Socialist Worker

Why has Ken Livingstone stopped being red?

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2093

With less than six weeks to go to the 1 May elections for the mayor of London and the London Assembly, polls have shown Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson are neck and neck.

Johnson is not just the posh buffoon he comes across as, but a nasty, right wing and neoliberal racist who personifies the reasons working class people hate the Tories. No one sensible wants to see him as London mayor.

This is why Respect’s Left List candidate for mayor Lindsey German has called for a second preference vote for Labour mayor Ken Livingstone.

But it says much about the crisis of the New Labour government that Johnson is even seen as a credible Tory candidate. Does this mean that everyone should get behind Livingstone to beat Johnson?

One of the problems with this is that Livingstone has more and more embraced neoliberalism during his eight years in office.

With the exception of his opposition to the war, he has mostly marched in tune with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – attacking striking London Underground workers as “selfish” and calling for people to scab.

Disgracefully he has consistently defended the police over the 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

When Livingstone was first elected in 2000, standing against Labour, much of his success was based on his opposition to the privatisation of the London Underground.

It is a sad fact that since then privatisation has been encouraged to creep into all aspects of London, including the tube system. The privatisation of the East London Line, which Livingstone supports, is exactly the sort of thing he was elected to oppose.

Livingstone’s strategy is based on taking the left wing anti-war vote for granted. He didn’t bother speaking at the anti-war demonstration in London last Saturday, for instance.

And fearful of been attacked from the left, he has not attended hustings, notably ones with trade unionists.

Livingstone seems to be turning his back on his natural supporters, when he needs their support more than ever to help beat Johnson. He has become more and more associated with the Labour government.

Triangulation

Worryingly Livingstone’s current election tactic is to adopt the Blairite tactic of “triangulation”. This means that every time an opponent comes up with a policy, all you do is copy it.

It is supposed to neutralise your opponent – but it can have the effect of making them look sensible. It means ending up with more and more right wing policies. For example, the issue of crime and policing is a favourite topic of the establishment parties in the London elections so far.

Livingstone’s latest leaflet celebrates having put more police into London, promises yet more and denounces the Tories for not wanting to spend more cash on the cops.

This will do nothing to address the poverty and alienation that lie behind crime. It will lead to more young people facing the harassment of stop and search policies.

Livingstone’s rightward shift is not just about tactics to tackle the Tories in this election, but a process.

For instance, Livingstone’s admiration for the City has been growing for years. In 2006 he saluted Margaret Thatcher’s 1986 decision to deregulate the City of London which had become “a lazy, old boys’ network”. Thatcher’s policy enabled it to become “dynamic and world class”.

Expansion

The support is mutual. Financial news service Bloomberg wrote that, “Growth in London’s financial district, has fuelled the capital’s biggest economic expansion since the Second World War, and the Labour Party’s Livingstone, has helped make it happen.”

Livingstone “has earned the admiration of many of London’s business people and bankers”.

According to Harvey McGrath, former chief executive officer of the hedge fund Man Group, Livingstone, “works quite hard to get closer” to the needs of financiers.

“He’s been a very pro-business mayor,” according to Nigel Bourne, director of the London office of the bosses’ CBI organisation.

If anything, Livingstone has proven himself even more attuned to the interests of big business than even his allies in the Labour leadership.

Last month in a rare criticism of the government he denounced the plan to tax extraordinarily wealthy “non-doms” claiming it would drive investment away from London.

All this is a shame from someone who once said, “Every year the international financial system kills more people than World War Two. But at least Hitler was mad, you know?”

The cost of this approach is obvious. While London is home to 49 billionaires – the greatest concentration in Europe – it is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in.

Livingstone believes he needs to keep the bankers and the financiers happy to maintain their investment. He also needs to keep the Treasury funds flowing. But to win elections he also still needs a left wing base.

That why there are the confusing succession of zigzags, such as praising the City but courting radical Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

The Labour spring conference saw ministers praising Livingstone and playing up his campaign. Livingstone’s comfort zone in the heart of New Labour has uncomfortable consequences for the rest of us but it has opened a huge space to the left.

That is why we need to build a political movement independent of Labour. Campaigning vigorously for the best possible vote for the Left List’s Lindsey German for mayor this May will be the start of that.

For coverage of Lindsey German’s campaign for mayor see » Left List launches slate for London elections


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Tue 18 Mar 2008, 19:07 GMT
Issue No. 2093
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