Britain: Ken Livingstone – the return of the prodigal son?

NEW LABOUR’S National Executive Committee (NEC) has recommended that Ken Livingstone should be readmitted into the party. That’s just three years after his expulsion in 2000 for standing as an independent mayoral candidate against Labour’s Frank Dobson.

Livingstone’s expected return to the New Labour fold is a logical consequence of both his own political trajectory and Blair’s desperation to avoid in the 2004 mayoral election a repeat of his humiliating drubbing last time.

Blair hopes a New Labour victory is guaranteed with Livingstone as the party candidate. But while Livingstone remains favourite to win (the Tories will be damaged by their candidate Steve Norris’s new job as chairman of rail contractor Jarvis) he could lose the support of those radicalised layers who once viewed him as a left alternative to New Labour.

There was uncertainty over whether Nicky Gavron, recently selected as New Labour’s mayoral candidate, would stand down. Gavron decided to play hard-ball in the final negotiations, at one stage appearing to renege on an apparent deal with the left to yield to Livingstone if she were selected.

One party member described her as Livingstone’s "stalking donkey". Subsequent horse-trading resulted in Gavron’s demands, including deputy mayor and senior jobs in the Mayor’s administration for her key allies, being met. Of course Gavron had no real choice, and nor do New Labour. Opinion polls show Gavron on just 10%.

Notwithstanding his political shortcomings the Socialist Party welcomed Livingstone’s victory in 2000 as a blow against Blair. It gave an opportunity to galvanise opposition to New Labour into a mass movement. But rather than set about the task of creating a radical left alternative Livingstone has spent the last three years lobbying for readmission.

We explained before his election that only with an imaginative definition of the term could Livingstone still be described as left-wing. Livingstone had promised to work with not against the government, professing no ideological differences with Blair.

Even on the one issue that separated Livingstone and Blair, tube privatisation, which was a key factor in his victory, Livingstone eventually capitulated. He had relied on legal manoeuvrings rather than a mass campaign involving tube workers and commuters.

Despite his radical stance against the war and tuition fees, as mayor Livingstone has courted London’s business community and more recently he backed the defeated New Labour candidate in the Brent East by-election and condemned RMT strike action over the sacking of one of their members.

Socialists can no longer give Livingstone even critical support. Our task is to campaign for a new mass party of the working class to provide a mass political alternative to all the parties of big business.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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December 2003