LONDON-For the first time since Margaret Thatcher closed down the Greater London Council (GLC), which had become a thorn in her side under the leadership of charismatic Labour Party left-winger Ken Livingstone (coined in the press as “Red Ken”) London, along with some other big cities, is once again being allowed to have some limited self-government-including an elected mayor.
This is part of New Labour’s policy of devolution, which includes new Scottish and Welsh Assemblies (although London will have much less power than the Scottish Assembly, or most other European mayors).
The election has been transformed from what initially promised to be a rather dull affair into a bitter political battle, because the still highly popular Ken Livingstone decided to break with the Labour Party, and its fixed candidate selection process, and run for mayor of London as an independent.
Despite the fact that today Livingstone is only a moderately left Labour Member of Parliament (MP), his candidature is seen by large numbers of Londoners and by the media as a referendum on New Labour’s record in government. The Blair government is mortified at the prospect of being challenged by “Red Ken” ensconced across the Thames as London mayor, which is one of the biggest directly elected constituencies in the world.
London is Europe’s largest and richest city, yet there are hundreds of thousands living in poverty while basic services and infrastructure have been slashed-leaving a crisis in housing, schools and transport, which is chaotic, dirty and underfunded.
The still growing gulf between rich and poor is mainly the legacy of 18 years of Tory rule, but the Labour government continues in its shadow. Margaret Thatcher ruthlessly pursued the aim of maximizing profits for big business at the expense of the workers, with a brutal monetarist policy of deregulated free market capitalism combined with attacks on democracy.
Three years ago Tony Blair’s “New Labour” government was elected with a landslide result. What has changed? In fact, virtually nothing! Today the London underground-the capital’s expensive, overcrowded, and underfunded underground rail system-is threatened with privatization and dismemberment. London’s hospitals are being handed over to private companies, while last year 57,000 National Health Service (NHS) patients had their operations cancelled (an increase of 12 percent), and after being placed on long waiting lists.
New Labour has given away 300,000 municipal-owned houses (council houses) to fat cat private landlords since coming to power. This is resulting in greater insecurity and rent rises.
All the above services were once the jewels in “old” Labour’s crown. The Labour government is in fact going further than Thatcher dared to in jailing Britain’s poor and Black population, clamping down on asylum seekers, the unemployed, and the disabled. So it’s not surprising that the Blair “honeymoon” is rapidly drawing to a close.
Livingstone has said that the mayoral election will be a referendum on the issue of London Democracy and the London Underground. These are important issues for Londoners, but he has minimized his differences with New Labour on a wide range of other important issues as he tries to position himself as a populist rather than radical socialist alternative.
But for many working people suffering under “hard Labour,” he is remembered as a radical socialist who stood up to Thatcher when he was leader of the GLC and today as a radical alternative to Tony Blair’s openly Thatcherite policies.
When the Labour government announced the devolving of power in London, Ken Livingston immediately put his name forward as a mayoral candidate in the internal Labour Party selection process-to the horror of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Labour establishment. However, he was the instant favorite among London Labour Party members and, according to all the opinion polls, the favorite of the London electorate. He not only had the support of a big majority of traditional Labour voters, but majority support from voters who usually voted for the other parties as well!
The Labour Party leadership put forward as their preferred candidate the lackluster stooge Frank Dobson, designated “Dobbo” by the media. He was the health minister in Blair’s government.
The Labour leadership did everything they could to stop “Red Ken” in his tracks, including denunciations in the press, high profile interventions by Tony Blair himself, through imposing an undemocratic electoral process, which gave a few hundred MPs and the already selected Assembly candidates, one third of an electoral college, the early barring of some left-wing unions (who had failed to pay their affiliation fee on time), to the last minute acceptance of a block vote cast by the leader of an important trade union, together with the vote of a small affiliated Co-op Society.
The result was a narrow victory for Dobson, who scraped home with 51.53 percent to Livingston’s 48.47 percent. About 36,000 London Labour Party members voted-giving Livingstone a 60-40 majority in this section, while in the trade-union section his majority was 72 percent to 23 percent. He gained 98 percent of votes in those unions who held members’ ballots!
Dobson’s majority came from the members of parliament (MPs), MEPs (European MPs), GLA section, where just 75 votes had the same weight as all the individual party members or all the affiliated trade unions. He was robbed in front of the whole country.
As well as electing the mayor, there is a London Assembly of 25 representatives elected from 14 large constituency seats together with 11 elected from party slates presented under a system of proportional representation. This means that if a party can get 5 percent of the vote for its all-London party slate it will get one representative in the Assembly.
Proportional representation has been recognized as an important opportunity for the socialist left. It allows small parties a chance to get representation.
In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was formed out of a loose federation of left-wing groups and individual socialist activists (Scottish Socialist Alliances) to contest the elections to the new Scottish parliament. They were very successful and succeeded in getting prominent campaigner Tommy Sheridan elected to the parliament from the Glasgow list. It was very moving and more than a symbolic gesture when Sheridan raised the clenched fist during the televised swearing-in ceremony rather than taking the oath of loyalty to the Queen.
The London Socialist Alliance (LSA) has been formed (although not as a party) to contest the London elections and organize joint campaigning work. The LSA is comprised of six of the main Marxist organizations, including the two largest organizations, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party (SP, formerly Militant Labour). It also includes ex-Labour Party and ex-Communist Party grouplets and a layer of independent left wingers-including well known journalists, artists, and civil rights and Black activists.
The LSA attempts to build united actions with Labour supporters in the party and in the unions and calls for a critical vote for Livingstone for mayor and a vote for the LSA as the socialist alternative for the Assembly.
We also called on Livingstone to stand on a workers and socialist platform and to organize his supporters in the Labour Party and the unions-a process within which the LSA would participate-to prepare his campaign and present a full slate for the assembly. He refuses to do this, preferring to distance himself from the socialist left and stand as an unaccountable lone candidate.
He also called on his supporters in the Labour Party to stay in the party and not join him. This is because he wants eventually to get back into the party (from which he is now expelled).
Nonetheless, his candidature broke the log-jam as the Labour government increasingly collides with the aspirations of the working class, creating an objective basis for a recomposition of the workers movement and the creation of a new workers party. Immediately, it has opened up a space to the left of Labour, which the LSA is attempting to fill.
We have no illusions about the difficulties facing us, nor do we expect to elect a candidate; 5 percent is a big hurdle for a first time outfit. But we have gotten off to a tremendous start with significant sponsorship from local trade unions branches and prominent media personalities. We have had better TV and press coverage than any previous socialist campaign I can remember.
As the Battle for London heats up and mayoral campaigns get tough and dirty, especially between Dobson and Livingstone (the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are also running mayoral candidates, while the Greens will support Livingstone), the LSA may find itself pushed out of the picture by the media, but this will still be the the most significant and effective intervention of the socialist and Marxist left in a decade.
Dave Packer is a member of the LSA Steering Committee and a member of the International Socialist Group, British section of the Fourth International