Socialist Worker

Big step in the wrong direction

Alex Callinicos writes on Ken Livingstone's return to Labour

Issue No. 1884

KEN LIVINGSTONE'S return last week to the Labour Party was hardly a surprise. It had been trailed in the media for months.

All the same, Livingstone's decision will have disappointed and saddened large numbers of the people who backed him when he ran for Mayor of London against the official Labour machine back in May 2000.

That campaign represented the first significant challenge from the left to New Labour in England (the Scottish Socialist Party had won its first Holyrood seat a year earlier).

The Greater London elections also saw a slate of socialists winning substantial votes. In retrospect, May 2000 marked the beginning of a much larger break to the left of Labour.

Since then we've seen the development of a massive anti-war movement in defiance of Tony Blair and now, out of that, the emergence of the new coalition of the radical left which holds its convention on 25 January.

In office Livingstone hasn't exactly been a radical mayor. He eventually accepted the disastrous part-privatisation of the Tube and has developed a pro-business economic agenda for London.

But, to his credit, Livingstone identified strongly and publicly with the anti-war movement. He spoke at most of the big anti-war rallies and has resisted powerful pressure from the government and the City to withdraw his description of George Bush as the greatest single threat to world peace.

Now, however, he has taken a big step in the wrong direction. It's important to understand the political dynamics of Livingstone's return to the Labour Party. Smooth

The media coverage concentrated on whether or not he was sufficiently penitent. But we should be clear about who helped out whom here. It's Tony Blair who is in a big hole.

He faces two huge challenges with the Hutton report and the Labour backbench rebellion against top-up fees. Even if he survives these tests, he will emerge badly weakened.

Letting Livingstone back in was Blair's personal decision. Supposedly more Old Labour figures like John Prescott and Gordon Brown made their opposition clear. Apparently Blair even kept Brown off Labour's National Executive Committee to ensure that Livingstone got a smooth ride back in.

This reflected a cool political calculation on Blair's part. "Super-Thursday" on 10 June, when the elections to the European Parliament and the Greater London Assembly take place, is going to be a huge test for the government.

Blair feared that if the official Labour candidate for London Mayor, Nicky Gavron, stood and was slaughtered (as she would have been), this would damage Labour's other candidates for the GLA and for the European Parliament. So he pressured Gavron to stand down and cut a deal with Ken.

It is, therefore, Livingstone who's offered a hand to Blair to help him out of the hole that he has dug himself into. In doing so he is swimming against the political stream, as larger and larger elements of the left regroup outside the Labour Party. Had Livingstone stood firm, he could have played a major part in shaping this regroupment.

Running as official Labour candidate for Mayor won't even help him electorally. The polls suggest that he would actually get more votes running as an independent. Of course, it isn't the first time that Livingstone has swum against the stream. He famously joined the Labour Party in 1968, when the overwhelming majority of young radicals of his generation were breaking with Labour and becoming revolutionary socialists.

In 1981, when Livingstone and his allies in the Labour left won control of the Greater London Council, that decision seemed to have paid off. But in the event the Tories abolished the GLC and Livingstone was left isolated on the backbenches as Labour moved steadily to the right.

The elections to the GLA in 2000 offered him the opportunity to break out of this trap and play a key role in the renewal of the left outside and against New Labour. With his decision last week Livingstone has tossed that chance away and returned to his old prison.

This means that when the radical left challenges the Blair machine on "Super Thursday" in June, Livingstone will be campaigning against us and in support of the motley crew of apparatchiks and time-servers running on the official ticket. Of course, in returning to the Labour Party Livingstone hasn't broken with the left altogether.

There will be many issues on which we'll be fighting side by side with him, against neo-liberalism, racism, and war. But Livingstone has diminished himself and placed himself far from the centre of where the left is being remade.

  • Alex Callinicos is the author of The New Mandarins of American Power (£13.99) and The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (£5.99). Both are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848.

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    Sat 17 Jan 2004, 00:00 GMT
    Issue No. 1884
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