en Livingstone's campaign to get Labour's
nomination for London Mayor is surely a defining political
moment for Britain as a whole. Some of my political chums
(not many!) find it hard to see why backing Ken is so important.
He can be queried on particular political issues, tactics,
motivation or consistency. Frankly, most of this stuff is
beside the point. The reason why most people I know, and
most of those I've rung up for the campaign locally, support
him is that he is quite simply the 'not Tony Blair, not
new Labour' candidate.
What is clearly not true, contrary to Millbank spin,
is that he is some kind of consistent socialist hard leftist.
Come off it! He's never been a Marxist of any type. The 'trots'
who are giving him critical support are well aware this is
not so, although he's always been prepared to work with forces
well to the left of him including (notoriously) Gerry Healy's
WRP. When he says he's a 'socialist' he defines this as supporting
Keynesianism and redistributive taxation - in the Crosland
/ Hattersley tradition.
The early 1980s GLC, like many London borough councils, did
go over the top on gesture and 'identity' politics, and this
did help make the party unpopular in London. One thinks
of howlers such as the Zhdanov line censorship of tube adverts,
or the banning of a staff 'St. Trinians' social event! However,
this reflected the dominant 'p.c.' mood among many party activists
of the time. While Ken was a sort of lightning rod for that
movement, he was generally speaking a pragmatic, populist
and moderating force (if not re: Northern Ireland!). I myself
heard Margaret Hodge, now a Blairite sycophant, then in charge
of Red Islington, publicly berate Livingstone for setting
a legal rate.
If 'modernisation' means putting traditional Labour values
across in a contemporary, media friendly way, then as they
say 'nobody does it better'. This is his great crime
for Millbank. They know that his straightforward stances:
anti fat cats, anti privatization, pro union, supporting the
underdog, have great resonance with most traditional Labour
supporters who haven't resigned yet, and even with many who
never voted Labour before. All sorts of folk seem to have
an aged relative who's always voted Tory but for some reason
would support Ken in the poll. Whatever their personal merits,
Dobson and Jackson have made no public criticisms of the direction
of policy since 1997, 'old Labour' types as they both are.
Neither makes a pretence of challenging the new orthodoxy
of pleasing big business and doing nothing to alter inequality
except train the jobless for low waged jobs. More to the point,
both would almost certainly lose to Norris if he gets the
The attempt to fix the process by selection panel to exclude
critical options has been used before: the GLA, Welsh, Scottish
and European elections. In each case most leftists and 'classic
Labour' aspirants were airbrushed out and huge numbers of
arriviste Blairistas wheeled in. This time, the only
difference was that Ken was a big name and his astute media
campaign meant they couldn't get away with it.
All the evidence is that Blair's free market, anti-welfare,
pro-corporate policies are immensely unpopular with Labour's
rank and file - eg the big vote Livingstone got against Mandelson
for the NEC in 1997. The problem is that these days, we are
rarely given the option of expressing this and thus huge numbers
of comrades have given up in despair on the very idea of Labour
Party activity. If anything, 'activists' at GCs are probably
less radical than much of the now inactive grass roots.
Every time Livingstone speaks he fills the hall. The campaign
has already re-activated many who had been demoralised. The
extension to February is a welcome bonus! A friend assures
me that two or three comrades in his area have rejoined the
Party on the strength of the campaign. If Ken gets the nomination,
so much the better. It will show the apparatus can
be defeated if only someone makes a stand. Why do party apparatchiks
bother to harass delegates outside hotel rooms until 2
in the morning at obscure Policy Forums over objectively trivial
aspects of welfare reform or private finance? For a perfectly
good reason, that once we saw concessions in one sphere to
working class pressure, who is to say how many would be enthused
to follow the example on all the other issues?
The class struggle, like it or not, needs charismatic personalities
and effective populists. Ken may not be Mr. Perfect or some
great intellectual powerhouse, but I've known the man for
some 30 years and am pretty sure he's on the side of myself
and working people in general when the chips are down (and
the Blairites wouldn't trust him on board anyway).
Sorry if this sounds Machiavellian, but what really counts
is not the finer print of Ken's programme, nor one's views
of him as an effective manager / city leader. It is how the
campaign he fronts can build a movement challenging Blair's
neo-liberal consensus on all kinds of issues. In a recent
Question Time debate from Durham, someone from the
floor said 'if only the people of the north east had someone
to speak up for them like Ken does for the people of London'.
If Livingstone wins, arguably it will have to be as a kind
of 'people's champion' in a tradition going back to the tribunes
and popular leaders of Greek and Roman antiquity.
At least the overall shambles, combined with the threat of
the likes of Del Boy Hatton making a comeback, may dissuade
Millbank from its enthusiasm for this useless American model
of political choice.