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Why Ken?

Ken Livingstone may not be Mr Perfect but his election as Labour mayor could create a 'people's champion' to challenge the neo-liberal consensus, argues Martin Cook.

Ken 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 Tory nomination.

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.

January/February 2000