SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 83 - May 2004

Did Ken deliver?

With London’s mayoral election just weeks away, JIM HORTON assesses Ken Livingstone’s record as an independent mayor and asks what his polices will be as a New Labour candidate.

LIVINGSTONE’S RETURN TO the New Labour fold came as no surprise. While the benefit of the reconciliation to Tony Blair is clear, however, to avoid a repeat in the London mayoral election on June 10 of the humiliating drubbing received by New Labour’s Frank Dobson in the 2000 contest, the advantages to Livingstone are not so immediately evident.

Livingstone claims that the decision to re-admit him to the Labour Party was taken "in the interests of London" (Morning Star, 10 January). But the ‘interests of London’ include the irreconcilable interests of workers struggling on low pay confronted with run-down public services and the fat cats in the city benefiting from privatisation and a management offensive against workers’ rights. When he was first elected, Livingstone pledged to be a ‘London nationalist’ not a socialist mayor: what has been his record?

Publicly retracting his prediction in 2000 that Livingstone would be a disaster for London, Blair explained that his comments were made without the benefit of Livingstone’s record. He praised Livingstone for doing "a pretty good job" on crime, transport and the congestion charge, and said he "is working well on business".

Livingstone irreverently reciprocated, praising Blair for "having the guts" to admit he was wrong. He also expressed approval of Gordon Brown’s stewardship of the economy, partly in an attempt to placate Brown’s well-known disapproval of Livingstone’s re-admittance. Livingstone has done a ‘pretty good job’ for New Labour, boasting that he has moved forward the government’s agenda "more spectacularly" than anywhere else in the country. On BBC London Radio Livingstone proudly proclaimed that "nothing I have done in the last three-and-a-half years would have been different if I had been a Labour Mayor". (Evening Standard, 12 January)

This begs the question why Livingstone felt the need to rejoin the Labour Party and risk losing any benefits of being perceived as a radical independent alternative. Part of the answer can be found in Livingstone’s personal and political attachment to the Labour Party. Livingstone never really broke from New Labour, ideologically, programmatically or organisationally. On a more practical level his falling-out with the Greens and Liberal Democrats resulted in his becoming more dependent on the help of New Labour members in the Greater London Authority (GLA) to push through his, essentially New Labour, programme, including reconciliation with part-privatisation of the Tube. In addition, the success or failure of his projects in London can now be tied to the electoral prospects of New Labour nationally.

Livingstone may also have his eye on the longer term. But his inability inside the Labour Party to build opposition to the Blair counter-revolution of the 1990s and his failure to construct a radical alternative as an independent in the last four years suggest that his plans do not go beyond his personal career ambitions as a New Labour politician.

Livingstonian New Labourism

LIVINGSTONE’S COMPLIANCE with the basic tenets of Blairism – privatisation and the placing of profits before the pay and conditions of public sector workers – means, in spite of his stated intentions, his policies will perpetuate the obscene gap between rich and poor and the social deprivation that blights the capital city.

Such a conclusion may not be easily accepted by many workers and young people. Many who demonstrated against the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq could take his anti-war stance and verbal denunciation of Bush as "the greatest threat to life on this planet", along with his opposition to top-up fees, as signs of a continuing radical agenda.

While no longer projecting a ‘Red Ken’ image, Livingstone has not discouraged his portrayal as an unreconstructed rebel. Perpetuating this persona, Livingstone has announced that while he will stick to the party rules he has no intention of toeing the party line. Recently, he made headline news with his revived demands for a higher tax on upper earners and scorned Bush as ignorant of world affairs (Guardian, 8 April). Livingstone has declared that he is still an "independent maverick", arguing that if he changed he would be thrown out by the voters.

However, Darren Johnson, leader of the London Green Party, has correctly observed that "cut away Livingstone’s radical rhetoric and you find a bog-standard New Labour politician in the pro-business mould. Red Ken’s radicalism is reserved for issues over which the mayor has no influence". Livingstone has a history of verbal radicalism underpinned by contrary practice and a failure to build a movement for real change. Today the left populism of the 1980s is just an outer shell of a peculiar Livingstonian New Labourism.

As a measure of Livingstone’s political trajectory, the campaign for his re-admittance was supported by Sir Robin Wales, who as chair of the Association of London Government has opposed decent increases in London weighting for local authority workers and who as leader of Newham council has viciously attacked the local branch of the public-sector workers’ union, UNISON.

During the process to select the Labour mayoral candidate in 1999, before he was defeated in a rigged electoral college vote, Livingstone gave out mixed messages. He promoted his previous role as Labour leader of the Greater London Council (GLC), abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, when he introduced his radical fares fair policy and was a thorn in the side of both the Tory government and the Labour Party leadership. No doubt this was to give the impression that he would continue in that mould as mayor. But in an open letter to Blair, published in The Guardian (29 January 1999), Livingstone also pledged as mayor to "work with your government, not against it… There is simply no question whatever of my seeking to use the mayorship as a platform to wage political warfare against this government".

Under his leadership of the GLC in the 1980s Livingstone did introduce some important reforms, most notably the ‘fares fair’ policy. Yet at each critical stage in the GLC’s battle against the then Tory government Livingstone proved incapable of mobilising a mass movement of workers in defence of the fares fair policy, against rate-capping and against the eventual abolition of the GLC itself (See Socialism Today, Issue 46, April 2000). By 1999 Livingstone was pledging not to have even the semblance of a campaign against Blair’s Thatcherite policies and he stuck to his word: as the Blairite Home Office Minister Hazel Blears told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, "our nightmare scenario didn’t come to pass. Ken’s worked with all of us".

Having been blocked from standing as the official Labour candidate and determined to pursue his personal ambition to become London mayor, Livingstone astutely calculated he could win as an independent. He initially played up his radicalism, condemning the world financial institutions in the New Musical Express in April 2000, but then quickly moved to reassure London’s city elite that he would be good for business, accepting global capitalism’s right to prosper in London.

A radical agenda?

IN THE RUN up to this year’s election Livingstone is claiming he has carried out a radical agenda. It is true that in 2001 he received the Butlins’ Billy Award for being voted the nation’s most ‘fun’ politician, beating competition from Tony Blair, and managed to stir up passions over the pigeons in Trafalgar Square (he’s for abolition). But on the main issues confronting London he has been decidedly New Labour.

Livingstone’s few powers as mayor include sole responsibility for initiating policy and appointing committees to run transport, the police, the fire service, and land-use planning. The GLA’s powers are restricted to scrutinising the mayor’s work and either ratifying or rejecting the mayor’s budget proposals. The capital’s biggest firms want the mayor to be given enhanced powers, with further public services devolved to the GLA. Currently the boroughs provide the bulk of public services, including education, social services and refuse collection.

Livingstone has presided over falling crime figures in London and has announced the ‘Safer Neighbourhood Scheme’ with six community officers being assigned to each borough ward in a move to put ‘bobbies’ back on the street. Most workers, who are the main victims of crime, will approve of plans to make the police more responsive to their security fears but the reality facing many workers is a police force remote from their needs and control, with racism and intimidation by police a daily feature for many of London’s young and ethnic minority populations.

But the tab for the thousands of extra police officers taken on since 2000 has been picked up by London’s workers, with the council tax GLA precept (added to the council tax bills issued by the individual London boroughs) up 7.5% for 2004/05. Livingstone initially sought a 12% rise but rescinded to avoid embarrassment to ministers who were threatening to cap borough increases. Yet the best way to deal with crime is central government investment in policies that tackle the social consequences of rapacious capitalism. At the same time, democratically elected local committees made up of representatives of trade unions, local communities and young people should decide policing priorities and monitor police activity.

London’s workers also have to pay dearly for Livingstone’s transport policies. The central issues of the 2000 mayoral race were London’s dilapidated public transport system and its horrendously congested roads. Livingstone specifically declared the election a referendum on the future of the Tube and also promised to introduce charges for drivers entering central London.

Socialism Today (Issue 72, February 2003) acknowledged that there were compelling arguments to support the introduction of congestion charges as a means of tackling London’s unbearable traffic and pollution problems. But we identified flaws, both in its effects and the failure to take account of wider issues of urban development under capitalism.

Livingstone’s scheme has had success cutting congestion, with a reduction of 30%, the lowest level since the mid 1980s. With 350 additional buses, 29,000 extra passengers a day now travel by bus, more than at any time in the last 35 years, generally those workers who cannot afford the congestion charge or overpriced tube fares.

In contrast to the early 1980s, however, when as head of the GLC Livingstone cut bus and tube fares to encourage travel on public transport, the congestion charge is a regressive tax, hitting the lowest paid hardest. The rich, undeterred by the charge, continue to drive through central London, encouraged by the less congested roads.

As a revenue raising exercise congestion charges have been less successful. Estimated income of £68 million is well short of the expected £180 million. Projected revenue for 2004-05 is not much better at £80-90 million, which means Livingstone faces a bus investment funding crisis. Transport for London (TfL) analysis shows an overall transport funding gap compared to investment and operating needs of £1 billion, mainly due to lack of government grants. At the same time, there are huge public subsidies, £600 million in 2003, being paid not to passengers, but the shareholders of private bus and Tube companies. An additional £280 million of government funding is also needed between 2007 and 2008 to sustain Livingstone’s policing plan, without which the GLA precept could increase by 50%.

To partially compensate for the shortfall Livingstone has announced controversial plans to extend the congestion charge zone to West London. Breaking a manifesto pledge he also raised single bus fares by 30% and single Tube fare into central London by 25%, and reneged on a commitment to keep bus conductors. Meanwhile, the government response to Livingstone’s demands for £900 million pounds extra for London’s public transport system is to threaten to cut funding to bus services by £125 million from 2005.

While workers are forced to pay the congestion charge or increased fares, private companies have profited from Livingstone’s transport policies. Capita, the private company running the congestion charge scheme, made £121 million profit last year. Despite poor performance resulting in a £1 million fine, their contract has been re-negotiated. Estimated at £250 million, Capita will receive an extra £32 million profit if they improve the service.

Bus operator Go-Ahead reported profits up 60%, making more than £50 million on the buses since Livingstone introduced congestion charges. While bus workers are being denied pay parity with tube workers, Go-Ahead’s chief executive is set to receive £1.2 million in dividends this year.

Livingstone’s transport team have also prospered under his stewardship. London Transport Commissioner Bob Kiley is on an annual salary of £360,000 plus an estimated annual bonus of £250,000. He also has use of a £2.1 million house in Belgravia paid for by TfL. Tube managing director Tim O’Toole receives £250,000 a year. Livingstone is on the more modest sum of £75,000 a year.

Operational control over Underground trains, staffing and stations was transferred to Livingstone and TfL in July 2003. Public Private Partnership (PPP) resulted in responsibility for maintenance and renewal of track, trains, tunnels, stations and signalling being handed over to two private consortia, Metronet and Tube Lines. Livingstone made opposition to the involvement of private companies on the Tube the centrepiece of his 2000 election campaign, his only substantial difference with Blair. Yet he refused to organise a mass campaign, instead capitulating after a failed legal challenge. Livingstone had been committed to a "unified underground system in the public sector", but instead accepted a unified management overseeing £1 billion of investment contracts in the Tube every year, with what is a risk-free venture for the private consortia whose long-term profits are guaranteed by the tax payer. Balfour Beatty saw a 10% increase in profits last year to £130 million.

Tube workers meanwhile have faced constant intimidation, including sackings, from a hard-nosed management, headed by Keily and backed by Livingstone, determined to confront the unions. Unresolved disputes over pay and conditions could result in strike action.

Tube performance is now worse than under public ownership. Three separate major accidents within the first year of PPP on the Underground have starkly revealed the incompatibility of profit and safety. Yet Livingstone’s certain victory in June will result in an expansion of PPP schemes in London. TfL have stated that Livingstone is not against PPPs or private finance initiatives, just Tube PPP. His ambitious transport infrastructure plans, including extensions to the Docklands Light Railway, two river crossing schemes, a tram service in west London and a huge expansion of the bus network, according to Livingstone’s own officials, will be financed through PPP schemes. In a column in the Evening Standard (8 February), Livingstone has boasted that his team would "work with business and the capital markets", arguing that "Partnership will be key".

Where pro-market policies lead…

LIVINGSTONE’S CHANGED position on PPP reflects his move away from support for an alternative to capitalism. Already in a 1999 interview with the Evening Standard he explained that: "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". (19 October, 1999)

With a population of 7.5 million and rising, London’s health, education, housing and transport systems are cracking under the strain. Rather than argue for a genuine democratic socialist planning of resources, including a publicly-owned integrated transport system, Livingstone, following the collapse of the Stalinist states, has succumbed to the ideological pressure of capitalism. Livingstone’s record as mayor is a logical conclusion of his pro-market conversion.

For Livingstone capitalism is triumphant: "I think it is quite clear that as a system for the distribution and exchange of goods the market can’t be bettered". (Evening Standard, 19 October, 1999) Yet Livingstone’s anti-poverty task force has achieved little to alleviate the staggering levels of deprivation in London – 48% of London children live in poverty – precisely because it results from the innate failure of the market to fairly distribute goods. Livingstone, though, has succeeded in courting London’s business community, with money flowing into the coffers of private transport companies and property developers.

Livingstone’s victory in 2000 represented more than a referendum vote on who should own London Underground; it signalled a rejection of all the hated Thatcherite policies of New Labour and revealed the potential for a mass left alternative, the opportunity for which Livingstone, pursuing a New Labour agenda, refused to grasp.

This does not mean Livingstone should not have stood as an independent and remained with New Labour. Rather, he should have pursued a radical agenda that challenged Blair’s government and mobilised a mass movement on key issues, such as tube privatisation, to lay the basis for a working-class political alternative to all the parties of big business. Livingstone’s failure does not denote the close of a chapter of a radical independent challenge to Blairism, but merely the turning of another page in the maverick political career of ‘cuddly Ken’.

It is an open question whether Livingstone will continue to be perceived by broader layers as a radical or regarded as just another New Labour politician. Opinion polls show that his return to Labour has not significantly impacted negatively on his electoral prospects. He is set to win comfortably, although on a reduced turnout.

Blair had little alternative to reversing the expulsion, but in truth, despite Livingstone’s occasional outbursts, the decision to readmit Livingstone was not the big gamble presented by media pundits. Livingstone has willingly accommodated himself to the New Labour agenda. At some stage, personal ambition may bring Livingstone into conflict with the labour leadership, but Livingstone’s history precludes his building any serious challenge to capitalism. That task falls to those workers and radical youth who, having experienced the disappointment of Livingstone in office and the continuing neo-liberal polices of Blair’s government, will set about the task of constructing a genuine mass workers’ party as the vehicle to change society.


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