Socialist Worker

Ken Livingstone's long march to the right

by Yuri Prasad
Issue No. 2100

The underlying assumption behind Ken Livingstone’s campaign for re-election as London’s mayor was that the votes of the left were in the bag, and that his key job was to capture the votes of the right.

The fact that Livingstone used his last election leaflet to talk up his tough stance on crime – while attacking Tory Boris Johnson for not supporting mandatory five-year jail sentences for anyone caught carrying an illegal firearm – was a capitulation to a right wing agenda.

This was a tragedy for the man who, as the head of the Greater London Council in the 1980s and subsequently as a Labour MP, was once the embodiment of the radical left for many thousands of people.

But Livingstone’s march rightwards has been a long process.

Barred by a rigged selection process from standing as the Labour candidate for London mayor in 2000, he stood as an independent and thrashed both his official Labour and Tory rivals.

He regularly used his position to speak out against the invasion of Iraq and to combat racism.

In 2004 Tony Blair readmitted Livingstone to Labour and he was re-elected as mayor on a Labour ticket – but with a much reduced majority.

Many who had previously voted for Livingtone were stunned that he returned to Labour at precisely the time when opposition to the war in Iraq was at its height.


Livingstone’s strategy was to try to use his position and policies to shift Labour leftwards, but it soon became clear that association with New Labour was damaging him.

Instead of taking Labour leftwards, New Labour started dragging Livingstone rightwards.

On the questions of war and racism Livingstone rarely wavered, but he increasingly positioned himself as a champion of the City, the financial centre of London.

While millions of Londoners faced an acute housing crisis, Livingstone encouraged new office blocks and luxury developments.

On crime and anti-social behaviour, the mayor’s rhetoric began to resemble that of the home office.

And on transport, a key question in the capital city, Livingstone presided over some of the highest bus, train and tube fares of any European city, and used his position to attack the London Underground workers’ RMT union.

During this year’s election it became clear that the enthusiasm that millions in London previously had for Livingstone – when they thought he would be a bulwark against New Labour policies – was dying.

In the end it was Livingstone’s association with the government and its assault on working people that broke both him and those on the left in London who attached themselves so closely to him.

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