35. Ken Livingstone again



Ken Livingstone first emerged as a major figure in the battles of Labour councillors and councils against the Thatcher government in the 1980s. His base was in the Greater London Council (GLC), which became Labour-controlled in May 1981, following four years of job losses and cutbacks under the previous Tory administration. Its programme of reforms meant that it became a focal point of opposition to Thatcherism. However, when it came to a serious defence of the flagship GLC policy, cheap fares for public transport, as well as a campaign against cuts in government grants to local authorities and the abolition of the GLC itself, Livingstone was found wanting.

Workers enthusiastically greeted the implementation of the GLC’s manifesto commitment to cut fares by 32%. However, the law lords, the highest court of appeal, ruled that London Transport (LT) – should be run on ‘business principles’. This reactionary decision threatened further increases of 200% and the loss of a quarter of LT’s workforce. Militant called for all-out strike action by LT’s 40,000 workers supported by a 24-hour regional general strike. Unfortunately, this was rejected in favour of the ‘Keep Fares Fair’ propaganda campaign. At the time, Livingstone admitted that the mood existed to build a mass campaign led by LT unions but he failed to take up the cudgels. An opportunity to inflict a major defeat on the Tories was missed. The weakness of the GLC left was rewarded with a move by the Tory government, after its re-election in 1983, to abolish the GLC. Confronted with a Tory majority of 140 seats, Livingstone declared: “There was no chance of defeating the abolition proposals… There seemed to be no chance of industrial action by the trade unions at County Hall.”1 However while Livingstone was ruling out the idea of struggle in London, Liverpool City Council, under the influence of Militant, mobilised a mass campaign for more money and against rate-capping, which limited the maximum level of local property tax that could be levied by councils and cut their government grants.

The mood amongst workers in London was no different. In November 1984, 100,000 workers came out on strike in the boroughs threatened by ratecapping and in opposition to the abolition of the GLC. Thirty thousand marched in the capital. Opinion polls showed up to 70% opposed GLC abolition. Yet, rather than mobilising this enormous latent support into a mass campaign, Livingstone launched the ‘GLC Roadshow’, as it became known, involving celebrities, fun days and festivals.

Livingstone preferred a slick campaign to the serious mobilisation of working people. In 1984 Liverpool City Council had already compelled the Thatcher government to retreat and make concessions through strike action and mass demonstrations.2 Moreover, in 1985, 25 Labour councils faced ratecapping. Liverpool councillors argued for the tactic of setting a deficit budget and had already shown the potential for the mass mobilisation of workers demanding the return of the money stolen by the Tory government. Livingstone and other left-wing council leaders opposed this, arguing that they should not set rates at all until the Tories made concessions. While this appeared to be a more dramatic gesture, it actually obscured the issues involved. In reality the Labour left had no intention of not setting a rate. It was merely a gesture of defiance. In February 1985 the Tories on the GLC (in a manoeuvre to wrong-foot Livingstone) unexpectedly announced they would vote against the government’s rate-capping limit. It became clear that even with the Labour right-wing voting against illegality the left would have a majority not to set a rate.  With astounding frankness Livingstone later explained how this presented difficulties for the GLC left: “Suddenly, for the first time we faced the possibility that the GLC might really refuse to set a rate. This presented several problems, not least of which was that, as everyone had assumed that behind all the rhetoric there was no real possibility of this happening, none of us had even begun to explore the question of how to run a bankrupt council. Certainly, no one had given any thought to how staff would react to no pay or how we would provide essential services to the public.”3 We commented: “Not preparing for such an eventuality was at best irresponsible. At worst, it exposed not only the falsity of the ‘no rate’ tactic but also the political bankruptcy of left reformism in general and Livingstone in particular: verbal, symbolic opposition until the commencement of battle, and then capitulation.”4 Of the 25 councils which promised to defy the Tories, the GLC was the first council to cave in.

In a section drafted by Militant supporters and approved by a London Labour Party conference, Labour’s 1981 GLC election manifesto said it would seek to build “mass opposition” to the cuts, appeal “to the Labour and trade union movement to take action, including industrial action” which “could become the focal point of a national campaign… against the cuts”.5 Livingstone had no intention of even trying to carry out such a campaign. Towards the end of 1984, Livingstone was already preparing the way to back down. He organised the splitting of the broad left in the Greater London Labour Party in order to remove from its executive those who would oppose the retreat, including Militant supporters.

When the Blair government announced the establishment in 2000 of a Mayor for London, Livingstone threw his hat into the ring as an independent. He was pitted against the hapless Frank Dobson, who had been selected as the Labour candidate after defeating Livingstone in the selection vote. This transformed a contest which was lacklustre into an acrimonious squabble for the crown. For many workers Livingstone still retained a radical reputation and was seen as an alternative to Blair and New Labour’s openly Thatcherite policies, even though he stated that he would work with the government. He admitted his ideological retreat from a left-wing firebrand into a staunch defender of capitalism: “Twenty years ago I would have said a central planned economy could be made to work better than the Western capitalist economy; I don’t believe that anymore.”6

The illusion that he represented something different was indicated in a letter to the Independent: “With the Labour Party having lost its way and facing a meltdown in its heartlands, it would seem a great opportunity for the formation of a socialist party in time for the next general election. After becoming Mayor of London perhaps Ken Livingstone should consider this possibility.”7 Livingstone’s reply was to the point: “I am not setting up another rival party, I am just giving Londoners the right to choose who they want as mayor.”8 Despite this, by March 2000, 61% of those intending to vote indicated support for Livingstone, while Dobson notched up just 16%, and the Tory candidate, Stephen Norris, 13%. He was ahead amongst all groups of the population: men and women, young and old, middle class and working class voters. The Evening Standard reported that, incredibly, “he has now overtaken Mr Norris among Conservatives, and is miles ahead of Susan Kramer among Liberal Democrats”.9

The Standard’s resident psephologist, Peter Kellner, a former Maoist who reinvented himself as an election ‘expert’ in the service of the Blairites, could scarcely contain himself: “Today, astonishingly, he would win easily even if every Labour supporter stayed at home.” We commented: “Support for Livingstone has many different and seemingly contradictory strands. The sense of disillusionment with the government is so wide and deep that an inchoate ‘stuff Blair’ sentiment has lined up behind him… This is itself a comment on the character of Livingstone’s appeal. It is entirely different to the wide support for Tony Benn when he stood for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981. Benn’s campaign was of a pronounced left and socialist character. Traditional Tory and Liberal voters would not have supported Benn in the way they have lined up behind Livingstone.”

We went on to draw an analogy between similar figures in the US, where there was no party of the working class, and in parts of the neo-colonial world: “The result has been that dissent has often expressed itself in support for radical figures without a party, or against parties in general. If Livingstone is cast in the mode of ‘populism’ over the last three years, it has been of a pronounced moderate variety.” While quietly whispering ‘socialism’, his campaign was predominantly moderate, claiming to represent ‘all the people’. Notwithstanding this, the impression was that he stood on the left and would be a counterweight to Blair.10

Unfortunately, support for Livingstone did not advance the cause of those like the Socialist Party who were for the clear demand of the need for a new mass workers’ party. In London we recognised the working class had not yet moved decisively into action. Moreover, in the capital the weight of the middle class ‘intelligentsia’ is generally of greater significance than outside of London. Consequently, the influence of sectarian, largely middle class grouplets was more of a problem and the genuine voice of the working class tended to be crowded out. Like the SWP, they were inclined to gather around Livingstone but failed to give his campaign a socialist content. Notwithstanding this, we recognised that a victory for Livingstone would represent a defeat for Blair, although not a decisive one. Ultimately, they were cut from the same ideological material.

This was made clear even before he was formerly sworn in as the new Mayor. Just before election day he had denounced the Reclaim the Streets anti-capitalist May Day demonstrators. He refused to support the London Socialist Alliance, calling instead for a Labour vote in the London Assembly constituencies and the all-London top-up list. The Independent wrote that he had “wisely dropped much of his old rhetoric and alliances and now stands as a vaguely leftish Keynesian: hardly the stuff of tabloid nightmares”.11 He energetically courted big business, touting his business friendly agenda, increased transport spending, investment, and a skills plan geared to employers’ needs: “I will build a strong partnership with every section of London business, the city, large employers and small firms.”

Paradoxically, Livingstone’s victory had features of Blair’s in the previous general election yet he had prospered because of the disillusionment with Blair. Certainly, there was no advance for the left, as those who had uncritically supported Livingstone expected. And he made his position clear: “I really want to make the system work.”12 Concessions, therefore, would be very small, particularly as far the working class was concerned. Blair indicated he was prepared to work with the new Mayor and Livingstone, on a salary of

£76,000, appointed a New Labour deputy. Other appointees followed a similar pattern. In reality, Livingstone took Blair’s coalition policies much further with Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens staffing a pro-business administration. Kellner gloated: “He no longer behaves like a doctrinaire socialist. For the most part, he now works in an inclusive, consensus-seeking manner.”13

After his first year in office, he reapplied to rejoin the Labour Party just as workers were moving in the opposite direction. His application was rejected by the party’s NEC, but this was a mere interlude as he was readmitted later – after a ‘decent interval’ had elapsed. He smoothed the way by acting like a typical Blairite, refusing to speak to demonstrations of public sector workers in a rally outside the offices of the Greater London Assembly (GLA), and distancing himself from anti-capitalist demonstrators. A sign of the change that had taken place was that Labour officials hinted that they would not expel Labour Party members who had supported Livingstone in the elections, so long as it was not done too openly! This was one indication of the growing weakness of Blair and his Labour machine.

There was growing hostility from the unions, such as the RMT, CWU communication workers and the GMB. Not yet prepared to completely break from Labour, they nevertheless cut back their funding to the party, reflecting the increasing anger and opposition from their members towards the government. Despite some radical phrases at different times, including opposition to the Iraq war, Livingstone never played again the role he had in the 1980s. Back then people like him could become a pole of attraction for workers and young people who were looking towards a struggle against  capitalism and for a new socialist world. Because Livingstone remained within Blairised Labour’s ideological prison, his mayoral reign proved to be a big disappointment – and paved the way for the victory of the unspeakable Tory Boris Johnson later.

Other opportunities existed in London. The Socialist Party played a pivotal role in Socialist Alliance work from the very beginning, in London and nationally, setting up the London Socialist Alliance in 1995 and helping its development politically and organisationally. This was at a time when the SWP and other left groups were pursuing a policy of ‘ourselves alone’.