21. Livingstone and the left



The sheer scale of the attacks that were being made by the Blair government produced much complaining from Labour’s ranks, mostly in the corridors of Parliament and the antechambers. However a more serious revolt broke out in early 1998 when Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr, Labour Members of the European Parliament, and some of their fellow MEPs– six in all – declared in the Observer: “Our consciences say we must split with Tory Blair.”1 Coming after Ken Livingstone’s election to the NEC at the Labour Party conference – beating the ‘Prince of Darkness’ Mandelson – and the huge parliamentary revolt over the attacks on lone parents, a major left-wing revolt seemed to be in the offing. This appeared to contradict our prognosis, set out above, and we posed the question: “Does it signify the beginning of attempts to form a new mass socialist alternative through a major split from the Labour Party?”2 As important: did it indicate a mass revolt of Labour Party members, led by the left, which could compel Blair to step back from his Thatcherite assault on the £100 billion welfare budget? There is no doubt that the attack on lone parents and particularly the disabled infuriated a wide cross-section of the Labour Party. We pointed out that even Gwyneth Dunwoody, arch right-winger and one of the organisers of the witch-hunt against Militant and the left in the 1980s, was in opposition, as was Roy Hattersley who had paved the way for the Blairista counter-revolution. He revealed that he had been treated “as a raving Trot” by Labour for mildly criticising the government. Other pillars of the right such as Denis Healey and Lord Jack Ashley were also threatening to organise a revolt against attacks on disablement benefits.

Labour Party membership had plunged by 17% in recent months. The Observer recounted heartrending stories about the ‘plight’ of government figures: “At least one minister who regularly holds a Christmas gathering at home for local party members found himself serving drinks in a half-empty house – seemingly because people would not cross the threshold of someone who had voted for benefit cuts.”3 The indignation against Blair and his poodle-like cabinets was fuelled by press reports of Blair’s meeting with millionaire disc jockeys in Number Ten while the boot was put into single parents. Rubbing salt in the wound, the Independent reported that the Seychelles trip for Blair and his family over Christmas had cost £13,000! The same paper wrote: “He is a true heir of Margaret Thatcher.”4

The MEPs who had revolted linked their decision to the attacks on the poor in Britain, as well as the completely pro-business policies of the prime minister in Europe. They pointed to the “heavy pressure from the whips in London to abandon our support for rather mild proposals (from the Christian Democrats) to protect the legal rights of employees in takeovers. Labour members were instructed by Lord Simon, late of British Petroleum (BP), to break ranks with our fellow socialists in Strasbourg in opposing this kind of reform.” The reaction against Blairism now extended beyond the usual left opponents, with Hattersley and Healey, as well as junior government ministers who would resign over the lone parents’ issue, coming into opposition to Blair. However, we pointed out that the Labour right was somewhat inconsistent. They accepted capitalism, but then failed to see the crisis which was now confronting their system and the even more serious crisis that loomed in the future. This demanded that concessions that were given in the past must now be clawed back. We wrote: “The 1980s saw the piling up of debt – corporate, personal and, above all, state debt. All capitalist  governments in the 1990s are compelled by the logic of the system, whether they call themselves ‘Conservative’, ‘socialist’, or ‘New Labour’, to seek to cut this debt.”

The actions of the Blair government were not an accident. The decision to attack the very poorest had been consciously decided by Blair, Brown and their coteries. They reasoned that if lone parents, the disabled and the unemployed could be attacked so viciously, then this was a warning to teachers, civil servants, local government workers and others that they could face an even more brutal assault. As we pointed out in Socialism Today, even before Blair came to power, New Labour was entirely different to any previous ‘Labour’ government. At its head was a conscious bourgeois leadership which would quite deliberately transform the Labour Party from the political voice of the organised working class, the trade unions in particular, into an openly bourgeois formation. We stated: “Blair will be unmoved by appeals to alter course by heartrending accounts of the effects of his measures. His government, unlike previous Labour governments, does not have one foot in the camp of the organised working class. There was still a lingering objective of ‘social democracy’ but it was not sufficient to prevent Blair from pursuing his pro-business agenda. It is therefore not subject to the pressures which were brought to bear on previous Labour governments… New Labour, as Blair reminds us, is a ‘new party’, in which the slightest dissent will be stepped upon.”5

Even the revolts that were taking place, we predicted, would not move Blair to alter course. Nor would the pressure from Labour backbenchers force him. He would tread in the footsteps of Persson, who in previous years had won the ‘world record’ for cuts in welfare in Sweden. Both Persson and Blair proceeded from the point of view of the defence of the so-called free market system. Moreover, in Sweden, the left made noises but in essence came to heel because they did not have an alternative to Persson’s programme.

Unfortunately, the same applied to the Labour left in Britain. We pointed out that Livingstone, touted as a future leader of the left, was completely inconsistent in his criticisms of Blair. In the New Statesman the previous October, he had commented: “I haven’t written off Blair and I don’t think the left should. There are a lot of truly ghastly people gathered around Blair, like lice on the back of a hedgehog, and they have their own agenda.” But Livingstone refused to criticise the king (Blair) and concentrated on the court camarilla. He even took a side swipe at Benn, for moving too far to the left and allegedly driving Blair into the arms of the right: “Blair and others like him were lost to the cause in October 1980 when Tony Benn marched further to the left in his conference speech of that year. Benn famously called for a massive extension of public ownership and the abolition of the House of Lords within days of a Labour government coming to power.”6

An issue which came to the fore at this stage was that of Labour’s candidate for London Mayor in the first elections for the post in 2000. Livingstone was undoubtedly popular but there was only a remote possibility that he would be allowed to stand as Labour’s candidate by Blair and his entourage. He was seen as far too ‘risky’ to Labour’s pro-big business policies to be allowed to be in charge of the capital city. The Livingstone of 1999, we pointed out, was far removed from the Livingstone of his radical past. He was no longer a fighter for socialism: “If he is really interested in defending working class people and fighting for a better, socialist society, why did he praise Blair’s last conference speech, which attacked teachers, or why does he generally praise Blair’s leadership?”7

The late Paul Foot, Guardian columnist and SWP member, also threw his hat into the ring. However, we did not see him as a serious opponent of Livingstone and his views. He only offered to stand if Livingstone was barred by Labour. The SWP had flyposted their support for Livingstone all over London, even raising the issue in union branches and conducted a campaign for him amongst Labour Party members. We pointed out that it was correct to argue for a socialist candidate in the mayoral contest and good that the swp, after years of pouring scorn on the Socialist Party for standing in elections, had finally decided it was okay. However, we did not see Livingstone as the standard-bearer for such a campaign. It was necessary to build  an alternative outside New Labour and for those policies in the interests of the working class. This could not be equated with Livingstone’s stand. It was necessary to argue for a genuine socialist candidate and that is why the Socialist Party took part in an unprecedented unity slate for the European elections, the United Socialists, along with the Independent Labour Network, SWP and others.

As if to doubly emphasise his switch from left to right, Livingstone used a column in the Independent to praise “champagne socialists”, a specific attack on the Socialist Party for standing election candidates and who allegedly “drone on” about their pledge to only take a worker’s wage if they were elected. Dave Nellist responded to Livingstone’s cynical sideswipes. We printed extracts from Dave’s letter in the Socialist: “As someone who managed quite well, in nine years in Parliament, to live on the average skilled worker’s wage, I enjoyed life. Including ‘a glass of wine’, and sometimes, Ken, even with cheese! But I enjoyed it to the same extent as the Coventry people I represented then (and again, now do) – no more, no less.” He added: “I did that, not because I prefer a ‘hair shirt’ or because I’m ‘a drone’, but because living on an average wage is the best way to prevent the almost inevitable absorption of an Establishment outlook which parliamentary lifestyle is designed to produce, neutering any radical, socialist feelings MPs once might have had.”8

Livingstone responded, not by pledging that he would accept only a worker’s wage in the future; instead, he vowed to Blair to be well behaved and not to rock the boat in the event of being elected. He also echoed the pessimistic arguments of the ‘modernisers’ that, unless everybody toed the Blair line, there ‘may never’ be another Labour government in their lifetime. In so doing, he was turning his back on many Londoners who would vote for him in the expectation that he would make their lives better. He was giving a signal that he would do Blair’s bidding. This provoked the Guardian in an editorial to predict that “‘oppositional leftists’ (i.e. the SWP) who have uncritically supported Livingstone standing for Mayor will scream that he has sold out.”

This was a sure-fire prediction because the SWP had argued without any qualification to support Livingstone. We said that it would now be difficult for the SWP to avoid the inevitable political embarrassment they would suffer from arguing that, with “Livingstone… Londoners will have a socialist to vote for”.9 This was not the first or last time that the SWP made political blunders by rushing after individuals and organisations who seemed to offer a quick route to building their own party, rather than taking into account the overall interests of the working class for a credible fighting candidate, even if they were outside the largely defunct New Labour.

New Labour’s programme for accelerated privatisation provoked opposition from the working class and the unions in particular. The move towards privatisation came in two guises: ‘best value’ and the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). Best value was the government’s replacement for compulsory competitive tendering whereby councils were able to undermine trade union organisation by privatising local services. Contracts were awarded to the lowest bidder, irrespective of their ability to carry out the work. This was blatantly building on the privatisations initiated by Thatcher and carried on by Major.

The other attack, which has left a lasting legacy, was the PFI. This allows private firms to build and run schools and hospitals which are then leased back, stretching payments over anything from 25 to 60 years. Its full effects were catastrophic and fully felt in the noughties and today, and were used by the Tories and Liberal Democrats to indict New Labour. A third big attack was ‘single status’ in local government, which claimed to ‘harmonise’ the conditions of blue and white collar workers. At the time this deal was proposed the Socialist Party and the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Unison (CFDU), which organised from the base of the union, campaigned against the deal and won 46% of the vote at Unison’s special conference. Single status was not centrally funded and therefore was likely to cut hours for manual workers by April 1999. That meant cutting costs locally. New Labour also planned changes in the structure of local government.  It wanted to neuter democratically elected local councils. Therefore, the unions were preparing for the battle not just against local councils, but against the policies that were being implemented by ‘their’ New Labour government.

In the 1980s Tony Benn had taken a stand under the pressure of a growing left wing within the constituencies and trade unions. His support for the nationalisation of the top 25 companies in Britain represented a big step forward and further enhanced the position of the leftward moving workers within the party. However, Benn was now a prisoner in the Labour Party and even criticised Ken Coates in his diaries for leaving Labour. Coates was correct to do this but mistaken in transferring to the Green group in the European Parliament – going from the frying pan into the fire. On the other hand, what remained of the left within the Labour Party, gathered around the likes of Benn and Livingstone, was extremely feeble. Previous close adherents, like Chris Mullin, a major supporter of Benn at the time of the deputy leadership contest in 1981, had enthusiastically supported Blair’s candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party. He also strongly supported Blair’s welfare-towork strategy and was hawkish on ‘law and order’, at the same time believing that only a ‘centre left’ government like Blair’s could win power in the modern era. Livingstone’s programme was only mildly reformist and he was not a serious socialist alternative.

This is shown by his approach towards discussions on the economy on the NEC at the time: “At the last meeting of Labour’s neC, the prime minister looked genuinely surprised when I pointed out the likelihood of a recession hitting our government in mid-term.” Full marks for Livingstone for a correct observation! Yet he explained that he believed that once capitalism overcame the recession there would be a structural growth similar to the 1950s and 1960s. We consistently refuted this: “The real parallel to be drawn for British and world capitalism is not with the 1950s and 1960s but with the 1930s. A long depressionary phase of capitalism punctuated with slumps and recessions and very feeble growth is the prospect that faces the working class unless it changes society. There is no understanding on the part of the major left leaders of the real processes that are developing at the present time.”

We answered Tony Benn’s call for a ‘refounding’ of the Labour Party which, in effect, consisted of remaining inside and ‘recapturing it’ from the Blairites. The Labour Party was “increasingly dead as a viable political instrument for working people seeking change… Perhaps the time that Benn has been in the Labour Party explains his reluctance to take the step of founding a new mass socialist alternative. Yet Franz Mehring in Germany, faced with the betrayal of the Social Democratic Party in 1918, at the age of 72 (!) took the step of founding a new mass party, a genuine Communist Party, when there was no other alternative.”

We declared that the Socialist Party was preparing for the struggle along with all genuine left forces to lay the foundation for a new mass party. The fact that this had been delayed was no argument against the idea. It was objectively posed by the situation facing the working class, but we added: “Realistically, however, we recognise that this will take time to emerge and will result from a combination of events and the experience of the working class, and tireless propaganda for the launching of such a party.”10 The emergence of the movement around Jeremy Corbyn has not falsified this perspective. The only hope for a continuation and strengthening of ‘Corbynism’ is to defeat the right and open up the party to the genuine forces of the left. This had not happened at the time of writing.