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London mayoral elections: Labour’s neo-cons and the left apologists for Livingst

Julie Hyland | 05.05.2008 12:27 | Anti-militarism | Repression | Social Struggles | London | World

Writing in the Guardian, Seumas Milne argued, “A defeat for Livingstone would not just be a blow to the broadly defined left, working-class Londoners, women, ethnic minorities and greens. It would represent a wider defeat for progressive politics, in Britain and beyond.”

With less than two months to go to the May 1 elections to the Mayor of London and the London Assembly, the contest is becoming ever more super-charged.

The last weeks have seen a barrage of allegations of misconduct against Mayor Ken Livingstone, Labour’s official candidate who is running for his third term in office, and his leading aides. These range from the “wasteful” use of funds, to excessive drinking. The allegations claimed their first scalp last week, when Lee Jasper—who had been the focus of many of the unproven allegations of financial impropriety—resigned his post as Senior Policy Advisor on Equalities when sexually explicit emails he sent to a female friend in a body that receives funding from the Assembly were leaked.

The accusations, spearheaded by the right-wing Evening Standard newspaper, have led to counter-charges of a smear campaign designed to further the political prospects of Conservative candidate Boris Johnson. In turn, a so-called “progressive alliance” has been launched to back Livingstone’s re-election, which is deemed essential in order to safeguard democracy and the rights of ordinary Londoners.

The degree of rancour directed against Livingstone seems extraordinary. Having been forced to run as an independent for the first Mayoral contest in 2000 after he was blocked by the party hierarchy (and then expelled from the party), Livingstone successfully exploited anti-Labour sentiment to defeat the party’s official candidate.

Livingstone’s former reputation as “Red Ken,” built up during his leadership of the Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1980s, and his preparedness to defy the leadership when it conflicted with his own self-advancement, had convinced Tony Blair that he was too much of a maverick to be trusted with administering the capital’s newly created regional assembly. Having won election, however, Livingstone was at pains to prove his fidelity to Labour and its backers in the City of London. So much so, that the party—at Blair’s behest—bent its own rules in order to smooth Livingstone’s readmittance to membership in early 2004, just in time for him to run successfully as its official candidate.

Livingstone continues to enjoy the support of the Labour leadership and many of the city’s financiers based on his record in building up London as a magnet for global capital. Bloomberg reported that “Growth in London’s financial district, known as the City, has fuelled the UK capital’s biggest economic expansion since World War II, and the Labour Party’s Livingstone, 62, has helped make it happen.” The Mayor “has earned the admiration of many of London’s business people and bankers,” it continued, citing Harvey McGrath, former chief executive officer of the hedge fund Man Group Plc. Livingstone, “works quite hard to get closer” to the needs of financiers, McGrath stated. “He’s done a better job and is more business-friendly than people would have thought.”

“He’s been a very pro-business mayor,” said Nigel Bourne, director of the London office of the Confederation of British Industry.

The evidence bears out such claims. London is the world’s largest international banking centre, with the sixth largest city economy on the globe, generating an estimated 30 percent of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product. Home to 49 billionaires—the greatest concentration in Europe—it is the most expensive city in the world for prime real estate (another reason why the business elite were so enthusiastic about Livingstone’s role in the campaign for the capital to host the 2012 Olympic Games—a significant portion of the costs of which will be born by working people through higher council taxes).

If anything, Livingstone has proven himself even more attuned to the interests of big business than his allies in the Labour leadership. Only last month he denounced the government for its now aborted attempt to tax wealthy “non-doms” (officially not resident in Britain for tax purposes), claiming it would drive investment away from London. Otherwise he has marched in lockstep with the government under both Blair and Gordon Brown—attacking striking London Underground workers as “selfish” and defending Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Condon and the police shooting of Brazilian worker Jean Charles de Menezes.

Only in April 2007 Livingstone stated, “I used to believe in a centralised state economy, but now I accept that there’s no rival to the market in terms of production and distribution” and dismissed any talk of “great ideological conflict.” It is no surprise then that the Economist magazine described Livingstone only last month as a “formidable politician.”

But the Mayor has also sought to buttress his neo-liberal economic policies with radical gestures—such as last year’s oil deal with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to provide lower-cost fuel for London’s buses—and the assiduous cultivation of relations with the various leaders and groups representing ethnic and religious minorities in the capital.

Such policies have been generally tolerated by the powers that be. There has been a recognition that such an apparently “inclusive” agenda is necessary if Livingstone is to be able to pass himself off as someone sitting “squat on the centre of the political spectrum”—his own description—and not firmly on the right. This is especially true in a city where one-third of the population were born outside the UK and more than 300 languages are spoken. Moreover, Livingstone has been careful to ensure that his populist posturing only applies on international matters and where it does not conflict with the fundamental interests of the City of London.

At any rate, neither the Mayoral post nor the London Assembly are exercises in genuine popular control. Conceived as part of Labour’s regional development initiatives aimed at encouraging international investment into the UK, they function as a means of coordinating and administering the strategic interests of the major corporations. The London Assembly is comprised of just 25 members, 14 from each of the London constituencies (for a city of some 10 million people) and a further 11 from party lists. Its powers are largely confined to “scrutinising” the power of the Mayor, whose own remit concerns budgeting and planning for transport, the police and emergency services, economic development and “cultural strategy.”

Labour’s “liberal” imperialists

The undemocratic character of this set-up, however, combined with the absence of any significant base of support for any of the official parties represented, makes it a focal point for the backdoor political intrigues and vendettas of small numbers of rich and influential people.

In March 2006 the unelected Adjudication Panel—which oversees the Assembly—agreed to suspend Livingstone for four weeks over a private exchange he had with Oliver Finegold, an Evening Standard reporter. The exchange, in which Livingstone referred to Finegold’s journalistic technique as similar to that of a Nazi concentration camp guard, followed a long-standing campaign by the Standard and right-wing Zionists against the Mayor for his condemnation of Israeli violence against the Palestinians and his relations with various Muslim organisations and individuals, such as the Egyptian-born Muslim cleric Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

The Standard is again prominent in the current allegations against Livingstone. Apparently convinced that the Conservatives may finally have a credible opponent to run against Livingstone in the Mayoral race in Boris Johnson, the newspaper has run almost daily stories charging that taxpayers money has been wasted on funding defunct black organisations, with links to Livingstone’s key ally Jasper. Standard reporter Andrew Gilligan, who was at the centre of the political scandal over the outing of whistleblower and leading nuclear expert Dr. David Kelly, alleged that “at least £2.5 million of public money has been given to a shadowy network of businesses and NGOs directly linked to Mr. Jasper and his close friends and associates, many of them supposedly operating out of the same small room in Kennington.”

Although the police ruled out any criminal investigation, the Standard has kept up its stream of accusations including the claims of Atma Singh, a former high-level adviser to Livingstone, that members of Socialist Action (SA) —a tiny group of former radicals that long ago buried themselves in the Labour Party—had infiltrated city hall and were working to fashion the capital as a “beacon for socialism.”

Far from having uncovered a long-kept secret, both Jasper and the Socialist Action Caucus are known political quantities with nothing to do with socialist politics. Jasper, a long-time ally of Livingstone dating back to the days of the GLC, is a longstanding Labour Party member and black nationalist who has utilised racial policies to cultivate relations with the police and business groups. Socialist Action, which supports the largely defunct Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, has also worked with Livingstone for years. And—as befits an organisation that has remained true to Labour regardless of the Iraq invasion and its big business agenda—neither SA leader John Ross’s former position as economic adviser to Livingstone, nor Redmond O’Neill’s post as deputy chief of staff, have contradicted the right-wing political trajectory of either Livingstone or the party generally.

It is doubtful that any of the Standard’s latest “revelations” would have been seen as anything other than a continuation of its long-running vendetta—even the staunchly Conservative Telegraph noted that “one need only scan the Labour benches at Westminster—and the Cabinet table—to find numerous former revolutionaries”—were it not for the addition of a new political factor in the anti-Livingstone campaign, concentrated around the pro-Labour New Statesman magazine.

It was New Statesman editor Martin Bright who presented the Channel 4 “Dispatches” television programme, charging the mayor with “financial profligacy, cronyism and links to a Trotskyite faction conspiring to transform London into a ‘socialist city state,’” in the words of the Guardian.

Writing in the Standard last month under the headline “I now believe Ken is a disgrace to his office,” Bright said he felt it was his “duty to warn the London electorate that a vote for Livingstone is a vote for a bully and a coward who is not worthy to lead this great city of ours.”

Bright says that he arrived at this insight in the course of his investigative research for Channel 4 Television. Until then, he had believed “Ken Livingstone was a flawed but charismatic leader of the capital. We had fallen out over his support for radical Islamists, but I thought much of what he had done was refreshingly bold.” Faced with evidence to contrary, “the scales finally dropped from my eyes. I am only ashamed it took me so long.”

Bright is not the objective bystander he makes out. Over the last months, he has emerged as a strident critic of what is described as Labour’s “appeasement” of Islamic “extremists.” He has authored numerous reports pointing to the Labour government’s inconsistency in its prosecution of a “war on terror” while maintaining political relations with groups associated with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Bright complains that the government’s policy towards Muslim groups in Britain is driven “by the Foreign Office’s determination to engage with Islamist radicals.”

Several of these articles have been compiled as a pamphlet by Policy Exchange. The think tank, which is described as the most influential “on the right,” was itself embroiled in controversy only recently over allegations that documents it circulated to prove the influence of Islamic extremists in Britain’s mosques were fakes.

Policy Exchange is headed by Charles Moore, former editor of the Thatcherite Spectator magazine—a position also held previously by Boris Johnson. Another leading light is Anthony Browne, again a contributor to the Spectator, who has claimed that Labour’s immigration policies will mean whites becoming a minority in the UK by 2100; evidence Browne claims of a government “whose intellectual faculties are [so] crippled by political correctness.”

The think tank’s research director is Dean Godson, who worked as Special Assistant to John Lehman, a signatory to the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century, from 1987 to 1989. It is alleged that when Godson was sacked by the Daily Telegraph, Editor Martin Newland explained, “It’s OK to be pro-Israel, but not to be unbelievably pro-Likud Israel, it’s OK to be pro-American but not look as if you’re taking instructions from Washington.”

Writing in the Times in 2006, Godson had attacked the government along lines similar to those employed by Bright. Labour’s failure to ban the radical Islamist Hizb-ut-Tahir had exposed “Whitehall’s greatest weakness—the war of ideas,” he wrote, calling for a revival of the type of political propaganda employed during the “Cold War, [when] organisations such as the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office would assert the superiority of the West over its totalitarian rivals. And magazines such as Encounter did hand-to-hand combat with Soviet fellow travellers.”

Labour as the party of neo-colonial intervention

New Statesman Editor Martin Bright is unabashed about his adoption by the neo-conservatives. In a July 2006 Observer article, he explained how he was being “feted by the right” after his exposure of “Whitehall’s love affair with radical Islam” had earned him plaudits from “none other than David Frum, the neoconservative Bush adviser credited with coining ‘axis of evil.’” But it “is no shame for those on the left opposed to the rise of radical Islam to build alliances with conservatives prepared to call fascism by its real name”—a disingenuous statement given Bright’s willingness to ally with the most fervent advocates of American global military power.

Another contributor to the Evening Standard’s campaign against Livingstone is Nick Cohen. A one-time Labour supporter and Observer columnist who postured as a left critic, Cohen is one of the most prominent signatories to the Euston Manifesto, first published in the New Statesman. A paean to “liberal” imperialism, it called for a “new progressive democratic alliance” to defend the policy of military intervention so as to safeguard “democracy.” The manifesto won support from a number of pro-Labour journalists, such as Will Hutton and Oliver Kamm, author of Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, and was endorsed by William Kristol in the US, co-founder of the Project for the New American Century and a leading advocate of war against Iraq.

Writing in the Standard January 9 under the headline “You can do it Boris—just wow us with your true grit,” Cohen informed his readers that he had been through Conservative candidate Boris Johnson’s policies “and found much to admire.” This despite Johnson, an unreconstructed Thatcherite, having had to make a public apology only recently for a 2002 article in which he referred to “piccaninnies” and “tribal warriors” with “watermelon smiles”—the same inflammatory terms utilised by Enoch Powell in his notorious 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech defending racial discrimination and advocating an end to immigration.

The accusation that the government has not been sufficiently resolute in prosecuting the “war on terror” at home is extraordinary. Under Labour, the threat of terrorism has been used to overturn fundamental civil liberties, including habeas corpus. Organisations have been banned and people, mainly Muslim students, jailed for reading material on the Internet said to be linked to terrorism.

Bright and Cohen’s evolution underscores the profound rightward shift within a layer of former “leftists” since the collapse of the Stalinist bureaucracies in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and in response to the decay of the old social democratic parties and trade unions.

Analysing the rush by former pacifists and radicals to demand military intervention against Serbia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the December 1995 statement by the International Committee of the Fourth International, “Imperialist war in the Balkans and the decay of the petty-bourgeois left,” [1] explained how these profound changes had “removed an essential prop for those who engaged in protest politics in a previous period.”

The leftism of this social layer, the statement continued, was based not on the independent capacity of the working class, but on the apparent strength of the Stalinist and social democratic or Labourite bureaucracies. The demise of the latter meant that the “workers movement no longer provides the petty-bourgeois left with the same sources of employment or paths to political influence,” while the policies of free-market deregulation and privatisation had provided a powerful social impulse for their conversion to the side of the bourgeoisie.

For a time, this embrace of Thatcherite economic nostrums could still be combined with a liberal stance on sexual and racial issues. The Labour Party especially promoted identity politics, based on race, religion and sexual preference, as it sought to junk any connection with the working class and social reforms and refashion itself as the preferred party of big business.

Now sections of the bourgeoisie have determined this policy is no longer sufficient and acts as a fetter on its broader, long-term ambitions. If British imperialism is to intervene determinedly in the fight to control strategic markets and resources globally, and particularly in the Middle East, the government must recognise that this will provoke opposition and prepare accordingly. Increasingly, the new mantra is that at home, just as abroad—you are either with us, or against us.

“Leftists” groups sign up to defend Labour

That some of the most vociferous proponents of this doctrine have emerged from the likes of the New Statesman and the Euston Manifesto group is proof of the political putrefaction of the Labour Party. This hollowed-out, bureaucratic apparatus, entirely divorced from any democratic control by the populace, much less the working class that once formed its primary constituency, has functioned as the main political representative of the neo-conservatives in Britain for more than a decade. As such it has become the incubator of the most right-wing, antidemocratic tendencies.

No mention of this is made by those now lining up to defend Livingstone. Rather than alerting working people to the dangers posed by the absence of a genuinely progressive alternative to Labour, they argue that a “progressive alliance” means supporting the very same party that has spawned Bright and his cohorts.

Labour’s Compass group issued a statement signed mostly by Labour MPs and National Executive Committee members—“Progressive forces unite behind Mayor.”

“Livingstone is a standard bearer for real progressive politics,” it claimed. “Of course, like all of us, Livingstone operates in the here and now. For London that means the domination of the Square Mile in the form of financial capitalism. He cannot be expected to address such forces at once or alone....

“The battle lines are clear. It’s them and us. And Ken Livingstone is us. We urge every progressive voter, activist and organisation to get behind the campaign to re-elect Ken Livingstone.”

Writing in the Guardian, Seumas Milne argued, “A defeat for Livingstone would not just be a blow to the broadly defined left, working-class Londoners, women, ethnic minorities and greens. It would represent a wider defeat for progressive politics, in Britain and beyond.”

Despite the increasingly personal character of the attack on him, Livingstone has said little about the fact that the opposition campaign is led by individuals associated with Labour and its periphery—arguing instead that he should be judged on his record. London is booming, he argues, and the key test is “whether London is ahead of New York” in the “contest for number-one city in the world.” As the official Labour candidate, it is not possible for Livingstone to identify the pronounced right-wing trajectory of his own organisation without its damaging his electoral chances.

As it is, the Economist forecast that Livingstone’s candidacy for the Labour Party was damaging his ability to trade on “Brand Ken.” In the Guardian, February 27, 2008, Sunder Katwala expressed similar fears over Labour’s ability to mobilise a sufficient vote: “In a low-turnout election, Johnson’s ability to mobilise the suburban vote and those uneasy with London’s diversity and openness could take him across the winning line,” Katwala wrote. Livingstone needed to be able to “mobilise London’s broad progressive majority, winning enough support from Lib Dems, Greens and others to see off” the Tory challenge, thereby offering “a major reason to be cheerful about Labour’s chances of political recovery nationally.”

In the drive to engineer such a “recovery,” declared opposition to the “neo-cons” is being used to support the very party that has championed the Bush doctrine of military intervention, the further redistribution of wealth from working people to the rich and the dismantling of democratic rights.

Yet again, the various petty bourgeois left groups have signed up en masse to this political charade.

George Galloway, whose Respect Renewal group split from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) last year, has announced he will not challenge Livingstone for mayor. “There is an urgent need for change” in London, Galloway has said. “Just not the change from Livingstone to Boris Johnson.”

“In these new and developing circumstances, it would be self-indulgence, a luxury the left can no longer afford, to stand a candidate of the left against Livingstone for mayor.” Galloway has said he intends to form a “progressive slate” for the assembly, with himself as a candidate, to act as a check on the mayor.

The SWP is in the somewhat difficult position of having declared months ago that Stop the War Coalition leader Lindsey German would run for mayor. But in a statement on her campaign, German went out of her way to stress “I have many points of agreement with Ken Livingstone—his anti-racist and anti-imperialist policies are a credit to London and he has seriously attempted to cut car use in the city.... We should defend Ken against attacks from the right, and we should support him against the Tory candidate Boris Johnson and his right wing agenda.”

“However that does not mean that we can or should be uncritical.”

But what does this mean for the SWP’s campaign? With some relief, German explained that “Everyone has two votes for mayor, for their first and second preferences, so the second votes of the smaller parties can be distributed between the two lead candidates.... It is very important that we don’t let the Tory in, which is why I will be calling for all my voters to give Ken their second preference.”

According to reports, at one election meeting, German dismissed charges that her candidacy would damage Labour’s chances, stating that it would actually help Livingstone because the Single Transferable Vote system meant “we will gain votes for Ken.” In other words, the SWP doesn’t take its own campaign seriously and knows that it will not hurt Labour.

Similarly, for the Socialist Party (formerly the Militant), the elections pose “an invidious choice between a former left who has embraced a big business agenda and a Thatcherite throwback. Both offer neo-liberal policies and will continue to preside over obscene poverty and social deprivation while the City wallows in wealth.”

“The situation is crying out for a new workers’ party but, unfortunately, once more an opportunity has been lost,” it complained, following the decision of unions such as the Rail and Maritime Transport not to stand candidates. This meant there was “no coherent working-class alternative.”

The “Socialist Party is normally opposed to policies of ‘lesser evilism,’” it stated. “But there are occasions when different factors, especially working-class consciousness, compel us to modify our approach. In this case, through gritted teeth, like many London workers, we recommend a second-preference vote for Ken Livingstone.”

There is nothing new in the line-up of the former radical groups. When Livingstone stood as an independent in 2000 they came together to form a joint slate, the London Socialist Alliance, which promoted his candidacy. At the time, they argued that Livingstone’s success could be a force for reinvigorating the party or providing the nucleus for a new workers’ organisation. This was despite Livingstone’s stipulation that he intended to rejoin Labour at some future point. Even when he was readmitted to the party in time for the 2004 elections, these groups called for second preference votes to be cast for Livingstone.

Respect Renewal, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party all claim to be involved in the fight to construct a new workers’ party. But when the chips are down, they immediately back Labour as the “progressive” choice. No matter how far Labour goes in its attacks on the working class and its support for neo-colonialism, the various left groups insist that it remains the “lesser evil,” which workers must defend if they are to beat back the attacks of the right.

But if support for Labour is truly a means of defending the essential class interests of working people, then why is there a need for a new party?

In truth, none of these groups believe it is possible to fight for a politically independent workers’ organisation. That is why, whenever the right rears its head—and even if substantial sections of that right are identified with the Labour Party—their response is always the same: defend Labour. One thing is guaranteed: as the election looms ever closer, their currently limited criticisms of Livingstone and the Labour Party will become even more circumspect.

The furore around the London mayoral contest does raise important issues. There is no question that a factional fight over political policy is raging within broad layers of the ruling elite, and within the Labour Party itself. Faced with the significant setbacks suffered by US and British imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan and the prospect of economic recession, some are demanding a drastic realignment of domestic politics in line with the battle being waged for global hegemony, which must entail even greater “sacrifice” from the population—especially as regards its democratic rights.

As always, the left groups claim that this can be dealt with by tactical manoeuvres on the electoral front. While warning of the threat from the right, they treat this development as if it can be resolved by putting a cross in the correct place on a ballot paper. But the bitter furore surrounding the London election is not a temporary, conjectural episode. Its roots lie in the deepening crisis of the world capitalist system and the growth of inter-imperialist antagonisms and social tensions this is generating.

The absence of a socialist alternative is not a secondary factor in this situation. It is the fundamental issue confronting working people. So long as the working class does not have any independent means of articulating its opposition to social inequality and the threat of war, the ruling elite are determined to resolve the crisis on their own terms.



[1] Imperialist war in the Balkans and the decay of the petty-bourgeois left

Julie Hyland
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