Just a maverick politician?

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Livingstone set for independent challenge

It now looks a cast iron certainty that Ken Livingstone will be on the ballot paper for the election for London’s mayor next May. This week The Independent ran a story, confirming what has been common knowledge for those close to him, that the Brent East MP will stand as an independent if he is beaten by Frank Dobson in Blair’s rigged electoral college vote to determine the Labour candidate.

According to the paper, Livingstone “told friends” that he “would also run a slate of independent candidates for the 25-member Greater London Assembly” and would expect to pick up “four or five seats”. He was “confident of attracting a wide-ranging coalition, including business people, environmentalists and apolitical figures” (The Independent December 7).

Threats to stand against Labour have previously been leaked by Livingstone supporters in order to pressurise Blair to include him on the short list. Now that his place is secure, the latest discosure should be seen not only as a continuation of the pressure - warning Millbank not to go too far in weighting the contest in Dobson’s favour - but preparing opinion for his eventual break. In public Ken continues to deny that he has any such intention, but it would clearly be foolish, while he has a chance of winning the party mandate, to express anything other than the most committed loyalty to Labour, irrespective of the outcome of the election to choose the candidate.

Ken’s justification for going it alone, despite his assurances to the contrary given to Labour’s selection panel last month, is the blatant gerrymandering of the party’s selection process. Livingstone is way ahead of an increasingly despondent Frank Dobson in all soundings of London Labour members. The Dobson camp is talking up its chances, claiming that its man is only a few percentage points behind, with both candidates returning figures in the 30s and a large number of ‘don’t knows’. In fact support for Livingstone is running at around twice that of his rival.

So there is little doubt that the former leader of the Greater London Council will easily see off Dobson in the ballot of individual party members, with Glenda Jackson a very poor third. It is also possible that ‘Red Ken’ will pick up a majority of votes in the ‘trade union and affiliates’ section despite Millbank’s foul play. Blair’s fixers have of course disqualified unions that were certain to back Livingstone, citing late payment of the political levy. The MSF is challenging this in the courts, while the RMT is appealing against its exclusion - and no doubt awaiting the result of the MSF action. The AEEU - controlled by safe Blairites who insist they will not permit a ballot of members and will support Dobson regardless - has upped its voting entitlements to 50,000, but the TGWU - whose members will be allowed a say - has more than halved its own to the same figure.

For all New Labour’s swindling, a majority of union votes could still go to Ken. But Blair has further tilted the balance his way by ensuring that both the Cooperative Wholesale Society and Cooperative Retail Society cast every one of their combined total of 100,000 votes to Dobson - without a ballot of course. The 70 London MPs, MEPs and GLA candidates - almost entirely hand-picked by Millbank - will overwhelmingly back Blair’s candidate too.

Despite all that, Livingstone’s momentum is gathering pace, while Dobson’s backers are constantly wrong-footed. In a particularly short-sighted move John Prescott announced last week that plans for a public-private partnership for the London underground would go ahead - but without Railtrack, the private company clearly best qualified to deliver results. This was a clumsy attempt to take the wind out of Ken’s sails, who, in the aftermath of the Ladbroke Grove disaster in October, had used the unpopularity of this gang of profiteers to oppose PPP and argue in favour of his own alternative - a New York-style bond issue to finance the tube. Speaking at last month’s ‘Listen to London’ public meeting, Ken declared: “I’m running against Railtrack - whose directors may go to jail for manslaughter.”

But he was not at all phased by the efforts of Prescott to pull the ground from under his feet. His response to the deputy prime minister was: “If I can achieve this while I’m a candidate, imagine what I can achieve as mayor.” As The Daily Telegraph commented, “Abandoning the plan for Railtrack to take over part of the underground handed a publicity coup to Ken Livingstone ... Mr Livingstone’s strategy has been to stop Railtrack running the tube, leading him to claim his first victory over the government.” The paper added that the change in plans had caused “enormous uncertainty” amongst groups tendering for contracts, and “raised fears that the terms of the scheme might continue to change at short notice as the London mayoral campaign progressed” (December 2).

Similarly charges by the Dobson camp that Livingstone had been guilty of making a “malicious” attack on the former health secretary have also backfired. Reports that appeared in the press to the effect that Dobson was “depressed” were put down by his spin doctors to Livingstone’s “peddling rumours”. This was based on Ken’s mild but patently accurate remark that his rival did not “seem happy” at being forced by Blair to give up his ministerial position for what is looking more and more like a losing option with every day that passes.

All this makes one thing abundantly clear: Blair is facing a huge crisis, which threatens not only to undermine his control over the whole New Labour project, but a catastrophic split, which would almost inevitably spread way beyond the capital. Blair’s desperate attempts to spike Livingstone’s challenge is not simply “an organisational dispute”, as comrade Barry Biddulph alleges (Weekly Worker December 2). Insisting in seeing only superficial appearances, comrade Biddulph seizes on Livingstone’s public commitment to “stand on the manifesto agreed by the Labour Party, as must every candidate”. Presumably Barry also believes Ken when he declares, hand on heart, that he will meekly accept the result of a rigged Dobson victory and back the official Labour candidate, come what may.

Yes, officially “Livingstone is effectively standing on a New Labour programme”, to give another example of superficial appearances. But I am at a loss to explain how anyone who has observed the development of events can claim his campaign is “dependent on New Labour”. Surely it is patently clear that Blair would give anything to thwart Livingstone. He has on more than on occasion said that he would permit a revival of Livingstoneism “over my dead body”. Actually the corpse he would much prefer would be that of the Brent East MP.

So what sort of break is on the cards? Just a populist rebellion by a maverick politician seeking to promote his own career? Again, to state this is to refuse to see more than what is in front of your nose. Livingstone has a base on the left - as a glance at those who have gathered around his campaign confirms. There is a space to the left of Labour which is there for the taking - and ‘Red Ken’ with his past reputation would be more than likely to mould his intervention with that in mind.

Livingstone is of course quite capable of making rightwing-sounding noises too, as many, including Weekly Worker writers, have pointed out. But to dismiss a potential movement on the basis of the inadequate politics of the person who gives rise to it is short-sighted in the extreme. Comrade Biddulph himself had no hesitation in joining Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party even though its leader’s version of national socialism could never lead to human liberation - presumably because he thought that the changes the SLP set in motion would provide fertile ground for communist intervention despite Scargill. It is obvious to all but the wilfully blind that an anti-Blair split behind Livingstone would also be a break to the left - we can help make it “an independent anti-capitalist movement”.

Comrade Biddulph seems to think that such a movement can be created without attempting to win away hundreds of thousands of workers from Labour. It is as though they do not exist. He does not accept that “New Labour as an ideological construct” lacks roots in the party. The rebellion around Livingstone, expressed already in massive support in every opinion poll, says the opposite.

Comrade Biddulph remarks that our “attitude to a vote for Livingstone is indistinguishable from the dogmatic critical support for New Labour of the SWP and Workers Power” in May 1997. This is bizarre, to say the least. The CPGB stood against Blair then; we are backing Livingstone against Blair today. There is a common thread here - the need to do all in our power to break workers from Labour as a first step to breaking them from Labourism.

Personally I believe that the statements of some Weekly Worker writers have in the past been too categorical, too final: in expressing positions that were largely correct at the time they appeared to rule out a new tactics in line with changed circumstances in the future. But there has been no “unacknowledged change of line”. It was correct to refuse to back Livingstone when it seemed that he was simply manoeuvring in order to enhance his career - using his claim to the mayoralty as a bargaining chip to win some junior position in government.

It is clear today that Livingstone is playing for real. His stand against Blair is set to throw up opportunities that communists would be criminal to ignore.

Jim Blackstock