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Issue 55, April 2001

Livingstone and tube privatisation

EARLIER THIS year Ken Livingstone, elected mayor of London in May 2000, received the Butlins' Billy Award for being voted the nation's most 'fun' politician, beating competition from Tony Blair.

Blair though has gained little amusement from the on-going wrangle with Livingstone over government plans to part privatise the tube, London's expensive, overcrowded and underfunded underground railway system, particularly so close to a general election. With Blair desperate to clear the decks of damaging issues before calling an election it is possible that Livingstone could force a compromise deal on the funding and management of the tube.

Does this mean that Livingstone retains his 'Red Ken' image of the 1980s when leader of the Greater London Council (GLC)? Can he still be regarded as a left-wing radical, a socialist challenger to the Thatcherite policies of Blair? Livingstone's first year in office suggests not.

Admittedly Livingstone has much less scope to carry out radical measures. His formal powers as mayor are limited and the Greater London Assembly (GLA), also elected last May, was purposely set up by Blair as an enfeebled institution in order to avoid a repetition of the confrontations Thatcher faced with the GLC in the 1980s.

It is true that Livingstone's first year in office has not been without controversy: he has managed to stir up passions over the plight of pigeons in Trafalgar Square, been berated for his support for building skyscrapers, criticised for increasing the level of local taxes, and condemned for introducing congestion charges for motorists driving into central London. There have also been complaints about Livingstone's new poster campaign to drum up support for his draft transport policy. Posing questions such as 'Should Londoners shoot drivers in bus lanes?' and, 'Would Hackney be better underground?', Livingstone aims to garner support for the idea of CCTV cameras to shoot drivers clogging up bus lanes and a new tube line linking east London with south-west London.


Many of Livingstone's transport policies will be welcomed by workers, including the introduction of cheaper bus fares, but only on the issue of the tube could it be said that the ideological stance of Blairism has been challenged. But even on this issue, following a prolonged exchange of proposals, counter proposals, insults and threats to take legal action, the focus has shifted away from ownership of the tube system to the question of management and control.

Under the government's Public Private Partnership (PPP) proposals the tube would be split into four main sections, the trains, track and signalling would be sold, on 30-year leases, to private companies, with only the running of the train service under public control. Ignoring public opinion and the experience of recent rail disasters, the government claimed that privatisation and the splitting up of the service was the best way to provide the estimated 500-700 million a year investment needed to bring the service up to scratch.

Last year Livingstone opposed the involvement of private companies and put forward the alternative of raising money through a bond issue. This has now been quietly dropped. The government's attempts to find a way forward, making concessions but staying firmly within the framework of PPP, now appear to have been accepted by Livingstone and ex-CIA member Bob Kiley, Livingstone's 2 million a year transport commissioner. Deadlock in the negotiations has centred not on the question of private ownership but on Livingstone and Kiley's insistence that a unified management structure is kept in place following the transfer of sectors of the underground to private contractors.


At the time of writing it appears a deal may have been struck, with the government agreeing to guarantee an annual subsidy, paid to London Underground, of 600 million for almost eight years and allowing Kiley to have the power of direction over the private operating companies on all issues relating to safety. Such a compromise allows Prescott to boast that PPP is going ahead, keeping on schedule PPP plans for air traffic control, while allowing Livingstone to claim victory with the retention of a key part of the service in the public sector.

It is clear that whatever the final details of a deal struck between the government and Kiley private companies will take over running parts of the underground. Why has this happened when Livingstone made vehement opposition to PPP the centrepiece of his campaign to be elected mayor? In fact the funding of the tube was the only real policy difference he had with New Labour.

After a rigged electoral college prevented Livingstone being selected as the New Labour mayoral candidate, he stood as an independent, announcing that the election for mayor would be a referendum on the tube. Livingstone's victory was a clear message that the vast majority of Londoners were opposed to tube privatisation. But more than this, Livingstone was also seen as standing to the left of New Labour, proving that a left radical alternative could defeat Blair. Many workers hoped that Livingstone would provide a fighting alternative to New Labour's pro-big business agenda of privatisations and attacks on public services.


Unfortunately, as we warned in Socialism Today prior to his victory, the logic of Livingstone's rejection of socialism as an alternative to the market would result in his embracing of capitalism, both ideologically and in practice. Even as leader of the GLC in the 1980s, when he attempted to carry through progressive reforms to benefit workers such as cheap transport fares, Livingstone revealed the weakness of his left-wing populism. His failure to build a mass movement in defence of his achievements, relying instead on a slick advertising campaign involving glossy leaflets and celebrities, resulted in the eventual abolition of the GLC itself.

Today, Livingstone, although still a populist, is no longer left wing. Even during his election campaign he sought to woo London's business elite, while still making radical speeches to workers and students. At a meeting of the London Confederation of British Industry in April last year he promised to be a 'London nationalist' rather than a socialist mayor. Having kept his promise he has received the endorsement of the majority of London's business community.

Socialism Today warned that it would not be possible for Livingstone to satisfy the demands of workers while looking after the interests of big business and already he has had a taste of the difficulty of juggling with conflicting pressures. Last year he initially sympathised with the proposed May Day anti-capitalist protest, comparing the international financial system to Hitler. Yet just before election day, in response to the daubing of monuments, he denounced protesters as 'mindless yobs', putting them in the same category as racist thugs and robbers and exonerated financiers in the City of London from any responsibility for the plight of the victims of international capital.


During negotiations over the future of the tube Livingstone sought to rely on the threat of legal action rather than a mass campaign. At the same time not only did Livingstone fail to put forward the alternative of fully funded public ownership under the democratic control and management of the workforce and commuters, but he also wavered in his support of tube workers striking in defence of safety and jobs.

In January Livingstone had promised to stand beside union members in their dispute with London Underground, yet to the consternation of union members just three days before the strike action on February 5 he claimed the situation was too delicate to be seen publicly endorsing the strike. He went further and claimed there was no justification for the strike when it appeared a deal had been struck between Kiley and the government, despite management's failure to give guarantees on jobs and safety.

Having taken coalition politics further than Blair, with Labour, Greens and Liberal Democrats in his pro-business administration, events over the next few years will severely test Livingstone's 'inclusive' approach. With a recession around the corner Livingstone will find himself at the centre of battles over public services and jobs. His 'fun' days as mayor will be numbered.

Jim Horton

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