- Saturday, 12 May 2012
- Written by Walter Leon (London LP activist)
A day after the electoral authorities had announced massive gains for Labour up and down the country, activists in London were left disappointed as the Tories kept control of City Hall. In an incredibly close contest, incumbent Boris Johnson beat Labour veteran and former mayor Ken Livingstone by 1,054,811 votes to 992,273, after second-preferences were counted. This contrasted sharply with the other results: Labour gained 823 council seats nationally, with the Tories and their Liberal Democrat stooges losing 741 between them.
In the election for the London Assembly, Labour became the biggest party, with 12 seats, just short of an overall majority. The one thing these elections all had in common was the low turnouts. Turnout for the mayoral election was 38%; it was even lower for the local elections, at 32% (the lowest since 2000), and slightly higher for the London Assembly elections, at 41%
Many hard-working Labour activists in London will be bitterly disappointed by this result, and London’s workers, youth and poor will look nervously at what four more years of Tory administration will bring. However, the most important thing to do here is to draw a balance-sheet of the campaign, and draw the right lessons for the future.
Blairites draw the wrong conclusions
Many within the Labour Party, on the right and on the left, have been quick to draw conclusions from this setback. Luke Akehurst, of the ultra-Blairite think-tank Progress (see Progress Makes no Progress) wrote the following:
“The wider phenomenon of Tony Benn and the Bennites was seen off by Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, with its Trotskyist entryist wing, Militant, expelled.
“The London variant of Bennism, Ken and Livingstonism, was never comprehensively tackled. Its Trotskyist entryist wing, Socialist Action (formerly Tariq Ali’s International Marxist Group) wasn’t just not expelled, it ended up holding most of the key jobs in City Hall from 2000 to 2008. The sinister praising of totalitarian and authoritarian Latin American regimes and Middle Eastern religious wingnuts comes from the politics of this group.
“A specific feature of the London Hard Left has been politically corrupt communalist deals – attempts to trade influence for votes with the self-appointed leaders of blocks of ethnic minority voters. This is what ultimately was behind the Tower Hamlets scenario that was part of Ken’s downfall.
“This flying circus of 1980s vintage ultra-leftism was only kept in the air because its ringmaster, Ken, had a machine and a populist charisma and an administrative ability that no one else on the Hard Left had. This carried him through the 2000 and 2004 elections and enabled him to thrive outside Labour for a few years when he was expelled.”
In other words, Ken was too far to the left to get elected! First, let us take note of Akehurst’s hypocrisy regarding his criticism of these ‘politically corrupt communalist deals’ – the Labour right-wing have been making deals with Catholic and Muslim ‘community leaders’ in cities like Glasgow and Bradford for decades, instead of appealing to Catholic and Muslim workers on a class basis.
Second, the Blairites like to forget that Blair’s New Labour lost in excess of six million votes between 1997 and 2005, and ultimately lost to the Tories in 2010. If left-wing policies are so unpopular, why have the so-called ‘far left’ attracted so much support in Greece and France? Not to mention George Galloway’s recent success, running as a ‘real Labour’ candidate against the Tory cuts. All across Europe, parties that stand on a fighting programme against cuts and austerity are making gains. Whilst Labour, with their slogan of ‘cuts, but not as many’, gained across Britain, more than two thirds of the electorate didn’t bother to vote at all – hardly a ringing endorsement of Labour policy.
At the other end of the spectrum, some on the Left have been suggesting that defeat was almost inevitable, in the face of media hostility and Boris Johnson’s propensity to make people laugh with his faux buffoonery. The closeness of the result shows this argument to be false: how could it be inevitable if a swing of a couple of percentage points would have changed things completely? Let us examine the arguments used by left-wing Labour member Owen Jones:
“Ken… made a number of mistakes that – in a personality contest – probably proved fatal. He was right to take a stand about tax avoidance by the wealthy, which costs the Treasury up to £25bn a year, at a time of massive public sector cuts. He was wrong not to instruct his accountant to do everything possible to avoid anything that could be construed as tax avoidance. He was crucified as a result: as a typical hypocritical left-winger who wants the electorate to ‘do as I say, not as I do’…
“The breakdown in his relationship with the Jewish community was as totally avoidable as it was inexplicable…
“A number of Jewish friends told me they simply could not vote for them, and I did not feel it was my place to argue against their decision…
“In truth, it would have been an astounding result if Ken had won – given the fact he has inevitably assembled so many enemies over such a long period; given the sustained media campaign against him; and given the lack of scrutiny of Boris Johnson, which I wrote about here. It was closer than it could have been.”
In other words, Ken’s defeat was almost an inevitability, given the hostility of the Tory media, his dubious tax affairs and his unpopularity with London’s Jewish community. Whilst we shall return to these issues, we must state that, if one were to accept that such factors as a hostile media would make it impossible for a left-winger to win an election, one would come to the conclusion that it would indeed be impossible for any left-winger to win any election! Such fatalism reflects a fundamental lack of confidence in the working class, a lack of confidence Marxists do not share. Clearly his defeat was not inevitable, and the actual causes require further study.
Firstly, we cannot discuss this election without bringing into focus the disgusting treachery of some Labour right-wingers, who publicly called on Labour voters not to cast their ballots for Ken. This Blairite wing has lost its social base completely due to the capitalist crisis, but political inertia means it still holds many of the levers of power at the top of the Labour Party. These figures see even the mildest of left-reformists as a fundamental threat – and from their perspective (that is, the perspective of capitalism) they have a point. Ken’s weak programme could nonetheless have served as a point of reference for workers, in that it suggested (albeit weakly) that there is an alternative to cuts and austerity. The right-wing of the Labour Party cannot tolerate even the slightest deviation from the Tory cuts programme, as they have to ‘soften up’ the workers for when they get in power and implement the same cuts.
Any mobilisation of the workers around a set of demands could push the Party to the left, and threaten to unleash forces that cannot easily be contained. This is why figures such as Francoise Hollande in France walk a tightrope – they must pose to the left to get elected, but they fear radicalising the workers too much, threatening ‘stability’ and ‘order’. The Labour right-wing try to solve this by promising nothing at all, and hoping Labour’s deep roots in the working class will be enough to propel them to power; a small majority (or even a coalition) would benefit such people, as an excuse to do nothing.
Because the right do not entirely trust Ken to stay within ‘safe’ boundaries, the likes of Dan Hodges, the revolting Blairite blogger, publicly called for a vote for Boris Johnson. Here, he spells out his opposition to even the meekest demands:
“That Ken is still in the contest at all is a minor miracle, and down to the herculean efforts of his campaign team who have cobbled together a manifesto that’s propagated the myth that what their man wants for in style he makes up for substance. But a myth is what it is. The mayor cannot set the price of the Oyster card independent of the train operators. He cannot restore the EMA. He will not convince David Cameron to hand him responsibility for the benefits system or London’s health service. Livingstone’s prospectus is a false one: a wish list, not a serious political program.”
In other words, any reforms under capitalism are unrealistic, so the Labour Party should offer no reforms! He’s not alone – businessman and Labour donor Alan Sugar similarly stuck the knife in, tweeting, “I don’t care if Ed Miliband is backing Livingstone. I seriously suggest NO ONE votes for Livingstone in the Mayoral elections.”
That these creatures were not expelled from the Party is testament to the hold the right-wing still has on the leadership. They represent nothing and nobody, but until they are purged from the Labour Party, we will be held back, unable to launch a proper fight against the Tory government.
Ken’s tax affairs
Of course, Ken’s own opportunism played its part. He was accused of funnelling income from media and public speaking engagements through Silveta, a consultancy owned by himself and his wife. It appeared he made a handsome living, as the Telegraph explains:
“According to the details released yesterday, he earned £211,025 in the three years between 2008–9 and 2010–11. However, Silveta's accounts show the company sent invoices for a total of £755,776 for his services over this period. Mr Livingstone has said he earned all Silveta's income, from a variety of clients including the London radio station LBC, the Iranian state broadcaster Press TV and after–dinner speaking. According to his figures, he paid total tax of £69,739 over the three years.”
Ken correctly pointed out that such arrangements are common (amongst sections of the middle-class, that is); indeed, in my own industry (I work as a software developer), contractors (frequently earning in excess of £100K a year) funnel their earnings through fake companies, thus paying minimal income tax. Yet Ken forgets that, to most working-class Londoners, such people might as well come from a different planet.
This is indicative of a wider phenomenon in the labour movement, of workers’ representatives using their positions to make handsome livings. The top officials of the biggest trade unions ‘earn’ close to six-figure salaries, and the MPs’ expenses scandal is still fresh in the memories of many workers. In The State and Revolution, Lenin explains that, “under socialism functionaries will cease to be ‘bureaucrats’, to be ‘officials’, they will cease to be so in proportion as—in addition to the principle of election of officials—the principle of recall at any time is also introduced, as salaries are reduced to the level of the wages of the average workman, and as parliamentary institutions are replaced by ‘working bodies, executive and legislative at the same time’.”
Indeed, this is how Lenin and Trotsky themselves lived; however, the necessity of ‘bribing’ ex-Tsarist officials to help get economically backward and war-torn Russia back on its feet meant that a cadre of well-paid bureaucrats did emerge, which helped to lay the material basis for Stalinism.
Terry Fields, Dave Nellist and Pat Wall, the Militant supporters who became Labour MPs in the 1980s, only took the average wages of skilled workers. (For example, Terry Fields retained his fireman’s salary.) This is a demand we make of all who purport to represent working people – the alternative is conservative representatives, eager to protect what they have, derided as hypocrites by the workers they’re supposed to represent.
Boris and the media.
Of course, Boris Johnson’s earnings, including £250K a year for a column in the Daily Telegraph, were not scrutinised to the same extent. Indeed, the London press came out solidly for Boris, to a much greater extent than their support for the Tories nationally. Knowing that Tory policies are deeply unpopular even amongst their supporters, the media has been forced to tail public opinion to an extent. The relationship is dialectical – in times of class peace, the media can exert a considerable influence on workers, but in times of crisis or struggle, it is forced to reflect public opinion in order to continue to be profitable.
The bourgeois media perceived a Labour weakness in London, and attacked it. Apart from Ken’s personal failings, Boris Johnson has avoided the opprobrium of the rest of the Tories due to inheriting large Labour budgets, particularly for public transport, meaning he was able to avoid making the huge cuts the Tories have implemented elsewhere. If ever there were a better answer to the sects’ and reformists’ claims that Tory cuts are ‘ideological’, I have yet to see it – the Tories will avoid cuts if they can, and make them when capitalism demands them. As Lenin, quoting Engels in The State and Revolution, explains:
“The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; just as little is it 'the reality of the ethical idea', 'the image and reality of reason', as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of 'order'; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.”
In other words, the bourgeois state and its Tory representatives will try to alleviate and avoid class struggle where possible – it is much easier to exploit the working-class without a civil war going on! They resort to attacks on the working class – cuts and austerity – only when there is no other way to restore profitability. Tory ideology hasn’t changed since the 1960s, when successive Tory governments preserved many of the gains made by workers under Labour; only the material conditions have changed, and capitalism can no longer afford to maintain a civilised standard of living for working people. Consequently, we cannot protect workers’ living standards by appealing to any capitalist party to adopt a ‘nicer’ ideology.
Ken and the Jewish community
There is no doubt that Ken Livingstone has endured an uneasy relationship with London’s Jewish community over the past few years. This was certainly reflected in the result: for example, in Camden and Barnet, a constituency with a large Jewish population, Labour won in the London Assembly elections, but Ken polled lower than Boris. So why was this?
It’s worth noting that any political figure who is publicly critical of Israel is likely to attract the ire of the Jewish ‘community leadership’, which is overwhelmingly dominated by the wealthier elements of the community. And indeed, it is hardly surprising that such bourgeois elements would be opposed to any figure on the left. As an example of this, Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, tweeted the following:
“Let's see Boris' majority, but it looks like it could be Jewish vote that won it for him. Proud @JewishChron played its part in exposing Ken.”
However, the Jewish community is just like any other, split along class lines. There is little evidence that the issue of Israel is enough to sway the majority of working and middle-class British Jews to vote against the Left, and indeed many of the complaints about Livingstone barely mention his attitudes to Israel.
The accusation of anti-Semitism can be bandied about far too readily and it is not our intention to be guilty of this. We will thus restrict ourselves to stating that some of Ken’s comments have been insensitive. His angry altercation with Jewish journalist Oliver Finegold, whom he likened to a Nazi concentration camp gurard, was fairly stupid, to say the least. We agree that Finegold’s newspaper, the Daily Mail, is a nasty, reactionary rag, and we condemned the grossly undemocratic way in which Ken was temporarily suspended from office in the wake of this event, but to compare any Jew to a Nazi figure without good cause is bound to cause wider offence. Similarly, telling two Iraqi Jewish businessmen to “go back to Iran [sic] and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs” is giving ammunition to the right-wing, if nothing else.
Before the election, Ken met with a number of Jewish Labour activists, who had misgivings about supporting him. More controversy arose when he was accused of claiming at this meeting that Jews were rich, and would not vote for him. However, he and other attendees of the meeting strongly denied this. Indeed, since Ken has gained this reputation, the right-wing press have enjoyed a field-day in exaggerating anything he has said with relation to the Jewish community. Any germ of truth can be inflated beyond all proportion, and this is what has happened here.
Our criticisms of Ken are not that he is a pub-racist or anti-Semite, nor even that he makes the occasional stupid or offensive comment, but that his attempts to engage with the Jewish community reflect a more widely-adopted approach by sections of the Labour movement to ethnic minority communities. As we discussed earlier with respect to ‘Bradree’ in Bradford, the approach is often to approach self-appointed ‘community leaders’ in the hope that they will ‘get the vote out’. Ken is not alone in this approach at all, but it leads to viewing the likes of the Jewish and Muslim communities as monolithic blocks, rather than on a class basis. Ken’s embrace of reactionary cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi is also indicative of this flawed approach.
Our own comrades’ method in Pakistan, where we have taken a principled stand against such reactionary ‘leaders’, has enabled us to build a strong tendency there. Labour should abandon trying to do business with self-styled community leaders, and instead reach out to the workers and youth, the real victims of poverty and racism.
The elephant in the room – Labour’s lack of a fighting programme!
Ken Livingstone is a reformist and as such committed a number of opportunist mistakes. His tax affairs certainly did play into the hands of the Tories, and his approach to communal politics didn’t help matters. These factors certainly played their part in a tight election. However, it should never have been a tight election. The Tories are slowly destroying their own social base, the petit-bourgeois small-business owners and professional layers. It is becoming blindingly obvious that capitalism no longer serves such people; whereas once it could offer ‘stability’, now it serves only the incredibly wealthy. Were Labour to put forward a serious alternative, working and middle-class people would flock enthusiastically to the banner.
Instead, we have the spectacle of the Labour leadership supporting the cuts agenda and refusing to reverse these cuts when in power. The tired mantra of ‘too far, too fast’ inspires no-one – do you want to be shot or hanged? Ken’s own programme, whilst promising some welcome reforms on tube fairs and energy bills, refused to support workers taking action against the Tory government, nor did it mention the reasons for the cuts and the crisis, namely capitalism. Instead, we got a kind of ‘dented shield’, promising to mitigate the worst effects of Tory government. A fighting campaign, mobilising Labour and Trade Union activists and supporting workers in struggle, would have gained far more support.
The way forward
We utterly condemn attempts by the Blairites to undermine Ken’s campaign, and reject the fanciful claims that he was too far to the left to win. However, whilst Ken stood to the left of the Party as a whole, workers are looking for more than a few reforms to alleviate the pain of Tory cuts. Over the next few years, more and more workers will enter industrial struggle, and Labour must come out in support of them. We must begin to lay the groundwork for a general strike, which could bring this rotten government down. This is the only way out!
Whatever happens, Labour will likely find itself in power again in a few years, or possibly sooner. We must offer an alternative to cuts and austerity – a socialist programme, nationalising the banks and big industries under democratic workers’ control, and bringing this nation’s colossal wealth into the service of working people. Labour must link up with the movements taking place across America, Europe and the Middle East, striving for a better world in which prosperity and opportunity belong to all, not just the privileged few. Only then can we consign the Tories, and the rotten capitalist system they represent, to the dustbin of history!