Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Should Respect challenge Ken?
There has been a very interesting exchange of views in the Morning Star recently about the wisdom of Respect standing a candidate against Ken Livingston for mayor in 2008.
On 12th April, an editorial argued: “On both domestic and international issues, the mayor of London has provided a progressive base around which socialist, environmentalist and other progressive forces have been able to unite. At the last mayoral election, the Respect candidate polled 4.67 per cent, with just 26 per cent of her second preference votes going to Mr Livingstone. In the event of a close-run contest next year, such a tally of more than three missing percentage points could prove decisive in working out whether we have a progressive mayor - warts and all - or a disastrous return to the discriminatory and divisive policies associated with Tory rule. The left cannot afford to indulge in the luxury of division. A unified popular movement, shattering the narrow confines of new Labour neoliberalism, could deliver a Livingstone victory and open the way to further successes based on unity of the left.”
The Morning Star is nominally independent of the CP, but there is no doubt that it is the party speaking here. They make the excellent point that this will be a dirty election. “Tory leader David Cameron has told the Jewish Chronicle in a recent interview, which proclaimed that "my values are Jewish values," falsely accused the London mayor of "borderline anti-semitism." And the Standard, which monopolises London's evening newspaper market, carried five substantial articles attacking the mayor's policies in a single fortnight. These included Mr Livingstone's links with Cuba and Venezuela, including the exchange of cheap Venezuelan fuel for expertise and advice, which London Tory leader Angie Bray misrepresented as a one-sided deal to benefit one of the world's most prosperous cities at the expense of Venezuelans struggling below the poverty line. The Standard also slated the mayor's transport policies, including free travel for under-18s in full-time education, free travel on buses and trams for under-16s and free travel on Tube and Dockland Light Railway for under-11s in the company of an adult. Such policies are generally popular in London, but there is a clear intention by Mr Livingstone's opponents to carry out a drip-drip incessant campaign to distract the public from the essence of his policies and to convince voters that he has character defects that will reflect badly on their city.”
Of course they also recognise that: “Although seen largely as his own man, he may still lose some votes on the basis of his party affiliation, as part of the rising tide of dissatisfaction with new Labour. And some issues - such as the envisaged contracting out of the East London Line that was forced on Transport for London by the government as a quid pro quo for bringing the North London Line under TfL control - have angered the trade unions and risk losing him some support.”
This isn’t a clear cut issue, and on Monday 23rd, Lindsay German and George Galloway replied , reminding us that the Respect candidate came fifth in the last Mayoral election, beating both the British National Party and the Greens.
They argue that: “The electoral system for London mayor actually makes it very hard for the vote to be split, since it operates on the basis of transfers - all candidates bar the top two have their second preference vote distributed to eventually determine the winner. Respect's candidate was the only one to call clearly for transfers to Ken in 2004 and more than a quarter of those voters responded - a relatively high proportion. … Not to stand for mayor would put Respect at a disadvantage in relation to these other parties, especially with regard to the list for the assembly, where, last time, we narrowly missed the 5 per cent that would have got us elected. … Without a mayoral candidate, the party has no access to the booklet which goes into every London household, no chance of appearing at hustings, little media exposure and no television and radio broadcast. That would mean Respect standing with one hand tied behind its back."
They also make the good point that the prospects of the Tories coming up with a serious candidate who can beat Ken are looking remote.
They stress the advantages of a left campaign: “it is important that a strong left voice is heard round many of the issues facing Londoners - the acute housing crisis, which is not being dealt with, the transport system, which is both the most expensive and one of the worst in the world, the privatisation of the East London Line and the business agenda, which is making London a worse place for many of the poor to live. “
Respect are correct to point out that Livingston has a flawed record on delivering services to working class Londoners, and his. “popularity …. tends to be over those issues where he differs from the Labour government - his anti-racist and anti-war stances, his support for countries such as Venezuela and his commitment to equal rights. ….. Ken has a year to bolster his own support by stressing these elements of his programme and further distancing himself from Blair and Brown. Many Londoners are dissatisfied with the record of new Labour in government and will not turn out to vote Labour in the numbers that they once did. A vote for Respect by these people will help the left and can help Ken by lifting the left vote overall from people who might otherwise abstain.”
They also argue that a “good vote for Respect will also help to keep the fascist BNP off the assembly. More votes for new Labour will not keep the BNP off the assembly, because the proportional representation system favours the election of smaller parties. So, the only way of keeping the BNP off is to vote for a left-wing, smaller party.”
This last argument was also used by Respect in the North West constituency in the Euro elections in 2004, and is based upon an incorrect understanding of how the d’Hondt voting system works. There is a good discussion of the argument by Pete Cranie here . Basically, this is only true if Respect get more votes than the BNP, but a lot has changed since the 2004 mayoral elections and the BNP are much stronger now in London. What is more, a tactical vote in the London regional list to keep the BNP out would be better placed for the Greens, who are the minor party most likely to get more votes than the BNP.
But the big issue is not the BNP, but the strategic task of building opposition to neo-liberalism, and an alternative to New Labour.
The key point to grasp here is that the progressive base of the Labour Party, its working class electoral constituency, and its reservoir of support from the unions is largely intact, but the party itself has irrevocably moved away from that base towards neo-liberalism and an authoritarian agenda of social conformity.
But building an alternative to fill the space vacated by Labour, will perhaps require a long process of patient work. I was at Southern Regional Council of the GMB last Friday (which covers London south of the river), and although we decided to support Peter Hain for deputy leadership, when I talk to the other delegates it is clear that dissatisfaction with New Labour is extremely high. But this key layer of movement activists are not ready to break with Labour, rather they want Labour to be better than it is.
It is essential that any attempt to build a left alternative to Labour simultaneously works to strengthen the hand of our friends and allies who are still in the Labour Party. Most union activists will not abandon hard won ground within the Labour party until they have exhausted their options of trying to move the Labour party closer to an agenda in the interest of working people. Now in reality, the right within the party have decisively defeated the left and unions, but many trade unionists (perhaps due to the triumph of hope over experience) have not yet acknowledged that. For all his faults, Ken Livingston is someone who socialists can build a progressive campaign around, both inside and outside the Labour party, and inside and outside the unions, which consolidates the progressive base for future battles.
Of course, part of this argument is that the last four years have not seen Respect develop towards being a party that established labour movement activists would join or support. It is widely seen as undemocratic and an SWP front, and Galloway’s standing is in tatters after Big Brother, his low profile in the constituency and general reputation for being self serving.
Lindsay German is a good mayoral candidate for the left, a talented woman, a dedicated activist and a good speaker. But the interests of the left, including the long term interests of building a left alternative to labour, are not best served by a Respect mayoral challenge next year. Paradoxically, the best way in the long run to build an electoral challenge to Labour may be to back labour for mayor.