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Mayoral and GLA elections: London calling

The left flank of chameleon Ken

If Ken Livingstone succeeds in becoming mayor of London on 4 May, he will hardly know which victory party to attend and will wake in the morning with a welter of often conflicting expectations to fill – a hangover that can only be described as self-inflicted. His appeal for support to ‘millions of ordinary Londoners’, has gained him a following not only among vast numbers of disgruntled Labour voters but from across the whole political spectrum. An ICM poll in the Guardian the day after he announced his candidacy said: ‘Mr Livingstone’s cross-party popularity in London has become so great more than 70% of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters in the capital say they will support him against their party candidates – and an extraordinary 48% of Conservative voters say they will back him’ (7 March).

He will gain the votes of several Plaid Cymru MPs resident in London (Western Mail, 15 March), of musicians Fatboy Slim and Damon Albarn and of gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell who is standing for the Greater London Assembly. Guardian writer Simon Hoggart (7 March) observes that: ‘It should be re-named the Stuff Blair campaign. In the absence of a Conservative party, Ken is standing on behalf of everyone – right and left, black and white, sane and bonkers – who can’t stand New Labour’.

Former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren has withdrawn his own candidacy for mayor in favour of Livingstone – a spokesman is quoted in the Independent of 16 March as saying ‘He likes Ken and wants him to be mayor, but he doesn’t want Ken to start kissing Tony’s ass as soon as he wins the election’.

Unfortunately most of Britain’s supposedly Marxist groups are calling for a vote to Livingstone on the same politically unsophisticated basis as this music entrepreneur – and some don’t even have this degree of scepticism. While proclaiming their opposition to the Labour Party running London, most organisations on the left have eagerly adopted this cross-party and cross-class campaign, somehow believing that if they use ‘Livingstone’ and ‘socialism’ in the same sentence often enough it will eventually rub off.

Unfortunately for them, the man himself, despite his soft-left reformist past dating back to the GLC of the early 1980s and his opposition to Thatcherism, is anxious to avoid such an image. Seumas Milne, in the Guardian of 7 March, analyses Livingstone’s candidacy as follows: ‘He made it clear yesterday he would be steering well clear of leftwing slates – notably that backed by the London Socialist Alliance…. Mr Livingstone went out of his way to emphasise his support among London business people and insist that the issues raised by London’s mayoral campaign went beyond traditional categories of left and right.’

Popular-frontism – keeping everyone happy

During the period between Livingstone’s failure by a whisker to gain the Labour Party nomination in mid-February and the announcement of his independent candidacy on 6 March, the streets of London were awash with rumours about whether and with whom he would stand. One story had him backing a slate of ‘independents’, including Liberal-Democrats, Greens and even Tories, but while he retains his orientation to this ‘broad church’ constituency, he has decided that confirmed bloc partners will jeopardise his appeal to his other support bases – notably Labour Party members outraged at their treatment at the hands of the Millbank electoral machine. In announcing his candidacy in the Evening Standard of 6 March Livingstone declared that he would not stand on a slate and attempted to speak directly to Labour Party members:

‘I have been forced to choose between the party I love and upholding the democratic rights of Londoners. I have concluded that defence of the principle of London’s right to govern itself requires that I stand as an independent candidate for London mayor on 4 May….

‘I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not want anybody to leave the Labour party. Members who have been appalled by the conduct of Labour’s selection must stay and fight to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.

‘I am standing as an independent solely in order to ensure that we have real devolution to London. I will not be setting up a new political party and I still hope one day to be able to return to the Labour Party.’

This loyalty to the Labour Party is not a sudden conversion. Since becoming an MP, Livingstone has distanced himself from his ‘Red Ken’ image and is seldom counted among those left MPs who vote against the government. Last year, he scandalously supported the government’s gung-ho stance on bombing Yugoslavia – “We need to take military action.... and convince the world that Nato’s actions in the Balkans have honourable objectives” (Independent, 21 April 1999).

He has announced that he will cast his own second preference vote for Frank Dobson and told The Times: ‘I will be announcing closer to the date what I’m going to do with my own vote for the assembly and that will depend on how the Labour candidates treat me. Some are still being very negative’ (23 March). Instead of naming a running mate says he will ‘appoint a Deputy Mayor each year from one of each of the main Assembly parties – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green’ (www.livingstoneforlondon., 11 April).

Regardless of the fanfare from leftist supporters about a political break from Blairism, as splits go this has very little real content. In his Evening Standard statement, Livingstone declared that two principles determined his stand, without which ‘devolution and self-government will be meaningless. The first principle is that Londoners should not have a candidate imposed on them that they do not want. The second is that the break-up and partial privatisation of the Underground is overwhelmingly rejected by Londoners’ (6 March).

The first of these is an old favourite of the ostensibly revolutionary left who inhabit the fringes of the Labour Party – ‘democracy’ as the fundamental principle of politics. But unless democracy has a political content, in fact a class content, it becomes a cheap means for misleaders out of power to criticise those they wish to supplant. We support Livingstone’s right to stand for mayoral candidate of the party of which he was a member, and for Labour Party members in London to democratically choose that candidate free from political stitch-ups. But we have no particular interest in who administers London for Tony Blair. The Labour selection process is chiefly interesting for the divisions it creates in the Labour Party and the ripples it creates in the milieu around it.

Subterranean privatisation

Livingstone’s second ‘principle’, opposition to Labour’s plans for a ‘public–private partnership’ to fund London Underground, appears at first to have a little more substance. The privatisation and break up of the national railways under a similar system has been an unmitigated disaster for both passengers and workers, directly resulting in higher prices and horrific accidents.

We must fight to retain the tube in public hands, to renationalise the railways, to massively raise safety standards and lower fares. Striking railworkers have already taken some small steps towards these objectives. However, Livingstone’s plans bear no similarity to this perspective of workers’ action to improve public transport. Any working class action he might advocate for tactical reasons would be completely subordinated to his pro-business strategy.

Livingstone advocates a ‘New York-style’ system of public sector bonds to fund the tube – a system of partial privatisation by another name. In New York this has left the Metropolitan Transport Authority seriously short of funds and ‘having to go cap in hand to the Governor of New York State…. The financing plans, which proposed the issue of $20bn of bonds – about the same as is needed for the London Underground – have been attacked by the State Comptroller (the US version of the District Auditor), politicians from all sides of the spectrum, local business bodies and Wall Street’ (Independent, 9 April). The Guardian has concluded that the similarities between this and Labour’s plans ‘are at least as great as the differences’ (9 March).

In any case, it is likely that the government will make sure that changes to tube funding will be signed and sealed before the mayor can do anything about it. The Financial Times of 23 March reports that a Livingstone mayoralty does not concern maintenance company Amey, whose chief executive is quoted as saying: ‘Ken Livingstone is an astute enough politician to realise he is faced with a fait accompli. The contracts will already be signed before the mayor can do anything about it.’

Also calling for a vote to Livingstone is the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation (CATP), which is standing a slate of tube workers from the RMT trade union, many of whom have a background in left organisations, in the Greater London Assembly elections. While many CATP supporters claim to oppose privatisation of the tube in any form, their programme was long ago tailored to fit Livingstone’s ‘New York-style bonds’ in the hope that he might endorse them. Even though they managed to pick up on the only real issue separating him from the Labour leadership, Livingstone has no wish to be particularly identified with a single issue campaign in view of the host of other matters that concern London voters.

Despite this, the CATP calls for a vote for ‘the winning combination’ of their assembly candidates plus Livingstone for mayor. Apart from endorsing his bonds scheme, the best they can say about their hero is that he ‘cut fares in London in the past’. Their own programme is a slight improvement, with minimal demands such as a four-year fare freeze, a guard on every train and extension of the tube system – but workers should give no electoral support to a slate which doesn’t even have the gumption to take an unequivocal stance on their main concern, the privatisation of the tube.

A picture of ‘unity’?

Presumably to avoid any association with the far left, the CATP has refused all overtures from the London Socialist Alliance (LSA) to stand a joint slate. They may have been correctly anticipating Livingstone’s desire to recast his ‘Red Ken’ image, but somehow failed to foresee that their own endorsement would also be rebuffed.

The LSA is the most credible of the various left-of-Labour slates standing for the Greater London Assembly. Formed as a coalition of ostensibly socialist organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), Socialist Outlook, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Workers Power, it largely brushes aside these origins, and their political programmes, and is campaigning on a reformist programme designed to appeal to former Labour voters opposed to Blair’s rightward trajectory.

Their propaganda calls ‘Vote Ken for Mayor, Vote LSA for the London Assembly’ and while they ‘welcome’ Livingstone’s candidacy they add that he ‘should also declare that he is going to stand for mayor on a socialist platform’. This support for Livingstone, regardless of whether he takes up their advice, was agreed by all components, and was also the line taken by the Annual Conference of the national Socialist Alliance, held in Leicester on 25 March.

Through the various phases of its evolution the Socialist Alliance has consistently demonstrated a degree of confusion as to whether it is a coalition, a party, a proto-party, an electoral bloc, a network of local groups or something else entirely. In Marxist Bulletin no. 8 (January 1999) we explained that we viewed an earlier version of the English and Welsh Socialist Alliance as ‘an organisational shell which fails to admit to its own reformist politics and which flirts with forces outside the working class movement’.

The present focus of the London Socialist Alliance on the GLA elections has the advantage of making it more defined in scope and therefore easier to analyse. The wholehearted involvement of the SWP also turns it into something of a different creature, in size if nothing else. It remains to be seen what will become of the LSA after the elections, but this will doubtless depend on the electoral results obtained and the outcome of the inevitable organisational manoeuvring among its founders.

The LSA election campaign was launched at a rally on 22 February that drew close to 1000 people and confirmed both the basic pro-working class orientation of the alliance, and also the unlikelihood that it can long endure in its present configuration.

Of all the candidates who spoke, only one, the CPGB’s Anne Murphy, even identified which group she was from. All references to the wide variety of political differences between the various members of the slate were discreetly finessed. The SWP’s Paul Foot, who leads the LSA party list and whose reputation as a journalist makes him their best-known candidate, waxed lyrical about the opportunity he was now given to meet other candidates whom he ‘didn’t know existed’, such as Workers Power’s Kate Ford, Socialist Outlook’s Greg Tucker and the AWL’s Janine Booth. He said he was surprised to find that he ‘agrees with every word they say’. Filmmaker Ken Loach conjured up a glorious end to sectarianism within ‘this movement, this alliance, this … whatever we are’ and related how in days gone by he would never have taken the platform with ‘a state cap like Paul Foot’.

This comment was not intended to prefigure discussions within the LSA on the class nature of the Soviet Union, but rather to indicate that these days ‘unity’ is the important thing, and minor differences over questions of revolution or counterrevolution should be shelved, at least for the time being. But of course such questions don’t go away. If Paul Foot agrees with every word spoken by his fellow candidates, either they have been suddenly convinced of the politics of the SWP or they avoid questions of any political substance to maintain the facade of unity.

A candidate for all tastes?

The Socialist Alliance rally was held before Livingstone declared his candidacy but after he had already lost the battle for the Labour nomination. This briefly left the field open for an even greater spectrum of views to be attributed to him than he has managed to accommodate since declaring his candidacy. Speakers at the rally constantly called on Livingstone to stand, usually with a proviso: that he do so as ‘a socialist and a trade unionist’ (Paul Foot), a ‘genuine labour movement candidate’ (Janine Booth), or that he ‘sign up to what we’re standing for’ (Kate Ford).

Previously, the same organisations that these speakers represent had all campaigned for Livingstone to be the Labour Party candidate and declared their support for him, while he in turn promised to stand on Blair’s manifesto – with the exception of a little quibble about how to introduce partial private funding of the London Underground. Now, rather than a mildly critical candidate of a right-wing bourgeois workers’ party, he becomes the popular-frontist, cross-class ‘Stuff Blair campaign’, all things to all who are gullible enough to feed their own desires into his carefully timed silences – including the majority of Britain’s ostensible Marxists.

This support to Livingstone well illustrates the opportunist lesser-evilism rampant on the left. If revolutionaries are too weak to put forward their own candidates it is possible to draw important lines of demarcation through use of the tactic of critical support (see article page 6). But this does not mean that support is applied automatically to the most left-talking candidate, or most popular, or most hated by New Labour. It must be based on programme and the possibilities presented to move proletarian consciousness in a revolutionary direction. And by that standard Ken Livingstone, who openly embraces populist, multi-class coalition politics, simply does not warrant any kind of support from the working class, regardless of what his supporters may want him to represent.

Tax and spend

Due mainly to Livingstone’s refusal to attempt to cobble together a slate to run with, the LSA in itself does not actually constitute a part of a popular front coalition. While it must be sharply denounced for its support to Livingstone, the Socialist Alliance campaign should be judged on its own programme and the nature of the organisation.

The LSA election programme begins with a call for ‘a massive redistribution of wealth and power from rich to the poor’ and then runs through a shopping list of demands for improvements in transport, housing, education, health, jobs, the environment and fighting discrim-ination. It addresses questions about funding these demands with a promise that an LSA assembly would ‘launch a campaign, involving trades unions and communities to force the government to provide the resources London needs’, and proclaims: ‘We support taking back tax cuts for the rich and slashing the arms budget to provide proper health care, housing, education, childcare, public transport and other public services.’

While it at least recognises that many of these issues fall outside the proposed brief of the GLA, the LSA programme fails to raise the essential point that under capitalist rule the needs of the mass of working people will never be met. If taxing the rich were hypothetically to provide some temporary funds in the short term it would soon translate into massive capital flight and renewed attacks on wages and conditions in order to restore profitability. ‘Slashing the arms budget’ (whatever happened to ‘Not a person, not a penny’?) gores the ox of the officer corps of the armed bodies which constitute the core of the state, and they are not likely to take kindly to such attacks nor to any incursion on the bourgeois property system which they are sworn to defend.

In an attempt to sound like ‘reasonable’ and ‘responsible’ Labourites the LSA advocates that only companies which are about to close up should be taken over and placed under public ownership. By exempting profitable firms from nationalisation the LSA pledges that if elected it intends to act merely as a scrapyard attendant, not a gravedigger, for the bourgeoisie. Any serious socialist campaign must be based on the necessity for the expropriation without compensation of capitalist concerns as the precondition for beginning to provide the kind of social services the LSA demands.

This same weakness is also clear in the programme’s treatment of the police. Although explicitly avoiding Livingstone’s call for more cops – ‘Making London safe for its citizens will be one of my top priorities as mayor…. I want to see an increase in the number of police on the beat’ (Independent, 8 March) – the LSA programme says: ‘We demand an end to the racism and corruption of the Metropolitan Police. Disarm the police. Bring the police under democratic community control.’

But the Met are not a neutral force, tainted only by ‘racism and corruption’ – they are the capitalist state’s primary armed defenders on the streets of London and the suggestion that they can be reformed or ‘controlled’ by the workers’ movement is laughable. The struggle for socialist revolution is ultimately a struggle to break up the existing armed bodies loyal to the capitalist oligarchs and replace them with new armed bodies, dedicated to the defence of the interests of the exploited and oppressed. Those who propose that the ‘community’ can, or should aspire to, exercise ‘control’ over the capitalists’ cops are acting as misleaders by injecting fatal reformist illusions into the proletariat.

The LSA programme finishes with a salute to the ‘unprecedented agreement’ that this document represents and an appeal: ‘Time for the left to unite. Join with us!’ Serious political unity around real points of agreement can indeed be a precious thing, but, as was illustrated at the public rally, the ‘unity’ presented by the Socialist Alliance is based on nothing more than a short-term agreement to paper over differences and avoid any serious investigation of where real agreement and dis-agreement may lie, and is therefore worthless.

How deep are the differences?

LSA candidate Greg Tucker has been quoted as saying: ‘No one is happy with the programme as it stands’ (Weekly Worker 10 February). In fact, in their search for broader support, most of the components of the LSA have endorsed a programme well to the right of their own views. These organisations are adept at disguising reformist policies with a revolutionary phrase or two. But in joining the LSA they have signed a programme that is also reformist in word, with slight hints aimed at those in the know that perhaps they don’t really mean it.

The Socialist Workers Party, the largest component of the alliance, largely stick to LSA formulations in their propaganda, emphasising a general campaign for a ‘socialist alternative’. They print pictures of LSA candidates from other organisations in Socialist Worker, without mentioning those organisations or, of course, any suggestion of political differences.

Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party seems unable to decide whether to back the LSA or the CATP – while their supporter Ian Page is an LSA candidate in the Lewisham constituency in South London, they also have a candidate on the CATP list – the only CATP candidate to actually own up to affiliation with a political organisation.

The Weekly Worker, paper of the CPGB, delights in reporting on the inner workings of the Socialist Party and other shenanigans that go on inside the LSA and its constituent organisations. When the Weekly Worker touches on programmatic questions, the usual format is much praise of unity with a brief criticism such as: ‘the LSA platform is woefully eclectic and economistic. Yet we as the extreme left are prepared to accept it in the interests of unity, given the agreed proviso that all organisations may criticise and campaign on their own platforms as well’ (2 December 1999). The CPGB’s efforts in this campaign seem mainly focused on asserting themselves as an organisation in opposition to the SWP and other LSA components who want to hide the composition of the alliance.

In their report of their candidate’s speech at the 22 February rally, they highlighted their pet theme of ‘democracy’ rather than the programmatic shortcomings of the alliance: ‘Comrade Murphy emphasised that for us the “key issue” is democracy: “We need to challenge how we are ruled. Blair’s fake devolution has stirred up discontent everywhere it has been implemented. From Northern Ireland to Wales, to Scotland, and now London, people are angry precisely because, in the name of devolving power, Blair is actually trying to increase his dictatorial control. He is trying to stitch us up”‘ (24 February).

They claim that only Murphy was sceptical about Livingstone’s intentions, but we couldn’t detect any appreciable difference between her remarks and those of the others who also called on him to stand and back the LSA. The Weekly Worker did speculate that: ‘It might even be correct – if, for example, Livingstone turned his back on the labour movement and looked to some cross-class, populist coalition – to put up a candidate against him in the mayoral election’ (24 February). Once Livingstone declared his intention to stand without a slate, however, they refused to see that is exactly what he is doing, and have eagerly put their own spin on supporting him: ‘The LSA must become the pro-Livingstone slate in the minds of his popular base, helping to shape events and steering things towards an outcome favourable to the working class through criticism and mass involvement’ (9 March). This opportunist attempt to ride Livingstone’s coattails is typical of the CPGB’s brand of politics by wishful thinking. It completely ignores the real content of what Livingstone represents.

Layer upon layer

Of all the components of this bloc, Workers Power make the most principled attempt at reconciling the LSA’s reformist programme with their own avowedly revolutionary perspectives. While standing on the LSA programme, they describe it as inadequate and supplement it with their own ‘socialist manifesto for London’ which seems mainly concerned to push the LSA demands a bit further to the left (eg, ‘Halve all fares on London transport as the first step to a totally free system’). But, like the LSA itself, Workers Power’s manifesto also proposes taxing the rich as a means to funding its demands.

They have produced a four-page election leaflet for Kate Ford, including this ‘socialist manifesto’ as well as several separate small articles asserting that the problems highlighted in the two programmes ‘are caused bythe capitalist system’ and that ‘we fight for a socialist revolution – workers’ control of production and a government of workers’ councils’. At no point does the leaflet overtly criticise the programme of the LSA, although it flatly contradicts it at several points, notably in a box entitled ‘One solution: revolution!’ which acknowledges the forces of the state and calls for ‘an alternative power, based on councils of workers’ deputies’ and a ‘socialist Britain’ as ‘a bridgehead to the creation of a socialist united states of Europe and global socialism’.

These demands are, however, inexplicably left out of Workers Power’s own ‘manifesto’ for the elections, which goes no further than to suggest that ‘We want to replace the police with democratic defence forces in which all adults do a turn of duty’. Without putting this demand in the context of the creation of a workers’ government based on the expropriation of capital, this formulation can only mean another form of the LSA’s reformist call for community control of policing under capitalism.

Last, but certainly not least, Workers Power’s support for a vote to Livingstone, in common with all their alliance partners, is simply another manifestation of the lesser evilism they usually apply to the Labour Party – based primarily on its mass support – and highlights the hollowness of their claim to be the ‘revolutionaries’ within the LSA.

Drawing a class line

Despite its limitations, the LSA is at least standing against the Labour Party – a considerable change of approach for many of its components. Its programme declares: ‘By voting for the Socialist Alliance you can elect people to the Greater London Assembly who will speak up for workers, the jobless, pensioners and students, and against the bankers, the bosses and the profiteers. You can speak out against the way New Labour has abandoned many of those who elected it in 1997, in order to serve big business. And you can say you want a government that serves the working class as the Tories serve the rich.’

We call for critical support to LSA candidates for the Greater London Assembly – not on the basis that they have a programme that can lead the working class forward to socialism, but because they at least represent an expression of independent working class politics against the Tories and the Blairites. Despite a facade of ‘left unity’ resulting in a lack of political debate at its public meetings, the creation of the LSA does throw together the members of its various components, and thus potentially could provide a venue for serious political discussion and perhaps even some realignments based on clarification of political programme.

We do not, however, call for a vote to two other organisations appearing on the ballot paper that stand to the left of Labour and claim to hold a working-class orientation – Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), associated with the Morning Star newspaper. Scargill has declared several times that he wouldn’t vote for Livingstone as mayor of ‘Toytown’, let alone London, but has not, we note, taken this to the extent of actually standing an SLP candidate against Livingstone in the mayoral race.

While its formal programme is in many ways similar to that of the LSA, the SLP, formed four years ago with considerable potential as a break from Labour, has now degenerated and is so devoid of a political internal life, social weight or any potential for political movement in a leftward direction that it is not worthy of support. The SLP’s trajectory is now resolutely downhill, riding on little more than Scargill’s personal, and fading, reputation. The CPB are even worse, confusing their shrinking and ageing support base with a slate of candidates in the party list section, a call for support to Livingstone as mayor and, lest they have not cast the net wide enough, to the Labour Party in the constituency sections!

Both the SLP and the CPB are isolated sect-like organisations, whose deficiencies of programme are in no way compensated for by any capacity to significantly connect with mass politics. While on this point or that they may be formally to the left of the LSA, taken as a whole their campaigns do not offer any serious chance to vote for a class struggle perspective. In a very limited and inadequate way the LSA does offer just that.

Break with Ken!

The political deficiencies of the participants in the London Socialist Alliance’s reformist bloc are most clearly illustrated in their unanimous determination to support Livingstone regardless of his programme. The prostration of the left in front of the Livingstone campaign has meant there is no mayoral candidate worthy of support from the working class.

We challenge candidates of the LSA who consider themselves revolutionaries to take a step in favour of working class political independence and publicly repudiate any support to Ken Livingstone. This might not be a popular approach at the moment but it is the only position that can be taken by people who are serious about upholding the principle of working class independence from the capitalists.

For mayor – spoil your ballot!

For the Greater London Assembly – vote London Socialist Alliance!

Forward to a revolutionary workers’ party!