Blair versus Livingstone

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri May 12 11:48:53 MDT 2000

Le Monde diplomatique

May 2000


London's mayor versus Tony Blair

Massimo D'Alema and Tony Blair - who both recently signed a document
calling for a further shift to the free market by the European left - are
currently going through a bad patch. D'Alema has had to resign as prime
minister as a result of Italy's regional elections. Tony Blair is having to
deal with setbacks on all sides since May's local elections - not least Ken
Livingstone's victory as Mayor of London. This bitter pill for New Labour
follows an unprecedented, and highly unpopular, display of authoritarianism.


In a book published shortly before the May 1997 elections, Tony Blair
stressed the need for devolving the powers of parliament to the regions.
"Our country stands on the verge of great change", he wrote. "We can
continue with the overcentralised, secretive and discredited system of
government we have at present. Or we can change and trust the people to
take more control over their own lives" (1).

Change of scene. This January Blair invited several thousand party members
in London to a question and answer session. The campaign to choose Labour's
candidate for Mayor of London was in full swing. He received a distinctly
chilly response, and what had originally been intended as a family
gathering turned into a confrontation.

A nurse was worried about the way Labour appeared to be pursuing the same
dogmatic neo-liberalism as the Conservatives. She asked the prime minister
what he was intending to do about modernising the health service, public
transport and education, all falling apart. Blair's studied smile turned to
a grimace. Barely containing his anger, he replied that the lady's words
were rubbish. Later, the virulence of his attacks on longstanding Labourite
Ken Livingstone plainly upset an audience which was largely supportive of
his candidacy as Mayor of London. When the prime minister urged party
members not to vote for "extremist" candidates, his speech was punctuated
by loud whistles.

All over the country, the Labour rank and file are complaining about the
lack of pluralism in the party so high-handedly renamed New Labour by Blair
and his friends. Things are getting so bad that the press now regularly
calls the prime minister a control freak. In the course of setting up the
devolution process, the party rank and file have been shocked by the
anti-democratic behaviour of the Blairites. On three separate occasions
Blair has been accused of vote-rigging and imposing his own candidates:
during the voting in the elections for the Scottish Parliament; during the
selection of the Labour leader for the Welsh Assembly; and more recently in
the selection of Labour's candidate for Mayor of London.

During the 12 months following Labour's election in 1997, the Blair
government embarked on four separate devolution projects. Scotland was to
have its own parliament (2); Northern Ireland and Wales were to have their
own assemblies; and Londoners - along with the inhabitants of other major
British cities - would for the first time have the chance to elect their
own mayors. The London election was set for 4 May. Blair is a believer in
economic deregulation, and his intention was to accompany his free market
ideas with reform that would redress the balance between a centre that had
become top-heavy and regions that enjoyed no real representation.
Devolution would be good for the United Kingdom since it "brings power
closer to the people" (3). Some see this as one of the few leftwing
initiatives of this government.

Two years later, economic liberalisation is still maintaining a brisk pace,
but Blair's commitment to political liberalism leaves something to be
desired. The devolution process is under way, but it is hardly proceeding
in the ways its beneficiaries expected. Instead of delegating
decision-making power to the regions, Blair has been at pains to place -
some would say impose - members of his own entourage in key positions. In
Scotland, each of the candidates had to be examined before a jury made up
of Blair supporters, which asked questions designed to test how close they
were to central party policy. Dennis Canavan, the member for Falkirk West,
was reckoned unsuitable, despite having been re-elected repeatedly since
1974 with large majorities. He was labelled Old Labour by the party
modernisers, and considered too attached to social-democratic economic
policies, out of line with Blair's "radical centrism". As a result, Canavan
stood as an independent and was triumphantly re-elected, beating the New
Labour candidate.

In Wales, control over the electoral process was even more flagrant. Alun
Michael, a fairly colourless technocrat, was "elected" as head of the
Labour list, against Rhodri Morgan, a staunch social democrat who has
little time for New Labour modernism. Although Morgan won more votes from
the members, Michael won. His victory as Labour candidate was due to the
block votes of a number of trade union leaders who failed to consult their
members and allocated the entirety of their votes to Blair's candidate.

The subsequent Welsh election (May 1999) showed the level of anger at these
methods. The Labour vote collapsed and the party failed to get an absolute
majority in the new assembly. A good proportion of the leftwing electorate
either abstained or voted for candidates standing as independents. The man
the Welsh nicknamed "Blair's puppet" found his position uncomfortable, and
only survived a few months. Under threat of a vote of no confidence,
Michael resigned in February. This time New Labour was forced to accept
Morgan, who came in as his replacement. And when Blair received the new
Welsh leader at Downing Street, he was forced to admit that interfering in
the Welsh elections had been a mistake. He also implicitly recognised that
his interventions had harmed the Labour cause in Wales (4).

And now for London

In February the party celebrated its 100th anniversary. On this occasion
the party journal took a look back at the history of the labour movement.
Under a headline reading "Labour Wins the People's Confidence", it paid
homage to the late John Smith, "who forced through the adoption of One
Member, One Vote, ending the iron grip of the [trade union] block vote on
party decisions and paving the way for the fundamental changes made by Tony
Blair" (5). There is a bitter irony here: in that same period, as the
decision was being made on selecting Labour's candidate for Mayor of
London, the block vote of a trade union tipped the scales in favour of the
candidate favoured by the prime minister.

This selection process was met with astonishment in Labour ranks. New
Labour was described as the "vote-rigging party" (6). Once the candidates
had gone through the extraordinary process of being interviewed at party
headquarters, one of the three candidates - leftwinger Ken Livingstone,
former actress Glenda Jackson, and Frank Dobson, candidate of the Blair
machine - was supposed to be selected by the votes of party members. This
was to take place through a complex electoral college consisting of three
sections: one made up of London MPs and MEPs, the second composed of
members of trade unions affiliated to the party, and the third of party
members. The college was designed in such a way as to give undue weight to
members of parliament - their votes were worth 450 times more than those of
ordinary party members. Furthermore, trade union leaders could choose not
to consult their members and confer their entire vote to a candidate chosen
behind closed doors.

The MPs under the watchful eye of the prime minister's office, obviously
voted en masse for Frank Dobson. Those trade unions that consulted their
members voted heavily for Ken Livingstone (74.6%, as opposed to 14.1% for
Dobson). Whereas in unions that used the block vote procedure, the votes
came out 80% in favour of Dobson. And the party members voted for Ken
Livingstone (60% to 40%). If the poll had been conducted on the basis of
One Member One Vote, Livingstone would have easily won, since he polled
70,000 votes against Frank Dobson's 20,000.

A short while later, having been robbed of victory, Livingstone announced
his intention to stand as an independent. He was almost immediately
expelled from the Labour Party, of which he had been a member for 31 years.
New Labour also toyed with the idea of suspending all Labour members who
had campaigned for him. But there was a change of heart when it became
clear this would have involved dumping up to a third of the London membership.

Blair claimed that Livingstone would take the Labour Party back to the
"darkest days" of the leftwing militancy of the 1980s. But, even if he is
known as Red Ken, thanks to Rupert Murdoch's press, (and was even called
"red scum" in one of Dobson's campaign leaflets), Ken Livingstone does not
have the mark of a dangerous agitator. His brand of socialism would be
perfectly at home in Jospin's government in France.

London's new mayor was the last leader of the Greater London Council (GLC),
from 1981 to 1986. There, he focused on social issues and took a notably
progressive line. For instance, he lowered the price of public transport
(on tubes and buses), which helped reduce traffic congestion and pollution;
set up the first open contacts with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the
IRA; defended the principle of sexual equality and was one of the first to
argue within the party for recognising gay rights. He also campaigned on
access to public transport for the disabled, subsidised the arts, and was
in favour of more direct relations between Londoners and the city's police.

But Livingstone was also a determined opponent of Margaret Thatcher, and
when she realised that she could not defeat him politically, she was
reduced to abolishing the GLC. That was in 1986. Today Livingstone has
committed himself to modernising the London Underground (one of the most
expensive and inefficient in the world), and is proposing to finance the
project by issuing bonds that will be sold to the public. Blair is
violently opposed to this option, preferring a partial privatisation,
despite the disaster of privatisation on the railways, and despite an
independent study which suggests that the government project would cost £1
billion more than that advanced by Livingstone (7).

The new mayor is egalitarian on social issues and liberal on life-style.
The opinion polls backed him to win, and they were proved right. He has a
good sense of humour, and Londoners like him because his style contrasts so
strongly with the impersonal, superficial rhetoric of New Labour. Critical
of both the conservatism of the trade union leaders and the neo-liberal,
technocratic approach of the prime minister, he has strong support in trade
union, artistic and intellectual circles (8). He may end up providing a
focal point for opposition to the Blairite project.

* Lecturer in French and European Politics at University College,
London. Author of Social Democratic Parties in the European Union:
History, organisation, policies, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1999

(1) Anthony Blair, New Britain. My Vision of a Young Country, Fourth
Estate, London, 1996.

(2) See Philip Schlesinger, "Scotland's quiet revolution", Le Monde
diplomatique English edition, April 1998.

(3) Anthony Blair, op. cit., p. 270.

(4) The Observer, London, 9 April 2000.

(5) Inside, vol. 1, no 4, London, February 2000, p. 15.

(6) The Times, London, 24 February 2000.

(7) Declan Gaffney, Funding London Underground: Financial myths and
economic realities, School of Public Policy, UCL, London, January

(8) John Carvel, Turn again Livingstone, Profile Books, London, 1999.

Translated by Ed Emery

Louis Proyect

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