London – Lessons of an unnecessary defeat

by Alex Taylor

The aim of Ken Livingstone’s campaign in London was straightforward. It was to try to win the ability to use the resources of a powerful institution, that of the Mayor, to defend the living standards of ordinary people in London. As such it was inevitably going to face the most ferocious attack by capital.

The project of capitalism in Europe and this country at present is totally clear. Having led the continent into the deepest economic crisis for eighty years its aim is to try to overcome its own crisis through a huge transfer of wealth from the poorest members of society to the richest. That is the sole objective of the ‘austerity’ policies throughout Europe, as it is of those of the Tory led coalition here.

These policies are not aimed at ‘restoring growth’ – in which they have totally failed. Their aim is to make the average and poorest members of society pay for a crisis which they did not create in order to benefit the richest in society who did create it.

To carry out this goal in this country and Europe capital has two main weapons. The first is to reduce living standards: directly through unemployment, wage increases below the rate of inflation – or even direct wage cuts, reduced benefits, attacks on pension rights and many other economic means. But because these policies may lead to opposition from a broad swathe of the population, both those on average incomes and the poorest, that is the working class, capital has to try to persuade them that someone else, other than capital, is responsible for the pain they are feeling.

For that reason the economic offensive by capital is accompanied by systematic racism – aimed in particular, although not exclusively, against the Muslim community. The aim of this is to persuade the sections of the population whose living standards are under attack that, rather than resist this, they should instead form an alliance with capital directed against the poorest and most oppressed members of society.

Simultaneously capital, particularly in North America, is attempting to strengthen itself economically through undertaking reckless policies which worsen environmental problems and global warming – for example large scale development of shale gas.

Such policies show that not only is the economic system of capitalism wrong but they demonstrate its complete moral bankruptcy. Capital is leading an assault on the weakest in society using some of the most reactionary ideologies ever developed by humanity. This has to be fought not even purely from the point of view of socialism but from that of any decent development of humanity.

That is what Ken Livingstone attempted in London. He proposed policies which would have transferred significant resources from capital to the average and poorest members of society through fares cuts, saving Londoners money on heating, restoration of Educational Maintenance Allowance and a relentless fight against racism. That is, he proposed an alliance of the average and poorest members of society to protect their interests against capital, and simultaneously to fight for the long term interests of humanity in defence of the environment.

He was defeated in this. But it is a fight which has no option to go on until it is successful. Because defeating these policies of capital is the only way that the progressive development of humanity can be resumed.

We should clarify what role readers of Socialist Action played in this. They played an entirely central role in developing the policies which were widely admired during the campaign, not only by socialists but by writers in wider publications such as the Guardian – on fares, on saving money on insulation and bulk purchase of electricity, on a non-profit making lettings agency, and on restoration of the Educational Maintenance Allowance.

The campaign on the first of these policies, on fares, through December and January, took Ken Livingstone from 8% behind Johnson in the polls to a situation where two different opinion polls put him 2% ahead. As it is known from the actual results that all the opinion polls had a bias towards underestimating Ken Livingstone’s support it is possible he was further ahead. Given that these policies had produced a 10% advance in the polls, and our readers and ideas had played a central role in three previous elections in which Ken Livingstone had outpolled Labour, we anticipated this approach would be followed in the rest of the campaign.

Instead of pressing home the advantage, focusing relentlessly on the policy to cut fares and other policies which benefitted Londoners, and ensuring as many Londoners as possible knew that Boris Johnson planned to raise their fares above inflation every year, the campaign embarked upon a course with which we entirely disagreed. That was to shift to negative campaigning focused on Boris Johnson as an individual – his having a second job earning a large salary which he had described as ‘chicken-feed’ (this was even taken as far as setting up a ‘Chickenfeed’ website). This had the inevitable affect of diverting attention away from the real political divide between the candidates and on to precisely the terrain on which the Tories wanted to fight – a personalised Boris versus Ken battle, not centering on the key policies that affected Londoners.

It was evident in advance that the capitalist media would engage in character assassination against Ken Livingstone to attempt to change the agenda of the election. This duly came in the attack on his taxes – an issue which would not affect the position of any Londoner by one penny, but which became the relentless theme of the capitalist media.

Such a type of attack, whose aim was to change the agenda of the election from the one which had led to Ken Livingstone’s rapid advance in the polls, was inevitable. There is only one way to deal with it. That is to respond to the allegations as simply and briefly as possible and get back onto the issues that actually affect the position of the great majority of people, and to point out that these attacks were an attempt to divert attention from the issues that actually affect Londoners to a purely personalised negative campaign. This is in line with the central rule of elections – that whoever sets the agenda wins. This view was ignored.

Moreover, it was much harder to make the true case that the ‘Ken’s tax’ issue was a diversion from the real issues because the campaign had already chosen to make the candidates’ personal income an issue.

Socialist Action readers argued in the strongest terms against these tactics but this was rejected. In the period these tactics were used Ken Livingstone slid in the polls from 2% ahead of Johnson to 8% behind and it was not possible to make up this gap.

We deeply regret that the approaches in this campaign with which we disagreed had precisely the consequences we feared.

Given the closeness of the final result it is clear that if these mistakes had not been made Ken Livingstone would almost certainly have won. Millions of average and poorer Londoners would be better off as a result and the struggle against the assault on ordinary people everywhere would have been strengthened.

Ken Livingstone rightly commands tremendous respect from socialists and indeed from wider progressive views. In his career he was prepared to stand up for lesbian and gay people thirty years ago when he was subject to vicious attacks in the media for it. He was pioneering on women’s rights and representation. As leader of the GLC he benefitted millions of Londoners though lower fares. He supported the campaign for Irish independence, and started a dialogue with Sinn Fein, when that was also denounced in the media. He uncompromisingly opposed racism in the police long before the Macpherson report gave the proper name to the situation in Metropolitan Police – institutionalised racism. He has stood foursquare with the Muslim community at a time when they are being demonised in the way Jewish people were in the 1930s. He opposed the imperialist war in Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. Even when he was defeated his advocacy of policies such as extending the Freedom Pass for older Londoners forced the adoption of these policies by others.

While small socialist newspapers could only make propaganda on these questions, Ken Livingstone reached and influenced the views of millions of people on them. On all these issues he moved opinion forward. That is a tremendous achievement – a lasting page in the history of the struggle for progress in this country. The history of this movement for progress will therefore look back on that career with deep respect.

At the same time, we think it was entirely correct, in this election campaign, to attempt to defend the ordinary people of London from the attack that is continuing to be made on them by this government. The aim is not that Labour, or any other party, rather than the Tories, should administer savage attacks on ordinary people. The only goal of interest is to use every instrument available to protect ordinary people.

What the London and other recent elections show is two things.

First, that by a very small margin, which could have been avoided, it was not possible on an all-London level to roll back the Tory offensive. Second, in some of those parts of the country – containing some of the most oppressed sections of the population – there have been fightbacks with successes. In Bradford, George Galloway’s victory in the by-election, followed by Respect successes in the local council elections, showed the population of Bradford fighting back. In one of the most oppressed parts of London, Tower Hamlets, those forces supporting Lutfur Rahman have so far successfully driven back a disgraceful racist offensive against him. And of course many individuals up and down the country are opposed to the attacks being carried out by the Tory-led government and will also resist any policies by Labour which merely mean that they administer the most central of these attacks instead of the Tories.

Many on the left outside the Labour Party have an incorrect, sectarian and ultra-left approach to it. It is not a step forward that socialists, and others who simply have progressive opinions, have been forced out of Labour. To defend the population from attacks by capital it is necessary to use the strongest possible instruments available and most of these at present are inside the Labour Party and movement. That is why Ken Livingstone was entirely correct to try to win the position of Mayor of London to use it to defend ordinary people. As the mass of the population are concerned with defending their own situation against the most serious attacks waged on them for eighty years, they will not support socialists who seek to promote their own sectarian ‘anti-Labour’ projects rather than seeking the widest possible unity against the Tory attack.

One of the most fundamental reasons George Galloway has had electoral success far exceeding other small left groups is that he has been totally clear that it is capital that is the fundamental enemy, and he has not hesitated to base himself on the most progressive traditions which exist in the British labour movement. It was Labour which threw him out for opposing a war which was objectively barbarous and criminal and which the majority of the population now believes should not have been waged. He did not walk out. In struggles between the Tories and Labour he has not been in the slightest neutral – he has backed Labour without equivocation. Equally the most serious forces within the Labour Party, who are committed to resisting capital’s attack, regret that socialists and progressive forces have been forced out of the Labour Party and are committed to working with them in the fight against the Tories and Labour.

There should be no misunderstanding. The reason the left in the Labour Party today is weak is because the working class has suffered serious defeats. It is a total illusion, which merely serves to disorient those believing it, to have an analysis that there are millions of people in Britain today willing to support forces to the left of the Labour Party. There are a few hundred thousand people prepared to support parties to the left of Labour, compared to the eight and a half million who voted Labour even in a bad year such as 2010. Only in a few of the most oppressed parts of the country, precisely places such as Tower Hamlets and Bradford, are forces to left of Labour stronger than the Labour Party. Any resumption of the advance of the working class will lead to a strengthening of the left wing within the Labour Party, not to the Labour Party being rapidly bypassed. This is the fundamental framework that any attempt to build a serious left in this country must have.

The struggle in this country will be long and hard – it is one of the oldest imperialist powers. In Britain therefore it is necessary to organise whoever can be organised and fight back against this offensive by capital. But we are buoyed, and that struggle is aided, by the fact that in other parts of the world people are making greater advances.

And, after all, in this country at this moment socialists are asked to make no significant sacrifices whatever apart from give out leaflets, canvass, demonstrate and attend sometimes boring meetings – what incredible suffering! In Vietnam three million people had to die to liberate their country. In Ireland, within our lifetime, Bobby Sands and other heroes of Ireland gave their lives to take forward the cause of Ireland’s freedom. Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison gave her life, by throwing herself under the king’s horse, so women could win such an elementary right as the ability to vote.

Meanwhile, in addition to killing hundreds of thousands in a country such as Iraq, capital throws millions of people into poverty in its imperialist heartlands, whips up hatred of people, to every level including violence and killings, just because of the colour of their skin, their ethnic background or their religious beliefs.

It is not necessary to stop or be discouraged for a moment. It is simply necessary to prepare for the next struggle.