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Livingstone’s London: Millbank’s Nightmare

Matthew Willgress

The long and winding road to Millbank
Ever since Ken Livingstone announced his intention to stand for selection as Labour’s candidate for London mayor, the Blairites have been tying themselves in knots trying to find a way to defeat him. From the start they faced two interconnected problems – first, to find a candidate whom the leadership regarded as politically reliable but who would also command support among the membership; and, second, to find a method of selection which would ensure that the favoured candidate won the party’s nomination. This was easier said than done.

Blair’s first choice as candidate was Frank Dobson, who combined an Old Labour image with proven loyalty to New Labour’s programme. But Dobson at first insisted that he wasn’t interested in standing for London mayor and wanted to keep his job as Health Secretary. As for the selection itself, the Blairites initially favoured self-nomination plus interview by a selection panel, followed by a One Member One Vote (OMOV) ballot – the procedure recommended (undoubtedly under instructions from Millbank) by the Regional Board of the Greater London Labour Party at a meeting as far back as November 1998.

But Millbank’s secret polls of party members indicated that Livingstone would almost certainly win an OMOV ballot. The only way the Blairites could guarantee the desired outcome would be to exclude him from the selection process at the interview stage. This would be facilitated by the self-nomination procedure, since a candidate who received nominations from a range of constituency parties and affiliates would be more difficult to reject. Soon rumours were flying around the press that Livingstone would be kept off the shortlist of candidates for whom party members would be allowed to vote – as was indeed done with any leftists who put themselves forward for selection as a Greater London Assembly (GLA) candidate.

The Guardian of 5 August reported: "The Labour leadership is determined to block Mr Livingstone by declaring him unfit to make the shortlist and has virtually abandoned the idea of trying to defeat him in the London members’ ballot." The article went on to say that the interview panel would be instructed to question Livingstone over his public opposition to key government policies – notably support for the US bombing of Iraq, the refusal to raise income tax on the rich, and the decisions to abolish single parent benefit, stick to Tory spending plans for two years, cut corporation tax and hand over control of interest rates to the Bank of England. Livingstone had even had the gall to state that such policies did not enjoy the support of much of the Labour Party.

The reality, however, was that here Ken was stating the simple truth. On most of the issues in dispute, Livingstone’s views were indeed supported by a majority of the membership. To have excluded him from the shortlist on those grounds would undoubtedly have provoked a major crisis in the party.

The intractable character of the problems Millbank faced is indicated by the fact that it wasn’t until September that the leadership finally pushed Frank Dobson into standing for mayor (that, or off to the back benches, was presumably the threat made to secure his compliance), and the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) at last decided on a selection procedure.

Whereas the party had been assured that the principle of One Member One Vote would be applied, at the last moment the NEC came down in favour of an electoral college in which the vote would be divided three ways, with the individual members receiving only one-third, trade unions and other affiliates a further third, and MPs, MEPs and GLA candidates – all 75 of them – getting the remaining third.

(At its 1998 conference the Greater London Labour Party had voted almost unanimously for an OMOV ballot, with any candidate who was nominated by at least 10 London constituency parties automatically qualifying for the shortlist. However, OMOV is not the system that the left should in general support for internal elections. Although a genuine OMOV ballot would be better than a Blairite stitch-up electoral college, the best system for working class interests would be a different form of electoral college comprising 50% Labour members and 50% trade unions and other affiliates. This would strengthen the union link while giving party members more power than they have under Blair.)

The Blairites had hoped that the electoral college would be the end of it. Surely that would be enough to ensure a victory for Frank, without provoking a backlash in the party by excluding Ken? The MEPs and GLA candidates had been carefully vetted so that no one "off message" had got through the selection process, while the majority of MPs could be intimidated by denying them a secret ballot, thus ensuring that anyone with hopes for a parliamentary career would toe the leadership line. So that was one-third of the total vote almost entirely behind Frank. As for the affiliates’ section, sympathetic trade union bureaucrats could be depended on to cast their block votes for Frank. Indeed, Ken Jackson’s AEEU soon announced that it would be adopting the same position as it had in the Welsh Labour Party leadership election, where the AEEU and GMB had not bothered balloting their members before helping deliver a victory for Blairite clone Alun Michael.

However, other trade unions (or their London regions anyway) proved to be worryingly democratic. The TGWU’s London members were to be balloted and the regional committee was recommending support for Livingstone. UNISON also seemed to be going down the same road. The Blairites’ first move was to suggest that these unions should split their block vote proportionately according to the votes cast for each candidate, as this was clearly more democratic. It seems that it is perfectly alright for the AEEU not to ballot their membership and declare en bloc for Dobson, while unions which balloted, with a majority going for Livingstone, should split their vote, as anything else would be "Old Labour" election fixing! However, the TGWU and UNISON rejected this proposal.

That was not the end of Millbank’s manoeuvres, though. Several unions, including the RMT and MSF, were told they hadn’t paid their affiliation fees on time. This of course meant that they couldn’t vote, which was a coincidence as the RMT and MSF were two unions where Ken would certainly get a majority. This was yet another issue on which the Blairites’ hypocrisy was exposed in public, as they were telling individual members that they could still renew their membership months after the unions had paid up (and even after the unions’ disqualification had been announced).

However, even then the Blairites still couldn’t be sure that Dobson would win. This was the source of the continued rumours that Ken would be vetoed. Millbank had apparently done its sums and calculated that even with a stitched-up electoral college a Livingstone victory was a distinct possibility, such was the level of his support among party members and trade unionists.

In the two weeks or so before Ken was due to go to the dreaded Millbank Tower for interview along with the other aspiring mayoral candidates, there were contradictory messages coming from the Blairite camp as to what would happen. The initial "leaks" were that he was likely to be kept off the shortlist. But then, the weekend before the interview, papers such as the Times were suggesting that Blair would let him stand and that cabinet members were lining up to attack Ken and rally the membership behind Frank Dobson. This was presented as a split between Millbank and Downing Street (who says Blairism is monolithic!).

The main effect of these manoeuvres was to generate sympathy for Ken as a victim of the Millbank machine. Various papers such as the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard carried opinion polls suggesting Livingstone was by far the most popular candidate, with around half of Labour’s supporters backing him. This led to the withdrawal from the mayoral race of Trevor Phillips, who had been offered the position of Dobson’s deputy (and placed at the head of the top-up list of GLA candidates to ensure his election to the Assembly – even though the party members had never actually voted for Phillips to be a candidate!). Glenda Jackson was also put under pressure to stand down in order to allow Frank a clear run as the sole anti-Livingstone candidate (though she defied Millbank and refused to withdraw). But it was still unclear what would occur on Tuesday 15 November when Ken was visiting Millbank to be "interviewed" by the selection panel.

The day of reckoning (or so we thought!)
All the above events should have already demonstrated why socialists should back Livingstone. Not only is he overwhelmingly popular within the working class, but he is also a distinctly anti-Blairite candidate. Although the Labour Party has caused the proponents of New Labour many problems, Livingstone’s mayoral bid is by far the biggest and best-publicised headache so far. It should have been clear by this stage that the progressive nature of the Livingstone campaign was that it contained the real possibility of the Blairites and their political project suffering a damaging defeat.

By the day of Ken’s interview, the prevailing view was that he would be allowed onto the shortlist. The campaign against the record of the GLC, with Neil Kinnock and Dobbo himself sending letters about the "loony left" all over the place, was well under way. However, it seems that the aforementioned split within the Blairite camp over what to do about Ken still existed. This could only have been exacerbated by the ICM poll published in the Guardian on the day of the interview. In a story which dominated the front page, the paper reported that "Ken Livingstone’s bid to become the first directly elected mayor of London now seems unstoppable".

To say that these poll results were a disaster for the Blairites would be an understatement. Firstly, compared with the previous month, Dobson’s support had slipped from 15% to 14% of London voters despite the withdrawal of Trevor Phillips. Dobbo was now behind Glenda Jackson who had risen from 15% to 18%. This was a clear repeat of the message that Welsh voters sent to New Labour last year – that they don’t like being told who they can and can’t vote for.

But the relative rise of Jackson against Dobson was a secondary matter. For the Blairites, the main problem remained Ken. According to the ICM poll, if he were the Labour candidate he would crush the Tories, getting 65% in the first round. The Blairites already knew this, but even more worrying for them was the news that Livingstone could still win if he stood as an independent, in which case Dobson would finish behind the Tory candidate (even the desperate and now sadly de-selected Jeffrey Archer!). After the exclusion of Dobson and the distribution of second-preference votes, Ken could be expected to win by 72% to 28% against the Tory.

On the one hand, if Ken were to be selected as the official Labour candidate and then go on to trounce the Tories, this would lead to a questioning of the New Labour "project" throughout the party. An understanding that adopting Tory policies isn’t necessarily the best way to win elections could spread right across the labour movement. On the other hand, victory for Livingstone as an independent might produce an even bigger crisis. Either way it seemed that Millbank would be on a loser.

While the opinion polls would have horrified Millbank, they buoyed Livingstone. He arrived at Millbank Tower and said in typical Ken style that he would take any oath of loyalty to the Labour Party in any way that they wanted, even with a sword and a mystical stone – as long as they didn’t privatise the Tube! But to everyone’s surprise the issue wasn’t decided that day. The panel decided that they needed to see Ken again on Thursday for further questioning. No one really knew what this meant. The panel’s argument was that Ken didn’t agree with the Labour Party’s London manifesto, but this was hardly persuasive given that the manifesto had not actually been written yet! Indeed, the London Policy Forums hadn’t even been held at that point.

It seemed that even Millbank itself wasn’t quite sure what was happening. Perhaps they really did intend to block him at this stage, but wanted to find a reason which didn’t sound too politically biased and anti-democratic. The decision to re-interview Livingstone was therefore probably a feeble attempt to make the Millbank mafia look fair-minded. After all, they could claim, Ken was interviewed for hours on end, but he just wouldn’t be reasonable and compromise. Therefore we had to exclude him.

On the Thursday, the panel kept Livingstone in Millbank for four hours, showing how desperate they were to get something on him. Great pressure was put on Livingstone to sign up to a statement by John Prescott setting out the government’s plans to hand over sections of the London Underground system to Railtrack, the company implicated in the Paddington rail disaster. However, Livingstone refused to give in, and insisted on his right to campaign against Tube privatisation and for his alternative plan to raise finance by issuing bonds, as has been done in New York.

In the end, the panel had to accept that Ken had the right to campaign for his own policy and could take his place on the shortlist alongside Frank and Glenda. As Ken’s campaign put it afterwards, "they looked each other straight in the eyes and Millbank blinked first". It seems that Blair and Co had concluded that this was the least worst option. The panel postponed the ballot of party members until the new year, nominally to avoid the Christmas post but really because this would give Millbank some much-needed extra time to try and boost Dobson’s popularity among the party membership. Postponement had the additional advantage that if Livingstone lost due to the electoral college fix-up, it would be difficult at such a late stage to launch an independent candidacy.

In announcing the selection board’s decision, its chair Clive Soley attempted to present Livingstone as having agreed to stand on a Labour manifesto that would include part-privatisation of the Tube. However, as Livingstone pointed out, if he wins the selection then it will be clear that the party is opposed to government policy on this issue, and the only democratically acceptable procedure would be to incorporate that decision in the mayoral manifesto.

Therefore in the end the Blairites had decided that it was worth the gamble of letting Livingstone on the shortlist, as this is the way in which they are most likely to stop his name getting on the ballot paper at all next May. However, the results of Livingstone winning the Labour nomination would be an absolute disaster for Blair, as was shown by the hysterical antics of Dobson’s supporters in the days ahead.

Dobson’s dirty campaign part 1: Blair’s attacks
Immediately the decision was taken to allow Ken on the shortlist, Tony Blair was on the TV, radio etc, denouncing Livingstone to anyone who would listen. He told Channel 4: "When I was growing up in the Labour Party and people like Ken, Arthur Scargill and Tony Benn were in control of the Labour Party, they nearly pushed it over the edge of the cliff." There are two points that spring to mind in reply to this. The first is that, apart from in the Tory press’s imagination, the left never actually won control of the Labour Party. And secondly, where it did, the results contradicted Blair’s version of events.

The record of the GLC under Livingstone’s leadership is an example of this. As Ken himself pointed out in the Independent the day before these attacks from Blair: "Under Michael Foot’s leadership of the party, two years after I became leader of the GLC, the Tory lead over Labour in the 1983 election was 2% smaller in London that the rest of the country. By December 1983, Labour was doing 12% better in London than nationally. By March 1984, Labour led the Tories by 10% in London, compared with a Tory lead over Labour nationally of 2%. That, of course, was when Neil Kinnock [who had sent a letter sent to Party members saying that Livingstone was the man who invented "the loony left and everything else that went along with it"] was leading Labour. By September 1984, Labour’s lead in London was 28%, while Labour was still 4% behind the Tories nationally. The London electorate will not be persuaded that its memory is wrong. The last poll conducted by Mori on the GLC’s record was in March 1998. It found that, more than 10 years after its abolition, 51% of Londoners still think the GLC did a good job."

After years of Tory and Blairite attacks, the GLC remains popular with the majority of Londoners! Whether or not the GLC was really that left-wing isn’t the important question – it is perceived as being so, and this result is significant for that reason alone.

But it was Blair’s other attacks which signified just how important for the "project" he believes the mayoral campaign to be, and just why a victory for Ken would be a real blow against Blairism. On Channel 4 Blair said: "This is about the future of the Labour Party. Are we going to remain a moderate, sensible force for the future?" (i.e. a party no different from the Liberals or "One Nation" Tories). He added that he would fight until his "last breath" to ensure that Livingstone didn’t win and return the party to one that was "anti-business and anti-law-and-order".

Indeed, if the truth is told, Blair doesn’t even want a party that is anti-Thatcherite. And if the reports coming from Paddy Ashdown about talks with Blair over the inclusion of Liberals in the cabinet are true, then Blair has confirmed the left’s analysis that he doesn’t even want a Labour government, or indeed any kind of Labour Party at all. The aim of the "project" is the destruction of working class political representation and the recomposition of the centre ground of British politics. That is why the selection of the party’s mayoral candidate is, as Labour Left Briefing has pointed out, the most important internal Labour Party election since the Benn versus Healey contest for the deputy leadership in 1981.

If Livingstone wins it will be a turning point in the fight to keep the party Labour. But if he loses, then the Blair project might well pick up steam again. While this isn’t the final battle to stop Labour being turned into a completely bourgeois party, it might well be the most decisive. Christine Shawcroft says that, at the October Labour NEC meeting, when she challenged our dear leader about his denigration of Livingstone, he answered the question more passionately than any other. This shows just how worried he is.

Dobson’s dirty campaign part 2: Livingstone, the Trots and the Tories
As part of their attempts to discredit Livingstone, the Dobson campaign has, as we have seen above, rehashed all the tactics of Thatcherism. In line with this approach, Dobson’s campaign has attempted to paint Livingstone as being a pawn of "left-wing extremists".

For example, in an interview in the Observer Tony Blair asked the question: "Why is it that every rag and bobtail Trotskyist outfit from the Socialist Workers Party to London Labour Briefing supports him?" One of Frank Dobson’s campaign leaflets adds Socialist Organiser and Ted Knight to the list of Ken’s far left backers, while in the Guardian of 20 November Trevor Phillips pointed to the support of Derek Hatton, the former Militant deputy leader of the anti-Thatcherite Liverpool City Council in the ’80s. "Ken Livingstone’s greatest weakness is his friends", Phillips asserted. "... the addition of Derek Hatton ... only serves to remind us all of the dangers of a Livingstone mayoralty." (Presumably these "dangers" are that he might oppose cuts in the funding of local government, or create jobs, or oppose poverty.)

Apart from the ignorance they demonstrate, with the obvious factual errors over London Labour Briefing and Socialist Organiser (neither has existed for years), the Blairites reveal their contempt for the labour movement. For a start, if Briefing is a "rag and bobtail Trotskyist outfit" then party members voted two "rag and bobtail Trotskyists" onto the NEC this year, as Liz Davies and Christine Shawcroft openly associated themselves with Briefing in their electoral statements. In reality, the widespread support for dissidents like the Grassroots Alliance NEC candidates, and indeed for Livingstone himself, just underlines the fact that the "modernisation" process started by Kinnock and accelerated by the Blairites is not that deep-rooted amongst the Labour Party membership, even if it often seems so on the surface.

Another, rather contradictory, argument put forward by the Blairites has been that Livingstone is the Tories’ preferred Labour candidate. But the truth is that the attacks on Livingstone by the various "new" Labourites have been echoed by the Tories. One of the Blairites’ closest allies in the Conservative Party, Michael Heseltine, pointed this out in the Commons: "What is the difference between what I did, which was to get rid of the GLC and Mr Livingstone, and what this Labour government is trying to do, which is to stop Mr Livingstone. Isn’t the only difference that I succeeded and you are going to fail? ... One of the reasons we did that was because Mr Livingstone was the leader of the GLC and represented an uncontrollable left-wing influence, damaging London." Here Heseltine articulates the bourgeoisie’s class hostility to Livingstone.

Build Livingstone’s campaign!
All socialists should enthusiastically support and seek to build Ken’s campaign, using it as an opportunity to counter the Blairite project. One significant victory over New Labour has already been registered, with the government’s about-face on the issue of handing over the infrastructure of three Underground lines to Railtrack. No one can deny that this is partly due to the pressure of Livingstone’s campaign. As Ken himself put it: "If this is what I can achieve in two weeks as a candidate, think of what I can do for London if I am mayor." A Livingstone victory can be a step towards a mass alternative to Blairism, and is therefore something the left should wholeheartedly back.

This doesn’t mean that we should be completely uncritical of Livingstone. His position on the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was indefensible and he seems to have made a certain political accommodation to Blairism. Also, one of his policies for London suggests that police racism is only the product of a few "bad eggs" inside the Met, which is at best naive. However, at the same time Livingstone has opposed tuition fees, the Asylum Bill and benefit cuts as well as calling for higher taxes and public spending.

Livingstone is therefore something of a contradictory figure. But both his supporters and his Blairite and Tory opponents see him as "Red Ken", and a vote for Livingstone will send a clear message against privatisation and other Tory policies adopted by the present government. We can take the movement generated by Livingstone’s candidacy forward inside the Labour Party, trade unions and society as a whole, and it can become a step towards a genuine socialist alternative in the future.

From What Next? No.15 1999