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Symbol that exceeds Ken’s election aim

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Issue 1692


Symbol that exceeds Ken’s election aim

By Alex Callinicos

NEW LABOUR’S Millbank machine is struggling desperately to fend off the disaster that looks set to overtake it in the London mayoral election on 4 May. Nick Cohen reported recently in the Observer on the smear campaign being mounted against Ken Livingstone, “When I bump into New Labourites they drag me to one side and fill my ears with the wildest accusations. They shout and grab lapels but can never produce anything resembling proof.”

The Blairites’ fury is fuelled by the fact that they have been unable to lay a glove on Livingstone. The worst they have been able to show is that he makes quite a lot of money from public speaking. Since New Labour is all in favour of making money, it’s hard to see what it can find to object to in this. Tony Blair waxed eloquent on how bad Livingstone’s candidacy would be for business in London. Business does not seem to agree. We had a truly farcical spectacle last week when the British Chambers of Commerce ran a hustings for the top four candidates for London mayor, and followed this up with a secret ballot by the delegates. Livingstone came top with 42 percent of the first preferences.

Then came the Tory, Steven Norris, with 41 percent, followed by Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer, with 13 percent-and finally, taking up the rear with a pathetic 4 percent, Frank Dobson for New Labour. Livingstone was more left wing in the NME where he said, “Every year the international financial system kills more people than World War II. But at least Hitler was mad.” But for the most part Livingstone presents himself as almost above politics-“Ken4London”, a witty, media-friendly Londoner around whom militant firefighters, City brokers and Britpack artists can all unite. He says, “I will work with the City corporation and major City institutions,” and is booked to speak at an awards ceremony for bankers and lawyers involved in acquisitions and mergers (asset stripping) across Europe.

This brings out the crass stupidity with which Blair has behaved. His tactics forced Livingstone into a position where the only way he could pursue his ambition to become London mayor was to break with the Labour Party and run as an independent. But in doing so Livingstone has become a political symbol that far exceeds his own aims. This is partly to do with the memories of the Greater London Council under his leadership in 1981-6.

These are memories of a GLC that defied Margaret Thatcher at her most vicious, that cut fares, that supported the miners, and that dared to talk to Irish Republicans a decade before any Westminster government was prepared publicly to do so. Livingstone has become a focus for the growing disillusionment with New Labour. Last week Polly Toynbee wrote a piece in the Guardian about the art auction that the veteran left wing artist Peter Kennard organised to raise money for the Livingstone campaign.

The main target of Toynbee’s scorn was Tracey Emin. Now I can’t say I’m a great fan of Emin’s. But what did she actually tell Toynbee? “I’ve been waiting all my life for a Labour government and now I’ve got one, it’s shit… There’s no money for the health service and people like me don’t dare use it and have to go private, so what about the people who can’t afford to? Same with education.” It’s that feeling- that New Labour has failed to deliver real improvements in the welfare state and in ordinary people’s lives more generally-that is powering the massive support for Livingstone.

But his campaign shows that we can’t just rely on Livingstone. That is why the London Socialist Alliance (LSA) is so important. The LSA slate for the London Assembly is taking the case for socialism to working class communities all over London. LSA candidates in hustings after hustings are wiping the floor with the managers and fat cats who are disgracing the official Labour slate. Unless a miracle happens the mayoral election will produce a terrible humiliation for New Labour. But a continuing challenge to New Labour requires stronger socialist organisation on the ground. That is what the LSA campaign is all about.

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