Ken Livingstone – the last reformist?

Issue: 113

Charlie Kimber

London’s Evening Standard newspaper recently ran the front page headline ‘Ken Backs Terrorist on the Tube’. Most of the capital’s 7 million inhabitants will have been in no doubt who ‘Ken’ was. Almost uniquely among British politicians, London Mayor Ken Livingstone has achieved the status of being recognisable from his first name alone. But the headline relied on more than that. It rested on the readers’ supposed awareness that Ken, with his left wing background and reputation for outrageous statements, was just the sort of man who might defend the employment of terrorists on the tube.1

Livingstone has been mayor for six years and has retained a certain popularity in limited circles. It is not the genuine popularity engendered by, for example, Tony Benn, but given that most Labour Party members who are in office are actively disliked by very many people, Livingstone is a bit unusual.

Yet even Livingstone’s greatest admirer would be hard pushed to say he has brought great change or improvements in London. There are some more buses, there is (temporarily) less traffic in central London, and there are some excellent anti-racist initiatives. But what people generally like is more a tone, a sense that Livingstone is not another Labour clone, that he is a bit rebellious and ready to step out of line if he feels he needs to.

Such a reputation is greatly overdone. Livingstone has proved a good friend of the government and far less of a problem that any of Labour’s leaders predicted. He is the embodiment of how very small reforms can sometimes give someone a lustre well beyond what they deserve if there is no alternative that both criticises the existing forces and points to a credible alternative. Reformism thrives on the fact that small improvements are still possible, and that these loom large until something better becomes real to most people.

He is full of contradictions, a man who sometimes talks radical but mostly delivers exactly what the rich and powerful desire.

It is important to stress that Livingstone also retains a level of popularity because he has always been on the right side on the central issue of domestic and global politics, the war on Iraq. In this he differed sharply from 1999, when during the NATO assault on Yugoslavia Livingstone urged on the Western powers’ assault. He compared Serbian leader Milosevic to Hitler, warned of the dangers of what he called genocide, and praised foreign secretary Jack Straw for taking ‘the first steps to creating a global resolve that those with power are not allowed to abuse it with impunity’.2

But there has never been a shred of backing for bombs on Iraq. Livingstone was on the great anti-war march of 15 February 2003, where he told protesters, ‘Let everyone recognise what has happened here today: that Britain does not support this war for oil. The British people will not tolerate being used to prop up the most corrupt and racist American administration in over 80 years.’

He said earlier:

There is now a growing and powerful international consensus that a war against Iraq must not happen. I am pleased to be adding my voice to the international consensus against this war by speaking at the Stop the War rally, and I would urge Londoners to add their voices too by joining the march.3

Livingstone has not been afraid to tear into the US president, saying just after the war began that:

George Bush is just about everything that is repellent in politics. He is not a legitimate president. This really is a completely unsupportable government and I look forward to it being overthrown as much as I looked forward to Saddam Hussein being overthrown.4

When Bush came on an official visit to London, Livingstone brushed aside US requests for protests to be outlawed and told would-be demonstrators:

You have the moral high ground. You are protesting against an illegal war and occupation. Some US journalist came up to me and said, ‘How can you say this about President Bush?’ Well, I think what I said then was quite mild. I actually think that Bush is the greatest threat to life on this planet that we’ve most probably ever seen.5

Livingstone also defended Muslims against the recent wave of demonisation. Speaking at the launch of the first ever report into Muslims living in London, Livingstone said much of the ongoing debate about Muslim dress implied the community was ‘somehow at fault’ for being at the centre of the storm.

He said the ‘vast amount of verbiage’ about the issue had been ‘quite breathtaking’ and that very little was said about barriers the community faces in Britain, such as the ‘systematic pattern of discrimination against Muslims in employment’:

It is quite clear that the problems we have in Britain are not because Muslims wish to be separate. I think the entire debate has been totally lopsided as though Muslims were somehow at fault for this. That echoes very much the demonology of Nazi Germany when Hitler said it was the Jews’ fault and the problems were brought upon themselves.6

But that is not nearly enough to make him an alternative focus to New Labour. This is also the man who has denounced anti-capitalist protesters, called on workers to cross picket lines to break strikes, campaigned for even the most right wing Labour candidates at elections, achieved a good working relationship with Tony Blair, produced a pro-business plan for London and backed the police who murdered Jean Charles de Menezes.

Livingstone is reputed to be a thorn in New Labour’s side, yet in November 2006 the government published a bill proposing an enhanced package of powers for the Mayor of London and the London Assembly—building on its ‘success to date’.

He also lets taxis drive in the bus lanes—sometimes it’s the little things that get to you.

The birth of ‘Red Ken’

Born in 1945, Livingstone joined the Labour Party in the late 1960s, a time when the party was haemorrhaging members due to the betrayals of the Harold Wilson government. He rose rapidly through the ranks, winning election to local councils and then the Greater London Council (GLC). He showed a willingness to champion left wing causes and oppose spending cuts, combined with a quick sense of where the best chance for furthering his career lay. The GLC election of 1981 saw a revolt against the national Thatcher government and the London regime of Tory Horace ‘Cuts’ Cutler. The Labour Party narrowly won control.

The day after the election Livingstone challenged as the left’s candidate for the leadership of the Labour group and won by 30 votes to 20. As GLC leader he immediately got headlines for measures such as refusing to use the official limousine and continuing to live in his bedsit flat.

But the first serious reform was the Fares Fair campaign. The GLC cut bus and tube fares by 25 percent. It was a brilliant success. After 30 years of steady decline, passenger traffic increased by 11 percent on the buses and 7 percent on London Underground. More buses were put on the roads, more trains on the track, and London Transport took on 600 extra staff.

But Fares Fair was not to last. Tory-controlled Bromley council took the GLC to court, on the grounds that its ratepayers’ money was being used to support a policy that brought them no benefit. The Law Lords ruled that Fares Fare was illegal.

Propaganda by the right wing press was unremittingly hostile. A £3,500 donation to a refuge for prostitutes was branded as ‘Pornography On The Rates’ by the Daily Mail. When the GLC gave a £15,000 grant to a company to train black businessmen, the Sun accused it of ‘reverse racism’ and was soon to say that Livingstone was ‘the most odious man in Britain’.

The Tories and the press did their best to undermine the GLC but they failed. So in 1986 they abolished it, putting Livingstone out of a job. A year later he was elected as MP for Brent East in north west London. For ten years he remained a well-known figure, but far removed from any real influence on Labour or on national events.

He tried to stand for the leadership in 1992 but could not get the required number of nominations, and the same happened in 1997 when he wanted to stand for the deputy leadership.

He returned to national prominence in September 1997 when he defeated the ultra-Blairite Peter Mandelson for a position on the party’s national executive. Two years later he announced that he would stand to become Labour’s candidate for the newly created post of London mayor, with opposition to the privatisation of the London Underground (tube) at the centre of his campaign. After losing a rigged selection procedure to the leadership’s choice, Frank Dobson, Livingstone announced he would stand as an independent. He was expelled from the Labour Party, but won a clear victory at the election of May 2000. In September 2002 the party’s ruling executive rejected his application to rejoin the party. But in January 2004 he was allowed back, becoming the Labour candidate for the 2004 mayoral election and then winning again.

The war on terror

The dreadful events of 7 July 2005, when bombs on tube trains and a bus in London killed 56 people and injured over 700 were a tragedy. They also were a challenge to every political force. The bombs killed innocent people including opponents of the war, and were no challenge to imperialism—as the whole anti-war movement made clear. But the key issue was whether they were linked to Iraq and Blair’s policies. In the days immediately after the attack Livingstone did not make the link with Iraq. His initial statement simply denounced the bombers and said the bombs were ‘just an indiscriminate attempt at mass murder and we know what the bombers’ objective is. They seek to divide Londoners’.7 Just crazed bombers it seemed, and no political implications.

Then on 20 July Livingstone was asked what he thought had motivated the bombers and he told Radio 4 listeners:

You’ve just had 80 years of Western intervention into predominantly Arab lands because of the Western need for oil. We’ve propped up unsavoury governments. We’ve overthrown ones we didn’t consider sympathetic. Under foreign occupation and denied the right to vote, denied the right to run your own affairs, often denied the right to work for three generations—I suspect that if it had happened here in England, we would have produced a lot of suicide bombers ourselves.8

This was a big shift. In August, Livingstone settled on what has become his final position:

The London bombings demand clear thinking, not rhetoric. People’s lives depend on the decisions made. These must be for every community to aid the police in preventing attacks; to treat Britain’s Muslim community with respect, both because it is right and to shrink the pools terrorists operate in; and for Britain to withdraw from Iraq.

So he did make the link with Iraq and opposed a racist backlash against Muslims. But he went on:

Nevertheless, I want to make the point to some opponents of the war. It is not a policy simply to explain to people: ‘You are dying because Britain is in Iraq.’ The bombers came to kill indiscriminately. Right now, only the police can stop bombers. Anyone who tries to avoid this is not dealing with what are literally life and death matters. Opponents of the war should continue to oppose it. But they also have to say to London’s communities: ‘Cooperate with the police to catch terrorists’.9

Such an approach, which put cooperation with the police first, weakened the more general political points. It could also lead in some hands to demands on Muslims of whether they were ‘doing enough’ to ‘root out terrorists’ in their community. It opened the door to the line from home secretary John Reid and others that there is a problem with Muslims sheltering bombers in their midst and that they must demonstrate more forcefully their commitment to ‘British values’, preferably by backing the war in Iraq.

It was not the position that Livingstone had adopted in 1981 after the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had bombed London’s Chelsea barracks. Then he said, ‘Nobody supports what happened last Saturday in London. But what about stopping it happening? As long as we are in Ireland, people will be letting off bombs in London. I can see that we are a colonial power holding down a colony. For the rest of the time violence will recur again and again as long as we are in Ireland. People in Northern Ireland see themselves as subject peoples. If they were just criminals or psychopaths they could be crushed. But they have a motive force which they think is good’.10

The police and Blair praised Livingstone’s August 2006 statement. Perhaps their support was based on the evidence Livingstone had already given them of his willingness to support the police to the hilt at a key moment.

On 22 July the police had shot and killed the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes. There was outrage at the killing. But Livingstone said, ‘The police acted to do what they believed necessary to protect the lives of the public. This tragedy has added another victim to the toll of deaths for which the terrorists bear responsibility’.11 Note, not the government, not the police, but the 7/7 bombers alone were responsible for Jean Charles’s death.

And Livingstone has not wavered an inch in his support for the police or Metropolitan Police chief Ian Blair since. Ian Blair, who said Muslims were in a ‘state of denial’ about terrorism, has come close to being driven from office as evidence emerged about the lies in the police account of the de Menezes killing. But Livingstone has repeatedly stressed that he has his full backing. This continued even after the Forest Gate raid in June 2006 when Mohammed Abdul Kahar was shot in a police raid which saw 250 officers following up ‘good intelligence’ of a chemical bomb—which was never found. ‘I have great confidence in the Met police,’ said Mr Livingstone. ‘I was a deep critic 25 years ago but I realise that the force has been transformed’.12

Livingstone has both collapsed into support for the police and moved away from any linkage between terrorism and Iraq. As so often, he speaks well about events until it gets difficult, and then he collapses into support for the ruling order.13

The support has not just been in words. Livingstone has used nearly two thirds of the money which Londoners pay for the mayoralty on the police, with over 5,000 extra officers since he became mayor.

Livingstone and big business

Just before the London mayoral election in 2004 the bosses’ Economist magazine dispensed advice which may have shocked some of its readers. It called for a vote for Livingstone. Its reasoning was simple: ‘The former figurehead of Labour’s “loony left” has shaved off his moustache, taken to television chat shows and decided that keeping businessmen happy so that they create more and better-paid jobs is a better way of improving the workers’ lot than the class struggle.’ It added, ‘On planning, Mr Livingstone has delighted London’s businessmen. He has used his powers to allow through schemes for a rash of new skyscrapers which outrage conservationists, but promise jobs, cash and the visual thrill that comes (at least from far away) when sharp new buildings slice the skyline’.14

Livingstone’s views have been ‘evolving’ for a long time. In 1999 he said, ‘Twenty years ago I would have said a central planned economy could be made to work better than the Western capitalist economy; I don’t believe that any more. I think it is quite clear that as a system for the distribution and exchange of goods the market can’t be bettered’.15

Once elected in 2000 Livingstone sought partnerships with business organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry and the London Chamber of Commerce. He called for ‘a strong partnership with every section of London business, the City, large employers and small firms’.

The Mayor’s London Plan was unveiled in June 2002, a strategic overview for the next two decades. There were many warm words about the environment, social planning, affordable housing and much else.

But at its heart was a vision to attract jobs for a city whose population was rising sharply. Of the 636,000 new jobs the mayor was projecting for London, 454,000 were expected to be in financial services. The immediate implication was the building of new office accommodation—the equivalent of an additional 75 Canary Wharfs. More seriously it meant attracting banks and financial institutions who had very little interest in notions of social planning and every interest in profits.

The bankers were wooed by accommodating planning decisions and no genuine moves against big business. The central elements of Livingstone’s mayoralty—more police, the congestion charge and developments where 70 percent of housing is ‘unaffordable’16—were perfectly acceptable to giant firms.

By 2006 the Guardian could report that:

Post-Enron corporate regulations mean that Russian companies are choosing London instead of Wall Street to raise money via flotations. Livingstone says, ‘Chinese firms are splitting 50-50 between us and New York. Clearly, the vast bulk of Indian investment is coming to London. All the emerging economies see London as the best place to do business. And if we can secure that position then we’re set fair for another 100 years and not just getting me through to the next election.’

Such a strategy blunted any confrontation with Tony Blair. It would be very hard for Livingstone to criticise the Labour leader for making too many concessions to business when his core plan is based on such compromises.

It meant it was impossible, for example, to impose taxes on office building. If every office development paid a tax that was earmarked for public housing then it would have laid a basis for desperately needed low-cost rented accommodation. So would a tax on second homes in London and buy for let properties.17

But such polices might have alienated some of the bankers and finance houses that Livingstone had decided were crucial.

A privatised tube

Think of one solid achievement of the Livingstone mayoralty. Most people would say the congestion charge. He took the political risk of charging cars £5 to enter central London during weekdays. And it worked. A year after its introduction in February 2003 Livingstone could say:

Congestion charging was a radical solution to a long-standing problem. London’s roads were clogged with slow-moving traffic and congestion was costing business £2 million a week. This is the only thing that I have done or been associated with in 33 years of public life that has turned out better than I thought it would. Despite the dire predictions before the launch of the scheme, congestion charging has proved a success and that is why nearly 75 percent of Londoners now support the scheme—because it works.18

Leave aside the very New Labourish method of phrasing success in terms of what benefits business, and Livingstone could indeed point to improvements. Traffic delays inside the charging zone were 30 percent lower than before charging was introduced, traffic levels entering the zone during charging hours were down 18 percent and there was an increase of 29,000 bus passengers entering the zone during the morning peak period.

It should be noted that about a quarter of the displaced traffic simply moved to roads around the charging zone. But half of the displaced drivers moved to public transport and another quarter to walking or cycling.

In general it is only the ‘Mr Toads’ of this world that get really angry about the congestion charge. But there are genuine questions to be asked. The congestion charge, the same price for all, is regressive. A fiver is a lot for a postal worker or a secretary. It’s the price of a Perrier water in a posh restaurant for a chief executive. The charge is rationing by price, and the poor are hit harder than the rich.

Livingstone argued that the poorest people don’t use cars in London. He was right up to a point. In 2003 in London 37 percent of households, mainly the least well off, had no car and relied entirely on public transport. Among the poorest tenth of people in London 88 percent had no car.

Most of those who drive into central London each day are by definition better off, with parking at £4 an hour unless they have access to company car parks. But the effect of the scheme was to push off the roads those who felt the charge most—workers on average wages or less. The real answer to London’s traffic nightmare is not rationing by wealth. The technology used to run the scheme could have been used to ration car use on the basis of need instead.

People who have a greater need to use cars—the disabled, some pensioners, parents of younger children, some workers doing essential jobs—could have been given free permits. Others could have been restricted to a maximum number of journeys a year into central London, limited by the overall need to keep traffic at a liveable level. That would have been a fair way to tackle the immediate congestion, while moving on to the crucial question of greatly improving public transport.

Livingstone has made some populist moves to rectify the regressive nature of the charge. The £8 a day rate (introduced in 2005) will rise to £25 for cars such as 4×4s—‘Chelsea tractors’—that emit high levels of carbon dioxide. Livingstone says he wants this rate introduced by 2009 to combat climate change and that the charge would apply to vehicles in Band G, the top road tax rate—although this covers some family ‘people carriers’ as well as bankers’ limousines.

There is another question—what happened to the congestion charge cash? Much of it of course went to Capita, the private firm brought in to run the system. But apart from that fat cat levy, the main destination for the money was not for improvements such as ‘more buses’, as Livingstone claimed. The real answer was, ‘To Gordon Brown’.

Cuts in the London transport budget wiped out the money raised from the charge. Transport for London said ministers cut its budget for 2004-05 by £125 million and by £200 million in 2005-06. This almost exactly took away the £130 million a year raised from the charge.

But let’s accept that Livingstone produced a very limited form of improvement through his congestion charge. It was class-biased and partial, but still an improvement.

That verdict can’t be applied to the wider issue of public transport.

Opposition to the privatisation of the London Underground was the central element in Livingstone’s 2000 manifesto, and as soon as he was elected the battle against Private Public Partnership (PPP) began. The argument was clear: from 1998 onwards the government had said that the new investment that was undoubtedly needed on the tube must come from involving the private sector, just as was proposed for the NHS and schools. Livingstone said that the public sector could do the job.

The fight was important enough in its own right, but it also focused attention on a central policy of the Labour government. The rail unions, which had supported Livingstone’s election, were also prepared to fight. They had already struck in June and July of 1998 and February 1999 over the issue. The two main unions, Aslef and the RMT, were well organised. And a poll in the summer of 1999 had shown that two thirds of Londoners were against any form of tube privatisation. But the campaign failed.

One reason was that the unions, in order to keep within the anti-union laws, framed their dispute as being over the ‘effects of privatisation’ rather than privatisation itself. This meant they could strike legally, but it also meant the struggle was sidetracked into questions of the precise terms that would be acceptable for transfer. In the end this was disastrous. Despite the magnificent strike of February 2001, which saw RMT members refusing to cross Aslef picket lines, the unions first split over what was an acceptable deal, and were then all panicked into accepting agreements in case they were ‘left behind’ as privatisation rolled on.

But the biggest factor throughout was Livingstone himself. He never put himself at the head of a serious fight. He first proposed the issue of bonds as a revenue-raising device rather than privatisation. This deflected attention away from the basic confrontation over ownership, and he then allowed the battle to peter out.

Soon after his election victory, Livingstone’s appointments showed where he was going. He found jobs for the Tory and the Lib Dem he had defeated. But a bigger surprise was in store. In the autumn of 2000 Livingstone encouraged Bob Kiley to come from the US to take a central role in London’s transport system. The two described their relationship as ‘a CIA activist working for an unreconstructed Trotskyite’.19 Kiley had certainly worked for the CIA, rising to be executive assistant to the agency director. But if Livingstone had ever been a Trotskyist, he certainly wasn’t now.

Kiley had a reputation for taking on organised workers. On the New York subway, supposed to be his greatest triumph, he had increased the pace of work, imposed lower pay for new starters, cut bonuses for night and weekend working, cut jobs, and brought in private companies to do maintenance work. He was a strange choice to fight a campaign alongside the unions against privatisation.

Kiley was appointed as commissioner of Transport for London, the public body which reports to Livingstone, and also chairman of London Regional Transport, the public body appointed by the government’s transport secretary to run London Underground.

Kiley enjoyed a $4 million four-year contract, but his tenure of both positions did not last long. In 2001 he was sacked as chairman of London Regional Transport following a series of clashes with his boss, transport secretary Stephen Byers.

Remaining as commissioner of Transport for London, he and Livingstone took the government to court in trying to prevent PPP. But in August 2001 Livingstone gave up the legal fight and accepted he would work with the private firms involved. Since January 2003 London Underground’s infrastructure has been maintained by private companies but the underground is owned and operated by Transport for London (TfL).

Having lost, the least that Livingstone should have done was to support workers when they fought back against the PPP structure and the firms involved within it. But, as the section below on trade unions shows, he signally failed to do so.

In 2004 Transport for London announced that Kiley had been awarded a new four-year contract worth a staggering £2.4 million—plus the continued use of a £2.1 million Belgravia townhouse. His salary rose to £318,000 a year plus an annual bonus of up to £285,000. In fact he left his post in January 2006. He received an unprecedented settlement package for a public sector worker in Britain, worth nearly £2 million. He remained a consultant to the mayor at £3,200 a day for up to 90 days in each year of 2006 and 2007, and 50 days in 2008. He was awarded £745,000 in severance pay plus £113,425 in benefits each year from 2006 to 2008. And he kept that house.

What new investment there has been on the tube has been very patchy and the work has been bedevilled by the inefficiencies of using a range of private firms.

There are some spruced-up stations and improvements. And, as part of the preparation for the Olympics, there will be more to come, but the private firms who honeycomb the system are incredibly inefficient, constantly causing overruns on work and delaying travellers. The verdict in general must be one of not nearly enough done, of a half-hearted approach constrained by the feeling that big business has to be kept sweet.

In truth there are now five classes of travellers in London. At the very top of the pyramid are taxi users, overwhelmingly the rich who are allowed to use the bus lanes and therefore travel more easily than at any time for decades in the capital.

Next come car drivers who are prepared to pay the congestion charge of £8 a day. Such a sum is enough to give any working person pause, but a mere trifle to the rich or to those who get their companies to pay.

The third category is tube users who have Oyster cards (the pre-payment cards). They can travel on the generally overcrowded and sweaty20 tube system at less eye-watering prices than the next category. That is those who don’t get an Oyster card because they are tourists or foreign workers or have come to London for a day from the rest of Britain, or simply don’t know how to get one. Such people have the joy of paying £4—yes, £4—for a single journey in central London.

Finally there are bus users, who have seen some improvements in the last few years in both the quality and frequency of services. The number of bus journeys taken in London in 2005 was a third higher than in 2000.21 But a large part of this is because the tube is so expensive that the bus becomes relatively more attractive even if it isn’t a pleasant form of transport. In addition a rising population in the capital means bus use would have risen even if the service had remained the same. It remains true that only the bravest would ever gamble on a London bus reaching its destination on time during busy periods.

Beneath these five categories are motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians. Central London has seen a 30 percent increase in the number of cyclists since the introduction of the congestion charge. But the interests of such groups have been largely neglected and in many parts of London cycling and walking feel hazardous because of traffic.22

Simple matters could have been implemented by the mayor, such as 20 mph as the standard speed limit in all streets where Londoners live, work or shop, free cycle training for every London schoolchild including on-road training, safe routes to school for all London’s children, sufficient secure cycle parking at all London schools, and a concerted action plan to reduce cyclists’ deaths from HGVs and skip lorries.

This hasn’t happened. Instead the scale of what has been achieved is small. In November 2006 Peter Hendy, commissioner of Transport for London, announced that ‘since 2000 there has been a modal shift of just over 4 percent from car usage to public transport’. Four percent in six years! Welcome, no doubt, but hardly a transformation of the city or a body blow against climate change.23

Livingstone and organised workers

In June 2004, just two weeks after winning re-election as mayor, Livingstone faced a strike over pay by London Underground workers in the RMT union. Instead of seeking a deal, let alone standing in solidarity with the workers, Livingstone denounced their action. He said the pay offer of 6.5 percent over two years was ‘extremely generous’ and then added, ‘Were I a member of the RMT, for the first time in my life I would cross a picket line next Tuesday.’ Just to make sure there was no mistake, a spokesperson for the mayor said he did not ‘retract the words’.24

Livingstone’s words shocked even mainstream trade union leaders. Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, Britain’s biggest union, said, ‘It’s outrageous and shameful that someone in Livingstone’s position, with his history and background, should be telling people to scab on their trade union.’ Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT, resigned in protest from the board of the mayor’s Transport for London body.

It was the worst example of Livingstone’s attitude towards the unions, but not the first.

In 2003 tube driver Chris Barrett was spied on and then sacked while off sick. Livingstone’s people told the media Barrett was a ‘parasite’ and Livingstone said, ‘I don’t know how he got away with it for so long,’ when the driver’s confidential attendance records were somehow leaked to the media. There was no apology when Barrett later won his case at an industrial tribunal.

Livingstone seems to believe the unions’ strength is the crucial obstacle to creating an ‘efficient’ (more cheaply run) tube system. In fact the unions are the guarantors of workers’ rights, safety, adequate staffing and a service that treats passengers as people rather than financial inputs.

In 2006 Livingstone returned to his union-bashing during a station staff strike. Speaking to the annual London Government Dinner at the Mansion House, he astonished the 300 well-fed guests—who included the capital’s 33 borough leaders and key City figures—by his anti-union tone. They gave him an ovation when he said he ‘had not the slightest intention’ of giving in to the RMT union. One said afterwards, ‘Red Ken has become Blue Ken.’

Livingstone has never put organised workers at the centre of his strategy. At the GLC in the 1980s he preferred vague ‘people’s campaigns’ rather than militant action by trade unionists. When the Law Lords declared that the Fares Fair policy was illegal the Labour leaders of the GLC pinned their hopes on a propaganda campaign. Some councillors believed that consumer action was the way forward. They argued that on the crucial day when the fares were supposed to rise there should be a mass campaign of non-payment. It was a dismal failure, with just a few hundred people refusing to pay. Livingstone did not support the boycott, but had no alternative strategy. There was no real link with transport workers or any attempt to put strikes at the core of the fight. Yet just two weeks before the failed boycott day, a one-day strike by London Transport workers in defence of low fares was a magnificent success. Not a single bus or tube ran. Livingstone did not argue to deepen this struggle. The result was a tragic missed opportunity to turn the support for Fares Fair into aggressive anti-Tory defiance.

In October 1983 the Tory government published plans to abolish the GLC and the Metropolitan County Councils. In January 1984 a national demonstration in London saw almost 30,000 people march (on a weekday) to oppose the plan, with teachers, firefighters and council workers striking to take part. But the campaign was again pitched as a ‘people’s crusade’, with a Tory GLC councillor allowed to speak as well.

The Tories then decided to put a limit on local councils’ ability to increase the rates. This would force councils to make huge cuts. Some 25 councils banded together to say they would not set a rate. Ken Livingstone was at the head of the movement. In November 1984 up to 100,000 workers struck across London and over 20,000 marched in protest at the Tories’ plans. Ken Livingstone was cheered when he said the £6,000 million owed by the councils to the banks would not be paid.

But as the Labour leaders urged compliance with the law, Ken Livingstone’s GLC was the first to crack. In March the GLC set a rate and movement, just as t accepted huge cuts. This retreat led to the collapse of the anti-ratecapping he union and Labour leaders were betraying the great strike by the miners.

May Day and direct action

One of Livingstone’s most famous statements came in April 2000, one month before the London Mayor election and four months after the anti-capitalist movement had burst on to the scene with the demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle. In an interview with the NME music magazine he said:

The IMF and the World Bank are still appalling and now the World Trade Organisation too. All over the world people die unnecessarily because of the international financial system. Susan George, the economist not the actress, estimates that in any year since 1981 between 15 and 20 million people have died unnecessarily from the debt burden. Every year the international financial system kills more people than World War Two. But at least Hitler was mad, you know?

His sharp and wholly correct criticism of the bankers’ comments caused a storm of denunciation which Livingstone, to his credit, brushed aside. But he was soon faced with a concrete example of protest to deal with, and his tune was very different.

Just days before the mayoral polling day, anti-capitalist demonstrators gathered in London for a May Day protest. They were attacked by the police and a few protesters were drawn into attacking McDonald’s and similar targets. Famously, a statue of Winston Churchill was made to look as though blood was dripping from its mouth. Graffiti was sprayed on the plinth and a green turf mohican was added to the statue’s head.25

Rival London mayor candidates sought to link Livingstone’s attacks on the banks and his support for direct action to the events. After all, in January 2000 Livingstone had told Sky news, ‘Direct action is not violence’, and a month later had told The Face magazine, ‘I’ve always been in favour of direct action. One of my fondest memories was chasing the inspector of the Archway Road inquiry out onto the roof at Central Hall.’

Now Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat tried to claim that Livingstone was ‘soft’ on protesters. He speedily condemned the violence and praised the very police who had caused the trouble. ‘The police action concentrated on isolating the small minority of determined wreckers and thugs intent on violence and damage to property from any peaceful protesters,’ he said. ‘Throughout the four days of demonstrations the police thereby set the tone that London both upholds the right to peacefully demonstrate and that it will clamp down with the full force of the law on those who threaten mayhem in the capital. This is precisely the tone that should be set for policing in London.’

The next year, as May Day neared, Livingstone moved to destroy the protest before it began. He warned people ‘not to be fooled by protesters’ claims that their demonstrations are intended to draw attention to key issues, such as protection of the environment, the cancellation of Third World debt and the eradication of poverty’.

The other speaker at the press conference, which took place at New Scotland Yard, was Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police commissioner. Livingstone said that he has been in regular contact with the commissioner about plans for May Day:

This morning I received my second briefing from the commissioner on the expected activity on May Day. I welcome the close working relationship that my office has had with the commissioner. We will continue to liaise over the next few days to do what we can to keep London safe.

A newspaper advertising campaign was launched urging people not to take part in the protests. The press was wild with stories of ‘foreign rioters’ coming to London and papers ran pictures of individuals who had allegedly committed offences and must be ‘rounded up’.

The police took their cue from Livingstone, mobilising 6,000 officers on the day to deal with a few thousand protesters, corralling them against their will for seven hours and then making dozens of arrests. It was an early glimpse of the way civil liberties could be swept away and the police given arbitrary powers. And having supported them in advance, Livingstone then backed the police fully afterwards.

Livingstone and the Labour Party

When he became mayor six years ago, Livingstone achieved the remarkable success of defeating Labour from the left in an important election. There are very few who have done so, and even fewer in such a big constituency or in such a high-profile election. Yet now he has returned to the party, with Tony Blair, the man he humiliated by winning the election, being the most insistent that he be readmitted to the party.

Amid all his contradictions, and even when he was expelled, Livingstone has always been dogmatically clear that the Labour Party is the only serious vehicle for progressive change. For over two decades his behaviour has been like that of the typical Labour Party elected official—occasionally criticising but basically loyal.

In 1986 he sealed his split with the party’s hard left when he said, ‘I take a much more pragmatic view than many people on the left about working with Neil Kinnock. Kinnock represents the best vehicle possible for achieving socialism now’.26 This was the Kinnock who had failed to rally behind the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, was combing through Labour’s every policy to remove anything which upset the people at the top of the society, and was witch-hunting the left.

Livingstone’s readiness to embrace the ‘new realism’ was helpful in winning the nomination to be MP for Brent East against a left wing candidate, Diane Abbott.

In many ways it is remarkable that Tony Blair remained so blinkered to Livingstone’s merits. Here was someone with the ability to excite electors and to make them believe that he was one of them. You might have thought Blair would have embraced him.

Livingstone certainly did his own wooing. While campaigning to win Labour’s nomination for mayor, he declared he was ‘95 percent Blairite’ and told Blair, ‘I would work with your government, not against it. I am convinced that your administration has the potential to be a great reforming government on a par with those of 1906 and 1945’.27 And this was after Blair’s government had shown its ruthless determination to rule in the interests of British capital.

But Blair feared Livingstone would become a focus for the fightback against tube privatisation and might ferment wider revolt inside the party. So he insisted on the rigged system that delivered Frank Dobson as the candidate, despite every indication that Livingstone was far more popular than him, inside the party and out.

Livingstone then had to make a choice. A less astute (or less ambitious) figure might have lain low. But Livingstone could see the way in which politics was changing, and the space for a campaign that was critical of Blair.

In March 2000 he took a huge gamble and announced he would run as an independent. Livingstone said he had been forced to choose ‘between the party I love and upholding the democratic rights of Londoners’. It was the biggest formal challenge to Blair since he became leader six years previously.

Livingstone apologised for breaking his word not to stand against an official Labour candidate, saying he offered ‘no weasel words of equivocation’. But he claimed the Labour selection process had set a ‘new standard in ballot-rigging’.

In words that would come to haunt him, Blair said, ‘I believe passionately that Ken Livingstone would be a disaster—a financial disaster, a disaster in terms of crime and police and business.’ The extent of the forces ranged against Livingstone was underlined when the Transport and General Workers Union said it would not support him, despite backing him to be Labour’s candidate.

But Livingstone shrugged off such problems and when the votes were counted he had won fairly easily.28

However, when he was expelled Livingstone declared it was but a trial separation and that he would be ‘back soon’. Although by standing as an independent he opened a big space for millions of workers to talk about an alternative to Labour, Livingstone himself did not encourage such moves. He advised a vote for Labour in the London Assembly’s constituency seats, and a vote for the Greens in the top-up list.29 He turned his back on the genuine left alternative, the London Socialist Alliance.

Even before the voting began he said, ‘Clearly Tony Blair will want to wait and see for a couple of months how I’m performing as mayor. But then providing I haven’t scared the chickens, they will most probably consider what to do around about conference time. It would be good at conference if I’m back in the fold and the whole party is reunited in the run-up to the general election’.30

And after the election he immediatly began to work for readmittance to the Labour Party. The executive had said he must wait at least five years before he came back, but many unions and left activists demanded he be let back sooner.

However, he suffered a setback in July 2002 when the party’s national executive voted by 17 to 13 not to allow him back. The then Labour chairman, Charles Clarke, said there had been concern that Livingstone would not toe the party line on issues like the private public partnership for the tube.

‘The single most important consideration in people’s minds was whether the application to rejoin was effectively an application that the Labour Party should endorse his independent candidacy for mayor of London,’ said Mr Clarke.

Both Tony Blair and John Prescott voted against the mayor’s readmission. But in less than 18 months the executive had changed its mind and voted overwhelmingly to bring Livingstone back. One reason was the awareness that Livingstone was going to crush Labour’s candidate (Nicky Gavron) at the next mayoral election. Another was that the mayor had shown no real diversion from New Labour policies. But the most powerful factor was that Labour was on the rocks nationally and needed every last help at the elections of 2004. Back in the party Livingstone would be shoring up Blair’s war-damaged support. Outside he would be feeding the idea that a break with Labour could be credible and effective. Some in the party (Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Denis Skinner) did not accept this logic and wanted him kept out. But Blair was insistent.

In December 2003 the executive paved the way for his return and Livingstone could say, ‘There are people who get married, then get divorced, have a few years apart and then decide they’ve missed each other terribly. I see it as very much like that—and they get remarried.’

He argued he had moved the government’s agenda forward ‘more spectacularly’ than anywhere else in the country.31

And then in January 2004, by 22 votes to two, the executive let him back in.

Blair ruefully had to say that, despite his earlier fears, Livingstone had done ‘a pretty good job’ running the capital. ‘My prediction that he would be a disaster has turned out to be wrong and I think when that happens in politics you should just be open about it,’ he said. ‘If the facts change you should be big enough in politics to say your mind changes’.32

The fact that weighed most heavily was impending electoral disaster—and Blair was right. In the 2004 local elections Labour did much better in London than the rest of the country. Blair had not helped Livingstone out; Livingstone had helped Blair out. Nationally the Labour Party got its lowest share of the vote since 1918. But in London it was not completely wiped out. Its assembly seats fell from nine to seven, but the Tories did not gain any seats, with UKIP being the main gainer.

Livingstone did worse as a Labour candidate than he had as an independent, winning 3 percent fewer votes in the first round than he had in 2000. The potential for the left was shown by Lindsey German, Respect’s candidate for London mayor, who polled 61,731 votes. She came fifth in the contest, beating the British National Party and the Greens and three other candidates. The Respect coalition narrowly missed getting onto the London Assembly, pulling in 87,533 votes across the capital.

Red or blue?

Livingstone is a reformist politician who comes from the left but who wants to be part of the traditional structures of British politics. Through skilful management of his own media image, and with support from the left as rebellion rose against New Labour, Livingstone won the 2000 mayoral election despite the efforts of the official machine to destroy him.

As Alex Callinicos wrote:

Being a reformist politician in an era where nation-states have capitulated before global capital means combining business-friendly policies with a bit of more radical rhetoric and a few crumbs for the poor. In Livingstone’s case this mix comes out as a succession of zig zags. These include a neoliberal vision for London’s future, the Olympic bid, denunciations of the RMT and opposition to the war in Iraq.

Having ruled out mass mobilisations to confront the system, Livingstone needs to keep the bankers and the financiers happy to maintain their investment. He also needs to keep the Treasury funds flowing. But to win elections he also needs a left wing base. Having that base gives him bargaining power against Tony Blair and Gordon Brown—and it could help him mount a challenge for the Labour leadership in the right circumstances.

To maintain this he offers reforms. These are weak, but they do exist. Those who deny the possibility of reform are either left denying the existence of what palpably does exist, or, on discovering that minor change is indeed possible, collapse into enthusiastic support for those who are tinkering with the system.

Livingstone’s reforms are tiny—and they are also delivered from above and in a tokenistic way. Yet this has been enough to persuade former revolutionaries from the Socialist Action group to work for Livingstone as trusted advisors—and to use their influence (and GLA money) in order to get others to subordinate themselves to his approach. They seem to believe that they are somehow advancing the socialist cause by co-opting handpicked ‘representatives’ to various bodies in such a way as to give a leftist veneer to the mayor’s office while he happily courts business interests.

Livingstone is a puny example of the reformist process, of which other important examples include, say, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) in Brazil. While strictly following neoliberal polices, and playing the game according to the rules of bourgeois politics, Lula also introduced the ‘Bolsa Familia’ (family grant). It guarantees £23 a month from the federal government to 11 million families or 44 million people—20 percent of the population of Brazil. Half those receiving the family grant live in the north east, Brazil’s most impoverished region, and it’s here that Lula did best in the elections.

This reform cannot be ignored, but neither does it change the essential nature of the Lula government, one which serves the interests of big business. Revolutionaries can accept that small changes are possible, but show how fragile and faltering they are compared to the great tide of neoliberalism which sweeps across the globe, wrecking people’s lives.

That is true in Brazil; it is also true in London. Livingstone’s example shows how important it is not to put our faith in reformist politicians who claim to be representing us. Instead we need to build a political movement independent of Labour, one that allows working people to fight for their own liberation.


1: The issue was the employment by London Underground of Mohammed Kamel Mostafa, son of jailed Islamic cleric Abu Hamza. Livingstone initially said he was ‘happy’ for him to have the job. Livingstone later learnt that Mostafa had been jailed for three years in Yemen in 1999 for plotting a bombing campaign and therefore, he said, his employers ‘are correct to dismiss him’.
2: Socialist Campaign Group News, no 143, April 1999. Such support for NATO came strangely from a man who in 1989 had criticised fellow Labour MP Gerald Kaufman by claiming he ‘has crawled so far up the backside of NATO that only the soles of his feet are visible’.
3: Greater London Authority press release, ‘Mayor Backs Consensus Against War on Iraq’, 16 September 2002,
4: Ross Lydall, ‘Mayor’s Amazing Attack on Bush’, Evening Standard, 8 May 2003.
5: Nigel Morris, ‘Livingstone Says Bush is “Greatest Threat to Life on Planet”’, Independent, 18 November 2003. Livingstone did not, however, speak at the anti-Bush demonstration.
6: James Sturcke, ‘Muslims Being Demonised, Says Livingstone’, Guardian, 24 October 2006,,,1930352,00.html
7: Mayor’s Statement, 7 July 2005
8: Fraser Nelson, ‘Outrage as Livingstone Tries to “Explain” Suicide Bombers’, Scotsman, 21 July 2006.
9: Ken Livingstone, ‘Three Ways to Make us all Safer’, Guardian, 4 August 2005,,,1542245,00.html
10: Times, 13 October 1981.
11: BBC News, ‘Shot Man Not Connected to Bombing’, 23 July 2005,
12: Guardian, ‘Police Leader and Mayor Back Police Chief’, 13 June 2006,,1796363,00.html
13: For a full treatment of this issue see Chris Harman, ‘The Ruling Class, its Police and the Left’, Socialist Review, July 2006,
14: Economist, 3 June 2004.
15: Evening Standard, 19 October 1999.
16: This is, of course, the other side of saying that 30 percent are ‘affordable’. Livingstone has frequently championed a target of 50 percent affordable housing in all new developments. But the 2006 survey showed the mayor’s delivery of affordable housing in London for 2004-05 was a mere 28 percent. See ‘Delivering Increased Housing Output’, April 2006
17: Such policies were put forward by Respect’s Lindsey German in her 2004 campaign for London mayor—and won widespread support. See
19: I give the BBC version. Other versions have Kiley calling Livingstone a ‘Marxist socialist’.
20: In summer the temperature on some trains exceeds the limit for the transport of live animals.
21: The number of journeys in London by all methods of transport increased by 5 percent during this time period, so the bus increase is not quite as spectacular as it seems.
22: Class remains central to such statistics. Children in Britain whose parents are long-term unemployed or who have never worked are 13 times more likely than children at the top end of the socioeconomic scale to die from an injury or poisoning incident, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal in July 2006. See
23: Tribune, 10 November 2006, City Limits Climate Change supplement.
24: Kevin Maguire, ‘Livingstone in “Scab” Row’, Guardian, 26 June 2004,,,1247645,00.html
25: A former Royal Marine who had served in Bosnia was later convicted of the Churchill-altering offence.
26: Ham and High, 21 February, 1986.
27: Guardian, 29 January, 1999.
28: First round: Livingstone 39 percent, Norris (Conservative) 27 percent, Dobson (Labour) 13 percent, Kramer (Lib Dem) 12 percent. Second round: Livingstone 58 percent, Norris 42 percent.
29: Livingstone’s support was crucial to them winning three assembly seats.