A thorn in Blair’s side

Back Livingstone

The contest for London mayor will open up possibilities for the left

New Labour’s plans to stitch up the party nomination for London mayor looked to be in serious trouble earlier this week.

With opinion polls showing Ken Livingstone as overwhelming favourite for the job amongst Londoners, Blair was banking on the unions toeing the Millbank line and throwing their weight behind former health secretary Frank Dobson. But three of the big four - Unison, the TGWU and the GMB, together accounting for around 40% of the London trade union membership - are to ballot their members, with the TGWU recommending a vote for Livingstone. The unions as a whole will cast 33.3% of the total vote.

Blair was hoping for a repeat of the balloting in Wales, which saw Alun Michael defeat local favourite Rhodri Morgan for the Welsh assembly leadership with the help of the union bureaucrats. He had already loaded the dice in favour of Dobson by allocating one-third of the total vote to just 75 people - London’s 57 Labour MPs, four MEPs and 14 adopted candidates for the Greater London Authority. Many of them, including all the MEPs and GLA candidates, were of course hand-picked in the first place. Livingstone will be lucky to pick up half a dozen votes from among these.

The remaining one-third in the electoral college system will go to individual London members. With the race just beginning, Livingstone was boosted by two opinion polls last weekend. The Evening Standard survey showed that 50% of Labour supporters would back ‘Red Ken’ if they had the chance, with only 17% preferring Dobson. A further 16% supported Glenda Jackson, with seven percent opting for Trevor Phillips. No doubt prompted by such soundings, and urged on by Dobson and Blair personally, Phillips agreed to stand down earlier this week. His reward is to be placed at the head of the Labour list for the GLA election and to run alongside Dobson as his deputy. Jackson is expected to follow his lead.

The poll found that 63% of all voters (including almost one in four Tories!) would back Livingstone if he was the official Labour candidate. If Dobson won the nomination he would be backed by a much lower percentage - 46%, although this figure shows that Labour would be likely to romp home whoever it selected. This clearly gives Blair some leeway: even if his party loses London support as a result of successfully stitching up Livingstone, Dobson should still win enough votes to defeat Jeffrey Archer on second preferences under the single transferable voting system.

But that assumes that Livingstone would not stand as an independent. If he did so, the same poll showed that he would get 43%, as against 25% for Archer and 23% for Dobson. These findings will gladden Livingstone’s heart, while sending shivers down Tony Blair’s spine. A Mori poll for the Mail on Sunday came up with almost identical figures.

So Blair is now banking everything on a Dobson victory in a semi-democratic contest over Livingstone. After these opinion polls and the TGWU’s announcement in support of the Brent East MP, it is hardly possible to keep him off the short list. In any case, that would only provoke the former leader of the Greater London Council into throwing his hat in the ring as an independent. ‘Red Ken’ as Independent Labour mayor would be an even worse option for Blair than allowing him to win as the official Labour candidate.

So Millbank is still finalising its plans for the selection process. In the Welsh contest each union declared all its votes for one candidate - either the bureaucrats gave their own preference or announced support for one candidate or another after a membership ballot on a winner-takes-all basis. There is talk of the Labour NEC allowing a proportional distribution according to the votes cast for each candidate in union balloting. Such a system would boost support for minority candidates (in this case for Dobson) and is clearly more democratic. Not that democracy is Blair’s concern of course - all that matters is that Livingstone is defeated. But the drawback of such a change would be that it would more or less oblige all unions to ballot, and that would provide a big Livingstone majority without the aid of obfuscatory block votes.

The union tops would dearly like to deliver a Dobson vote, but such is Livingstone’s popularity that almost all will be forced to at least go through the motions of consulting their members.

Blair’s difficulty must be our opportunity. Unions not yet committed to balloting must be inundated with resolutions from their London branches, insisting on the members’ right to decide. Furthermore, the left must give critical but enthusiastic backing to Livingstone’s campaign - support which must be continued should he find his name on the ballot paper for the mayoral election next spring.

If Blair through heavy-handedness succeeds in excluding his bête noire, and Livingstone makes his break from Labour to stand as an independent, that would be the best outcome from the point of view of working class advance. It would signal a left split not only in London, but one with national repercussions. It would provide communists with fertile soil for planting the seeds of a new mass workers’ party.

But even if Livingstone ends up as the official Labour candidate - in the teeth of an all-out pro-Dobson Millbank campaign - we should mobilise for his candidacy, but against New Labour. In such circumstances he would certainly be encouraged to assert a much greater degree of political and organisational independence - the very thing Blair fears.

One other possibility remains: a convincing Dobson victory for the Labour nomination in an open contest, Livingstone being forced to accept the result and back his rival. The same outcome could arise if Blair is able to buy off the Brent East MP with an offer of a government job - although it is now probably too late for that to occur. In that case the London Socialist Alliance must press ahead with plans to for a united left challenge. However, this possibility is receding and the LSA ought now to consider how best to provide critical backing for Livingstone.

No doubt there will be many who will point to the man’s history as a loyal servant of Labourism and imperialism - notably his whole-hearted backing for bomber Blair in Kosova, as well as other occasions when he has placed himself firmly on the side of reaction. Livingstone is a Labourite reformist, albeit a mercurial one - of that there can be no illusions. But to allow that to prevent us from doing everything we can to encourage an organisational break from Labour would be to indulge in the most abject moralism.

Last weekend Neil Kinnock, declaring himself four square behind Dobson, the official Blairite candidate, described Livingstone as “the man who invented the loony left and everything that went with it”. Others can be expected to follow suit, as Millbank pulls out all the stops to ensure Livingstone’s defeat. Blair is worried. We must do all we can to make his worst nightmare come true.

Jim Blackstock