Socialist Worker

A kick in the teeth from Ken

ALEX CALLINICOS explains why London’s mayor has enraged his supporters

Issue No. 1909

IT’S HARD to find the words to express my contempt for London mayor Ken Livingstone’s call for tube workers to scab on last week’s RMT strike.

After all, it’s only a few weeks since Livingstone, terrified that the Tory candidate Stephen Norris was catching up on him in the mayoral election, was desperately touting for the votes of the left.

Livingstone had got himself into this mess by his decision to rejoin the Labour Party.

Association with the liar and warmonger Tony Blair cut Livingstone’s support among voters disillusioned with New Labour.

All the same, the left did on the whole rally round. Lindsey German, the Respect candidate for mayor, published a letter in the Guardian calling on her supporters to give Livingstone their second preference votes.

What makes Livingstone’s action especially despicable is that the leadership of the RMT rail union has been close to him ever since he was elected mayor, once again with the support of the left, in 2000.

All that we, and the RMT in particular, have got for our trouble is a kick in the teeth.

But beyond all that, Livingstone’s been around on the left for a long time.

I can remember him, as leader of the Greater London Council, speaking at a big solidarity conference with the miners during the Great Strike of 1984-5.

One of the central issues of that strike was the imperative to respect picket lines.

The failure of the Nottingham scabs to do so didn’t simply help to defeat the strike.

It doomed all mining communities, including their own, to the economic and social devastation of the past 20 years.

Respecting picket lines isn’t a matter of sentiment. The solidarity it displays is the most basic building block of working class power.

So what are we to make of Livingstone’s flouting of this principle?

Does it simply prove everything that the tabloids have been saying about him for almost a quarter of a century—slimy Ken, the unprincipled opportunist?

The truth is less personal than this.

Livingstone is a reformist politician who comes from the left but who wants to play the game of conventional British politics.

Through skilful cultivation of his own media image and the support of a left in growing rebellion against New Labour, Livingstone won the 2000 mayoral election despite the efforts of the official machine to destroy him.

When he was re-elected last month, there was a lot of media commentary that announced, with the air of having made a great discovery, that he has run London in a thoroughly New Labour way.

But why should this be a surprise?

Being a reformist politician in an era where nation-states have capitulated before global capital means combining business-friendly policies with a bit of more radical rhetoric and a few crumbs for the poor.

In Livingstone’s case this mix comes out as a succession of zig-zags.

These include a neo-liberal vision for London’s future, the Olympic bid, denunciations of the RMT and opposition to the war in Iraq, talk about the Saudi royal family hanging from lamp-posts, and ultra politically correct policies on issues such as race, gender and disability.

The reason for these oscillations is simple. Livingstone needs to keep the City and the Treasury sweet, but he also needs to cultivate a left wing base.

Having that base gives him bargaining power against Tony Blair and Gordon Brown—and it could help him mount a challenge for the Labour leadership in the right circumstances.

The trouble with this strategy is that you hardly need to be a genius to work it out.

Incidents like the call to cross picket lines will simply increase Livingstone’s reputation for untrustworthiness.

Within the labour movement the people who seem most easily taken in by Livingstone are those supposedly tough-minded folk, the trade union leaders.

It’s excellent that Dave Prentis of Unison should denounce Livingstone.

But he and other general secretaries of the big unions have worked closely with him, for example supporting his return to the Labour Party.

The moral of all this is straightforward enough. Livingstone’s example shows how important it is not to put our faith in reformist politicians who claim to be representing us.

Instead we need to build a political movement independent of Labour, one that allows working people to fight for their own liberation.


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Sat 10 Jul 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1909
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