Robbed of the official Labour candidacy by Tony Blair, Ken Livingstone defied the New Labour leaders and in the summer of 2000 was elected Mayor of London. No sooner was Livingstone installed as Mayor than he created a Tory-Liberal-New Labour “popular front” government for London.
The most “left-wing” plank in his election platform had been opposition to Blairite plans to privatise London Underground.
His record, as distinct from his reputation, for many years, at least, did not identify Livingstone as a leftist. Yet he had the support of many left-wingers in the Labour Party and trade unionists. This made a limited sense even for those, like us, who were inclined to expect nothing in the way of socialism or working class politics from Livingstone: if he successfully defied the New Labour machine and gave the Blairites a bloody nose, as he did, this might well encourage others to stand up to them.
But in fact many who would identify themselves as left-wingers went much further, and indulged in the fantasy that Livingstone was a left-wing candidate.
Nobody had any respect-worthy reason for believing that. Class struggle politics disappeared from Livingstone’s agenda, if they were ever seriously part of it, in the early 1980s.
In 1981, he broke with Labour’s class struggle left, organised around Socialist Organiser, of whose editorial board he had been a founding member, and the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory which published Socialist Organiser. In the same year he became GLC leader. Instead of the politics of confronting the newly elected, still shaky and unpopular Thatcher government, using left-controlled local government as fortresses of the class struggle left, Livingstone sought a softer, safer option. When the Tory government imposed cuts, Livingstone chose to duck out of confrontation by raising local taxes in an attempt to compensate for the cuts. This passing on of the cuts was incompatible with mobilising the local government electorate to fight the Tory cuts.
Livingstone still talked “left”, gave GLC money to selected politically correct good causes, made gestures towards conducting an independent GLC foreign policy — on Ireland for example — and thereby helped make up Mrs Thatcher’s mind to abolish London-wide local government. But this was instead of, not part of, a policy of confrontation with Thatcher, using the GLC as a base from which to mobilise working class resistance to the Tories.
It is one of the strangest things in British labour movement history that such a struggle was not mounted in the three years in which Thatcher was seriously unpopular, before the South Atlantic war with Argentina turned the British political situation in Thatcher's favour. Nonetheless, that is what happened. No small part of the responsibility for making it happen belongs to Ken Livingstone and his then allies such as “Red Ted” Knight, leader of Lambeth Council in the 1980s.
As the Tories imposed union-shackling laws, used the slump that began in 1980 to devastate working class communities that were centres of opposition to them, and moved towards confrontation with the miners, the dominant Livingstone segment of the GLC left acted as if all this scarcely concerned them. By the time — 1984-5 — the miners were locked in conflict with the brutal state power thrown at them by Thatcher, Livingstone and the rest of the local government left, who had come to office breathing revolutionary socialist fire, and boasting of what they would do to the Tories, were in London holding hands with dissident Tories — like former Prime Minister, Edward Heath — Liberals and showbiz celebrities, trying to prove how “cuddly” and non-threatening they could be.
Livingstone is an intelligent, engaging, media-friendly personality, a politician more in an American than British mould. In a world in which most New Labour MPs have the force and personality of an unused white paper cup, Livingstone comes across as a thinking, independent human being. But he is not something that people concerned with the working class, the labour movement, or socialism can afford to go on kidding themselves about. The following is an outline of the facts of Livingstone’s career.
In March 1969 Ken Livingstone joined Norwood Labour Party. He was in his early 20s. This was a time when the left, especially the young left, was streaming out of the Labour Party in disgust with the Wilson Labour government.
1971: Livingstone is elected a councillor in Lambeth, and becomes its vice-chair of housing.
1973: Livingstone is elected GLC councillor for Norwood; he becomes a member of the Inner London Education Authority.
1974: Livingstone is elected to the executive of the Greater London Labour Party; he becomes Vice-Chair of Housing Management at the GLC but resigns in 1975 in protest at rent and fare rises and cuts.
1976: Livingstone becomes prospective parliamentary candidate for Hampstead Labour Party.
1977: Labour loses control of the GLC.
1978: Livingstone is elected to Camden council. In July 1978 he signs the founding statement of the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory which includes opposition to cuts, rent and rate rises, and a pledge to use local government to mobilise opposition to whatever government, Labour or Tory, would win the upcoming election.
February 1979: Livingstone starts his drive to capture the GLC in the 1981 election. He chairs the Greater London Labour Party Transport Working Party. Livingstone is defeated in the Hampstead parliamentary seat.
May 1979: the Tories win the general election and begin a full-scale drive against the labour movement, from which that movement has still, 20 years later, not recovered. In June, the government cuts the central government grant to councils by 3%.
At this point the unity of the left organised around Socialist Organiser falls apart. With the Tories in power, it has a choice of two perspectives: use local government as a basis for a fight, or knuckle under, making face-saving gestures and noises. The left flakes apart on the question of rate rises. Livingstone argues that rate rises are a progressive redistributive tax. In fact, the issue is whether the local government left will defy the Tories or duck out by evasive action such as passing on the Tory cuts to the electorate in the form of higher local taxes (“rates”).
July 1979: the open division, a decisive turning point for the left in the years of the Thatcherite onslaught on the labour movement, emerges at a conference in London called by Socialist Organiser. A report in Workers’ Action explains the issues:
“On the one side, a perspective of class struggle, which uses the positions of strength already held by the labour movement on local councils and elsewhere to mobilise for a serious fightback against the Tory offensive. On the other side, a perspective which makes preserving positions on councils the priority, by a policy of ‘riding the punches’ of the Tory government.”
[The revolutionary left attempted to] “commit the conference to a repudiation of the role which Labour-controlled councils normally fill, that of tamely participating in the administration of bourgeois society according to the bourgeois norms and the dictates of government, against the grain of working-class interests. I
t called for a commitment to struggle by left Labour councillors.
“The relationship between Labour-controlled councils and the living standards-cutting Tory government is not something given once and for all. It can be modified tremendously in favour of the working class. It depends on mobilisation, on struggle.
“Even if one defiant Labour council could be dealt with easily, could a string of such councils, across London or throughout the country, backed by the power of unions and tenants? (And, in fact, the last Tory government found it far from easy to deal with one tiny council in Clay Cross.)
“The conference’s responsibility was to adopt a class struggle policy that might allow Socialist Organiser to rearm the left politically and begin to organise it against the Tory onslaught.
“With Labour-controlled councils it is now either class struggle politics or the role of administrator of capitalist politics and therefore also propagandist for bourgeois ideas.”
Early 1980: Livingstone splits with the anti-rate rise majority in Socialist Organiser. He continues to write for SO.
Livingstone writes of this period: “(left-wing Labour-controlled “Red Ted” Knight Lambeth’s decision just after the 1979 General Election to impose cuts)… confused the rates versus services argument and allowed our opponents to discredit the rate increase option. It delivered control of the SCLV and Socialist Organiser into the hands of John O'Mahony (Sean Matgamna). With the GLC selections only ten months away and the Socialist Organiser firmly in the hands of O'Mahony, who opposed all I stood for, I was suddenly deprived of access to what had looked like becoming a good broad left organising network. I had no alternative but to try and interest the Chartist group in leaving Socialist Organiser.”
February 1980: London Labour Briefing [now Labour Left Briefing] is launched as the organ of the “avoid confrontation” former wing of the SCLV. The lead article is by Livingstone on the GLC campaign.
April 1980: Ted Knight, leader of Lambeth council and Ken Livingstone’s closest ally, makes a 49.4% rate rise and a £1.50 rent rise. He launches a witch hunt against SO for criticising him. An open letter to Ted Knight in SO from John O’Mahony summarised the issues:
“You denounce the no rent and no rate rise policy as a ‘recipe for political disaster’. Socialist Organiser thinks on the contrary that your policy of rent and rate rises is a policy of disguised cuts of working class living standards, and a backdoor form of collaboration with the Tories to implement cuts.
“Far from being a policy to rally forces behind Labour councils, your policies can only give [Tory local government minister] Heseltine a weapon to split and divide local communities and alienate support from Labour councils.
“All the present struggles — including the struggle to kick the Tories out — must be focused (insofar as Marxists can affect their focus) on that perspective. It is a matter of great urgency that the Marxists within the labour movement bind themselves together to help prepare the labour movement for this fight.
“The alternative may very well be a major and historic defeat for the working class of Britain.”
“To justify your rate-rise policies, you refer to powers above you — the government — that you dare not take on or challenge at a fundamental level. Isn’t this in essence the sort of argument Callaghan used to justify his posture before the IMF?
“If the argument holds good for you in Lambeth, confronting the Tory government, why not for [Dennis] Healey and [ex-Prime Minister James] Callaghan and [ex-Prime Minister Harold] Wilson in the weak and isolated British state, confronted by the IMF?”
In fact, the experience of the local government left and its talk-don’t-fight logic did make its way through, first into Labour’s Kinnockite “centre” and all the way through to Blair’s New Labour (for example, David Blunkett was the Ken Livingstone of Sheffield council and Margaret Hodge of Islington). The experience was decisive in the taming of the left of that period.
May 1981: Labour wins the GLC election. Livingstone immediately ousts the right-wing leader in a left-wing coup. Briefing’s headline says “London’s Ours”. Livingstone signs the lead/front page article which says:
“No-one will be left in any doubt that the GLC is now a campaigning organ and a bastion of power for the labour movement within a national context… Part of our task will be to sustain a holding operation until such time as the Tory government can be brought down and replaced by a left-wing Labour Government…” In the same period he wrote: “There can be no doubt that we are now entering the final phase of the struggle against the Tories.”
The GLC Labour group refuses an invitation for the Leader to go to the [Charles and Diana] Royal wedding. Livingstone makes an anti-royalist speech. He will change his view on this question, as on so many others, in his move to the right.
The GLC gives public support to the IRA hunger strikers and their families. It backs gay rights.
At the same time the Inner London Education Authority backs down under threat of surcharge on its manifesto commitment to reduce the price of school meals. Livingstone justifies offering 8% to Underground workers in response to a 15% claim (inflation is 12%).
September 1981: Livingstone launches Labour Herald with Ted Knight and Matthew Warburton as joint editors. A Workers’ Revolutionary Party full-timer, Stephen Miller, is installed as editor. Labour Herald is financed by the WRP (an extremely crazy kitsch-Trotskyist sect), which is being financed by Libya, Iraq and other Arab benefactors in return for uncritically supporting them in its press and for providing Arab governments with spy-reports on Arab dissidents and on Jews prominent in British life. (What SO had commented on from the beginning, was “revealed” when the WRP imploded in 1985.)
Late 1981: the WRP attempts to bankrupt SO when Vanessa Redgrave sues Sean Matgamna and John Bloxam for libel. It is in part an attempt to clear the way for the establishment of the new paper, Labour Herald. Livingstone originally signs a petition circulated in the labour movement protesting at the attempt to drive SO out of existence but he continues to benefit from the WRP’s financial backing of Labour Herald, and speaks at WRP meetings from which Socialist Organiser people are banned.
October 1981: the GLC Fares Fair policy is introduced — a 32% Tube and bus fare reduction and a new zonal system. It is immediately subjected to a legal challenge by Bromley Council. The legal challenge is upheld by Lord Denning in November and by the Law Lords in December. It raises the same question as in the dispute on rate rises: defy or comply?
In 1982 Livingstone says he supports defiance of the courts, and votes for this in the GLC Labour Group. At the time, he was writing: “Just imagine the largest council in the country refusing to comply with the law as laid down by Denning. It would have meant an immediate constitutional crisis. It would have been the biggest act of defiance against central government by a local authority yet.”
However, he also argues for a free vote on it in the Council, knowing that defiance will lose there. He votes for defiance, but it is predictably defeated by the Tories, the SDP and right-wing Labour. Then despite his prior commitment not to, Livingstone votes for the budget with the fare increases.
Deputy leader Harrington brands Livingstone as “opportunistic… because he knew that the law would have to be obeyed, but he knew that other people would see to it that it would be done…”
But Livingstone is still defended by the Pollyanna left such as Briefing. His biographer John Carvel describes the vote as the start of “what may be called the second Livingstone administration. The Labour group got down to the art of the possible”.
In fact, Livingstone now pioneers what will become known as “Rainbow Coalition” politics when advocated by the right-wing Stalinists of Marxism Today.
9 April 1983: Livingstone is interviewed in the WRP daily Newsline. The interview appears opposite an editorial denouncing Socialist Organiser as agents of imperialism and “Zionism” — “From Socialist Organiser to Thatcher and Reagan, the Zionist connection”, went the headline. He agrees with his interviewer that, yes, a recent item on a BBC financial programme about the WRP’s financial links to Libya was the work of “Zionists” at the BBC out to get the WRP. Livingstone afterwards ignores public invitations to repudiate the crazy Newsline editorial and continues to work closely with the WRP.
June 1983: the Tories win the general election. Their manifesto includes abolition of the GLC (and other metropolitan councils) and “rate capping” to limit local government spending.
March 1984: the great miners’ strike begins.
The GLC launches a “Say No to No Say” campaign to prevent the abolition of the GLC. It is a professional, well-funded campaign, aimed principally at convincing Tory supporters, the House of Lords, etc. Livingstone is promoted as a domesticated “cuddly left” figure, who is a threat to no-one.
May 1984: The Thames Barrier is opened. The Queen is invited to open it; erstwhile republican Livingstone in public bows low before her gracious Majesty.
Summer 1984: Militant-led Liverpool Council does a deal with the Tories: it is the same sort of “avoid confrontation” strategy that Livingstone had pioneered in the GLC — only now it involves pointedly leaving the miners to fight alone. [A year later, the miners defeated, the Tories will confront Liverpool Council.]
Livingstone now swings verbally left again and argues for defiance on “rate-capping”. “We will effectively operate within the state in defiance of the state. That will provide the most dramatic challenge, apart from the challenge of the miners’ strike, that this government has faced since 1979.” Joint action by London councils would present ministers with “the prospect of a city in revolt”; it was a chance to inflict “the most savage defeat” on the government.
February 1985: Livingstone argues for defiantly not setting a rate in the GLC Labour Group and once again he also argues for a free vote in the Council. Expecting defiance to be defeated a free vote would allow the Leader (Livingstone) to retain his position. At the same time Livingstone is organising for a legal rate setting budget.
March 1985: The miners vote to return. In Council the left continues to vote against setting a rate; at the last minute Livingstone switches and votes for. He is “disarmingly” cynical about it. In Tribune during the summer he explains his politics: “I’m for manipulative politics… the cynical soft-sell.”
For the first time there is open rupture between Ken Livingstone and a harder left both in the GLC (John McDonnell) and outside. Livingstone shifts openly right. He starts working with the soft left Labour Co-ordinating Committee. He calls for peace with Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who is applying the logic of Livingstone’s Labour Government policy since 1979 to the national Labour Party.
End 1985: Livingstone’s paper, the Labour Herald, folds after the WRP disintegrates.
March 1986: The GLC is abolished.
1986: Livingstone openly supports the right-wing Labour candidate in NUS against the hard left Socialist Organiser candidate.
Livingstone wins selection as parliamentary candidate in Brent East with the support of the right wing. The left supports Diane Abbott.
Livingstone publishes his first book, If Voting Changed Anything They’d Abolish It. The title of the book, a pseudo-anarchist slogan on a book of memoirs by a man who had shown himself willing to do virtually anything for “votes”, was widely taken to be a neat bit of inadvertent self-satirising by Livingstone.
June 1987: The Tories win the general election. Livingstone wins Brent East.
September 1987: Livingstone is elected to the Labour Party NEC.
September 1988: Tony Benn and Eric Heffer challenge for leadership of the Labour Party. Livingstone makes private approaches to John Smith, offering to support him in the second round.
Livingstone later would say that he would have accepted a job if Kinnock had offered him one. But he is now widely distrusted as well as discredited.
September 1989: he loses his seat on the Labour Party NEC. “That was the end of my ambition to lead the Party. It died quite specifically as they announced I’d been kicked off the NEC. I realised then that my strategy of trying to reunite the left was going nowhere because the soft left was losing its confidence.
1990: Livingstone is fined for not paying the poll tax. He starts to write a column for the Sun which had engaged in savage union-busting in 1986-7, when it moved from Fleet Street to Wapping. There is a widespread labour movement boycott of the Sun. Livingstone uses his column to attack sections of the left — the Socialist Workers Party — denied the right to reply.
June 1992: The fourth successive Tory election victory. Livingstone is re-elected in Brent East.
When Kinnock stands down as Labour leader, Livingstone tries to get nominations to stand (he gets 13 out of the required 55 MPs). He runs a spoiling pseudo-campaign supported publicly by the Sun (“Vote Ken, a real man of the people”). The scab-herding Tory-supporting Sun uses “its” candidate, Ken Livingstone, to mock and jeer at the left, the Labour Party and the labour movement. Livingstone plays along. His “candidacy” blocks any prospect of a campaign to draft the serious left candidate, Tony Benn. Nonetheless, his joke candidacy wins the support of sections of the left — Briefing and Socialist Outlook.
1994: John Smith dies. Livingstone had expected to be offered a ministerial position if Smith had won the election. “He [Smith] would undoubtedly have sought to govern by bringing the left... he had no problem with left-wingers who were pro-Europe.” He tries and fails to get sufficient nominations in the new leadership election.
Livingstone helps establish the “Campaign to Defend the Welfare State” against the Welfare State Network, set up by his old opponents in Socialist Organiser and the SCLV. It does nothing and is entirely a spoiling operation.
June 1997: Labour wins the General Election.
When Blair had pushed the proposal for a directly elected Mayor into the manifesto, Livingstone described the idea as “barmy”.
September 1997: Livingstone is elected to the Labour Party NEC.
1998: Livingstone submits a Commons motion supporting the sacking of John Haylett as Morning Star editor (withdrawn after pressure from other left MPs). Livingstone publicly denounces Sean Matgamna and by implication the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty as “MI5 agents”.
1999-2000: Campaigning to win Labour nomination for London Mayor, Livingstone professes loyalty to Blair. Declares that he is “95% Blairite”. “... I would work with your Government, not against it… I am convinced that your administration has the potential to be a great reforming government on a par with those of 1906 and 1945”. After he is “stitched up” and with a clear lead in the polls, Livingstone stands as an independent candidate for Mayor. He runs a right-wing media-based campaign.
2000: Ken Livingstone is elected Mayor and he sets up a cross-class Popular Front administration (Labour right-winger as deputy; Liberal for Transport); he appoints, at a salary of £1 million a year, imported New York union-buster transport expert Bob Kiley.
May 2001: he denounces anti-globalisation demonstrators in London, joining in the demonisation that preceded the illegal detention of 1,000 people for nine hours in Oxford Circus, surrounded by heavily armed police. Livingstone founds a pro-euro campaign jointly with the City of London capitalists.
The style is the man, and the man is the style. Livingstone wrote: “As my constantly shifting political relationship with Ted Knight and various left-wing factions reveals, it is the pressures of political and economic forces which determine the alliances that are made between politicians, not whether or not they like each other. I have often thought that Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a much more honest account of how politicians operate than any of the self-justifying rubbish spewed out in political biographies and repeated in academic textbooks. One sentence in that book typifies the way most politicians deal with each other. Tessio, the longest-serving of the Corleone mob, has switched his allegiance and betrayed the family by setting up Michael Corleone for assassination. His treachery is uncovered, he is led away to his death, and as he goes he sends Michael Corleone a final message. ‘Tell Mike it was only business,’ he says, ‘I always liked him.’ Fortunately for politicians, if not the general public, politics are conducted by ballots rather than bullets in most of the United Kingdom.” (If Voting Changed Anything, They’d Abolish It, p.115)
Livingstone does not live up to these words, either. He has pursued a vendetta against his opponents in Socialist Organiser/SCLV in 1979-81 down two decades — sometimes obsession turning to lunacy as when he denounces some of us as “MI5 agents”.
But as an approach to principled politics, serious politics honestly adhered to, this would be admirable: pursue your goals, minimise the personal antagonism, be objective, businesslike and in the name of progress to your goal ally where necessary with those you dislike, and oppose those you like.
But this approach in Livingstone is used in pursuit of a grubby personal “me-über-alles” career! As Ken Livingstone seems to recognise, it is in principle no different from what the gangsters do. Just business? The “business” of socialist politics does not belong to the same order of things as the business of those for whom politics is “just business”. The “business” of Ken Livingstone”... Ken Livingstone.