Ken ups tempo

David Welch david.welch at
Fri Nov 5 08:33:37 MST 1999

Weekly Worker        #311      4th November 1999

So much for the tactical brilliance of the control freaks at Millbank. As
the electoral college stitch-up - their supposedly foolproof answer to the
problem of Ken Livingstone - shows signs of unravelling, the question of
who actually wins the fight to become the Labour Party's nominee for
London mayor takes on an almost secondary character. Whatever the outcome,
it is likely to spell bad news for the party's leadership and its

If, as still seems most probable, Frank Dobson manages to secure the
nomination, it will be on the basis of the sort of bureaucratic
gerrymandering that shows an arrogant and brazen contempt for democracy.
Such a Pyrrhic victory would offer the people of London a flawed and to
some extent already discredited candidate; it might even induce
Livingstone, as the moral victor who enjoys overwhelming support among
London Labour members, to go it alone. If, on the other hand, Livingstone
springs a surprise and wins the nomination contest, his victory will have
been achieved in the face of immense obstacles and will represent a
resounding defeat for Blair and Blairism, demonstrating more eloquently
than anything else the fact that, for all the media hype, New Labour as an
ideological construct remains an amorphous, superficial and largely
elitist phenomenon, lacking deep roots in the Labour Party and the labour
movement generally.

The question that is of primary interest to us as communists and
revolutionary democrats is this: does the campaign for Livingstone - let
alone the possibility of his victory - offer a realistic channel for a
revival of class-conscious activity and an interest in real socialist
politics among the passive and demoralised mass base of the Labour Party
in London and beyond? We believe that the answer is yes, and that it is
consequently our duty to give qualified and critical support to the
Livingstone campaign, even if he emerges as the official Labour candidate
for mayor. We take this position in full knowledge of the dubious
political record and chameleon characteristics of the man himself.

Some comrades are inclined to view this stance as opportunism or tailism
towards Labour, an abdication of our responsibility to unite with others
on the left in order to fight for a real socialist alternative candidate.
They contend that support for Livingstone conflicts with the position
previously argued by Weekly Worker writers earlier this year.

Their charge rests on a failure to understand the qualitative changes
that have taken place in recent months. For example, back in June Maurice
Bernal wrote that "Whatever the outcome [of the ballot for the Labour
nomination] it is essential for the left to prepare itself
to fight for an authentically socialist mayor of London ... In the event
that Blair bites the bullet and allows Livingstone to stand as Labour's
official candidate, we argue it is the duty of the left to fight for a
socialist mayoral candidate: ie, a candidate endorsed by a united front of
socialist organisations" (Weekly Worker June 24).

What has changed since the comrade wrote these words? Essentially two
things. In the first place, it needs to be remembered that our attitude in
June was adopted in the political context of a possible (even if highly
improbable) compromise between Blair and Livingstone, whereby the latter
would toe the New Labour line in return for the gift of nomination. Far from
having bitten the bullet, however, as everyone knows, Blair has used every
means at his disposal to thwart Livingstone's ambitions. So Livingstone
would not be New Labour's tame representative in the mayorality. Indeed a
victorious Livingstone would now constitute a living manifesto against
everything that Blair represents and would become the focus for exactly
the sort of grassroots opposition that we, as communists, seek to make the
audience of our own politics.

Secondly, and no doubt to some extent in the light of these developments,
some organisations on the left, such as the Socialist Workers Party and
the Alliance for Workers Liberty have recently drawn the same conclusions
as we did before them and have adopted a position of critical support for
a Livingstone candidacy. As was demonstrated only too clearly by the
London Socialist Alliance's ignominious collapse before Scargill prior to
the June EU elections, it was in any case doubtful whether the LSA
election bloc would stay the course. The commitment of most of the
participating organisations - particularly the SWP - was questionable, to
say the least. In effect, therefore, earlier and very tentative plans for
a united left intervention in next May's election have been abandoned in
all but name. Though it may still meet, the LSA is dead so far as this
question is concerned.

What comrades need to grasp is that the central issue raised by the
Livingstone campaign is one of democracy: the democratic right of London's
70,000 Labour Party members to vote for Livingstone, if that is their
wish; the democratic right of millions of Londoners to elect as mayor the
man whom, according to every poll, they want to see in charge of their
city. Democracy is a weapon we can wield against Blair and New Labour.

The Millbank machine has failed to learn any lessons from previous
attempts at telling the party's membership how to vote, such as the
debacle in Wales, where foisting Alun Michael on an unwilling Welsh
electorate actually cost Labour its expected majority in the Welsh
assembly. Millbanks novel form of OMOV (our man, our voting system)
represents a flagrant perversion of democracy, giving vastly
disproportionate influence to that one third of the electoral
college comprising the payroll vote of London MPs, MEPs and those ever so
carefully selected (but unelected) candidates for the Greater London
Authority, each of whom will cast votes equivalent to those of nearly
1,000 rank and file members or nearly 6,000 trade union members.

>From the outset it was obvious that the payroll vote would do what they
were told. Indeed, so enthusiastic have some of them been in their support
for Dobson that they have reportedly fallen foul of the Data Protection
Act by giving Dobsons campaign team access to constituency membership
lists. The legal niceties of this question are of no interest to us, but
it has certainly had political consequences in terms of deepening the
distrust and anger felt by many Labour Party members in London.

It was equally obvious from the beginning that a majority of ordinary
members of the London Labour Party would vote for Livingstone if given the
chance. The decisive factor, therefore, would be that third of the college
composed of trade union votes. Here the arrogance and political
miscalculation of Millbank is most glaringly apparent. They evidently
assumed (perhaps with some justification) that the unions leaders, servile
as always in their relationship with the Blair administration, would cast
their block votes in favour of his preferred candidate. Where Sir Ken
Jackson of the AEEU is concerned, their calculations were, of course,
correct. Despite pressure from his members, Jackson is still adamant that
he will cast the AEEUs block vote for Dobson, securing him some 10% of the
union vote and in the process effectively disenfranchising some 50,000
trade unionists. What Millbank clearly did not reckon with, however, was
that, thanks to the vigorous demands of their members, every other major
union in the capital will be balloting. This is undoubtedly a major
setback, with potentially fatal consequences for Dobson's chances of
getting the nomination next month. It is also clear evidence that the
grassroots in the labour movement, provoked by the undemocratic
manipulation of the party's centre, may at last be shaking off its
passivity and torpor.

The general revulsion and anger felt by many Labour Party activists and
ordinary members in the capital should not be underestimated. It made
itself felt, for example, at the October 30 rally organised by the
Livingstone for London campaign and attended by some 500 people in the
Camden Centre. Speaking from the platform, both Ruth Clarke, a CLP
secretary from south London, and Lucy Craig, a Haringey councillor for the
last 10 years, denounced the electoral college system as an abuse of
democracy which made rank and file members feel disenfranchised and
marginalised. Craig insisted that any democratic method of selecting the
party's candidate should take account of the views of the more than 1,000
councillors working in the capital's local government. They, at least,
have been elected, unlike the safe GLA prospective candidates. Both
spoke of the widespread anger and frustration in their respective
organisations caused by the machinations of the party centre. To stormy
applause, Craig demanded, Give us back our party.

The issues which, to judge by this meeting, London Labour Party members
feel most strongly about are transport, racism and the metropolitan police
- especially transport, which dominated Livingstones 30-minute speech.
Alone among the potential candidates, and in tune with two thirds of
Londoners polled on the subject, he is opposed to the privatisation of
the underground by means of the Public Private Partnership, which would
hand over large tranches of the tube's infrastructure to none other than
Railtrack, probably the most despised company in the entire country.
Vowing to maintain the underground as a unified service in the public
sector, Livingstone told the meeting that he intended to fund the
revitalisation of the tube by a bond issue and to use the projected
congestion charge as a means of shifting resources into the bus sector as
a priority. Promises to restore xonductors on the buses and guards on the
underground were very enthusiastically received by the audience.

On the subject of racism, Lee Jasper of the Black Alliance and anti-racism
campaigner Kumar Murshid both commended Livingstones anti-racist
initiatives during his time at the GLC, during which time more than 20% of
the GLCs workforce was recruited from ethnic minorities. Livingstone
accepted the speakers demand for the full implementation of the McPherson
report and for greater metropolitan police accountability.

Livingstones carefully crafted speech, largely devoid of any direct
criticism of his rivals and of the government, predictably gave no clues
whatever as to what he will do in the event of being blocked from the
short list on November 16 (a highly unlikely but not impossible
contingency) or being defeated by Dobson as a result of the skewed
electoral college. But active efforts to recruit people to the
Livingstone campaign (with potential supporters limited to Labour
Party members and those who belong to no other political organisation),
while ostensibly a fund-raising initiative, will provide him with a
database of potential support for an independent challenge. On this
question we say to Livingstone that in the event of defeat in the Labour
Party contest he must demonstrate his sincerity and determination by
standing as a London Independent Labour candidate for mayor.

As I said, both the SWP (Socialist Worker October 30) and the AWL (Action
for Solidarity October 29) have come out in support of Livingstones
campaign. The poor cadre of the SWP must be mightily confused. Having been
urged to support the Let Ken stand initiative earlier in the year, they
were later told that Livingstone's support for Nato bombing of Serbia
debarred him from receiving the SWPs support and constituted a line in the
sand which the SWP would not cross. Evidently the line has been washed
away by the tide of events. Similarly, the AWL leadership appears to have
overcome, to some extent, its chronic aversion to Livingstone, which
dates back nearly 20 years. It justifies its turn by a comparison with the
Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, which fought for the re-election
of the Callaghan government because the alternative was
even worse: ie, lesser-of-two-evilism. The AWL now proposes a Socialist
Campaign for a Livingstone Victory, along similar lines, rightly drawing
attention to the damage which such a victory could inflict on New Labour
 and its potential as a force for renewed working class mobilisation from

By contrast, the position taken by the Socialist Party is a lunatic
paradox. Since, according to the SP's theorists, Labour is now a
fully-fledged party of the bourgeoisie, to support Livingstone as Labour's
official candidate for mayor would be unthinkable. Nonetheless, the SP
backs his efforts to win the ballot: ie, to become precisely the candidate
whom they cannot support.

As we have said before, the Labour Party's change, dictated from above,
from being a bourgeois party of the working class to being a bourgeois
party of the bourgeoisie has certainly gathered pace since Blair's
election victory. But the Blairisation of the Labour Party as a whole is a
still a myth, a Millbank pipe dream. So long as the Labour Party retains
its mass base in the working class and is reliant on workers votes, these
class forces can and will make themselves felt. Livingstone's campaign to
become mayor of London could galvanise these forces. That is why we
support him.

 Michael Malkin



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