Could a London Mayor challenge start the fight back?

The London Mayoral elections are just round the corner. As is stands the current right-wing Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan has a 20-point lead over the Tory candidate Shaun Bailey. But what does this really mean for working class people in London?

Many Sadiq Khan supporters in his first election campaign in 2016 used the meme, Sadiq Can, but if the recent Mayor’s Question Time is anything to go by, we are stuck with Sadiq Can’t. There was a constant list of things he ‘wouldn’t and couldn’t’ do and nothing about what he would be doing to challenge the Tories. This means the offer before Londoners in May is between who wields the axe in the coming post-Covid austerity offensive.

Working class Londoners deserve an alternative. That’s why the Socialist Party alongside others in the RMT transport workers’ union have been calling on Jeremy Corbyn to put himself forward as a fighting socialist candidate for Mayor. It would mean stepping outside the confines of the Keir Starmer-controlled Labour Party which removed the Labour parliamentary whip from Corbyn last year.  

If Jeremy Corbyn was to stand it would act as a lightning rod to those who are fed up with voting for shades of the same pro-big business politicians. It would be clear challenge to Starmer and his London clone Sadiq Khan, who follow in the footsteps of Blair and the Labour right-wing. It would be a beacon not just to those in London who are being asked to pay for the Covid crisis with lost jobs and falling living standards. Corbyn would be watched by millions of working class people across the country but also internationally, just as he was during his leadership election challenge back in 2015. And he would have a real opportunity of wining the Mayoralty too.

The May elections will be the first since Starmer regained the leadership of the Labour Party for the right-wing and ended the Corbyn era within Labour. Like Khan in London, Labour councils up and down the country offer little if any protection from Tory austerity. Following the Covid-induced Transport for London (TfL) funding crisis, Khan is planning large attacks on transport workers’ jobs, pay and pensions as well as substantial cuts to the transport network. It is important for socialists and campaigners to discuss the need for an anti-austerity challenge in these elections, including how such a candidate could fight austerity if they won and lining up the struggles of working-class people across the city.

The situation is even more favourable in many ways for a serious electoral challenge to Blairism than it was 21 years ago, when Ken Livingstone stood independently for London Mayor. Livingstone had won the support of 55% of individual Labour members to be the party’s Mayoral candidate and 72% of the affiliated trade union vote, but the disproportionately weighted votes of Labour’s MPs, MEPs and London Assembly candidates gave the nomination to Tony Blair’s favoured candidate, Frank Dobson.  Despite wanting to stay in Blair’s good books Livingstone took the battle outside the Labour Party structures, stood as an independent, and was swept into office, wining 39% of first preference votes (667,877) to Frank Dobson’s 13.1% and a crushing 57.9% to 42.1% victory over the Tories when second preferences were added.

On transport issues he put forward policies which helped win him enthusiastic support and votes from working class communities. But even during his election campaign he attempted to show he would be a ‘cross class’ mayor, meeting with business leaders in an attempt to shake off the ‘Red Ken’ image from his battles in the 1980s against Margaret Thatcher.

This mistaken idea that he could represent both the interests of big business and defend working class Londoners had its consequences. One of the biggest industrial battles taking place at the time was over tube privatisation, part of Blair’s neo-liberal drive. But Livingstone, having failed to organise alongside the trade unions, succumbed to the pressure on this issue. The battle culminated in him siding with the bosses and opposing the strike action organised by underground workers in the RMT fighting to defend the transport network and their jobs. Rather than a fighting socialist Mayor, London had a populist Mayor with a red veneer.

During the 2000 election Livingstone clearly attracted large scale support. There were mass meetings and rallies, as people looked to him for a lead. He could have used this authority to pull together a full slate for the Greater London Authority (GLA) constituency and London-wide list assembly seats. Likely some would have gotten elected, meaning he would have had support inside the London assembly as well as outside. Instead, he still had the perspective of being re-admitted to Labour. He called for a Labour vote in the GLA constituency seats and a Green vote for the London-wide list seats.

All this took place in the heart of the Blair years. Over the next decade or so, New Labour would continue to shed support in working-class heartlands, having implemented neo-liberal policies, cuts, privatisation and more. There were various electoral projects launched as working class people fought for an electoral voice.

But Livingstone had already been elected; he had a profile and support. He could have used his position to pull together the interested forces to launch a new party. But he later commented, he “didn’t really have the time”.

There is no doubt that Livingstone’s decision not to launch a new formation left the working class less prepared for the battles ahead against both New Labour and Tory governments’ mass austerity programmes following the 2007-08 crash. It shows the flippant approach Livingstone took to the question of political representation for the working class.

In an eye-opening admission, Livingstone subsequently said that it was only once he was Mayor he realised how many restrictions there were on the position and how little power he had. It says everything about his cynical political approach. Outside of the Mayor’s office he was powerless, but inside he claimed he was powerless too. What he failed to take into account was the strength of support he had outside city hall, ignoring the hundreds of thousands of working class Londoners organised in their workplaces and communities and willing to vote and fight to improve their living conditions if only a lead was given.

Socialists in elected positions don’t just accept the formal limits on what they can do as individual office holders. That’s why socialists fight to build movements which bring together those in elected positions with working-class people in struggle. It was the joint struggle of the heroic Liverpool councillors in the 1980s who voted for needs budgets and the Liverpool-wide strike action and protests in support of the councillors’ stand which combined to force the Thatcher government to concede extra resources to the city.

Jeremy Corbyn has an even bigger profile then Livingstone did in 2000. It’s easy to see how he could be similarly swept into city hall. If he were to stand, it would be a big step forward for the fight against austerity and help the building of a new political alternative for working class people. He was already carried into the leadership of Labour by the wave of enthusiasm from working class and young people who connected with the policies put forward in his leadership campaign. A similar surge took place in the 2017 election, with queues of young people outside polling stations.

That said, as the Socialist Party has consistently explained, Corbyn made his own mistakes during his leadership of Labour, above all by seeking to build unity with the representatives of capitalism within the Labour Party. But the right-wing, who dominated the council Labour groups as well as the parliamentary Labour Party, were happy to impose austerity and would later use their positions to undermine Corbyn’s anti-austerity programme, which helped him lose his position.  

Neither Livingstone nor Corbyn were prepared to organise their forces independently of the right wing of the Labour Party. This would have included socialists and campaigners both inside and outside the Labour party framework.

The need for a political voice for the working class has been a vital issue since Blair consolidated his transformation of the Labour Party into New Labour. Corbyn’s victory as Labour leader in 2015 offered what seemed like a ‘simple’ route towards solving the crisis. Many boiled down the message even further, refusing to draw a distinction between the right-wing saboteurs within the Labour Party and Corbyn’s supporters.

Decisive steps were needed – not of unity with the right wing but to deal with them and reconstitute Labour as a party of the working class. These steps didn’t happen and that opportunity was lost.

The result can be a certain amount of demoralisation with some drawing the conclusion to ignore elections and only take part in industrial struggles. But this would be a mistake just as orientating only towards an electoral struggle would be. Socialists advocate linking the struggles for a political challenge with industrial battles.

The Tory government is weak, forced into U-turn after U-turn, but these have been won in reality by the working class lifting its little finger, and flow more from a government which is on the back foot than an offensive struggle of the workers’ movement. So imagine what would be possible if the trade union movement was on the offensive, armed with a political party articulating its programme. Not linking arms with Tories but fighting them.  

Not only could it bring together all those who want to oppose the attacks taking place on our services, benefits, and jobs. It would be hot breath on the backs of Keir Starmer’s Labour too. It would do far more to hold them to account than the approach of loyally acquiescing to the policy retreats and organisational consolidation of the right wing regime that is now in control of Labour.

Hundreds of thousands were inspired by the promise of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. They should not be left in the political wilderness but should be mobilised into a real political alternative. It is also not enough to say such a process will happen ‘organically’ – it too important a battle to leave up to chance. We have to actively fight for a real political voice for the working class.

Throughout Corbyn’s leadership the Socialist Party pointed out the political and organisational programme it was necessary to fight on, such as calling for mandatory reselection so that the left could rid themselves of Blairite MPs who voted for war, austerity and more. We raised the necessity of Labour-led councils opposing all austerity measures and demanding the resources from government to fund the services our communities need. Now that anti-war, anti-austerity voice needs a new political vehicle. From past experience, it’s clear the fight for London’s city hall is part and parcel of the fight for a new working class party, the end of the Tories and of austerity.

Helen Pattison