Livingstone for mayor?

Call him what you like - an opportunist, a carpetbagger, most recently a social chauvinist and a shameless apologist for Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia - but Ken Livingstone has never been called a racist. Not until last week, when Trevor Phillips, his rival in the fight to win nomination as Labour’s candidate in next year’s elections for mayor of London, charged Livingstone with treating him in a racist fashion. 

The argument is interesting in itself and also brings back into the foreground some important questions: How is New Labour going to solve its dilemma over the Livingstone candidacy? What is Livingstone himself up to? What approach is the left taking to the problem of finding a socialist candidate to contest the mayoral elections?

First, however, what were the grounds of Phillips’s extraordinary accusation? Basically, the fact that Livingstone, in an open letter to Blair in The Guardian on January 29, had the temerity to offer him a job, suggesting that Phillips would make an ideal deputy in a ticket for the London election. Phillips’s silence on the matter for almost six months is odd. A “friend” assures us that, “He would always have made these comments if anybody had asked him” (The Daily Telegraph June 17). That may be so, but Phillips’s remarks were almost certainly prompted by the advice of the “former Millbank spin-doctor”, whom he appointed recently to run his campaign. The spin-doctor in question clearly believes, along with the bourgeois broadsheets, that “Mr Phillips’s criticism will give his profile a much-needed boost” (ibid).

Most people would have found nothing surprising or controversial about Livingstone’s ‘job offer’. To Phillips, however, it was purportedly not just an “arrogant and patronising” personal affront, but also an act of ‘racist’ condescension towards the entire ethnic minority population of the capital: “All of us who come from ethnic minority communities get rather used to, and fed up of, any time we emerge on the public scene, people treating us as apprentices ... If he wants to be leader of a city where a third of the people are from ethnic minorities, I think he’s going to have to be a little more sensitive, isn’t he?” (The Independent June 17). Phillips was magnanimously prepared to give his rival “the benefit of the doubt” over this appalling lack of ‘sensitivity’, and accept that Livingstone had “made a mistake” (ibid).

To set the record straight as far as his own vast abilities are concerned, Phillips explained in his interview with the BBC’s Online website that “I have done a great many things in my life. I’ve worked in the private sector for most of it. I’ve been an executive in a FTSE 100 company. I’ve got my own business. So I really don’t have to take lessons from anybody on how to run an organisation or how to lead. So I found it a bit patronising” (ibid).

What are we to make of Mr Phillips and his wounded feelings? In the first place, to put it bluntly, he is behaving in a ‘racist’ fashion himself: ie, he is attempting to use his own ethnic background as a political weapon. The implicit message is that Livingstone, by virtue of being a white man, is necessarily arrogant, patronising and insensitive towards the ethnic minorities; Phillips, however, simply by virtue of the colour of his skin, is ipso facto a natural spokesman and representative of “minority communities”.

Phillips has, of course, a perfect right to try and ‘play the ethnic card’ himself - he is hardly the first black politician to adopt this tactic - but in so doing, while at the same time accusing somebody else of being ‘racist’, simply for offering a political partnership - ie, deputy mayor - he lays himself open to the charge of gross inconsistency and hypocrisy. Even a paper like The Evening Standard, not notable for its affection towards Livingstone, called Phillips’s action “an error of judgement” and urged him to desist (June 17).

In any event, Phillips’s implied claim to represent the ethnic minorities of the capital is ludicrous. What does this well-off, trendy, bourgeois broadcaster and Blairite really know about, for example, the lives of the black working class in London? What does this company director and petty capitalist actually know about the alienation of London’s black and Asian youth, for many of whom getting a decent job is about as likely as winning the jackpot in the national lottery? Nothing at all, so far as we can tell, unless being black himself somehow endows him with a mystical gift.

Ken Livingstone’s reaction to Phillips’s attack was completely in character: “I hope Trevor’s feeling better soon. I’m reminded of that wonderful saying of the Masai warriors, ‘The elephant never notices when the gnat bites its bum’” (The Independent June 17).

So much for the attempts of this “gnat” to raise his public profile. But what about the Labour leadership’s approach to the whole question of London’s mayor and how the party should go about selecting its candidate? At every level it is characterised by that authoritarianism and total contempt for democracy which have become the hallmarks of Tony Blair’s leadership of the party and the country.

Readers of the white paper on the proposed new Greater London Authority are told: “There needs to be a new style of politics, a style which is ... above all democratic and accountable. Our aim is to increase public confidence in the democratic process ...” These fine words are nothing but cant, as Labour’s actual handling of the candidacy question makes abundantly clear. Under the original rules agreed at last year’s conference, anybody nominated by 10 constituency parties would automatically have become a contender in a democratic ballot of the 69,000 Labour Party members in London. It is probable that Livingstone would have emerged as the victor in such a contest and would have thus become Labour’s official candidate for the mayoralty.

Hence the decision by the party’s Greater London management board last November to move the goalposts by instituting a new procedure, whereby anyone seeking nomination as Labour’s candidate must face a scrutiny committee appointed by the NEC, a body in which Blairites have an overwhelming majority. The 12-person scrutiny committee will obviously be packed with Blair sycophants, and will, if called upon, do its duty and ensure that its short list excludes Livingstone. It is unclear whether the eventual candidate will merely be ‘appointed’ by the party machine, or whether the faithful will be asked to vote on it. In essence, the result is the same - democracy in words, autocracy in deeds.

It is clear then that Blair has the means to lock Livingstone out of the race for mayor. But if he uses these means to achieve his end, then he will have to pay a political price. Were he not apparently deaf to reason, the lessons of Wales should be ringing in Blair’s ears: no overall majority in the Welsh Assembly; massive defections from Labour’s bedrock support, involving swings of more than 35% in the Rhondda and Islwyn; an increasingly embittered Welsh working class, prepared in large numbers to vote Plaid Cymru. All this because, in his arrogance and presumptuousness, Blair thought that he could foist Alun Michael on the Welsh electorate.

Adding to Blair’s difficulties is the failure of Labour to come up with a half-decent candidate capable of winning the mayoral election. Phillips - reportedly Blair’s current favourite for the job - has done himself no favours with his grotesque charges of racism. Understandably, no politician of cabinet rank has shown any interest - resigning ministerial office and your safe seat is not an attractive proposition when the outcome could spell the end of your political career.

Though the metropolitan intelligentsia’s snobbery and myopia has led it to depict Jeffrey Archer as unelectable, the facts suggest otherwise. His manifesto, with its emphasis on a commitment to public transport, tackling racism in the police force and combating unemployment and deprivation in the inner city, is practically the same as Livingstone’s. As Livingstone himself observes, “Archer has placed himself perfectly to exploit any public backlash about Millbank control freakery if I am barred from seeking the Labour nomination” (The Independent June 3). Livingstone obviously wants to use the threat of a Tory victory - after the EU elections more than just a faint possibility - in his own battle to get his way, but it would be foolish to dismiss the reality of Archer’s prospects, especially given the fact that the contest will be under PR.

The choice before Blair is a difficult one. Allowing Livingstone to stand would create a potentially powerful symbol and focus for Labour’s dissidents, who sense, in the wake of the party’s European debacle, that their time might at last be coming. Even if a locked-out Livingstone were content (indulging the probably forlorn hope of a ministerial reward) to back Blair’s choice, there would still be the possibility of a humiliating electoral backlash, even a defeat. Finally, there is (as we estimate it) an outside chance that a lockout would provoke Livingstone into standing as an independent, a step which could lead to humiliation of another kind for New Labour.

Livingstone’s own actions and utterances have been typically ambivalent and contradictory. On the one hand, profuse, almost obsequious, protestations of loyalty to Blair: “I want to give you a categorical assurance that if Londoners voted for me to be their first elected mayor, I would work with your government, not against it ... There is simply no question of my seeking to use the mayorship as a platform to wage political warfare against this government (The Guardian January 29). He promises: “I’m not going to give up the party I’ve devoted my life to” (The Daily Telegraph magazine, May 22). And he claims he has “made clear again and again that I have no intention of leaving the Labour Party” (The Independent June 3).

His most notable recent parliamentary intervention, summarised in the April issue of Socialist Campaign Group News, was a nauseating, opportunistic expression of outright support for Nato’s bombing offensive against Serbia: “It is the duty of the nations that have the military power to protect individual communities from systematic genocide by evil regimes. Where the west has the power and uses it wisely, I will support that intervention.” Here we have somebody who claims to be a ‘socialist’ (in reality a social-chauvinist of the most disgusting type) impudently backing imperialism in fulfilling its “duty” to that totally spurious entity known as ‘the international community’. No doubt this piece of treachery was meant to reassure the prime minister that Livingstone really is ‘on message’ when it counts.

On the other hand, in a ploy evidently designed to put pressure on Downing Street, Livingstone allowed “friends” of his to inform the press that “he will stand as an independent candidate if Tony Blair prevents him from seeking the Labour nomination” (The Sunday Times May 30). In the meantime Livingstone continues to project his favourite inscrutable persona, in one breath intimating that he is confident of success; in the next, apparently accepting that “nine people on the 12-person panel will do as Blair says” (The Daily Telegraph magazine, May 22). The tactics are familiar to anybody who knows their Ken. The fact is that nobody, perhaps not even Livingstone himself, actually knows what he will do. For what it is worth, this writer believes that Livingstone has not finally abandoned all hopes of ministerial office and that he may still even have eyes on the leadership. However unrealistic such ambitions appear, Livingstone knows that to stand as an independent would mean his automatic expulsion from the party and that there would be no easy or quick way back.

Whatever the outcome, it is essential for the left to prepare itself to fight for an authentic socialist mayor of London. So far, the positions taken by some organisations have been depressingly predictable. The Socialist Workers Party, for example, has, for all practical purposes, adopted a posture of supine acquiescence in furthering the ‘Let Ken Stand’ campaign ... in the hope of stealing his base for Paul Foot (before his illness). Admittedly, the SWP chided him for his crawling open letter and urged him courteously to say, right at the outset, that he would pursue their demands. This was before Livingstone and the SWP found themselves supporting opposite sides in the Balkans war. Be that as it may, the slogan ‘Bring back Fares Fair’ characterises the SWP’s wilful blindness to the fact that quite a few things have changed since the ‘glory days’ of 1981.

Whoever drafted its pro-Livingstone leaflet cannot have taken the trouble to read the Greater London Authority Bill now before parliament. Clause 27, to cite one example, stipulates that “The secretary of state may by order make provision for preventing [the mayor] from doing anything ... which is specified in the order.” In other words, central government will retain the right, enforceable in the courts, to thwart any GLA policy or proposal that is unpalatable to them. This legal sanction, when taken together with the derisory budgetary provision for the new authority, will severely curtail the scope for meaningful initiatives open to the new mayor, be it Livingstone or anybody else.

The position adopted by the CPGB is qualitatively different. We support Livingstone’s democratic right to seek nomination and stand for Labour against the Tories, if that is what the Labour membership in London wants. They alone must decide the matter, not some committee of Blairite stooges. However, supporting Livingstone’s right to stand in no way constitutes an unconditional willingness to vote for him as mayor. Unlike some on the left, who seem impervious to the facts regarding Livingstone’s patchy record as a ‘principled’ critic of the Blair government, we see Livingstone not as a true socialist, but as, at best, a leftish social democrat; at worst a vulgar careerist, whose fight to become mayor is motivated not by a desire to lead the capital’s working class in a fight against Blairism, but by his own political ambition.

Three main scenarios present themselves. In the unlikely event that Blair bites the bullet and allows Livingstone to contest the election as Labour’s official candidate, we argue it is the duty of the left to fight for a socialist mayoral candidate: ie, a candidate endorsed by a united front of socialist organisations, campaigning on a (very spare) platform along with a slate of assembly candidates chosen by various left and working class organisations. The same applies if Livingstone’s ministerial ambitions lead him to pull out and support the Labour candidate.

In the even more unlikely event that Livingstone breaks from the Labour Party and stands as an independent, a new and tantalising situation would arise. Even if only 20% of Labour’s London membership chose to follow Livingstone, they would constitute a 14,000-strong force that could rally many more thousands, not just in London, but across Britain. In such circumstances, we believe that it would be the duty of communists and revolutionary socialists not just to engage polemically with such a new grouping, but to struggle within it.

Maurice Bernal