Conceding defeat in the contest for London mayor, on 3 May, Ken Livingstone said: “This is my last election”. As with many things Livingstone says, it’s not true.
Livingstone is a candidate on the “centre-left” list in Labour’s National Executive this year. Though many of those who have nominated him will confirm privately that Livingstone is utterly unreliable on the Executive, they think they have no choice but to have him on the list, because he’s a potential winner and a reliable right-winger might replace him.
But in the mayoral contest Livingstone won much less than the Labour vote, despite his efforts since 2008 to construct a mini-popular-front, Progressive London, to get himself a vote broader than Labour’s. He is 67 years old next month. So May 2012 just might be his last high-profile public election.
Voters on 3 May could see nothing left-wing in Livingstone’s pitch, and only gimcrackery in his attempts to display himself as a maverick. Sadly, that lucidity led to London being handed to right-wing Tory Boris Johnson; and the left has not yet become as lucid about Livingstone as the broad London electorate. His departure from the public scene can only help the left sort itself out.
Ken Livingstone was once a left-winger. As a Lambeth, Camden, and GLC councillor in the 1970s he had a good record. He always differed from the revolutionary socialist left, arguing that council rate (property-tax) rises to offset the Thatcher cuts were positively progressive rather than an evasion; but at the time that position seemed more honest than the general soft-left pitch, that rate rises were undesirable but necessary to “gain time”.
Livingstone was energetic, talented, and willing to collaborate with Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity). He collaborated even after a whole faction of Socialist Organiser people peeled away on the rate-rise issue.
Later, in an autobiography, Livingstone would claim to have initiated that split. The duplicity was typical. By 1985 Livingstone had done his dash. He settled the Greater London Council, which he had led since 1981, in a “safe” posture, and openly announced his rallying to Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party leadership. Trying to disarm critics by effrontery, he wrote in Tribune: “I’m for manipulative politics... the cynical soft-sell”.
Livingstone could not get the front-bench post with Kinnock that he wanted, or not at the right price, so, becoming an MP in 1987, he tacked carefully so as to retain backing on the left as well as keeping his options open on the right.
The tacking was what was special about him. Many other former Labour local government leftists moved right as their career hopes increased, and no comment was necessary on David Blunkett or Margaret Hodge other than that it was an old, old story.
Livingstone, even when for example declaring himself “95% Blairite” in his effort to get the Labour nomination for mayor of London, in 2000, continued to meddle with the left.
In the early 1990s he got a column in the Sun and used it to pursue a faction-fight against the SWP and the Anti-Nazi League, for the benefit of the rival Anti-Racist Alliance.
In July 1998, helping some allies in the student movement, he told a student meeting that the conflicts between himself and Sean Matgamna of Socialist Organiser and Solidarity should be explained by the alleged fact that Matgamna was “mad” and “most probably an MI5 agent”.
From 2000, as mayor of London, he hired members of a secretive ex-Trotskyist group, Socialist Action, to City Hall jobs. Livingstone probably saw it in terms of “using” assistants who could safeguard his left flank, and who, because in their heads their backroom posts fitted somehow into some strategy for socialism, would be more energetic than routine careerists.
There is no evidence that he was influenced by the ideas of Socialist Action, or regarded their strategic fantasies with anything other than contempt. Oddly, the one “left” group which seems really to have impressed Livingstone was the most corrupt of those he dealt with: Gerry Healy’s Workers’ Revolutionary Party. He acted as a “front man” for Healy’s Labour Party paper, Labour Herald, between 1981 and 1985.
At a guess, what impressed him about the WRP was exactly what made honest leftists abhor it: its ability to sustain a large political machine (its own daily paper as well as the “non-attributable” Labour Herald, extensive property and staff, lavish rallies) with the help of money got from Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and the PLO in return for “exposing” Jews in British public life, monitoring Iraqi dissidents, printing praise of tyrants, etc. The mentality, I guess, was the same as that of the naive cynics in the 1930s who enjoyed collaborating with the Stalinist machine while openly acknowledging its misdeeds, and who would later be nostalgic for Stalin.
According to the recently-published autobiography of Alex Mitchell, who edited Healy’s daily paper in that period: “Livingstone began [around 1981] attending private meetings in Healy’s tiny sitting room above a carpet shop in Clapham High Street... ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone relished discussion on philosophy, political theory, and history. Healy quickly developed a keen rapport with Livingstone and suggested a list of books he should read to establish a grounding in Marxism... Healy enjoyed Livingstone’s lively sense of humour and he often broke longstanding engagements just to spend time talking to him” (Come the Revolution, p393).
As late as March 1994 — long after the WRP had exploded in 1985, Healy had been thoroughly exposed by his disillusioned former comrades, and no career advantage could be got from saying anything good about Healy — Livingstone wrote a puff for a laudatory biography of Healy by diehard loyalists: “The split in the WRP during 1985 was the work of MI5 agents. It was a privilege to have worked with Gerry Healy” (Foreword to Gerry Healy: a revolutionary life, by Corinna Lotz and Paul Feldman).
As the left revives, it will learn to shun those who abuse it. There will be future Ken Livingstones of a sort, because, until we have changed society comprehensively, there will always be cynics and shameless careerists. But the left will spurn them.