Livingstone's legacy: Talking left and selling out

An article by John Bloxam, from London Labour Briefing, August 1985, on Ken Livingstone's record in the Greater London Council.


 

Behind the current [1985] “realignment of the left” stands the fact that since 1979 the labour movement has failed to fight the Tory Government successfully.

The major responsibility for this lies with the top leaders of the TUC and the Labour Party.

Yet the local government left has been part of the failure too. Nobody had any right to expect anything good from most of the TUC leaders or from the leaders of the Labour Party, who had after all pioneered monetarist cuts themselves when in government. Yet in 1981-2, Labour took control in many local authorities all over Britain, and new left-wing forces took control in key areas like London.

That put the local government left centre stage. Thatcher must have had waking nightmares that local government would be used as a series of fortresses from which the labour movement up and down the country would resist the Tory onslaught and rally the labour movement to fight back. That is what many on the local government left had promised and threatened to do.

Yet the local government left had to make a basic and fundamental choice. Would it orientate towards resistance and confrontation with the government? Or would it decide for Labour local government business as usual — with a few left-wing frills and a bit of “look-boss-I’m-not-serious” posturing?

Essentially the local government left opted for business as usual, with frills. Hilda Kean, former leader of Hackney council, put it very well in Socialist Organiser of June 12, 1985: “While on ideological issues councillors like Ken Livingstone have taken a progressive stand, when it has come to key economic and financial questions there has been a real absence of left strategy.

“If for example you look at the GLC’s campaign against abolition, it has not centred on close working with the unions, nor did their campaign against rate-capping. It was centred far more on propaganda aimed at the population of London in general, rather than at the labour movement bodies that are capable of organising people in trade union action.

“You cannot take a socialist stand in relation to issues like women’s oppression or racism without at the same time taking on board the economic factors that materially affect people’s lives.

“How can the GLC on the one hand make all this propaganda about having a GLC Women’s Committee and supposedly taking notice of the interests of women in London, while at the same time it draws back from the fight for adequate resources for such facilities?”

The central choice was made well before 1981, when the local government left opted for a strategy for rate rises as its answer to the Tory cuts. Initially — for example, at the Socialist Organiser local government conference of June 1979 — this was presented as the “short term”answer that would give us time to prepare a fight back. The councils would fight “next time”. But “next time” never came.

Rate rises were in fact alternative cuts — less hateful than direct cuts in services. They were not a preparation for, but an alternative to, a strategy of using Labour-controlled councils as fortresses around which to rally the working class and local communities to resist the Government.

The rate-rise strategy was presented by various people — including the editors of London Labour Briefing — as radical left-wing politics. In fact it was the unmistakable signal that it was to be local government business as usual, with more or less attractive frills like grants to good causes.

Lambeth, where the left took control in the late ’70s, pioneered the general retreat. Ted Knight opted for cuts within two months of the Tory victory in 1979. The local Labour Party forced him to rescind the cuts; but in April 1980 he pushed through rent and rate rises, and in April 1981, 10 per cent cuts.

Ken Livingstone said in Socialist Organiser before his election to the leadership of the GLC that a left GLC would, “wherever there is an industrial dispute in London... go down and support it.” Within weeks of coming to power he led the GLC into conflict with the NUR.

Instead of resisting all Tory-imposed cuts in living standards, the local government left tried to manoeuvre by passing on, or redirecting, the cuts by way of rate rises. It became a war of manoeuvre and evasion. The left could not win. By playing it like that, the left prepared the ground for the Tories’ relatively painless imposition of rate-capping and erosion of local democracy.

Instead of a whole rash of resistance across the country, we now have a wholesale collapse of resistance. This collapse is only a logical staging-post on the road that the local government left started down six years ago.

The left “realignment” is this: a whole layer of support for the next Kinnock-led Labour government has now been created from former leftists, who learned to be “balanced” and to “make responsible choices” in the school of local government. They are teaching themselves, and others, to accept the same approach from a Labour government which will — Neil Kinnock says so — not restore Tory cuts, nor even completely undo Tory anti-union legislation.

Many local government leftists would still jib at such conclusions. But that is where they are leading themselves, and others. There is not one single argument used by the local government left to justify the local-government policies of Ken Livingstone or Ted Knight that does not apply just as properly to a Labour government faced with a capitalist world environment and the IMF.

All of this was said by Socialist Organiser (or the majority of SO, before London Labour Briefing and others split away in the course of a dispute about local government) as early as 1979 — when the situation was much more favourable for the local government left to change course and to rally workers against the Tories.

For years Ken Livingstone’s campaign against GLC abolition has been the clearest realisation in British politics of the cross-class coalition (popular-front) approach advocated by Marxism Today [the Communist Party magazine]!

Arguably the experience of the local government left is as important for the labour movement as the experience of the Labour governments of the ’60s and ’70s. And perhaps it has been worse. For while those governments pushed masses of people away from reformism and towards seeking a better road, the local government left has taken a lot of people back towards “choose-the-lesser-evil” reformism.