opposition to the Labour government. As long ago as January 1999 in an open letter to Blair printed in The Guardian he wrote:

I 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 am convinced that your administration has the potential to be a great reforming government on the par of those of 1906 and 1945 ... far from using the position of mayor to create difficulties for a Labour government, I believe I should do everything possible to ensure that the new administration for London is such a success that it consolidates Labour support in our key marginal seats in the run up to the next general election. [16]

During the farce that was New Labour’s selection process for its candidate for London mayor Livingstone often repeated that his dispute is not with the leader of the party but with the shadowy men who run Millbank. It is as though Blair had no say in the stitch-up that prevented Livingstone from standing as Labour’s candidate. Even in the run up to the vote, while Livingstone was being subjected to personal and political attacks – some directly by Blair himself – Livingstone went out of his way to be conciliatory to the New Labour leadership. Today, with Livingstone desperate to get back into the Labour Party, everything suggests that when a disagreement arises between the new mayor and the New Labour government it will be conciliation and negotiation, and not confrontation, that will be the way forward. And of course there has been his entire political life which has been one of quite frequently sounding left, but when the crunch comes acting with the right.

Furthermore, while Livingstone has demonstrated that you can break with Labour and win popular support on the basis of left wing policies, at no time has he sought to capitalise on this to try and build a movement around him that could make those policies achievable. So when he was kicked out of the Labour Party after declaring as an independent, he urged his supporters not to leave the Labour Party but to stay in it and, even more remarkably, support Labour’s candidate, Frank Dobson. Livingstone may have been forced to make the organisational break with Labour, such was his desire to become mayor, but ideologically he is as committed as ever. This explains his conciliatory attitude to Blair.

So we must send a clear unambiguous message to the new mayor of London: we are with Livingstone when he denounces the multinationals, when he opposes the sell off of the tube, when he calls for more investment in public spending, and when he demands greater taxes on the rich. And we will call on him to mobilise the greatest resource he has at his disposal – the working class Londoners who voted so enthusiastically for him to take office – to try to get these implemented. But as soon as there is a whiff of a retreat or a hint of a sell out we will oppose him all the way. For this is the only option if the lives of working class Londoners are to improve. That is what we voted for on 4 May and, if need be, in the weeks and months ahead that is what we will organise for.


1. See Blair’s Bad Result, Socialist Review 242, June 2000.

2. J. Carvel, Turn Again Livingstone (Profile Books 1999), p. 31.

3. Ibid., p. 31.

4. Quoted in Whatever Happened To Red Ken?, Socialist Review, July/August 1985.

5. J. Carvel, op. cit., p. 32.

6. Quoted in Whatever Happened To Red Ken?, op. cit.

7. Leading London Leftwards?, Socialist Review, June 1981.

8. Ibid., p. 11.

9. J. Carvel, op. cit., p. 230.

10. K. Livingstone, Livingstone’s Labour: A Programme for the Nineties (Unwin Hyman 1989).

11. The Independent, 18 August 1999.

12. Tribune, 25 September 1998.

13. The Independent, 2 May 2000.

14. The Independent, 9 May 2000.

15. As The Mayor Of London, I Would Never Back Political Violence, The Independent, 25 April 2000.

16. Open Letter To Tony Blair, The Guardian, 29 January 1999.

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Last updated on 24.5.2012