WeeklyWorker

16.12.1999
Still in the collective consciousness

Stakes are high

Left debates attitude toward Livingstone

Christmas and the millennium new year have come early for us. The developing mass pro-Livingstone sentiments provide fertile ground for serious communists to plant their propaganda - ie, to merge our programme with a real movement in society. A victory for Livingstone - whether as the official Labour candidate or as an independent - would represent a massive blow to the New Labour leadership from the left. Exciting times indeed. 

However, there are some who think communists and socialists should be aiming to put ‘clear red water’ between us and the pro-Livingstone movement. Stand up instead for pure revolutionary ideals. Any talk of backing, campaigning or voting for Livingstone is a sure sign of “opportunism”, if not outright class treachery. Such anti-Leninist views have appeared in recent pages of the Weekly Worker

These comrades, who seem instinctive sect-builders as opposed to Party-builders, appear to have fallen at the Livingstone hurdle. We hope they pick themselves up again soon - without too much damage. One way to do this would be reading the left press on Livingstone. Though the ‘no to Livingstone’ comrades might find it hard to believe, they could actually learn something on this matter.

Yes, that does not exclude the SWP. Quite the opposite. Socialist Review (December) features a perceptive article by Peter Morgan. The comrade declares that “the fight is on for the future of the Labour Party”. A slight exaggeration perhaps, but it points to an essential truth. Of course, as we know, the SWP has historically adopted the ‘first Labour - then us’ approach to politics. It celebrated Blair’s 1997 general election landslide as a ‘class vote’ and developed - along with a good part of the left - its ‘crisis of expectations’ thesis. We are still waiting eagerly for the official recantation of this erroneous line. Perhaps life itself is acting to help cancel out - or partially correct - the SWP’s bad theory.

Comrade Morgan states that the Blairites’ “pro-business, pro-market, pro-privatisation policies ... have little support among Labour voters, even less among the activists who have held Labour’s machine together over the years”. Quite true of course. Essentially the same point has been made in the Weekly Worker - New Labour as an ideological construct lacks deep roots in the party as whole.

Though leftists may deny it until they are very red in the face, comrade Morgan reminds them that “the campaign by Livingstone for mayor can become a rallying point for all those who oppose the Blair agenda in a way which goes beyond Livingstone’s actual politics, which is why those on the left support him against Blair” (my emphasis). Comrade Morgan adds: “He represents the hopes and aspirations of tens of thousands of old Labour supporters who feel betrayed and alienated from government policies … Livingstone’s popularity derives precisely from the fact that as former leader of the GLC he is seen to represent everything Blair hates and as someone who is prepared to distance himself from what Labour is trying to do.” An accurate summation of the situation that faces us at this moment.

The democratic question has been crucial to the whole Livingstone versus Blair saga. Comrade Morgan writes: “But it was not clever talking that got Livingstone on the ballot paper - rather it was the pressure of ordinary Labour members and trade unionists who have invested so much hope in him.” Our comrade from the SWP argues that Livingstone “is tapping into core old Labour support, people who have been pushed to the left under the Blair government. Many of them could not bring themselves to vote for New Labour in the European elections in June. Many also stayed away or voted for candidates who pitched themselves to the left of Labour in the Hamilton South and Leeds Central by-elections.”

The pro-Livingstone campaign is important, says comrade Morgan, precisely because “people are investing their hopes in him because they want to see a break from Blair’s whole approach. Many of them see in Livingstone a left electoral alternative to Blair.”

Comrade Morgan concludes: “The stakes are high and Blair is prepared to go to any lengths to get Dobson selected. In part, Livingstone will be subjected to a torrent of personal abuse, but on top of this the lies will fly thick and fast about the record of the GLC and the Labour Party. Already it has been claimed [by Michael Cashman MEP, gay ex-East Enders star in The Guardian - DP] that Livingstone and the GLC were responsible for the anti-gay Section 28 passed by the Thatcher government ... Tony Blair has declared war. He has picked the battle over who represents Labour for mayor. The victor, however, has yet to be decided - and the fight is crucial for socialists in the coming months.”  

The Fourth Internationalist Socialist Outlook offers similar advice. Its front page statement militantly declares: “With the politics of New Labour increasingly exposed, the coming year must be a time for the left to build the fight, and organise a systematic challenge to the politics of Blairism, wherever they can be found” (Winter 1999).

The SO editorial points to the “key task of mobilising the biggest possible vote for Livingstone within the Electoral College”. However, SO does complain that “it is wrong of Livingstone to suggest that there are no differences with the leadership” on other matters apart from tube privatisation - and also “his written submission to the reconvened [selection] panel on November 18 was, like too many of his previous statements, ambivalent - in this case about what he meant by saying he would stand on the manifesto agreed by the Labour Party”.

Workers Power also wants to “back Livingstone” - which is interesting. As an organisation it has a near unblemished record of electoral auto-Labourism - to the point where it backed the official New Labour - an ex-Tory- candidate against Arthur Scargill in the 1997 general election. Oh well. What is past is past - we hope.

We are told by WP: “Those socialists still in the Labour Party and in Labour-affiliated unions must go beyond simply fighting for a Livingstone victory in the Electoral College. On the one hand, it is vital to relate to the widespread illusions that large sections of London’s working class have in ‘Red Ken’ as a champion of their interests. But we must also seize this opportunity to insist that Livingstone immediately halts his endless retreats on policy and to place our own demands on the man Blair fears so much” (Workers Power December-January).

WP’s “own demands” include the abolition of all PFI/Best Value/Education Action Scheme, for a massive programme to confiscate empty private properties and build new social housing across London, sacking of Metropolitan Police officers guilty of racism, etc.

All quite worthy minimal reforms perhaps - but surely at this stage besides the point. What if - surprise, surprise - Livingstone does not commit himself to WP’s policies? Will WP then prissily refuse to back Livingstone? In which case, perhaps WP will repeat its bad old practices and decide to back the official New Labour candidate against a Livingstone campaign - or maybe even abstain from the whole dirty and inconvenient business. In other words, will WP stick to its pro-Livingstone line or will it turn its back on a left-inclined movement in society just in order to preserve its own crisis ridden auto-Labourism?

For no-nonsense, old-fashioned leftist sectarianism, however, you can always rely on the petty bourgeois ‘third worldists’ of the Revolutionary Communist Group. Only interested in the dispossessed and ‘exotic’ fatigue-clad revolutionaries, Fight Racism Fight Imperialism grandly announces that the RCG will not be “licking the boots of Livingstone” in the fight for mayor (December-January). Voting for ‘Red Ken’ would demonstrate “the most craven illusions” ...  in the Labour Party and Labourism.

Indeed the RCG - in an eery echo of the Revolutionary Communist Party’s response to the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in 1989-1991 - cannot see what all the fuss is about. Perhaps the RCG should ask Blair. According to FRFI, Livingstone would not “present any serious challenge” to the New Labour leadership. Has not Ken “made that clear time and time again”? For Robert Clough of the RCG, “what is striking is how little separates Livingstone from Dobson as Labour candidate”. He then informs us that “the idea that Livingstone is going to stop [tube privatisation] is completely absurd. To do that he would have to put himself at the head of a campaign against the Labour government. He would have to break from the Labour Party.” This could never happen of course. Impossible. Livingstone would never tell a tactical porkie or do a political volte-face - would he?

The RCG has better advice. You cannot give Blair “a bloody nose in the ballot booth”. That can only be done “out there on the streets”, by “mass direct action”. Much needed comfort for Blair, who is far more worried by what the ballot box may do to him next year than by the threat of “mass direct action” on the streets by the RCG or anyone else you can care to mention on the anarcho-left.

As for the biblical-Trotskyists of the Spartacist League, it concurs with the neo-Stalinites of the RCG. All the SL can see in Livingstone is a man who supported Nato’s bombing of Serbia - a man who during the Balkans war was “falling over himself pledging his loyalty to Blair and British imperialism” (SL leaflet, November 4 1999). A moralistic line of argument which is more common on the left than it should be - even the SWP flirted with such nonsense in the summer.  

Naturally, we wait with bated breath to see on which side of the fence the Socialist Party in England and Wales finally decides to jump. Its current doctrine is that the Labour Party ceased to be a bourgeois workers’ party virtually on the day that Militant Tendency (now the SP) was kicked out - hence the Labour Party is now a bourgeois party pure and simple. Therefore if Livingstone ends up as the official Labour Party candidate for mayor (the nightmare scenario for SP tops, it seems), a vote for him can therefore only be a vote for a pure bourgeois party. Oh dear - what on earth can we do?  

In the broader interests of the working class movement we sincerely hope that the SP - not to mention the other ‘anti/non-Livingstone’ comrades - manage to extricate themselves from their own self-created mire. We must fight to banish sectarianism of the left and right and all forms of r-r-revolutionary indifferentism.

Don Preston