Workers' Liberty #62


The once and future Ken

Twenty-one years ago Ken Livingstone launched his drive to become a figure in national politics - in the columns of this very journal, then published in newspaper format as Socialist Organiser. By then he had been a Labour councillor, in Lambeth, then Camden and the Greater London Council, for about eight years. He was well known in the London Labour Party as a left-wing councillor with drive and flair, but much less conspicuous in the growing tide of Labour politicians seeking new avenues for left-wing politics through local government than Ted Knight in Lambeth or David Blunkett (yes, the same David Blunkett) in Sheffield.

Colin Foster follows his slippery slope to the Mayoral election.

In Socialist Organiser of March 1979 Livingstone wrote: "The left has given no thought to the impending Greater London Council elections… those who have a commitment to a socialist GLC need to start organising now." Over the next two years he drew a lot of activists into that project. The GLC was still under Tory administration, but the Labour victory that would come in May 1981 already looked likely. The Tories were extremely unpopular, the channels of the Labour Party were still relatively open and democratic, and the whole party was bubbling with revolt against the Tory government elected in May 1979 and revulsion at the backtracking and betrayals of the 1974-9 Labour government.

Left-wing candidates were levered into place, especially in seats which would be won from the Tories in May 1981 and in seats where sitting Labour councillors were retiring. Livingstone declared flatly that he had no interest in reading Karl Marx. He wanted a broad Labour left which "might not be ideologically perfect" but would get down to business better than "some more theoretical tendencies". There was some debate about policies.

The manifesto, thrashed out in detail by a full London Labour Party conference, declared: "A Labour GLC and ILEA will resist any cuts and demand that the Tory government provides the necessary finance to maintain and improve all council services. Understanding that the Tory government does not listen to pleas but only responds to pressure, a Labour GLC and ILEA will appeal to the labour and trade union movement to take action including industrial action to support this stand." (The ILEA was the Inner London Education Authority, made up of GLC members from inner-London boroughs plus representatives from those borough councils.)

Livingstone's long game paid off. Labour won the GLC, and Livingstone deposed the old right-wing leader of the GLC Labour group. Within weeks the media were in uproar about "Red Ken". On 21 July Livingstone welcomed the mother of one of the Irish Republican prisoners on hunger strike for political status to the GLC headquarters at County Hall, and declared support for the hunger strikers' cause. He rejected an invitation to the Royal Wedding and called for the abolition of the monarchy. On 18 August he made a speech advocating gay rights, arguing that basically "everyone is bisexual".

Livingstone's public stances on Ireland, the monarchy, and gay rights were more daring then than they would be today, but much less daring than they would have been ten or even five years earlier. With panache and skill, he caught the wave of change just at the right time.

Right up until the GLC was abolished by the Tories in April 1986, Livingstone used the council's vast revenue-raising resources to assert and advance the rights of women, of lesbians and gays, of disabled people and other hard-pressed groups. Money given to voluntary groups of all sorts increased from £1 million in 1981-2 to £9 million in 1985-6. GLC spending on the arts rose from £2.5 million to £10.5 million. The traditional arts centres got more money, but so did a wider range of ventures. Well-researched reports and regular bulletins monitored the police and argued the case for public accountability.

Worker co-operatives were assisted. "Technology networks" made know-how more available and developed projects like bus entrances suitable for wheelchairs. For about the first time, a public body seriously tried to give disabled people a chance to lead an equal life. The GLC financed dial-a-ride and taxicard services, improved disabled access to buildings, and made documents available on tape or in Braille. A GLC campaign of information and assistance enabled London people to get £10 million in previously-unclaimed state welfare benefits.

GLC economists produced substantial but readable reports on the decline of jobs in London and on "popular planning" alternatives; they helped local people in the Royal Docks area to produce a "People's Plan" in opposition to capitalist schemes for redeveloping the district. County Hall was opened up in the evenings and at weekends for meetings. During the 1984-5 miners' strike its facilities were opened up to the strikers.

Although the Livingstone GLC backed down on its cheap-fares policy for London Transport - after the Law Lords ruled it illegal - it did introduce travelcards and a revised fare structure before the government took control of London Transport away from it.

A new Livingstone administration in London, under the new mayoral structure, which does even one-tenth of the same sort of thing as the 1980s GLC did, would brighten up politics more than a Dobson regime representing the curious Blairite combination of the censorious nanny, the manipulative management consultant, and the nervous and humble clerk to the bourgeoisie.

Anyone with sufficient interest and experience to remember the triumphs of the GLC in any detail also knows about the reneging - when Livingstone invited the Queen to open the Thames Barrier, kissed her hand, and put a crown on the masthead of the GLC's freesheet; or when, as early as December 1983, Livingstone seconded a Tory motion on a Provisional IRA bombing of Harrods without any amendment. But the reneging is common stock in Labour politics these days. What rallies support to Livingstone and his GLC heritage is the flashes of difference.

For the spectators of politics, that is the end of it. For the active participants in politics, those who want to build a movement, it is not. When we consider the movement behind Livingstone for Mayor, our first question is: what happened to the parallel movement, behind Livingstone for GLC leader, of 1979-81?

It very soon scattered, demoralised and disillusioned. It collapsed. Some of its figures, such as Tony Banks, now serve Blair. Others have withdrawn from active politics. About the only prominent GLC figure still visible on the left is John McDonnell MP, who by the end was Livingstone's bitter factional opponent (from the left) within the GLC. The scattering is not just a matter of attrition in the hard years after 1986. The "GLC left" was pretty much finished long before County Hall's doors shut on 1 April 1986.

In 1985 Livingstone had announced his own break with the "hard left" and his desire for reconciliation with the then Labour Party leadership under Neil Kinnock, describing his politics as the "cynical soft-sell" approach. To disarm Millbank's frantic denunciations of him as a stalking-horse for the SWP and Socialist Organiser, in Labour Party Mayoral hustings this year Livingstone would tell his audiences that in the GLC years the Trotskyists were always condemning him for not being left-wing enough, "and if I'm elected Mayor, within a few months they'll be accusing me of selling out".

True enough. The revolutionary left - the political current manifested in the Socialist Alliance coalition, with all its errors and follies which this magazine so often criticises - is still as alive and forceful in constructive activity as in 1979-81, while the "GLC left" died so quickly, for exactly those reasons.

The failure of the "GLC left" was part of the failure of the whole Labour local government left of the early 1980s. In important ways the GLC was exceptional within that left. Unlike the rest of the shoal of "new left" Labour councils in the early 1980s - Lambeth, Lothian, Sheffield, Islington, Hackney, Edinburgh, Liverpool, etc. - it did not run any of the major local government services which cost lots of money and concern lots of people: education, housing, social services, waste collection, libraries. The Inner London Education Authority was linked to the GLC, but it is remembered fondly today not because of any special dazzling left-wing policies it had in 1981-6 but because those were the last years before the Tory government's manic drive to cut, test, and league-table gathered speed, its impact worsened in Inner London by the chaotic transfer of education from the ILEA to the various boroughs. The GLC's housing estates, once sizeable, had all finally been transferred to the boroughs before 1981. Apart from that, the GLC only ran transport - until the government removed its powers in summer 1984 - and the fire service.

And, very unlike the other left-wing councils, the GLC faced no financial crises. The vast mass of Central London property subject to taxation by the GLC enabled it - through limited increases in rates (property taxes) which had very little impact on the average small ratepayer - to raise as much money as it wanted for its relatively limited functions.

Yet, despite their very different circumstances, the high profile of Livingstone and the GLC enabled them to set the tune politically for the other left councils. And that is where Livingstone's GLC, for all its razzmatazz, flair, and genuine good works, failed completely.

In the dark, bitter conditions of the early 1980s, with economic crisis raging and a radical Tory government determined to chop back public services and local democracy, no-one in their right mind could suppose that a left Labour council could help the fight for socialism by building ideal workers' housing, running well-funded experiments in new methods of education, expanding into other services, making itself a model employer, and so on. What it could do is use the platform of local government to mobilise the local workforce and community in a spearhead struggle against the Tory agenda. That was possible. Many a demonstration, conference, and one-day strike proved it. But in every case the councillors bottled out of a fight at the decisive moment.

The GLC manifesto, as we have seen, promised a fight in the clearest terms. In May 1981 Ken Livingstone spelled it out even more definitely. "Wherever there is an industrial dispute in London we shall go down and support it... We'll use the whole structure of the GLC to support trade unionists in struggle throughout London... and work with the trade unions to try to bring this government down ahead of its time... There will be no U-turns."

Despite the brave words, a 15% pay demand by London Transport underground crews began to cause trouble less than a month after the GLC election. Sid Weighell, the right wing general secretary of the Underground workers' union - then known as the National Union of Railway workers (NUR) - undoubtedly used the issue to do as much damage as possible to the left wing GLC. But the basic fact was that the newly-elected council went against the very direct interests of London workers by not awarding the pay rise. (15% was not a wild or ridiculous demand. Inflation was then around 12%. The GLC offered 8%.)

To meet the NUR pay claim, said Livingstone "would require a supplementary rate and lead to some grant losses" Meanwhile the new ILEA was reneging on the Labour manifesto promise to cut school meal prices. Because of the fear of surcharge the Labour group split, providing a majority for the status quo.

All that happened at the same time as the first great media outcry about "Red Ken". Livingstone was saying (August 1981): "There can be no doubt that we are now entering the final phase of the struggle against the Tories." Even more decisive in providing a model of radical bluster and practical climbdowns was the next major test. The biggest bread-and-butter promise in Labour's GLC manifesto - and a very popular one - was to cut fares on London Transport ("Fares Fair"). A judge, Lord Denning, ruled the cheap fares illegal, and the Law Lords backed him up. There could not have been a clearer issue on which to take on the Tories. The unions, although not militant, did mumble about action rather than telling the council to knuckle under. The Labour left was still strong. But on 12 January 1982 the GLC voted to obey the courts and raise the fares again.

Livingstone came out formally for defiance, but actually worked against it. As he would again on the "rate-capping" issue in March 1985, he used a technique described by Roy Shaw, a former Labour leader of Camden council, like this: "His ploy was to put forward an outrageous proposition, knowing full well that it would not be accepted - not really believing in it himself. Sometimes he did it so blatantly that in speaking to the motion he would say: I fully appreciate that there may well be members here who cannot support this motion, people… who can't risk surcharge [fines imposed on councillors found guilty of 'financial irresponsibility' by courts or government officials]. He was more or less saying: for heaven's sake don't vote for this. And of course it would be defeated."

As John Carvel (who provides the quote from Shaw) puts it in his book Citizen Ken, "On or about January 12 1982, Livingstone's GLC went legit." By June 1983 Ken Livingstone was giving a very different account of the GLC. "The GLC has a very limited range of responsibilities and powers, and nothing that the Labour GLC does challenges the structure. It raises issues, it promotes campaigns, it makes small shifts in wealth - they're all things that a Thatcher government could live with if the truth were told... Local government is not going to bring down central government. It never has been a possibility ... We're not in a position of being able to initiate, because we aren't in a position to mobilise the sort of forces required... without the trade unions mobilised behind the Labour Party locally or nationally, there's a very limited amount you can do..." (Socialist Organiser, 16.6.83).

The GLC's deep pockets enabled it to ditch the central radical pledges of its manifesto - and then evolve a new "second-wave" radical policy, of patronage and aid for oppressed groups financed on the rates. The GLC Women's Committee was Britain's first ever. It set a pattern; by the end of 1985 30 local authorities had such committees. But it was no part of London Labour's 1981 manifesto. It was not set up until May 1982.

Much of the "second-wave" GLC policy was good. The problem was the direction it pointed for the other left Labour councils. They couldn't improve housing, or social services? In fact, they couldn't even protect them from Tory cuts? Never mind. As long as they had a women's committee putting out pamphlets and consultations, and funding a few women's groups, they were doing something left wing.

For all the left Labour councils except the GLC, the issue of rate rises became a central strategic debate. A large part of the councils' money came from central government. The rest came from local property taxes, which, except in a few authorities lucky enough to cover huge concentrations of big commercial property, hit hard at working-class residents. Since housing is a bigger proportion of total expenditure for the poor than for the rich, residential rates took a bigger proportion of income from the low-paid worker than from the well-off. Business rates hit hardest at small shops and businesses.

The Tories were cutting central government funds for the councils. Should they compensate, and avoid cuts, by raising rates? Most raised rates. Between 1978-9 and 1982-3, average domestic rates went up 42% in real terms - and much more in some areas. In the single year 1980, for example, Lambeth Council raised rates by 49.4%. And those rate rises did not even pay for improvements. At best they allowed services to be kept at the same level.

The Marxist left argued that Labour councils should instead refuse both cuts and rate rises, set "unbalanced" budgets, refuse payments to the government (PAYE, VAT, etc.) and to the banks, and mobilise local workforces and communities in action to force the Tory government to make good the reductions in central government funding. By late 1980 this policy - initially the property of a minority round Socialist Organiser - had majority support among activists; two national cuts conferences, in November 1980 and January 1981, both voted for no rate rises. No council leadership ever carried it through. All the political authority and weight of Livingstone and the GLC was thrown against it.

Most left-wing rate-raisers argued only that rate rises were an unsatisfactory but necessary expedient to "win time". This argument grew thinner and thinner as it became plain that the people "winning time" from the futile and morale-sapping rate rises were the Tories. Livingstone, however, argued that rate rises were a progressive measure of economic redistribution. "I have always believed in expanding services and increasing the rate to do so… Frankly, if you're going to say expand services and not increase the rate, you're making an immediate direct challenge to the state of a revolutionary nature… No-one can say at the moment that we're in a pre-revolutionary situation… Why didn't we have the argument that taxes shouldn't be raised? That seems to me exactly the same. If anyone really thinks that under a socialist society, taxes and rates won't increase to massively expand public services, they're in cloud cuckoo land." (Workers' Action, 8 December 1979).

Whether Livingstone's later opposition to any increase in taxes except for the very rich represents an implicit criticism of his old views on rate rises must be a moot point. In any case, what he did at the crucial time was to use the exceptional circumstances of the GLC (and also, to a degree, of Camden, where he was previously a councillor) to boost rate rises.

Almost everywhere else the rate-rise policy was a demoralising fiasco. Seizing the advantage, in 1984 the Tory government legislated itself power to "cap" (limit) the rate demands of "overspending" councils. The left Labour councils' morale had been revived by the miners' strike, which started in February 1984, and by an apparent success for Liverpool's Labour council in July 1984. Liverpool, led politically by the Militant group (now split into the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal), had delayed setting a 1984-5 budget; the Tories, anxious to secure themselves against any "second front" of struggle alongside the miners, offered them a deal to postpone some of the council's financial problems to April 1985. Militant foolishly accepted. The foolishness was not so obvious then. Twelve left Labour councils - eight London boroughs, plus Thamesdown, Sheffield, Leicester and Manchester - resolved to respond to "rate-capping" by refusing to set a rate in spring 1985 until the government would agree to drop the rate-capping law and to restore cuts. Then Livingstone's GLC torpedoed them. Unlike the other local authorities, the GLC and ILEA had a legal obligation to make a rate by 10 March. Labour right-wingers would defy a "no rate" whip. But, legally, the GLC Tories could without risk of penalty put their own budget - which Labour right-wingers would refuse to support - and then abstain on all legal Labour budgets. In that way, a determined core of Labour councillors - even if they were a minority of the full council - could force "no rate".

Ken Livingstone went through the motions of advocating refusal to set a rate. But at the same time he denounced the other defiant councils for deciding to "defer" rate-setting rather than to go clearly into illegality. He stressed the risks in the GLC going illegal, thus lining up moderates to vote for legality. And he produced a scheme for financial juggling to allow a legal rate with no cuts. So the GLC Labour group voted to go for a legal rate, with Livingstone, having engineered the result, safe to vote with the minority! On 10 March, after all sorts of council-chamber chaos, a coalition of Tories and Labour right-wingers eventually passed a modified version of the legal budget, at slightly lower than the maximum legal rate. If the miners had been able to look forward confidently to a really strong stand by the councils, then perhaps they would have continued their strike at least a few weeks longer. Instead, seeing the signals from the councillors, they voted on 3 March to return to work.

The political realities behind all this became clear in the following few weeks. Livingstone publicly dismissed the "no rate" policy as sham heroics. He sacked his left-wing deputy GLC leader, John McDonnell, and dissociated himself from the "hard left".

By now - and, indeed, increasingly, for much of the time since the Tories had started moving to abolished the GLC (and all the other metropolitan authorities) in 1983 - almost all that was left of the GLC's radical political profile was its campaign against its own abolition. But the campaign was directed much more to the bishops, the Lords, and Tory "moderates" than to the workers whose jobs were at risk. In fact, it was a test case for the Livingstone GLC's attitude to the organised working class. In late summer of 1983, the GLC unions - the Fire Brigades Union, NALGO (now part of UNISON), and the GLC Staff Association (a relic of the days of Tory control, but the majority union at County Hall) - got together to form "Democracy for London" a committee to campaign against abolition. It called a demonstration in January 1984. For the first time County Hall closed completely. The Staff Association balloted its members and they voted overwhelmingly for action.

But on the demonstration there were very few manual workers, the vast majority being white collar workers and ILEA teachers. The next protest was Democracy Week, called by the TUC. This time the Staff Association stayed at work and NALGO came out. The Staff Association left the Democracy For London campaign, and it began to become more a focus for the militants within County Hall unions.

In early 1984, Lambeth and Hackney shop stewards began to meet on a regular basis. Between July and September this developed into a united trade union committee covering all the rate-capped London boroughs - "London Bridge".

It was based directly on shop stewards' committees, with a delegate structure. It quickly took a bigger role than "Democracy for London" in the fight against ratecapping and abolition. London Bridge turned a 7 November 1984 strike and demonstration, originally called by Democracy For London, into a powerful protest against ratecapping. Unfortunately the organisation of the rally was in the hands of County Hall union full-timers. The politicians were to the fore, the shop stewards' speaker way down the list.

The irony was that, while Ken Livingstone talked to the rally about "fighting them on the beaches," Westminster's Tory council had served a writ on the GLC against the secondment of stewards to staff DFL. The council was in a state of panic, even to the point of not letting the demonstration organisers have portable toilets for fear of legal action. The GLC withdrew the seconded stewards. This, combined with increasing opposition from the union full-timers, wrecked the emerging GLC stewards' organisation. When a conference for County Hall stewards was called on 23 January 1985 attempts to turn it into a decision making body led the chair to close it down.

Soon thereafter, the "rate-capping" fiasco and the miners' defeat knocked the spirit out of the union organisation. The Abolition Act finished going through parliament in summer 1985, and the GLC was shut down on 1 April 1986.

It was in this period that Livingstone's attitude to the organised revolutionary left, and especially to Workers' Liberty, became one of spite and even paranoia (he has claimed that we, and others too, must be "agents of MI5"). Though, as Livingstone quite accurately reports, we had frequently condemned him for selling out, we had also supported the GLC's fight against abolition, and as late as 1984 we were able to work with Livingstone to develop a support network for the striking miners. From the watershed of 1985, all that changed. It looked as if Ken Livingstone was well set on the same road as David Blunkett, Robin Cook, Clare Short and other such figures of the "soft left", with only a peculiar intensity in his hostility to the revolutionary left, and a wayward maverick streak in his rhetoric, to distinguish him. Maybe Livingstone himself thought he was on that road. He told the Labour Party in Brent East, where he became an MP in 1987, that he wanted a safe parliamentary seat as a good base for an attempt to become prime minister.

He did not become a shadow minister, or a minister. It was not so much this or that particular issue that held him back from full reconciliation with the Labour hierarchy, as a personal unwillingness (creditable enough, in and of itself) to become a mere parrot for a handed-down "party line".

Livingstone wanted a career, but he also wanted to be more than just the stuffing inside a suit sat in a ministerial car or armchair, or the voicebox reading the lines sent down by the top party leaders. He wanted fame and personal distinction, not just a minister's salary.

So he remained "on the left". He published books, wrote articles, reinvented himself as an expert on economics, took part in campaigns, and waited for an opening. As late as 1997, through whatever combination of self-delusion, vanity, and not-discreditable over-optimism, he was predicting that the stresses and strains on the new Labour government would soon see the Blair faction's right-wing course swept aside in favour of a radical new direction (and, presumably, radical new leaders, including Livingstone himself). Now he sees that the London Mayor election is his best chance to cut a streak of some sort against the deadly grey background of New Labour politics. Good luck to him. But those who support him should not just rely on good luck. They should learn from history, and organise independently around clear and comprehensive policies.

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