Reading Ken Livingstone in the Guardian on Friday of last week, I almost convinced myself that 1 May had been a bad dream and that Boris Johnson hadn’t been elected mayor of London.
According to Livingstone, his election campaign had gone terribly well. His first preferences rose slightly compared to the last London elections in 2004, he won more second preferences than Johnson, and he ran 13 percent ahead of Labour’s national vote.
Yet, despite all that, Livingstone did lose heavily. No matter, he argued – to recapture London and hang on at Westminster Labour needs to build “a new progressive alliance” modelled on his electoral pact with the Greens.
So Livingstone had the winning formula, even if he didn’t win. The flaw in his reasoning was exposed in this remarkably bare-faced passage:
“Labour’s campaign in London gained major support from business. The Financial Times concluded that the majority of big business in London supported my re-election. There is no way to check that, but I know from meetings that very large sections of big business supported my campaign.”
What kind of “progressive alliance” is it that boasts of being backed by big business? The City of London competes with Wall Street for the title of global capitalism’s biggest single financial centre.
What the investment banks and hedge funds that dominate the London economy want is, above all, low taxes and light regulation so that they can make as much money as possible.
The City is a huge engine of economic inequality, doling out extraordinary rewards to a tiny group of investors and bankers and – through its impact on house prices, rents and the like – driving up the cost of living for the rest of us.
Moreover, the credit crunch shows that the financial markets are also generators of economic instability. Having paralysed the global banking system through their greedy search for ever more profits, they now threaten to drag the world economy into a major recession.
None of this figured in Livingstone’s campaign. Instead he defended the non-doms – rich foreigners living in Britain but paying no taxes – when chancellor Alastair Darling wanted to tax them a bit.
In reality Livingstone pursued no “progressive alliance” but the strategy of the centre-left since the early 1990s – triangulation. Pioneered by Bill Clinton, this involves embracing the policies of the right in order to pick up enough votes to win office.
There are two problems with triangulation. The first is that it only works if the centre-left’s traditional working class base doesn’t desert it. The cynical assumption made by Clinton and in Britain by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is that these voters haven’t got anywhere else to go.
But this assumption is false. Every experience of Labour’s betrayals in office leads to the further erosion of its base in the organised working class, which was immensely strong in the immediate post-war years, but is now much, much weaker.
So Labour moving to the right can lead to disgruntled working class voters abstaining or switching to other parties. This leads to the second problem with triangulation – it works both ways.
This is what the Tories have discovered under David Cameron. Johnson won on 1 May because he managed to revitalise traditional Tory voters around issues such as crime and migration and at the same time was all touchy-feely on questions such as the environment, bendy buses, and the 10 percent income tax band.
This left Livingstone high and dry. Trying to scare people into voting for him by conjuring up the vision of a Tory carnival of reaction couldn’t mobilise enough support when Johnson often appeared to be to his left.
There is an important moral to all this. The Tory advance reflects, not a big swing to the right in Britain, but the decay and decline of New Labour.
In one way this is comforting, but in another it isn’t. The radical left could have won many more disillusioned Labour voters than we did. We were punished on 1 May for our own divisions. It’s our duty to do better in future.