SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 198 May 2016

The real lessons of Ken

At key moments – Thatcher’s all-out assault on councils and the fight against Blair’s New Labour project, for instance – Ken Livingstone was well-placed to lead a left-wing fight-back. And his latest book is a defence of his record. However, as PAULA MITCHELL shows, it is really a story of retreats and missed opportunities.

This book about "the career of one of the left’s most successful political figures" is presented as a guide to Corbynistas. To aid in "building the movement we need to win the next election and give our children and grandchildren the opportunities that we took for granted". By "showing what can be achieved by a Labour Party that offers a real choice". However, anyone seriously looking for a guide to action will instead find a story of retreat, defeat and missed opportunity. Where this book succeeds is in its unintentional confirmation of the dead-end of left-reformism – the idea that capitalist society can be transformed by incremental steps.

The Tory party is in historic crisis over the EU referendum and the Panama papers revelations. David Cameron and his government could be brought down. The Corbyn surge has led to a civil war in the Labour Party. The steel crisis, junior doctors’ strikes, academies issue, anger at austerity as the rich wallow in their wealth, all cry out for a bold socialist programme and a serious strategy to drive out the Tories and replace them with a government for the 99%. Unfortunately, that is not provided by this book.

A series of three interviews deal with Ken Livingstone’s career: as leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) from 1981 until its abolition in 1986; and his time as mayor of London from 2000 to his defeat by Boris Johnson in 2008. Two essays by Livingstone describe his unsuccessful challenge to Johnson in 2012 and discuss his views on ‘rebuilding the party, rebuilding Britain’.

The Greater London Authority (as with the GLC in its time) has a potentially pivotal role to play. With a determined socialist leadership, it could be a lightning rod to organise and lead a struggle against austerity. In the 1980s, the GLC could have played a crucial role in a struggle to overthrow the Tories. In the 2000s, the GLA could have been a focus to build a movement against Blairism and forge a powerful socialist alternative to New Labour. This potential was understood by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. That was why Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986 and Blair prevented Livingstone taking the Labour nomination for mayor in 2000.

But this has never been the approach taken by Ken Livingstone. Both of his times in power have been massive missed opportunities. Regarding Thatcher he says: "We couldn’t have brought her down – I think they were all a bit paranoid". Of Blair: "He feared I would be able to use City Hall to undermine his administration but sadly I didn’t have the powers to do that".

The clear theme throughout is that – in Livingstone’s view – he has done everything he could within the powers available. He says: "Unless you’re sitting there at the leader’s desk or the mayor’s desk, knowing what you can and can’t do, you don’t know the scale of the restrictions or the limits on it. What more could I have done that I had the power to do? I did everything it was possible to do". All powers available to an elected position should be used to the maximum to further the interests of working-class people. This does involve implementing policies in the areas over which you have jurisdiction. It also involves using all powers possible to prevent or delay attacks on working-class people and aid campaigns against those attacks.

Inevitably, policies that threaten the interests of big business bring a socialist administration into collision with those interests. Socialists do not limit their programme to the restrictions set by the representatives of capitalism, but fight for what is necessary, and use elected positions to help mobilise the working class into a campaign. What it is possible to achieve is determined in the struggle. That has never been part of Ken Livingstone’s plan. This fundamental weakness is behind the series of defeats outlined in this book.


Livingstone describes the 1985 campaign against rate-capping as "the biggest screw-up of my political career". Thatcher’s mission on behalf of the capitalist class was to enforce neo-liberalism: to maximise profit by driving down the living conditions of working-class people through deregulation, privatisation and savage cuts. This necessitated taking on the big Labour local authorities. Labour councils were in a pivotal position to beat back the attacks and mobilise a mass campaign.

In 1985, 25 councils faced rate-capping, to limit the amount councils could raise through the rates (now council tax). Livingstone describes the campaign: "We had a coalition of councils put together who said they would not set the budgets that the government had imposed on them. But the problem we had was that by law the GLC had to set a budget by a fixed time in February whereas county councils and borough councils could put it off till June, as Lambeth did. So we were faced with the deadline first and I only had a majority of four. And we had no chance of being able to defy Thatcher on that because at least eight Labour Party members wouldn’t vote to break the law…

"It got to the point where, had that budget not been passed, we would have broken the law and any councillor who hadn’t voted for the budget would have been at risk of being prosecuted… I said… it’s better to go for the rate-cap budget than end up with the smaller [Tory] one’. John McDonnell [then the GLC deputy leader] didn’t agree with that, so we were voting on different sides on that one". "Fortunately for Liverpool and Lambeth, they had sufficient Labour majorities so they could go right down to the wire. But even then, they lost".

No mention is made of the victory in Liverpool the year before, when the Labour council, led by supporters of the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party), refused to pass Tory cuts to the central government block grant onto council jobs and services. Instead, it set a needs budget and mounted a mass campaign to win back the stolen millions. In total contrast to the GLC, Liverpool council’s campaign involved mass participation of the trade unions and community, in meetings, rallies, demonstrations and strike action. Concessions worth up to £60 million were won. Homes, nurseries and leisure centres were built, jobs created.

To fight rate-capping, Labour lefts like Livingstone and McDonnell argued against the Liverpool strategy and counterposed not setting a rate at all. Liverpool councillors argued that this was a much less clear tactic, which would be more difficult to explain to the broad mass of people. Liverpool also completely opposed the idea of raising rates to offset cuts, whereas the ‘trendy left’ did not. Nonetheless, to keep the coalition together, the Liverpool councillors went along with the tactic.

But one by one the other councils caved in, leaving Liverpool and Lambeth alone. It was Ken Livingstone who led the retreat. The suggestion that this happened because the GLC was first in the calendar and so on its own is entirely spurious. Livingstone always knew that would be the case and it completely ignores the fact that Liverpool had been ‘on its own’ the year before.

It is a distortion that in Liverpool it was somehow easier because of the size of the Labour group’s majority. In 1984 Liverpool Labour had a majority of three and there were seven right-wingers, known as the ‘scabby seven’. When it came to setting the budget in March it was not possible to win a majority. The position was decided by the May elections, in which Labour’s fighting alternative won with a massively increased vote. The GLC could have taken the same approach had it based the fight on a mobilised working class.

The reference to the risk of prosecution is also flawed. It is true that, as Livingstone and his interviewer Anna Minton point out, Liverpool and Lambeth councillors were surcharged and removed from office. That was actually a result of them implementing Livingstone and McDonnell’s chosen tactic of refusing to set a rate, not because of the deficit budget strategy pursued by Liverpool originally. But would surcharge and removal from office have been possible if all the councils had stood firm?

In his 1987 book, If Voting Changed Anything They’d Abolish It, Livingstone was more honest: "Suddenly, for the first time we faced the possibility that the GLC might really refuse to set a rate. This presented several problems, not least of which was that, as everyone had assumed that behind all the rhetoric there was no real possibility of this happening, none of us had even begun to explore the question of how to run a bankrupt council". So, in reality, it was no more than gesture politics: radical words followed by capitulation.

Fares fair and abolition

Livingstone’s flagship policy at the GLC was ‘fares fair’, which he describes as "a way of redistributing a bit of wealth to people". However, rather than wage a struggle for extra funding for this policy, he admits: "We had to increase the rates to cut the fares". Livingstone justifies it by saying that 60% of rates were paid by businesses. Nonetheless, it still meant that working-class people had to pay more. The lack of struggle is also the reason why the policy was simply overturned in the courts. Livingstone gives no inkling that anything could have been done about that; no idea of mounting a mass campaign of transport workers and the public.

The same goes for the abolition of the GLC itself. Workers were willing to fight: hundreds attended meetings, the London Bridge Shop Stewards led 100,000 in a one-day strike, and 30,000 marched in November 1984 against rate-capping and abolition, but this was never galvanised by the GLC into a serious campaign. In his 1987 book, Livingstone said that "there was no chance of defeating the abolition proposals". He deflected blame onto the workforce: "There seemed to be no chance of industrial action by the trade unions at County Hall". Incredibly, Livingstone says: "We did such damage to Thatcher during that campaign for abolition… It made them unpopular, it was brilliant. It never occurred to me that the left would continue to be rolled back". No reflection here that this was a major defeat. The Tories remained in power for another eleven years!

New Labour or new party

In 2000 Blair established the Greater London Authority. His system of a toothless assembly and a directly-elected mayor – the model adopted by the Tories – was designed to erode genuine working-class democracy and accountability, and make it easier to force through anti-working-class policies. Nonetheless, conscious of how any position could be used, Blair moved might-and-main to prevent Livingstone becoming the Labour candidate.

Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party was the last phase in the transformation of Labour from a party which had a working-class base into a party safe for big business. After a landslide victory in 1997, riding on the wave of hatred of the Tories, by 2000 Blair was already deeply unpopular. Traditional Labour supporters felt betrayed by the party’s failure to improve living standards for working-class people and by its commitment to cuts and privatisation.

Ken Livingstone won a massive victory in the mayoral election in 2000 as an independent, while the official Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, came in behind the Tories, with only 13% of first preference votes. As Livingstone’s interviewer says: "You became this lightning rod for all the anger against New Labour". This was an opportunity to harness that anger and build an alternative to New Labour. As an independent, Livingstone had the backing of the RMT transport union and the Fire Brigades Union in London. The Socialist Party argued that he should call a conference of all the trade unions, campaigners and working-class people who supported him to discuss launching a new party.

In the one searching moment in the book, Minton presses Livingstone three times: "Given that you had so much popular support, why didn’t you stay on as an independent for the 2004 mayoral election? Instead you wanted to re-join the Labour Party". Livingstone replies: "I knew I’d get a lot out of them. By having me back as a candidate, they’d have to fund a lot more of the things I wanted. I got £2.9 billion to invest in the transport system, we got total support for the Olympic Games, police numbers…"

Imagine what could have been achieved with a fight! Again, Minton asks: "You never thought to yourself ‘I could be the leader of a new left?’" "No. If I’d thought I could create a new socialist party and lead it to a majority in parliament of course I would have done it. But that wasn’t going to happen. I don’t know how much my popularity was concentrated just in London. Being mayor was a pretty demanding job and I didn’t really have the time to create a new party".

The idea that Livingstone was only known in London is nonsense, especially given that he spends a large part of this book explaining how Thatcher and Blair turned him into a celebrity. Not only is this a devastating admission – passing by a historic opportunity to help build a working-class voice because he ‘didn’t have time’. It is also based on the false idea, repeated by opponents of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition now: that steps to a new party can only be taken if guaranteed electoral success – and not only that a new party would win seats, but would win a majority in parliament!

If Livingstone had acted in conjunction with the unions that backed him and put forward a fighting socialist programme against cuts, privatisation and war, a powerful, attractive force could have been built. A new party could have helped build the mass working-class based movement that was necessary to stop war, and beat back Blair’s anti-working-class policies. Opinion polls (Guardian, 21 October 2003) showed that Livingstone would have won by the same margin whether he stood as an independent or Labour. Livingstone himself acknowledges that "Labour was so unpopular in the polls that I think Blair realised they were heading for their worst local government result in 20 years". And Livingstone saved him.

Blair rushed through Livingstone’s readmission, understanding that he was no threat. Underlining Livingstone’s direction of travel, at the same time as Labour’s National Executive Committee voted to readmit him, it was also starting the process of disaffiliating the RMT for approving the affiliation of five of its branches to the Scottish Socialist Party.

Policy retreats

While much is made in the book of Livingstone’s record as mayor in terms of prestige projects and transport changes, the interviews skate over the times he abandoned policies. His huge popularity when he first stood for mayor was based on his perceived radicalism. While he continued to make radical-sounding speeches, in reality he constantly emphasised that he agreed with most of Blair’s programme. He actively nurtured a relationship with business – 23% of the London Chamber of Commerce supported him. Private companies that ran the congestion-charge scheme, invested in the underground and ran buses, prospered under Livingstone’s mayoralty. The Socialist Party warned that it would prove impossible to satisfy the expectations of the workers who had supported him if he also aimed to satisfy big business.

This was demonstrated over tube privatisation. Livingstone had stood for election on a promise to fight it, but failed to do so. Rather than build a campaign with tube unions and the public, he ended up opposing the RMT’s strike in 2001. There is no mention of any of this in the book, although he does give a general justification for his approach: "If you’re going to hold office, you’ve got to deal with large corporations, unpleasant governments, lots of very nasty people, otherwise you shouldn’t bother to go into politics". Livingstone increased the council tax by £187 to pay for extra policing, rather than campaign for more money. Bus fares were increased by 30% and tube fares by 25%.

The book does not reflect on why Livingstone lost the mayoralty to Boris Johnson in 2008, and skips on to the campaign in 2012. Livingstone writes at length about the scurrilous campaign run by the press, especially the Evening Standard and Andrew Gilligan, and by Lynton Crosby, Johnson’s campaign manager, but never appears to consider that he might have lost because he betrayed expectations. In the end, while a ‘personality’ partial to radical statements, he was a tame New Labour politician, emphasising how much he wanted to work with the government, not against it.

He says: "If you’d been interviewing me back then [in 1981] I would have said that by now I’d assume we’d be living in a social democratic paradise". By 1999 he was saying to the Evening Standard: "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)

What politics for the future?

The ‘Rebuilding the Party, Rebuilding Britain’ essay deals with the structures of the Labour Party, and a programme for government. Livingstone recognises Blair’s eradication of party democracy and says that the press will do all in their power to defeat Jeremy Corbyn. He correctly identifies that the vast majority of the MPs are right wing: "230 Labour Party members in London applied to stand for the London assembly and the vetting panel excluded 136 on the grounds that they lacked life skills. Anyone who was on the left was barred. That’s why the present parliamentary Labour Party is so right wing. From 1997-2010 you couldn’t be selected as a candidate unless you’d been put on Blair’s approved list".

As with the leaders of the Corbyn-supporting Momentum group, however, Livingstone puts forward absolutely no strategy to do anything about it. He makes no mention of mandatory reselection, of abolishing the Compliance Unit, which is busily barring and expelling ‘unsuitable’ members, or the National Policy Forum, which has replaced debate and decision-making on policy. Instead, just starry-eyed hopes: "This is why [Jeremy] will restore democracy and open up debate in the Labour Party, creating a campaigning mass movement similar to that which elected the 1945 Labour government..."

In terms of programme, Livingstone argues that "the solution is not to fiddle with cautious incremental measures until we are overwhelmed by another economic crisis. Like Atlee in 1945 we need a game-changing economic strategy that sets a path of sustainable growth as Jeremy Corbyn is proposing". He proposes a ‘people’s QE’ (quantitative easing), a form of Keynesianism involving investment without taking on more debt. The Bank of England could do the same as it did for the banks, "to fund infrastructure, which would improve our competitiveness, attract private investment and create millions of new jobs".

Livingstone proposes building 150,000 homes a year for rent: "These homes would remain the property of the bank while being managed by councils and housing associations". The same model, he argues, should apply to major transport projects, laying down a fibre optic cable system, and insulating buildings. "Just as the bank will eventually sell the £375 billion of bonds it has bought as the economy improves, so it could sell its housing, transport and fibre optic investments, but I would prefer them to be sold to British pension funds rather than repeat the mistakes of privatisation".

This programme, he says, would create full employment in five years with no borrowing, and would rid Britain of debt within 20 years. Livingstone’s book was written before the steel crisis, but there is no proposal for the renationalisation of rail, the energy companies or Royal Mail, never mind nationalising the banks or main planks of the economy. There is no hint of democratic ownership and control, or socialist planning. It is a programme to try and rescue capitalism.

The 1945 Labour government went much further, implementing measures which improved the lives of working-class people. The National Health Service was introduced, one-and-a-half million homes were built, and unemployment benefit and pensions improved. Twenty percent of the economy was nationalised – although not with democratic control. But what Livingstone omits is that, in the face of recession, that government also retreated, implemented cuts, and was defeated by the Tories in 1951. Since the financial collapse of 2007-08, the British and world economy has been mired in crisis from which it has not recovered. There is no room for stable reforms without severely threatening the profits of capitalism.

Although Livingstone and Minton refer enthusiastically to Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Bernie Sanders in the US, there is no discussion about the fate of Syriza. Its capitulation ought to stand as a stark warning. Only a government that is prepared to go all the way with a socialist programme, and mobilises a mass movement in its defence, will be able to stand up to and sweep aside the demands of international capitalism.

Incredibly, despite this book being written just months before the Greater London Authority elections on 5 May, there is nothing of a programme for London. Labour’s mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, is referred to without any mention that he is an opponent of Jeremy Corbyn – or that win or lose his result will be used by the right wing to undermine Corbyn. The development of an anti-austerity programme for London, and arguing the case for it in the Labour Party, could be an important part of organising Corbyn supporters to tackle the right wing. This omission again illustrates Livingstone’s unwillingness to challenge the pro-capitalist, pro-austerity wing of the Labour Party.

The blurb on the back of this book quotes Charles Moore from the Daily Telegraph: "He is the only truly successful left-wing British politician of modern times". From the point of view of the capitalist press that is probably so. As a guide to action, however, Corbynistas would be better served reading Liverpool A City that Dared to Fight, and the pages of the Socialist newspaper and Socialism Today.

Being Red: a politics for the future

By Ken Livingstone

Published by Pluto Press, 2016, £12.99

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