Blair set to bar Livingstone

"Blair's blackest week." As usual, the media hype was overdone, but January 19 must surely be a day that the prime minister would rather forget.

The scene was the Institute of Education, where some 1,400 London Labour Party activists had gathered for a question-and-answer session to be addressed by Blair and Gordon Brown. Arriving more than 15 minutes late, they received a well deserved slow hand clap from the impatient audience. This was bad enough, but much worse was to follow, when it emerged that the principal objective of the session was to denounce Ken Livingstone as unworthy of being Labour's candidate in the election for London's mayor and to depict his putative victory as a disaster for the party, with potentially fatal consequences at the next general election.

Blair's speech contained nothing new, but was merely a reiteration of the bogus claim that Livingstone is not a 'serious' candidate, and the similarly spurious assertion that his "gesture politics" would, if he were elected, cost thousands of jobs and burden the capital with massive debt. The consummate hypocrite, Blair - who has exhibited a contempt for his own party greater than any leader in British political history - told his listeners that it was his love for Labour that had prompted him to disown Livingstone. With that familiar blend of patronising cajolery tinged with menace, he warned party members: "Think long and hard. Because if you pick the wrong candidate, you may yet regret it." And just in case they had failed to get the point, he went on to repeat the equally familiar and ludicrous blackmail threat, to the effect that a Livingstone victory would result not "in a leftwing Labour government, but a Tory government" (The Guardian January 20).

If this intervention was intended as a desperate final attempt to bring the London party into line behind Frank Dobson, it achieved precisely the opposite. Blair's remarks, punctuated by heckling and barracking, cat calls and hisses, evinced an unprecedented display of open hostility from the party rank and file that left him clearly unnerved and on the defensive. Brown, with his doom-laden references to the "divisive, sterile, self-defeating policies of the 1980s" and his transparently dishonest and incoherent charges that Livingstone planned to "raise extra taxes on business", fared no better.

Before we look in more detail at the charges levelled against Livingstone, it is worthwhile asking how the supposedly shrewd political brains of Downing Street and Millbank have managed to get themselves into such an unholy mess. Applied in a different context, the adjectives "divisive, sterile and self-defeating" describe perfectly every twist and turn in the Labour machine's farcical efforts, first to prevent Livingstone from standing in the party poll and, having failed at that, to sabotage his chances of success. The details must be well known to readers and need not be repeated.

For a couple of days after Blair's appearance on the January 16 edition of Breakfast with Frost, it seemed that the prime minister, faced with unequivocal poll evidence that Livingstone had a real chance of winning the party's nomination, had accepted the necessity of finding some kind of modus vivendi with the likely first mayor of London. He stated that he would be prepared to work with Livingstone, provided of course that Ken would agree to abjure the dreaded "gesture politics" and work cooperatively with the government. You do not need to be one of the small army of highly paid New Labour advisers to understand that this grudging concession was no more than a recognition of political reality.

How then can we explain the volte face of January 19? To suggest that it was connected with some facetious remarks by Livingstone (discussed below) on the anti-capitalist riots in Seattle is to strain credulity beyond breaking point. On one level, it could be argued that Blair's visceral detestation of anything remotely connected with socialism is so profound as to rob him of his wits - but that subjective, psychological approach is also deeply unsatisfactory. Given the overwhelming evidence from polls to the effect that Dobson's chances have been seriously weakened - "Dead as a Dobbo" was the Daily Mirror's front page headline on January 21 - it hardly seems likely that Blair believed he could swing things his favourite's way. In the absence of facts, I would argue, as I have done before, that it was Blair's acute sense of the danger posed by Livingstone to the whole New Labour project that led him to gamble everything on one final attempt, however ill-conceived, to destroy his chances of gaining the party's nomination. Livingstone, for all his faults and inconsistencies, has it in his power to expose the fact that the emperor has no clothes, that Blairism is no more than a flawed and so far unsuccessful top-down attempt to transform Labour into a neo-liberal party of the bourgeoisie. If January 19 proved anything, it is that there are many in the London party, and way beyond, who would rally behind Livingstone and fight alongside him to return Labour to what they see as its real, left social democratic, values.

Whatever the real motives for Blair's vicious assault on Livingstone, the outcome is clear, and was aptly summed up in a question from a member of the St Pancras and Holborn CLP: "When Ken wins, what can be done to unite the party behind him after all the slagging off you have done on Frank's behalf?" What indeed? Blair has effectively painted himself into a corner, and for him to support a successful Livingstone in his bid to become Labour's mayor of London, in whatever terms such support might be dressed up by the spin doctors, would amount to a climb-down so humiliating as barely to be conceivable.

Sources close to Livingstone fear that, in the event of his winning the nomination, the party machine could still use the issue of the mayoral manifesto as a means of barring him from contesting the May election. Not one word of the document has yet been written, but in the course of the selection procedure for the short list, Livingstone gave assurances that he would campaign on a manifesto agreed by the Blair-dominated NEC - though he quite justifiably demands the right to take a major part in its formulation. He has made it equally clear that under no circumstances would he countenance the privatisation of the underground under the PPP initiative favoured by the government and supported by his rival, Dobson.

What would happen, however, if the sub-committee of the NEC responsible for drafting the manifesto were to include in it a specific commitment to PPP? If the document were passed by the NEC, which it undoubtedly would be, this would place Livingstone in an impossible position and might easily lead to a crisis, the result of which could be his effective disbarment from standing, on the grounds that he had shown himself unwilling to fight the election on Labour's platform. Clearly, such an eventuality could inflict considerable damage on the party's public standing, but perhaps the leadership considers such a price worth paying, if only they can be rid of Livingstone and his supporters once and for all. In such circumstances, Livingstone would surely stand as an independent and be well placed in appealing not only to the London Labour Party's 70,000 members, but the entire labour movement in the United Kingdom.

The Blair-Brown case against Livingstone as presented to the January 19 meeting purports to demonstrate that he is disloyal, unreliable and dangerous. As an indictment, however, it is pitifully weak and is characterised by desperation, disingenuousness and blatant dishonesty in equal measure. The 'economic' case rests on the fact that he had the temerity some time ago to suggest that the chancellor should be sacked and that he himself has plans to raise taxes that would gravely damage the interests of London's business community.

So far as the former is concerned, it was almost comical to hear Blair's indignation that anyone could dream of criticising a chancellor who has done such a "brilliant" job. Indeed, capitalists, large or small, top rate taxpayers and the middle classes in general could hardly disagree. They have done well out of New Labour and look set to prosper further. But the poor, the sick, the disabled, the unemployed and the disadvantaged have a different story to tell. As a devout christian and son of the manse, the chancellor has 'prudently' applied his saviour's maxim: to those who have, yet more will be given, whilst those who have not, even that which they have shall be taken away.

The farrago of nonsense about Livingstone's supposed tax-raising dreams was no more than a rehash of the claims made in Dobson's 'The cost of Ken' document discussed two weeks ago (Weekly Worker January 13). In passing, it is interesting to note that this document was drafted by none other than Douglas McWilliams of the Centre for Economics and Business Research, who happens to be an adviser to the Tory shadow chancellor, Francis Maude. By their friends shall ye know them. The fact is that the whole tax scare rests on a fundamental fallacy: as mayor, Livingstone would be constrained by the stringent provisions of the Greater London Authority Act, which, with the sole exception of the so-called congestion charge on central London traffic, grant the mayor no fiscal powers whatever. Can it really be that Blair and his chancellor have 'forgotten' this piece of legislation?

Yet more risible as an argument for proving that Livingstone is dangerous was the brouhaha created by Blair and Dobson over Livingstone's "silly and offensive" remarks, in an interview published in The Face magazine, about the Seattle demonstrations. Even Ken's greatest friends and admirers must often be exasperated by his irrepressible tendency to indulge in provocative whimsy. On this occasion, a comment to the effect that he approved of "direct action" was seized on by his enemies as evidence that he was still an adherent of the 'loony left' who had thus inadvertently shown his true colours. Dobson condemned the comment as "disgraceful". Blair spoke, with deliberate inaccuracy, of Livingstone's reprehensible support for "people rioting on the streets". Livingstone's response, published before Blair launched his attack is itself a characteristic mélange of humour and conviction: "Anyone reading yesterday's papers would have thought that I was about to ask the Clash to make 'White Riot' my campaign theme tune" (The Independent January 19).

He went on to differentiate between "direct action" and "violence", which he condemned: "I have never supported violence for political ends and I am not about to start now."

The third arrow in Blair's pathetic quiver of charges related to a report in The Guardian that Livingstone was engaging in private negotiations with a potential 'kitchen cabinet', whom he was encouraging to stand as independent candidates in the GLA elections, giving him a potential power-base if he were to fight and win the election. This, according to Blair, was yet more evidence of treachery. Livingstone's response was to confirm the newspaper article: yes, he had been canvassing non-Labour academics such as Tony Travers and Peter Hall to join his mayoral cabinet, but in the first place this was not against the party's rules and in any case "Tony Blair has brought Liberals into a cabinet committee and appointed all sorts of Tory ex-cabinet ministers to all sorts of important posts. I'm just continuing with this inclusive tradition" (The Guardian January 20). Despite Blair's huffing and puffing on the question, it is clear that his complaint against Livingstone in this connection was merely a canard.

As he contemplates the repercussions of his seemingly impulsive decision definitively to declare Livingstone persona non grata, Blair can draw no comfort from recent polls, which suggest that Livingstone is set to win a narrow victory. More ominous still, a large number of Labour Party members surveyed, including many who do not personally support Livingstone, believe that if he is defeated by Dobson, he should stand as an independent. The ballot papers have gone out and must be returned by February 16. The result should be declared by around February 21. Whatever that result may be, it seems probable that, where Livingstone is concerned, Blair's problems have really only just begun.

Michael Malkin