Pact to re-elect Ken

Early next month we shall know who has won the nomination to stand against Ken Livingstone as the Labour Party's candidate for mayor of London in 2004. The three people from whom members of the London Labour Party have to choose in the current ballot are a pretty unappealing crew. First, Tony Banks, the well known Jack the Lad and one-time supposed firebrand elected to the Greater London Council in 1970, in the days when he was a comrade of 'red Ken'. Having abandoned his erstwhile leftwing convictions (to the extent that they ever really existed) in order to get a ministerial post, Banks was such an embarrassment as minister of sport that he was sacked in a reshuffle after just two years in office. He went on to mastermind England's failed bid for the World Cup. Since then, languishing on the back benches, his main hobby has been making himself a darling of the hunt saboteur confraternity by vigorously promoting a total ban on the hunting of foxes. Despite his cack-handedness, Banks is reportedly the favourite to pick up the poisoned chalice bequeathed to the London party by Frank Dobson - remember him? Second, Nicky Gavron, currently deputy mayor of London and a planning specialist, also an extremely wealthy former Blairite whose political ambitions have led her to forge an opportunistic alliance with Livingstone - of which more later. Third, Bob Shannon. Who? Quite. But to judge by his CV and election address, Bob is an avuncular chap who has laboured for decades in the trenches of Harrow council doing sterling work for the party and is an all-round good egg. What with trying to organise a real war against Saddam Hussein, rather than the long-run informal bombing war combined with sanctions that have already caused the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqis; what with attempting to turn the FBU strike into a neo-Thatcherite crusade against the forces of subversion and evil in the trade union movement; and what with facing the prospect of inevitable tax rises to fund Labour's public spending commitments, you would think that Blair had better things to do than waste his time worrying about mayoral elections. True. But whereas the provincial elections are an embarrassment to be buried as quickly as possible, London actually matters. Not just because it is the capital city, but because it is part of the continuing grudge match against Livingstone. So far there have been 11 mayoral contests, in which the Labour Party has managed to produce only four winners. Last week's contests in Bedford, Mansfield and Stoke-on-Trent were a fiasco, with victories for independent candidates who, albeit on the basis of miserably low turnouts, benefited from disillusionment with New Labour in the form of protest votes. Stoke produced a particularly interesting result (see opposite). Although Hackney may have given Downing Street some comfort despite the good showing of Paul Foot, the message is clear enough. Small wonder, therefore, that the energising of local democracy - allegedly at the heart of the mayoral election idea and so much vaunted by Millbank - is in the process of being jettisoned. With an unenthusiastic John Prescott now in charge of local government, councils are being told that they will not be obliged to hold referenda on elected mayors. 'Two Jags' has bigger ideas about elected regional assemblies, but it will be some time (if ever) before these grandiose designs actually see the light of day. London, however, will not go away. Last time, Dobson and the party machine were deservedly slaughtered for the way in which every tactic of fixing and pressurising was deployed in a stupidly vain effort to keep Livingstone out. This time, the candidate will not be dragged like a patently unwilling Dobson to the altar of sacrifice, but will emerge as the democratic choice of London's Labour membership. Some other important things have also changed. In 2000 Livingstone not only gained advantage from the Labour Party's juvenile mishandling of his candidacy, but he was perceived as genuinely radical, as a mayor who would serve the interests of all Londoners, especially of the capital's working class. Voters did not just feel sympathy for the way he was being treated by the Labour Party; they also believed he was the old 'Ken' who would fight in their corner against central government and do his best for the ordinary citizen. It was on this basis, two years ago, that we decided to give Livingstone our critical support, with the emphasis on 'critical'. Given the fact that the key strategic imperative of the communist and revolutionary socialist movement in this country is to break the working class from Labourism, we saw the possibility that, despite the reactionary nature of the period, Livingstone's campaign could galvanise class forces not just in London, but on a wider basis. In the event this did not happen, and one of the main reasons was the attitude of Livingstone himself, who in the end did everything possible to prevent such a campaign. Why was this? The answer, one must conclude, comes from his determined efforts to get himself readmitted into the fold of the Labour Party and be anointed as Labour's official 2004 candidate for the mayoralty. As part of this strategy, he characteristically reneged on previous pledges to rotate the deputy mayorship by ditching a potential Tory appointee on the grounds of budget differences, then by throwing overboard the good Lord Tope, the senior Lib Dem on the Greater London Authority. By keeping Nicky Gavron's bottom comfortably in the seat of deputy, he hoped to ingratiate himself with Millbank, but this ploy did not work. In July the Labour NEC voted by a surprisingly narrow majority of 17 to 13 to reject Livingstone's bid for readmission into the party. Details of the voting were not made available - so much for being an open and democratic party - but it was evidently not just the Blair/Prescott 'over my dead body' tendency who sealed Ken's fate. Reports suggest that Dennis Skinner, on the grounds that "principles cost in life", voted against, and that some trade union members of the NEC were diplomatically absent. Livingstone's sentence of five years in the wilderness remains in force, and - as Charles Clarke, the Labour Party chairman observed to journalists - Livingstone's pacific approaches had specifically not included any undertaking to adhere to party discipline. Given his attitude to PPP et al, that would be impossible. The choice was evidently between having a dangerously loose cannon on the deck or manufacturing an alternative gun under secure central control (enter the supposedly 'safe' Mr Banks as candidate of first choice). Livingstone's considered reaction to being jilted in his attempt to consummate a new marriage to the Labour Party and to further his own ambitions has been entirely typical: "Don't split the left vote in London" was the headline that signalled his latest tactical shift, courtesy of the Morning Star, paper of the Communist Party of Britain, in which he indulges us with a regular column of his supposedly socialist profundities. In the issue of September 14, Nicky Gavron is trumpeted as being no less than the "unity candidate", who, Livingstone tells us, "stands firmly for the policy of urging voters to cast their first-preference vote for Labour and their second-preference for me. This ensures that the left vote is not divided." So what we have is, in Livingstone's own words, a "non-aggression pact", supposedly with the purpose of keeping out the Conservative candidate. In reality, of course, it is an alliance to re-elect the mayor. While Gavron is Livingstone's stalking horse, Banks makes great play about his refusal to recommend a second-preference vote. Either way, Livingstone is centre-stage. However, from the latest issue of What Next? - for our purposes the voice of Ken Livingstone on earth - you would think that his sole concern was to find an answer to the question posed by one Martin Sullivan: "How do we defeat the Tories?" (No24). For comrade Sullivan the choice is stark: vote for "Ken" (it is always "Ken") or, failing that, vote for Nicky Gavron - otherwise, the wicked Steve Norris, cunningly disguised as a "social liberal", will seduce the "fairly sophisticated metropolitan electorate" into voting Conservative. The question is, what has "Ken" actually done for Londoners over the last two years? What has come out of all the promises? On what basis should working class Londoners give him their vote in 2004? Even Sullivan can only almost parenthetically refer to such "achievements" as "the strategy of shifting the travelling public from cars to buses, close relations with the trade unions, hard bargaining with developers to extract the maximum amount of affordable housing, the Respect festival, etc". And then, of course, there is the question of the proposed congestion charge - on paper the only foreseeably concrete monument to "Ken's" two-year-long tenure in office. Sullivan himself concedes that "Livingstone would have been better advised to leave this until after the election". Quite so. The people this tax will hit hardest are precisely those who actually have to earn a living by driving in and through central London, not the knobs for whom £5 a day represents just small change. Comrade Sullivan has not the guts to say that the congestion charge, whatever its putative benefits in terms of improved public transport, could be one populist policy too many - a disaster in the making. What, for example, does Tony Banks have to say about it? Nothing substantial at all, unless you count "Opinion polls already show increasing disillusion with how the mayor is dealing with the problems of Londoners. That is before congestion charging bites." Or Gavron? "The national Labour policy [really, since when? - MB] is right in principle. So, if the scheme introduced by the mayor in February works I shall continue it, but if it fails I shall want it abandoned before the election." Nobody can accuse Ms millionairess Gavron of being less than perfectly candid. And Bob Shannon? "Cancel congestion charges" - a sound and sensible response to the reaction of thousands of working Londoners, but it will not help him a jot. With two years to go before the London mayoral election, it might seem that we have more than enough time to think about the issues, but the principles and the strategy involved are matters of importance now. Do we really want the working class of London to have to choose between Ken Livingstone and Banks as their mayor? Do we really want the choice between a New Labour turncoat and an independent 'socialist' who has so far done nothing - absolutely ­nothing - for our class? Obviously not. The Socialist Alliance must put forward and campaign for a candidate who can show our people that there really is an alternative. Maurice Bernal