Dobson and 'red scum'

With just under five weeks to go, it is beginning to look as if Ken Livingstone, despite every effort on the part of Downing Street and Millbank, could win the nomination as the Labour Party's candidate in the elections for London's mayor. The results of those trade union ballots and constituency Labour Party polls published so far show a consistent pattern of majority support for Livingstone. Small wonder that the Dobson camp, mired in seemingly endless vicissitudes, has been forced to acknowledge that it looks like being "a very closely fought contest" (The Guardian January 7).

This latter assessment was the result of the Transport and General Workers Union's London region membership ballot, in which Dobson was not only trounced 12 to one by Livingstone but also humiliatingly consigned to third place behind the superannuated thespian and failed transport minister Glenda Jackson. This outstanding result was declared from the platform by TGWU regional secretary, Eddie McDermott, at a packed meeting of the Livingstone for London campaign attended by some 400 Labour Party members at Conway Hall on January 6. For those readers who may not have seen the figures, the results on a turnout of some 29% of eligible members - quite healthy by trade union standards - were as follows: Livingstone 15,858 votes (85.8%); Jackson 1,342 (7.3%); Dobson 1,285 ( 6.9%). This means that the union's 50,000 votes in its section of the electoral college will now be cast in favour of Livingstone, who was evidently delighted by the outcome.

Explaining the background to the TGWU's vote, McDermott said that the union's support for Livingstone had been influenced by three considerations: first, they felt that Livings-tone would stand up for the rights of London's working people in the face of anti-working class trade union legislation, and would act as "a catalyst for debate to reflect a more progressive agenda" on issues affecting the class; secondly, Livingstone's commitment to keep the tube in the public sector and to improve conditions for passengers and staff alike on the public transport system by bringing back bus conductors, enforcing bus lanes, etc, obviously had strong appeal for a union whose members are strongly represented in the sector; finally, the TGWU took a very positive view of the way Livingstone ran the GLC.

Impressive though it was, the TGWU result had in fact already been exceeded by the ballot of RMT members, in which 91% of voters came out for Livingstone. But as readers will know, this union, along with MSF, has effectively been disenfranchised from the electoral college on technical, bureaucratic grounds in a transparently disingenuous attempt by the Labour Party machine to boost the chances of their own candidate, Dobson. Millbank's patently undemocratic and manipulative tactics will be tested in the high court next week, when six members of MSF, including former Labour Party general secretary Jim Mortimer, will challenge the party's ruling in a case that, whatever its outcome, is likely to do further damage to New Labour's threadbare 'democratic' credentials.

So far as the individual membership section of the electoral college is concerned, the results achieved in those few cases where Labour MPs decided on a democratic consultative procedure by holding an indicative ballot among CLP members also give Livingstone ground for reasonable optimism. In Tooting and Hornchurch constituencies he was the clear victor with more than 60% of the vote. Hazardous though it no doubt is to extrapolate from such a limited sample, these ballots in fact confirm the strong and consistent anecdotal evidence that Livingstone enjoys sufficient grassroots support to give him a realistic chance of reaching his 70% target among individual members. A similar target among trade unions and affiliated organisations also looks attainable on present showing.

As Livingstone himself conceded at the January 6 meeting, his prospects in the third of the electoral college comprising London MPs, MEPs and GLA candidates are remote - his own estimate was that Dobson would defeat him here by some 10 to one. Millbank's insistence that there should be an open ballot among this section obviously puts pressure on potential waverers - a vote for Livingstone would inevitably consign them to political oblivion in terms of promotion by Blair and might even threaten their chances of reselection, given the iron grip of the party machine on the whole process. Where the carefully selected GLA candidates are concerned, the fact that all 14 have pledged their support to Dobson is hardly surprising, and nothing can be expected from that quarter. Among Westminster MPs, however, especially given the possibility of a general election within the next year or so, there could be a political price to pay for ignoring the obvious will of their own constituency members. It is this fact which makes it imperative for all Labour Party members and working class activists in the constituencies to demand to know their MP's intentions and to press for democratic ballots mandating MPs to vote according to the wishes of the party's membership.

Not all MPs have been cowed by pressure from the centre. John Austin, for example, the member for Erith and Thamesmead, is an open supporter of Livingstone and chaired the Conway Hall meeting. His speech gave us a fine example of the absurd anomalies that bedevil the electoral college system. Austin effectively has four chances to vote: as an MP, as a member of an affiliated organisation (the Coop), as a trade unionist with MSF and as an individual party member. Proportionally, in the first case, simply by virtue of being a member of parliament, he has 1,000 votes; in the second, his vote has already been cast by the Coop - without any democratic consultation - on behalf of Dobson; the MSF, as mentioned above, has been disenfranchised.

Overall, as we have seen, the omens for Livingstone are looking promising and the announcement of the TGWU vote provided 'Livingstone for London' with the perfect start to the resumption of campaigning after the long holiday doldrums. Predictably, the reaction of the Dobson camp, whose campaign thus far - characterised by the press as "lacklustre" - has in fact been one long disaster, was to try and discredit the TGWU ballot, engage in more smears and vilification, and promote yet another re-launch of their candidate. Where the TGWU is concerned, Dobson himself argued that because the union's leadership had made a recommendation to their members, the outcome of the ballot was "flawed". Dobson supporters, clearly desperate, even suggested that the TGWU ballot was influenced by the 'leftwing' leadership of the union. However flexible this epithet may be in New Labour's lexicon, it is surely stretching the truth to breaking point to suggest that Bill Morris is a leftwinger.

Another indication of the desperation and growing acerbity among Dobson's team can be found in a glossy leaflet - produced at considerable cost and circulated to all London party members, which Livingstone produced at the meeting. Containing not one word of policy, the document sets out to vilify Livingstone and, uses the phrase "Red Ken - Red scum". When Livingstone supporters complained about this puerile and demeaning attempt to revive the anti-Livingstone rhetoric of the 1980s, Dobson's people tried to defuse the row by claiming that they had merely quoted a remark from the Liberal Democrat magazine Liberator - as if this justified a descent into rank personal abuse and calumny. In their turn, the Liberal Democrats also disowned the slur, and claimed that they too had been quoting from an (unnamed) source. In itself, the incident is unremarkable but it does emphasise the failure of the New Labour apparatus - from the prime minister down, with his scare-mongering about a return to the 'loony left' - to find any coherent way of combating Livingstone with ideas and policies rather than invective.

As Livingstone predicted on January 6, the relaunched Dobson campaign the following day concentrated on discrediting him in terms of 'the £18bn cost of Ken', according to which, Livingstone's first term as mayor would cost every London household £6,100. Seizing on a remark which Livingstone had made on the government's taxation policies to the effect that "Instead of cutting corporation tax to 30% it should have been increased to 40%" (The Independent March 11 1999), Dobson launches into a tirade suggesting that, if implemented, such an increase would lead to a £5bn cut in the capital's GDP over four years and 100,000 job losses. The litany of the catastrophic economic consequences of a Livingstone mayorality is a long and impressive one - until you realise one simple fact which, curiously, Dobson failed to mention, namely that, as mayor, Livingstone would have no power whatever to raise corporation tax.

Significantly, every sentence of Dobson's economic analysis is pervaded by a concern for the interests of "business": ie, capital, with constant emphasis on the fruitful "partnership" between New Labour and business on which, according to Dobson, the fate of London's working class depends. Hence, the suggestion that bus conductors and tube guards should be reintroduced is dismissed out of hand on grounds of cost: ie, the cost to capital in terns of reduced profits for shareholders and transport bosses. Any attempt to deal with London's traffic problems by means of a congestion tax is dismissed as "a poll tax on wheels". Dobson's advisers still appear not to have grasped one of the most obvious facts about the political climate in London at present - the concern of every Londoner with the appalling state of transport.

Livingstone has not made this mistake. Indeed, transport is his strongest card. He knows it and he plays it at every opportunity, especially where the future of the tube is concerned. His insistence that the tube should remain "one service in the public sector, accountable to the people of London under a democratically elected authority" was notably at the heart of the crisis in the interview stage for Labour's candidates, when his refusal to compromise looked for a time like leading to his rejection by the board. On January 6 he was surely correct to claim that Railtrack had been obliged to "sling their hook" in connection with a bid to run the tube's infrastructure under the so-called PPP initiative because their continued participation threatened to kill off Dobson's campaign for good. In itself, the departure of Railtrack from the bidding represented not just a reaction to the horrors of Ladbroke Grove but was attributable to pressure from the transport unions and the growing effect of the Livingstone campaign itself.

In his speech Livingstone claimed that the mayoral election had effectively become "a referendum on privatisation" - the privatisation that means "cutting jobs in their tens of thousands, cutting wages and the living conditions of working people". He went on to say that the mayoral race had resulted in "bringing Labour Party democracy back to life", and created a forum in which his own vision of socialism - "planning, redistribution, sharing" - was back on the party's agenda. Among specific commitments, he joined Bill Morris of the TGWU in calling for a "substantial" increase in the minimum wage and for Labour to commit itself to preserving and enhancing a strong public sector, whose workers can and must be remunerated on a par with the best of their private sector counterparts.

From our point of view, of course, such demands can be categorised as reformist and economistic. On the minimum wage, for example, we would have welcomed a statement from Livingstone affirming the fact that the minimum wage should not be based on what capital or the market can bear, but on the needs of workers to reproduce themselves not just physically but culturally, taking full account of what is necessary in the society in which they live. The figure we calculate as a minimum wage is £400 for a 35 hour week. Similarly, his vision of socialsm is still rooted in the ownership and control of production by the bourgeois state and its agents rather than by the associated producers themselves.

There is much else in Livingstone's programme with which we can and will take issue but so far as the CPGB is concerned, the outcome of the December aggregate's adoption of Conrad's theses (see 'Aggregate: Debating London tactics') means that, in relation to Livingstone's campaign, the question of why has been decided. The question of the moment is how: ie, how we and other forces determined to reject the sectarian approach that plagues the left can best aid a campaign which, warts and all, offers a real possibility waking the working class and giving us the opportunity to engage with the class with real revolutionary, socialist and democratic politics.

We demand that the rights of the members of RMT and MSF be recognised. We call on all communists and partisans of the working class to actively support the Livingstone campaign.

Michael Malkin