SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 116 - March 2008

The battle for London

May 1 this year will see elections for the mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly. The Socialist Party is normally opposed to policies of ‘lesser evilism’. But there are occasions when different factors, especially working-class consciousness, compel us to modify our approach. In this case, through gritted teeth, like many London workers, we recommend a second-preference vote for Ken Livingstone. PAULA MITCHELL explains.

THE MAIN CHOICE for mayor is between the New Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone, ‘Red Ken’, who easily won the two previous elections, and the Tory, Boris Johnson, a flamboyant Old Etonian representing ‘traditional values’. This will be an invidious choice between a former left who has embraced a big business agenda and a Thatcherite throwback. Both offer neo-liberal policies and will continue to preside over obscene poverty and social deprivation while the City wallows in wealth. Workers in London should not be faced with this choice, but a real working class alternative still needs to be fought for.

When the London mayor was first introduced in 2000, following a rigged Labour selection process, Livingstone stood as an independent. His candidacy was a glimmer of hope for many people disillusioned with the New Labour government. They saw him as a radical alternative. His main campaign was against tube privatisation, but millions across London also wanted to see an end to the crisis in the National Health Service, education and housing. He was supported by the RMT railworkers’ union and the fire-fighters’ union, the FBU, and the majority of rank-and-file union members.

The Socialist Party welcomed Livingstone’s decision to stand, but called for him to make a complete break from New Labour. He could have formed an independent list for the Greater London Assembly (GLA), which would have won significant support. We called on him to convene a conference of trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists, as a step towards building a new working-class party.

Livingstone’s campaign broke the grip of Blairism for the first time. He won a decisive victory and millions saw that it was possible to defeat New Labour. Socialists and other left candidates won over 80,000 votes in the assembly elections, showing the potential for a new party. Unfortunately, Livingstone asked his supporters to remain in the Labour Party; he called for a Labour vote in GLA constituencies and a Green vote on the all-London list.

We pointed out that to fulfil the hopes of the three-quarters of a million people who voted for him, Livingstone would need socialist policies. We called on him to fight against the privatisation of all public services, for rebuilding the NHS, against low pay, and for affordable public housing for all.

Brazen populism

IN THE ABSENCE of mass workers’ parties or a real fight from most of the trade union leaders, workers can lack confidence in their own ability to act. In this context, prominent individuals can play a significant role. Livingstone was a populist figure, although of a very moderate variety. His record as leader of the Greater London Council from 1981-86 (see Socialism Today No.46, April 2000) showed that he was very unlikely to mount a fight, but sometimes such figures can be pushed further than they would like to go.

However, even before his election, Livingstone declared support for the ‘free market’. In the London Evening Standard in October 1999, he said: "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… I think it is quite clear that as a system for the distribution and exchange of goods, the market can’t be bettered".

From the start he tried to look both ways – to be the ‘people’s champion’ while simultaneously backing big business. He made radical speeches about the international finance institutions killing more people than the Nazis, but then said, "I will build a strong partnership with every section of London business".

The recent government climb-down on the issue of mildly taxing the so-called ‘non-doms’ shows the impossibility of relying on the good nature of finance sharks to provide what Londoners need. The simple prospect of a £30,000 levy was enough for them to threaten an avalanche of the super-rich leaving London, and London losing its status as the world’s leading financial home.

Livingstone’s mayoralty has also been tinged with London regionalism, with statements such as "we’re all Londoners at heart". He rightly said the mayor’s role was to campaign for more money, but demanded that should come from cuts to other regions, setting one worker against another. Livingstone could have used his authority to mobilise hundreds of thousands, but has never put up a serious fight for more resources.

Instead, he campaigned to rejoin the Labour Party by showing himself to be a reliable Blairite. He was readmitted in 2004 – just in time to stand again for mayor as the Labour candidate – and was re-elected, but with a reduced vote. The next time a prominent challenge was mounted against New Labour, when George Galloway stood in Bethnal Green and Bow in the 2005 general election, Livingstone dutifully worked hard for the incumbent Blairite MP, Oona King. Livingstone said his readmittance to the Labour Party was "in the interests of London". But London’s interests include the interests of workers struggling against brutal attacks on pay, jobs and services – which are not served by Labour’s neo-liberal policies.

On his website, Livingstone lists his achievements as Crossrail, winning the Olympic Games, permitting high density buildings in central London, more buses leading to 1.5 million extra bus journeys a day, and the congestion charge (and, now, an extra £25 charge for high-polluters). He says: "All this supports an agenda that is explicitly pro-globalisation. My economic strategy is to maintain London as the most international and diverse business city in the world".

He adds that he does not believe in the automatic trickle down of wealth, and so introduced measures such as free travel on buses for under-18s. Surprisingly, he omits one policy that has made a difference to the living conditions of some of the lowest paid in London: the London Living Wage. This is a guideline rather than a statutory minimum, although it is the minimum wage for GLA employees. Currently set at £7.20, it has been used by workers such as cleaners to win better wages.

The big let-down

LIVINGSTONE HAS NOW become mired in the sleaze that comes with capitulating to big-business politics. With echoes of Blairite ‘presidentialism’, Livingstone set up an unelected advisory cabinet. His race adviser Lee Jasper is accused of pressuring the London Development Agency into giving £3.3 million to twelve suspect projects.

There are faint reminders here of the attacks on the so-called ‘loony left’ in the 1980s, when left-wing councils were hounded by the right-wing media for funding community projects, although this is no left-wing council. Nevertheless, a campaign has been launched against Livingstone in the press, spearheaded by the Evening Standard’s Andrew Gilligan and Martin Bright’s Channel 4 Dispatches programme. Though nothing on the scale of the attacks on Militant (the fore-runners of the Socialist Party) or the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, in the 1980s, this is a right-wing attempt to manipulate the mayoral vote. Livingstone poses no real threat to big-business profits or neo-liberal policies, but he cannot be absolutely relied on to carry out the more savage measures that big business would prefer.

Amongst a layer of Londoners, Livingstone is still seen as a rebel. He opposed the Iraq war, and opposes the threatened closure of 169 post offices. He established an oil deal with Venezuela, and his support for Hugo Chávez is a factor in him still being seen as a left.

But there are policies which have won him the hatred of sections of London’s population. Fear of crime is important in London, especially amongst older people, who will welcome the fact that Livingstone has increased ‘police on the streets’. But when thousands of May Day demonstrators were detained in a police cordon for eight hours in 2001, Livingstone hailed the state’s brute-force tactics as a success. When Metropolitan police chief, Sir Ian Blair, presided over the killing of an innocent Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, Livingstone defended him.

Another policy area that has led to disappointment is transport. Livingstone said in 2000 that, "transport is where most of my work is because it’s the one area where I really do have power, and so it’s the one thing that I really do need to get right". Tube and bus fares were frozen in real terms at first. But, because of a funding shortfall, he then hiked up bus fares by 30% and tube fares by 25%, while transport companies’ profits went through the roof.

The biggest let-down has been tube privatisation. Livingstone’s chosen campaign method was a judicial review. But to defeat privatisation would take the mobilisation of a mass campaign, including strike action by tube workers. This was a possibility in 2001, when tube workers in the RMT and ASLEF united and went on strike against privatisation, with RMT members defying a court injunction. The defeat of privatisation was possible, if Livingstone had backed them and mobilised London workers in their support. Had this happened, the debacle of Metronet and the £2 billion bail-out of this profit-sucking private company would have been avoided. But although Livingstone started by saying he would stand shoulder to shoulder with the tube workers, he finished by imploring them to call off the strike. By the time ASLEF and the RMT were preparing for action against disciplinary policies in 2006, Livingstone openly condemned them. In the eyes of many RMT members, he has declared war on them.

A buffoon & a toff

IN THE EARLY days of Gordon Brown’s premiership, the Tories were waning under the ‘Brown bounce’. But since he failed to call an autumn general election, Tory fortunes have risen again. David Cameron believes he has scored a coup in convincing Boris Johnson to stand for London mayor. Like Livingstone, Johnson presents himself as ‘not really a politician’ – popular in a time when trust in politicians is low. He is one of the best known Tory MPs. In the first weeks he outstripped Livingstone in the polls.

But Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is, in Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee’s words, a "buffoon", "jester" and a "toff". He calls himself a moderniser, yet he is an arch Old Etonian reactionary, best known for outrageous remarks. This lack of gravitas could backfire on the Tories. It is no mistake that he has no serious post in the Tory Party. Philip Stephens in the Financial Times has suggested that the Tory leadership would like him to lose narrowly, showing that the Tories can do well, but avoiding the embarrassment of having Johnson in power.

Johnson is a proven liar who appears, along with the rest of his class, to consider that laws and common decency do not apply to him. He was recorded, for example, agreeing to give a journalist’s address to his Old Etonian fraudster friend, Darius Guppy, so that Guppy could have him beaten up. For this, Johnson has faced no consequences. Contrast this with the vindictive ‘perjury investigation’ launched against Tommy Sheridan, following his victory last year over the Murdoch press.

Many people fear Johnson will slash any improvements Livingstone has made. Johnson missed a vote in parliament on the Freedom Pass, the free London-wide travel for the over-60s, and speculation was rife that he would abolish it, forcing him to make speeches stressing that the pass is safe in his hands.

Johnson is appealing to a basic sense of dissatisfaction. He says in his Daily Telegraph column: "I am off to campaign for a clean, green, safer London in which children once again feel safe to cycle to school, and in which adults are not afraid of kids on bikes, buses or anywhere else; in which lovely old buildings are protected and beautiful new housing is built, and in which taxpayers’ money is not wasted on a load of politically-correct agitprop". Of course, he fails to mention that it is the profit system based on exploitation that he supports, and in particular neo-liberal policies, which have created this situation in the first place.

On his mayoral application he claimed to be concerned about the poor: "I move in a trice past the stuccoed villas of the mega-rich to areas of real poverty and deprivation, and I see families stuck in grossly overcrowded flats, with no hope of a way out". He goes on to say: "The big challenges facing London are crime, transport and housing, and I will deal with them by keeping the mayor’s government simple, recruiting the ablest people across London". Of course, this means cuts and private business involvement, more of the very policies which perpetuate the poverty he claims to want to eradicate.

Racism & reaction

JOHNSON WANTS TO be the "greenest mayor possible", but he also peppers his speeches with reactionary ideas appealing to basic prejudices, thus championing a mix of populist policies to appeal to different groups: "I think we need stronger measures to protect the environment; that we need better recycling, cleaner cars, less fly-tipping and graffiti – but we also need a proper debate about the optimum size of the UK and indeed the world population… I think that we cannot address the problems of crime and social exclusion unless we also tackle welfare dependency and the something-for-nothing society".

The big element so far in his campaign is crime. He wants ‘more police on public transport’, and has pledged to ‘tackle gun and knife crime’. His support for the extension of police stop and search powers could lay the way open for a more repressive London, especially for young blacks and Asians.

A problem for Johnson in London is the simple fact that he is racist. Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, has said she does not think he would be an appropriate mayor. The Mirror revealed his disgraceful references to "crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles". He recently linked Papua New Guinea to "orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing". In summer 2005, London was rocked by bomb attacks on tubes and buses. Imagine how more inflamed the situation could have been if Johnson had been mayor, with his racist approach.

Beneath the buffoonery hides a serious threat to workers’ living conditions in London. Big business and their mouthpieces, such as the Evening Standard, support him because he would be prepared to carry out savage cuts if it was deemed necessary, especially in transport. There will be a big class reaction against Johnson which will fall behind Livingstone, no matter how much workers may be disillusioned in him.

No coherent alternative

ADDED INTO THIS mix is the question of the GLA. The assembly has almost no powers; it simply has the role of calling the mayor to account. It has only 25 members serving a population of nearly eight million. There are 14 constituencies, each with one assembly member elected first-past-the-post. There are then eleven ‘London members’ who are elected from all-London lists.

This is not to say that the GLA election is of no consequence. With the continuing disillusionment in all the main parties, attacks on workers’ pay and services, looming recession, and rising levels of immigration, there is a real danger that the far-right British National Party (BNP) could win an assembly seat.

The situation is crying out for a new workers’ party but, unfortunately, once more an opportunity has been lost. Through the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, the Socialist Party did our best to achieve an anti-cuts, anti-privatisation, working-class list. Our London councillors wrote to trade unions such as the RMT and postal workers, health campaigners and others. RMT leader, Bob Crow, had announced that the union would stand candidates for the GLA, and we entered into discussions. Unfortunately, the RMT has now stepped back. Galloway’s Respect Renewal claims to be aiming for a ‘progressive’ list, while SWP-Respect says it will also stand mayoral and assembly candidates. With no coherent working-class alternative, it is possible that the BNP could win one or two seats.

The ‘elephant in the room’ for all parties is the economy. Both Livingstone and Johnson praise the achievements of the City of London, but the potential effects of the crisis in the world economy on London are great. Only 5% of London’s jobs are in manufacturing; jobs in finance and business services have doubled in the last 30 years. The mayoralty could turn out to be a poison chalice, as Londoners face substantial job losses, increased attacks on pay and conditions, and big cuts in services.

Especially in this context, the prospect of a Johnson victory, a ratchetting up of police repression, and one or two BNP assembly members, will mobilise many working-class people to vote for Ken Livingstone as the lesser evil. There is already a push in trade unions, such as Unite, to support him and defeat the BNP.

However, the majority will not vote for anyone, disillusioned with Livingstone and all the main parties. Although it will be difficult for Boris Johnson to appeal to workers as anything other than an unreconstructed toff, some could vote for him simply as the most likely opposition candidate to win, perhaps persuaded by Cameron’s rebranding of the Tories.

With this invidious choice and no real viable alternative, the Socialist Party understands that many workers will vote for Livingstone. Our members will continue to argue that the only solution is for trade unionists and campaigners to stand candidates, as a step towards a new workers’ party. Even if some London union organisations decide to back Livingstone, this does not mean they should fund Labour – they should produce their own campaigning material, demanding Livingstone take a stand against cuts and privatisation, and argue for a new workers’ party.

In the mayoral election, there is both a first- and second-preference vote. If no candidate gets more than half the votes cast (which is almost guaranteed), the top two candidates remain in the election and the rest are eliminated. The second-preference votes of those who have been eliminated are then added to the two candidates who are left, to arrive at the overall victor. Socialists should use the first-preference vote for anti-cuts, anti-privatisation candidates. But then, understanding the widespread desire amongst working-class people in London to ensure that Boris Johnson does not win, they should use the second-preference vote for Livingstone.


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