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Issue 46

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Issue 46, April 2000

Ken Livingstone and a new workers' party

    Ferment in the unions
    The role of the socialist alliances
    Changing the political landscape

"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". (Letter to The Independent, 7 March 2000)

"I am not setting up another rival party, I am just giving Londoners the right to choose who they want as mayor". (The Guardian, 8 March 2000)

Ken Livingstone's refusal to draw all the necessary political conclusions from his break with Tony Blair's New Labour Party does not alter the fact that his decision has placed firmly on the agenda the need for the British working class to create a new mass workers' party. This will not be a single act, but a process. Moreover, Livingstone himself will probably not be an immediate catalyst for the creation of such a force. Nevertheless, his decision to stand against Labour for London mayor has already broken the grip of Blairism on the labour movement and on British politics which has existed since the general election in 1997. This alone has decisively changed the political situation in Britain.

It has been clear for months that Livingstone would win if he decided to stand, and win on a scale that would inflict a crushing defeat on Blair's New Labour government. Almost two weeks after the announcement of his candidature the London Evening Standard commented: "Ken Livingstone continues to ride one of the great tidal waves of modern British politics". By mid-March 61% of those intending to vote indicated support for Livingstone while the lacklustre Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, notched up 16%, the Tory candidate, Steven Norris, 13% and the Liberal Democrat, Susan Kramer, 8%.


Such is the scale of support for Livingstone that he was decisively ahead of his rivals amongst all groups in society: men and women, young and old, middle-class and working-class voters. Incredibly, according to the Standard, "he has now overtaken Mr Norris among Conservatives, and is miles ahead of Susan Kramer among Liberal Democrats". The Standard's resident psephologist, Peter Kellner, a former Maoist who reinvented himself as an election 'expert' in the service of the Blairites, can scarcely contain himself when he writes: "Today, astonishingly, he would win easily even if every Labour supporter stayed at home".

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. Traditional Tory and Liberal voters, recognising that their own candidates have no chance, have indicated they will support 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.

Livingstone has introduced into British politics a feature that has hitherto been largely the preserve of countries in the colonial and ex-colonial world, or the USA. Mass parties of the working class have either not existed (the USA), have been severely weakened, or have moved towards the right under the pressure of neo-liberalism, and a vacuum has opened up. 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.


He has studiously avoided all appeals to adopt a radical socialist position, emphasising his agreement with the main planks of Blairism, except on the government's proposals for part-privatisation of the London underground railway system (the Tube) and on university tuition fees. He has gained the services of a top capitalist PR firm 'free of charge' and has promised to appoint his Liberal Democrat opponent for mayor, Susan Kramer, as his 'chief of transport' in the event of his victory. Shades of a 'popular front'!

He seems to appeal to 'all classes', with the middle class and the London glitterati heavily weighted in his favour. Twenty-three percent of the members of the London Chamber of Commerce have also indicated they support him. This probably reflects the desperation of a section of London businesses at the capital's nightmarish transport situation and the perception that Livingstone as mayor can do something to improve it. He in turn has reciprocated by supporting Britain's entry into the euro and warning that "a lot of City companies, when their leases expire, are looking where they are going to be in another decade, (and) will consider Paris or even Berlin". The euro, linked as it is to Maastricht and European Monetary Union, means the application of neo-liberal policies, savage cuts in the welfare state, and deregulation. The very fact that it attacks the living standards of the working class should mean that all socialists should oppose its implementation.

top     Ferment in the unions


LIVINGSTONE HAS, IT is true, spoken 'as a socialist' but usually sotto voce, a whispered aside to his main theme. His message has been predominantly one of moderation, of representing 'all the people'. This, moreover, is laced with a heavy dose of London regionalism, which counterpoises the alleged 'unfair treatment' of London to the rest of Britain. Such an approach would be fatal for the building of an all-Britain mass socialist opposition movement to Blairism, which is developing amongst the working class and in the trade unions.

Yet the support of ordinary working-class people is the most important aspect of the Livingstone phenomenon. Notwithstanding his pro-market, 'social democratic' stance, the perception is that he stands to the left of Blair, not just on transport but in opposition to the government's openly pro-capitalist, Tory agenda.

In the contest for Labour's mayoral candidate, which preceded his decision to stand, the bedrock of Livingstone's support came from the unions. Non-Labour Party members in the factories and the workplaces exerted a powerful effect on the union leaders in London to vote in favour of Livingstone. That mood has been strengthened in the aftermath of his decision to go independent. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) will probably officially support Livingstone, as will the Fire Brigade Union (FBU). The public sector union UNISON, the biggest in Britain, will be split, with the majority of ordinary UNISON members rallying to Livingstone. A similar division is likely amongst the membership of the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G), previously a prop for Blair's New Labour Party.


Even the most right-wing union leader, Sir Ken Jackson of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), faces a revolt in his ranks. The biggest London branch of the union, the contracting branch, has condemned the refusal of Jackson to hold a ballot of members in Labour's mayoral selection process. This decision earned the AEEU the dubious title of the 'Albanian Engineering Union'. The undemocratic wielding of the block vote by Jackson was probably responsible for Dobson's narrow 'victory'. The contracting branch is now demanding that the union withhold £800,000 a year from New Labour.

Throughout the trade union movement, similar protests at right-wing domination and ballot rigging in the unions have grown. Pressure to withhold the trade union levies which go to New Labour and debates over the future use of the 'political funds' in the unions have intensified. Individual union branches in London have even considered putting up candidates for the London assembly, such is the depth of disillusionment with New Labour. In these movements are the outlines of future real working-class and sizeable socialist alliances, which can provide the basis upon which a new mass party of the working class will develop.

There is already mass disillusionment with New Labour, with a deep hostility and even hatred amongst formerly loyal Labour voters. Like the disappearance of the sparrows in London (driven out by pollution), socialists have deserted Labour in droves. Following the ballot rigging which ensured Dobson's 'victory', this has increased. New Labour grandees like Philip Gould, the originator of the infamous 'focus groups', believe that the so-called 'core Labour voters' have nowhere else to go but to tamely line up behind the New Labour electoral bandwagon. That idea was punctured in Wales and Scotland where those workers who did not abstain in disgust used protest votes for the nationalists and independent socialists to punish the government.


Even in England, where a similar threat was allegedly 'inconceivable', growing support for the Socialist Party led to the election of Socialist Party councillors in Lewisham and Coventry. This is an anticipation of what would be possible in England and Wales on a big scale if Livingstone was to seize the initiative. A call from him to organise a new mass workers' party would undoubtedly find a powerful echo.

Unfortunately, Livingstone has rejected this option. This contradicts the widespread feeling which exists for a left and socialist alternative which the Socialist Party has been fighting for. There is a natural tendency amongst workers to seek the widest possible unity in the struggle against capitalism. The Socialist Party has always shared these sentiments of working people. Alone on the left it was the Socialist Party which originally raised the idea of a new mass party. We did this in advance of Arthur Scargill's decision to launch the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in 1995 and we welcomed his subsequent initiative, which could have provided a springboard for a mass socialist alternative in Britain. Unfortunately, the sectarian approach of Scargill, his refusal to organise an open and broad, democratic party on federal lines, embracing all genuine socialist forces, has led the SLP into a sectarian dead end.

Following this, the Socialist Party supported the idea of socialist alliances in England and Wales. This was the application of the traditional Marxist tactic of the united front in the electoral field. To be precise, it involved an element of the united front. The united front usually involves unity in action of mass organisations or sizeable forces of the working class on a common, minimum programme.


The throwing back of socialist consciousness and the weakening of the left in the 1990s meant that the socialist alliances could only involve small forces. Indeed, in Scotland, England and Wales, the Socialist Party constituted the largest and most decisive section of the socialist alliances. It was an open question, given the sectarian, petty-bourgeois character of most of the other groups involved, whether they could grow and develop or, as was most likely, be by-passed and replaced by more representative working-class bodies.

It would have been fatal from the standpoint of the future influence of Marxism, therefore, for the Socialist Party to have handed over to the London Socialist Alliance its apparatus of full-time workers, press, finance, etc, a course of action urged on us by some on the left.

In London, at this stage, the working class has yet to move decisively into action. Moreover, in the capital the weight of the middle-class 'intelligentsia' is of greater significance than outside of London. Flowing from this, the influence of sectarian, largely middle-class left groups is more of a problem in London. For the moment, the genuine voice of the working class tends to be crowded out by these noisy, unrepresentative grouplets.

top     The role of the socialist alliances

THE TACTIC OF the united front, as Leon Trotsky put it, does not mean the lowering of the profile of Marxism, nor the mixing-up of different, directly opposed banners. This can only befuddle workers and harm the struggle for genuine working-class socialist unity: 'march separately and strike together'. The Socialist Party will always be prepared to strike together with other socialist forces for agreed common objectives. But we will also 'march separately' in the sense of maintaining the clarity of our ideas and our independent organisation. Even a mass workers' party organised on federal lines would at this stage contain an element of the united front.


We initiated the socialist alliances in most areas of England and Wales in the latter part of the 1990s. At the same time we were realistic about the forces that were involved. They were composed, in the main, of ourselves (the Socialist Party), some genuine ex-Labour Party left-wingers, but also small, largely insignificant, organically ultra-left sectarian grouplets.

This was the case in the London 'Socialist Alliance' (LSA), even when the Socialist Party was the largest force within it. This body could not take-off mainly because of the objective situation. The mass of the working class, and also significant layers of the more developed workers in the union branches and the shop stewards' committees, had not yet drawn clear political conclusions or moved to seek an alternative to New Labour.

It was always an open question to us whether the LSA, which was hardly representative of significant forces outside of the Socialist Party itself, would be the body through which these workers would move. However, with the approach of the London elections the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) began to participate in the LSA. The SWP is one of Britain's largest left organisations claiming to be Marxist, with a largely petit-bourgeois membership. Their participation in the LSA represented a spectacular, if unprincipled, political somersault on the SWP's part. They had spent years and even decades denouncing others, particularly the Socialist Party, for 'electoralism'. It seems it was a 'crime' in their book for socialists and Marxists to stand in elections, to become councillors or MPs and use whatever platform was achieved to raise the consciousness of working-class people. They denounced the heroic struggle of Liverpool city council between 1983-87: 'Sold Down The Mersey', was the headline in Socialist Worker at the time. An abstract and completely sectarian programme for 'revolution', linked to calls for 'soviets' and the arming of the working class, was counterpoised to this supposedly 'opportunist' participation in elections. Yet in the mighty anti-poll tax battle - which involved action on a mass scale not witnessed for decades - they opposed the successful tactic of non-payment and advised people to pay up!


They dramatically changed their position, without explanation, once elections in London were called with an element of proportional representation. This led the SWP not just to enter the LSA but to effectively take it over. They could only do this on the basis of the support of minuscule grouplets who hitherto had generally acceded to the proposals of the Socialist Party. These grouplets embraced the SWP, welcoming their adherence to the LSA and picturing this as an example of a genuine 'change of heart' and 'progress for the left'. It was nothing of the kind. We soon witnessed that the SWP were incapable of genuine collaboration with other forces.

In every campaign, in every committee in which they participate, we see a mixture of ultra-leftism and opportunism allied to a completely dishonest approach to other groupings on the left. They seek to 'cherry-pick'. 'Left unity' applies when they can gain. When they face rival opinions and organisations, it doesn't. Collaboration with the Socialist Party in the student field is ruled out. Instead, the SWP links up with other 'left forces' in the National Union of Students, moving might and main to exclude our student comrades, who have played a crucial role - much more significant than the SWP - in the campaign for non-payment of tuition fees.

In the recent, very successful, campaign of Roger Bannister for the general secretaryship of UNISON their ingrained sectarianism was once more on display. Initially they professed support for the campaign but withdrew to the sidelines after it was made clear that they were not going to be allowed to use this vital struggle for change in UNISON merely as a recruiting platform for the SWP. In London they are demanding that others, including Socialist Party members, should distribute material of the 'LSA', which has never been democratically discussed and agreed upon by LSA members. Yet in the Roger Bannister campaign they categorically refused to distribute material produced by the Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic UNISON (CFDU) - the broad left organisation in the union.


From the campaign against racism and the neo-fascist British National Party in the 1990s, to the student field, to the trade union field and now the electoral field, what is transparent is that it is not possible for genuine socialist alliances to be established with the SWP. This is not true of existing socialist alliances in other parts of the country where the SWP are weak. It is also not the case with others on the left who have differences with the Socialist Party. In the unions - UNISON, the National Union of Teachers, USDAW, to name but a few - the Socialist Party collaborates on the basis of an agreed fighting minimum programme with other forces on the left.

The SWP will be 'friendly', will be 'open' to all those who are prepared to tail-end them, who remain silent while they by-pass democratically-elected committees and implement decisions which they have decided on in violation of any democratic structures. The Socialist Party approach is entirely different. We see alliances, if they are going to work, as a step towards laying the basis for a new 'mass party of the working class'. Ludicrously the SWP believe that they are either the present 'mass party' or will be in the future and, therefore, oppose this demand. For instance, at a recent Lewisham Socialist Alliance meeting, when Socialist Party members proposed that the LSA should call on Livingstone to organise a conference to establish the basis of a new mass party of the working class, this was voted down en masse by the SWP members who had only recently joined the alliance, after their full-timer had declared that this idea was 'bizarre'.


In a couple of weeks the SWP have already shown that they see their participation in the LSA, as with most campaigns they are involved with, as a short-term raiding party, whose main aim is to secure the election of SWP members, Paul Foot and Mark Steel, into the London assembly and to recruit as many new members as they can. Such tactics will never educate and develop the cadres of a genuine revolutionary or socialist party. Moreover, their methods will alienate workers genuinely looking for the maximum principled socialist unity to take the working class forward.

top     Changing the political landscape

THE MAIN DEMAND which is posed by the Livingstone campaign is the issue of a new mass socialist alternative. Unfortunately, however, if SWP members are elected through the Alliance, and they don't call and organise for a new mass working-class party, it is likely that they will become an obstacle to the achievement of this. They counterpoise the building of their party to a new mass socialist alternative. The Socialist Party never hides the fact that it will seek every opportunity to win support for our ideas and build our party membership. But this is not, nor has it ever been, counterpoised to the broad task of creating the widest possible unity of British workers and maximising support for socialism.

The contest for the London mayor takes place against the backdrop of a looming economic collapse indicated by the Rover catastrophe. This signifies the long-term collapse of British manufacturing industry, the utter bankruptcy of British capitalism and the terrible price which the working class will be called upon to pay for this. The helplessness of the New Labour 'star', the trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers, in the face of this calamity is stark: in 1972 Edward Heath's Tory government nationalised Rolls Royce in 24 hours. The Labour government under Wilson in 1975 nationalised British Leyland. Yet New Labour professes its 'impotence' in an even more catastrophic situation for the working class of the West Midlands.


The Ayr by-election, in which Labour was reduced to third position behind the Tories and the Scottish National Party, following on the heels of the fiasco of Alun Michael in Wales and the looming victory of Livingstone, also underlines the scale of the crisis facing New Labour. Because neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats are seen as an alternative, a national general election could see the return of New Labour with a reduced majority. However, a serious economic crisis could alter this. Either way, an increasing feature in Britain - part of the 'Americanisation' of British politics - will be the growing band of abstainers, reflecting the deep disillusionment with the alternatives on offer.

The Livingstone phenomenon, however, has begun to change the political landscape. Even if, as is likely, he hesitates to go forward to create a new party, the forces will be conjured up which can in the next period lay the basis for such a formation. This has implications internationally as well. There is keen interest in 'Ken il Rosso' in Italy. Corriere della Sera, the Milan daily paper, described Livingstone as "weaponless like Don Quixote but decisive like Joan of Arc". In Paris the incumbent mayor, the Gaullist Tiberi, disavowed by his own party says he will stand independently in May. He is tainted with charges of corruption but even his threat is a symptom of the volatility of politics throughout Europe.

There is underlying mass discontent, but it cannot find an expression at the moment because of the move to the right of the former mass parties of the working class and the relative weakness of the genuine forces of Marxism and socialism. Events, and decisive events at that, which impend, will change this. In future Livingstone's decision to stand will be seen as an important milestone along the road to create a new mass socialist alternative for the working class.

Peter Taffee


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