A Balance Sheet of the London Elections

By DAVE HUDSON

LONDON-The decision by Ken Livingstone, a popular left-wing MP, to break with the Labour Party and run as an independent for mayor of London represents the most important left split in Labour since the Second World War. His subsequent landslide victory is a body blow to Tony Blair and his “New Labour” Government.

Blair has lost control of his capital city, and a potentially powerful alternative power base to his left has been established.

Livingstone’s challenge, the current crisis in manufacturing industry, and New Labour’s continuous and relentless pursuit of Tory policies such as the tripling of detention centers for asylum seekers and a reactionary new law and order agenda, have reduced Blair to his lowest standing in the polls since he came to office three years ago.

However, there are few signs that Ken Livingstone is about to use his victory to fight for a socialist alternative. Although he gained 55 percent of the vote, including second preferences, putting him way ahead of the competition, this was achieved despite a generally weak campaign, which could be described as rightward moving and populist, and which avoided using the word socialist. He therefore failed to maximize his working-class vote.

This is shown by the relatively low turnout for such an important and well publicized election of between 33 percent and 38 percent of a 5.1 million electorate.

Now Livingstone is assembling a cross-party administration, including rotating the deputy mayorship amongst all four parties in the assembly! And he is backing off from a confrontation with the government over its unpopular plans to privatize the underground transit system-a key divide in the election.

On the other hand, he remains a loose cannon; for example, his statement that “capitalism kills more people every year than did the holocaust” did not go down well in the City or in Downing Street. So the potential for confrontation between him and New Labour remains high.

Overall, Livingstone gained 776,427 votes after second preference votes were counted, while moderate Tory Stephen Norris came second with 564,137, and Labour’s official candidate, Frank Dobson, came a poor third with only 223,884.

Labour should easily have won the mayor’s office in London, traditionally a Labour stronghold, as well as 11 of the 14 constituency seats in the parallel election to the Greater London Assembly (GLA), based on the 1997 results. But Labour won only six. In three of the constituency seats the fall in Labour’s share of the vote was more than 15 percent.

The number of members was increased by the votes Labour obtained in the GLA top up list, which brought its total to nine seats-equalling that of the Tories. Labour’s overall drop in voter share ranged between 10 percent and 25 percent.

This dismal picture for Labour seems to be confirmed by the collapse in the simultaneous local elections across the country, where Labour lost nearly 600 seats, while the Tories gained nearly 600. However, contrary to the superficial impression given by swingometers, the Tory vote did not significantly increase; rather it was the traditional Labour voters who stayed at home in disgust.

However, it should also be remembered that in some parts of the country many voted for a left alternative if they had the opportunity. Independent left and far left candidates did very well in these elections. The Socialist Party (ex-Militant) won another councilor in the city of Coventry, their third, while others received 17 percent in Newcastle or 30 percent in Merseyside.

Independent campaigners against Hospital closures in the small Midland town of Kidderminster won 11 out of 13 councilors, bringing their total to nearly half of the town council.

In London, the emergence of a left alternative in the form of the London Socialist Alliance [LSA-which supported Livingstone and left candidates for the Greater London Assembly, GLA] made a real difference to the voting pattern.

Although the turnout of traditional Labour voters was down, the turnout was down for all the major parties. However, and this is very significant, in the individual constituency section, where there was an average decline of the Labour vote of 15 percent, the Green Party and the London Socialist Alliance (LSA) received about the same percentage when added together.

In Britain, the Green Party-which is not controlled by the left wing-steered in this election to the left of Labour on most issues. It is formally a petty bourgeois party, but is perceived by many in the workers movement including on the left and among the youth as a radical party to the left of Labour. It often benefits from a protest vote.

Without going into detail, the figures are revealing; in the GLA elections, in the North East Constituency, Labour was 25% down from 1997, while the combined LSA /Green vote was 22.6%, with the Green Party achieving 15.6% and the LSA 7.O%,.

In Lambeth and Southwark to the south of the River Thames, Labour’s candidate got 38% of the votes, 21% down from 1997, while the Greens achieved 13.1%, LSA 6.2%, and the Communist League (supporters of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party) 0.53%. London-wide, the constituency vote for the Greens and the socialist left totalled 270,000 people (17%).

The message given to Blair and New Labour by the election results, particularly for the London mayor, is clear-and universally recognized by the media. Those who voted Labour at the general election, particularly its core working-class vote, wanted to see a reversal of anti-working-class attacks of the Thatcher/Major years, not a continuation of them. But Blair’s capitalist project, his strategic alliance with the key sectors of capital, and his adoption of their global neo-liberal offensive-led by the White House, the Federal Reserve, the IMF, and World Bank-means that he cannot listen.

Downing Street spin doctors have already stated that the results will not mean any change of policy, just a reemphasis in the way they are presented-i.e., just cosmetic changes. In any case, Blair and his advisors know that most of this core vote will rally to Labour in a general election (scheduled for May 2001) in order to keep out the Tories.

Objectively speaking, and despite Livingstone’s own limited political agenda, his victory represents the possibility (but not yet the realization) of a mass left alternative to Blairism-a potential that Livingstone refused to lead when he called on his supporters to stay in the Labour Party. He clearly stated that he wishes to reapply for Labour Party membership (he is now formally expelled).

On his present trajectory he will squander this potential for constructing a left alternative, if allowed to, as he abandons class politics in favor of populist gestures, combined with responsible government and his own version of the “third way.”

His explicitly class-collaborationist pledge to “unite all of London” and consequently his attempt to unite all the political parties (except those which have anything to do with socialism) in a grand coalition (a popular front) to govern the city-the consultations are already well advanced-are statements designed to calm the fears of the Financial City of London and big business, while smoothing his path back into the Labour Party.

This does not necessarily mean it will work in practice, as we have indicated above, with his tendency to speak out off the cuff. Certainly, his clear expression of support for the workers at Ford, Dagenham-London’s biggest factory-encouraging them to fight to save their jobs, will not endear him to Downing Street.

Nonetheless, his stated intentions to get back in the party suggests the space opening up to the left of Labour will not be quickly filled; Livingstone will not be able to hegemonize this space in the longer term. The question is, will it become occupied by forces like the left of center Green Party, or the socialist and revolutionary left organized through the LSA?

Or will it be filled by other more sinister forces? The neo-fascist BNP got over 60,000 votes, reflecting an underlying political and class polarization slowly taking place in British politics. It is a stark reminder that if the left does not begin to fill the political vacuum opening up, then dangerous forces on the far right will.

The LSA was only political force in the London elections to defend and welcome asylum seekers in a growing racist atmosphere, which has been stimulated by the Labour government’s attempt not to appear more liberal than the Tory right!

This must be part of our answer to the remaining socialists still left inside the Labour Party. The internal and external fight to get Livingstone back in is not enough today-in itself it will achieve little. The left forces inside the Labour Party today are small, and Livingstone will have to politically capitulate to get back in.

The main task at hand is to build on the new struggles coming to the fore in the factories and offices, in the colleges, on the housing estates, on the streets and on the terraces. There is no possibility of major socialist victories against Blair inside the LP in the foreseeable future, but blows can be delivered from outside in struggle.

Left forces in the LP should in the short medium term prioritize turning the party outward to linking up with others fighting outside the framework of the Labour Party in the trade-union movement, campaigns and social movements, putting pressure in Livingstone to fight for the interests of the working class.