Socialist Worker

Chance to argue for socialism

Issue No. 1687


Chance to argue for socialism

By Chris Harman

The split in Labour's ranks over London mayor is an event of immense importance. It goes to the heart of the relationship between the Labour Party and the organised working class out of which it grew. The outcome of the split can leave its imprint on that movement for years to come.

Ken Livingstone's motives for running against the Labour machine are no doubt mixed. He has moved a good deal to the right since his time as head of the GLC. He claims he can work with Blair. He boasts of support from sections of business. He says he no longer believes in central planning, and he is doing his best to avoid being seen in the company of committed socialists. But people such as Blair, Brown and Mandelson, and their hangers-on, like Ian McCartney, Peter Hain and Jim Fitzpatrick, hate him. They know his candidacy crystallises the feeling of millions of people that New Labour has betrayed their hopes.

The swing to Labour in May 1997 was an expression of deep-seated revulsion against the Tories' embrace of the market in every area of life. Today's surge of support for Livingstone is an expression of a similar revulsion against New Labour's continuation of such policies. There is no other way to explain the three-to-one vote for Livingstone in the union ballots and the 60 percent to 40 percent vote among Labour Party members. So much has the popular mood changed that even some people who voted Tory three years ago now say they will vote for the man still called "Red Ken" by parts of the press.

This represents an enormous opportunity and challenge for every socialist. It means the politics of New Labour are being questioned in every workplace, pub, housing estate and trade union branch in England, Scotland and Wales. The political argument in London is no longer Labour or Tories, but New Labour or Livingstone. And Livingstone is associated with the left despite his own disclaimers. The worst mistake of any socialist would be stand back from this ferment on the grounds that Livingstone is afraid to put forward all-out socialist arguments. We have to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the challenge to Blairism. Very large numbers of people are taking Livingstone's side against New Labour. We are with them against Blair and Dobson.

But that cannot be all. We also have to seize the chance to put across the socialist arguments and build the socialist focus that Livingstone will not. In London this means campaigning not only for Livingstone for mayor, but also for the socialist candidates who are standing for the Greater London Authority. The impact of this campaign could already be seen in the media on Monday. Part of Dobson's attack on Livingstone was to refer three times to the London Socialist Alliance candidates. Part of Livingstone's evasion of the socialist argument was to say he was not connected to "the list of candidates headed by Paul Foot".

Paul was, nevertheless, quoted in the London Evening Standard and Mark Steel, another LSA candidate, was interviewed on the BBC's Newsnight. Everywhere in Britain there are hundreds of thousands of people who have looked to Labour in the past, and who are desperate for some alternative to Blairism. In London socialists have to do everything possible to draw them into the London Socialist Alliance election campaign.

People outside London cannot have the same direct involvement in the campaign. But all the arguments it raises are going to be there. In every union, for example, the issue will arise as to whether the union is going to abide by its members' votes and back Livingstone, or follow orders from Millbank and back Dobson. In every locality there will be people who want to provide at least some financial support for the campaign in the capital.

No one knows the outcome of the campaign. Even if Livingstone wins he may try to make his peace with Blair and behave as if nothing has changed, as Rhodri Morgan did in Wales. But if socialists throw everything into campaigning, we can ensure something happens that is much more important than the fate of individuals-that the crisis of New Labour gives birth to a new, more powerful socialist presence in British politics.

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Sat 11 Mar 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1687
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