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Ken Livingstone


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From: The Socialist issue 149, 17 March 2000: Build a Socialist Alternative

Search site for keywords: Ken Livingstone - Tony Blair - London - Socialist Party - Socialist - Labour - Peter Taaffe - Labour Party

Breaking the Grip of the Blairistas

KEN LIVINGSTONE'S decision to stand for London Mayor could open a new chapter for the British labour movement. PETER TAAFFE, Socialist Party general secretary says its effects will be felt not just in London but nationally and even internationally.

NO MATTER what the election result - and Livingstone is likely to be victorious - the very fact that he has decided to break with New Labour and stand as an independent has already shattered the seeming death grip exercised by Blair and the Blairistas over British politics during the last three years.

After Labour's victory in 1997 Blair could do no wrong. For a period he was 'Teflon Tony'. Despite the scandals and corruption surrounding New Labour he appeared to be unscathed.

Now the opposite is the case; he can do nothing right. The 'curse of Blair' now operates, which means anyone he supports immediately faces political odium.

Alun Michael in Wales, the dithering Dewar in Scotland and now the pathetic Dobson are all victims of Blair's and Millbank's infamous control freakery and failed policies. The government has been so skewed that Blair now faces jeers in the House of Commons for being a "control failure".

Voting intentions for the forthcoming Mayoral contest represents a colossal shift, a massive vote of no confidence in the government's policies. Livingstone not only stands at 68% in the poll but incredibly 52% of Liberal voters intend to support him (compared to 28% for the Liberals' standard bearer Kramer) while 48% of Tories consider him as their 'first choice' compared to 40% for Tory candidate Norris.

This revolt of the people of London - because this, at bottom, is what it represents - has touched all layers of society. Simon Hoggart in The Guardian commented on upstanding middle-class stalwarts in Richmond upon Thames dressed in "Barbour tweed jackets" out on the streets with clipboards in support of Ken.

Also, a groundswell of rank-and-file trade unionists, particularly in the public sector, is now lining up behind Livingstone. The RMT rail union is likely to come out in support and has even threatened to censure one of its officials Vernon Hince, Chairman of the Labour Party, for his criticisms of Livingstone.

The fire-fighters' union, FBU, could follow suit. Other unions such as Unison could face splits. Many rank-and-file members will defy the right-wing union leaders who support Dobson and will back Livingstone either openly or 'secretly'.

Predictably, Dobson and New Labour have set the scene for a massive scare campaign with dark warnings of a massive exodus of firms from London following a Livingstone victory. Unfortunately for them the CBI has commented that there is no "anecdotal evidence" that such a flight of capital would take place if Livingstone is victorious.

Personalised attacks

VILE AND vicious personalised attacks on Livingstone were once the preserve of the Tories. Now they are the only weapon of New Labour. This will be completely counterproductive. Even if Gordon Brown hands out 'goodies' in next week's budget this is unlikely to help Dobson.

Dennis Canavan, who stood and won as an independent socialist candidate for the Scottish Parliament, with the highest vote of any candidate, pointed out that whenever Donald Dewar attacked him personally it increased his vote by a few thousand.

Dobson has not learned from this and is already criticising Livingstone for allegedly "favouring anarchists" (the so-called city rioters of last year) over "coppers".

His uncritical support for the Metropolitan Police is breathtaking. It is against the background of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, revealing a police force riddled with racism and bigotry, Harry Stanley's unprovoked killing in Hackney and continuing harassment of black and Asian people through "stop and search".

Moreover, Dobson has openly sought to woo the City and has outlined a "pro-business" (read big business) agenda. Unfortunately, Ken Livingstone has also made soothing noises towards the capitalists.

In a recent speech to businessmen he repeated his pro-market stance first outlined in an infamous Evening Standard interview last year. He no longer stands for a democratically planned economy (that is socialism), but "accepts the market".

He qualifies this by arguing that he doesn't accept an "unrestricted market" but will defend already nationalised industries and oppose privatisation. This is a retreat on his programme in the 1980s. Then he earned the scorn of the press and the Labour leadership as "Red Ken", and conversely the support of the majority of Londoners, because he advocated radical socialist policies.

Now he tries to struggle into the discarded political trousers of Labour's right wing of that time. The likes of Roy Hattersley defended the so-called mixed economy. That was and is capitalism by another name. It has failed London and the working class of Britain. The present massive support for Livingstone represents the beginning of a revolt against this system.

However, Livingstone is likely to win this election - despite his deficient programme - because he is perceived as standing decisively to the left of Blair. Dobson's support stands at a lamentable 13%.

If, against the odds, Dobson manages to win it will represent the greatest recovery since Pinochet leapt from his wheelchair like a spring chicken when his plane touched down on Chilean soil. Livingstone's support, however, is deep rooted. London now has huge swathes of what even former Tory prime minister John Major called the "dispossessed". Tower Hamlets is now officially classified as the poorest borough in Britain, with other areas not far behind. Livingstone's campaign has the potential to unite what Major confessed was his nightmare: a "coalition of the disaffected and the dispossessed".

Socialist Party advocates voting for Ken Livingstone

IT IS for this reason that the Socialist Party advocates voting for Ken Livingstone. We are frankly disappointed, as many workers and youth are, with his limited programme. We would have carefully considered whether or not to support him if he had emerged as Labour's official candidate, particularly if he had bent the knee to Blairism.

However, his decision to stand independently has decisively changed the situation The support for Livingstone is inchoate, containing a strong strain of "stuff Blair". Many have become so alienated from the government that they will vote on the principle that the "enemy of my enemy is my friend".

But the choices before Ken Livingstone are stark. To secure victory, no matter how overwhelming and then remain within the very limited framework of the London Assembly and limited mayoral powers would be fatal. He would be compelled to carry through a Blairite agenda in London. This would then result in as violent a swing against him in the future as there is towards him at the present time.

Astonishingly, Blairite officials have hinted that they will not expel Labour Party members who support Livingstone so long as it is not done too openly. Some have warned against a 'witch-hunt'. What a change since the wholesale expulsions of the Marxists and the Left in the 1980s.

This is a sign of their weakness but also that they wish to play for time and limit the number of immediate defections.

If Ken Livingstone is not only aiming to win decisively but introduce radical change, he also needs to call on all workers, including Labour Party members, to get out into the streets, factories and workplaces to support him and openly defy Blair and his government.

He should immediately call a conference of representatives from the unions, communities, socialist and workers' parties socialist students and others to democratically discuss and decide upon an alternative panel of candidates to the capitalist parties.

It is vital that he uses the huge platform provided by the London mayor to mobilise the majority of the population in the capital and nationally on a socialist programme. Above all he should map out a strategy for establishing a working class and labour movement alternative to Blairism through a new mass party of the working class.

Overtaken by events

THERE IS nothing more fatal for socialists than to repeat ideas or formulae which were perfectly correct at one stage in history but which have been overtaken by events.

In urging people to stay in the Labour Party, in refusing to organise a new mass party, Ken Livingstone is in danger of making this mistake and missing a unique opportunity for socialism in Britain.

In 1983 and later when the leaders and members of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) were expelled from the Labour Party, we urged others to stay in and fight to transform the Labour party. That was correct at that stage.

The rank-and-file democracy of the labour movement, the ability to transform the Labour Party through its structures at a certain stage, largely remained intact. The trade unions in particular still dominated the Labour Party.

However, all the channels previously used by the working class to change the Labour Party have been systematically dismantled by Kinnock, John Smith and now Blair. The avenues for changing the Labour Party are now full of boulders or have been dynamited by the Blairista right-wing.

They have transformed the Labour party, in the past a workers' party at the bottom, into a British version of the Democratic Party in the USA. This is underlined by the stitch-up of Livingstone, following the ballot-rigging in Wales.

In policy, it is also reflected in the shameful acceptance of the Tory agenda in attacks on so-called "welfare scroungers", the threat to "jail beggars" made last week by Gordon Brown, Jeff Rooker, and others.

This government is now widely perceived by formerly pro-Labour workers as being even worse than the Tories. Yet New Labour grandees arrogantly believed that the working class had "nowhere to go" except to line up behind New Labour.

But in Scotland and Wales a vehicle did exist for expressing opposition to New Labour in the form of protest votes for the nationalists and by the election of radical socialist figures like Dennis Canavan and Tommy Sheridan.

Even then, reasoned New Labour strategists, there was "no alternative" in England. However, the election of Socialist Party councillors in Lewisham and Coventry also shows this alternative is being created in England as well.

Now, Livingstone's decision to stand has utterly changed the London and national position. But in order to establish a real and lasting alternative, out of this mayor's contest must come the basis of new mass working-class party.

Opposition movements

THE ELEMENTS of such a party are already there in the opposition movements within the trade unions, in student and community protests - a real and developing socialist alliance.

More and more union branches are posing the question of refusing to continue to finance the Labour Party with the resources of the union membership. The received wisdom of the labour movement's right wing as well as tiny dogmatic "Marxist" groups is that a split from the Labour Party has not succeeded in the past and cannot succeed now.

They are looking at current events through the distorted spectacles of the past. Shakespeare's Glendower stated: "I can conjure spirits from the vasty deep" to which Hotspur replied: "Why, so can I or so can any man. But will they come when you do call."

Ken Livingstone has the potential in the changed situation in Britain today to precisely conjure up these "spirits" in the form of a powerful opposition movement which already exists in the trade unions and in the working class generally. Unfortunately, Ken Livingstone has not drawn this conclusion but has stated that he does not intend "to form a new party".

This has encouraged The Guardian to conclude: "It would be a mistake to read the Livingstone candidacy as the first step towards a new left party or as a test of the strength of the British left". There will be delight in capitalist and establishment circles if Livingstone sticks to this idea.

Conversely all of those looking for a fighting pole of attraction, for renewed confidence in fighting back against the bosses will be bitterly disappointed if he maintained this position.

The Socialist Party calls for ordinary trade unionists, community activists, students and other young people to exert pressure on Ken Livingstone to take steps towards the establishment of a new mass working-class party.

Livingstone probably believes, mistakenly, that an ill-defined movement behind his candidacy can be created and sustained. It is true that there is now a mass rejection of discredited "politicians" and their pro-capitalist policies.

A big section of working-class people have transferred their hopes to radical individuals like Ken Livingstone. However this is not the first time that we have seen this phenomena. Indeed it is quite common in the USA and the underdeveloped world.

The rightward shift of the leaders of the former mass workers' organisations has opened up a vacuum which temporarily can be filled by radical "populist" figures. In the medium and long term very few of them are capable of maintaining a sustained challenge to the established capitalist parties.

Invariably the leaders of these formations prefer a "movement" around themselves to an organised party because the latter involves control by the ordinary members and the accountability of the leaders.

THIS IS the second time in five years when an opportunity has existed to take the labour movement and the working class forward to a new mass socialist alternative.

The first arose around Arthur Scargill's decision to launch the Socialist Labour Party. This opportunity was unfortunately squandered because of Scargill's sectarian tactics in refusing to organise an open, federal party involving all left trends of opinion including the Marxists in the Socialist Party. If Livingstone refuses to grasp the nettle this time then he could be responsible for missing an even better opportunity. This could postpone the development of such a mass alternative to a much later date.

But the forces that have already been conjured up in Livingstone's support can go much further than he intends and even without his support could go on to lay the basis for such a formation.

The Socialist Party, its members and supporters will be energetically pushing in this direction, particularly in trade union branches, shop stewards committees, on the streets, in the student societies and elsewhere.

We will be calling for a vote for Ken Livingstone. We intend to mobilise in his favour. We will also positively advance our criticisms of his programme and link this to the campaign to create an indispensable weapon for the working class at this stage through the formation of a mass working-class party.






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