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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

Thinking Politically

"Red Ken" and the Greens in London

by Howie Hawkins, Syracuse Greens

Part 1

Green parties in Europe emerged in the 1970s directly out of the "New Left" of the 1950s and 1960s, which projected a new participatory-democratic socialism as an alternative to both the repressive democratic-centralism of Communism and passive parliamentarism of Social Democracy.

Indicative of this new politics, when German Green Party co-founder Petra Kelly decorated the door of her new office as a new member of the Bundestag, she put two posters on it. One, with the slogan, "For a Socialist Germany," was a picture Rosa Luxemburg, the martyred revolutionary who was assassinated for her resolute insistence on the unity of freedom, anti-militarism, and socialism during World War I and the Russian Revolution. The other was a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., also a socialist, but better known for his militant nonviolence, which highlighted Kelly's conception of the "anti-party party" that didn't compromise on principles like the old parties did, and, unlike the old parties, combined nonviolent direct action with electoral action. (1)

In the UK, with its winner-take-all electoral system, rather than develop an independent Green Party, the bulk of New Left activists worked through organized caucuses within the Labour Party. From the 1960s to the 1990s, they struggled with the Labour Party's right wing, which finally prevailed in the mid-1990s with the ascendance of Tony Blair's New Labour project of reshaping the formerly socialist party into a corporate party on the model of the US Democratic Party. (2)

By 1999, the New Left vision seemed defeated. In the UK, many were leaving the Labour Party they had spent 30 years trying to radicalize. On the continent, the Greens looked very different from the insurgent party that had emerged 15-20 years earlier. Now in governing coalitions in Germany, France, and Italy with their Old Left nemeses, the Social Democrats and Communists, Green cabinet ministers were supporting the expansion of NATO and its bombing of Yugoslavia. It seemed to radical Greens and Reds that the Green movement had been co-opted into the system they had started out to transform.

Turning point

The May 4, 2000 elections in London, however, have rekindled radicals' hopes for a Red and Green New Left. "Red Ken" Livingstone was elected Mayor, running as an independent who urged a Green vote in the party preference vote for the London Assembly. With 11.1% of the party list vote, the Greens seated three members in the 25-member London Assembly.

The May 4, 2000 elections in London have rekindled radicals' hopes for a Red and Green New Left.

Writing in Red Pepper, the UK's green-socialist magazine, the Greens' mayoral candidate, Darren Johnson, who was elected to the London Assembly and appointed to the environmental post in Livingstone's cabinet, wrote about the need for Reds and Greens to work together:

It was when the Daily Telegraph and Tony Blair both went out of their way to warn the London electorate — in vain — against me, as well as Ken Livingstone, that I realized our red-green cooperation was on to something. We have converged on a radical agenda.... In our mayoral campaign [Greens] emphasized the gap between rich and poor; while Ken moved towards us in the way he highlighted issues of the environment and quality of life. It was also significant that Ken and the Greens were the only mayoral campaigns that challenged the conventional economic agenda for London based on the City [London's Wall Street] and free-market globalization. We are also natural allies in our view of democracy. Ken can't be described as 'Old Labour' in the statist sense. Clearly he believes in an interventionist state, as we do, but we both think the state must be based on participation and pluralism.... It is inevitable following the results in London that the [Green] party will be open to forms of cooperation with similarly pluralist lefties elsewhere. It is important to note from other European experiences that there is no room for both a Green Party and a distinct party of the libertarian left. Where we have the former, like in Denmark with the Socialist People's Party, a distinct Green Party is marginal-most Greens support the SPP. In Germany, where there is a strong Green Party, the independent left is marginal and many socialists are in the Green Party…. Many exciting possibilities are opening up; cooperation is the key to making the most of them. Cooperation across the green left, and collaboration across cities and regions. (3)

The Greens emerge from this election looking like they have turned Britain's century-old three party system of Labour, Liberals, and Conservatives into a four party system that now adds the Greens. As the politician elected by the single biggest electoral constituency by far in UK history, Livingstone emerges as the potential leader of a Red/Green alternative to Tony Blair's New Labour centrism. Ken Livingstone was the leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) in the early 1980s when he was dubbed "Red Ken" by the tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch. Livingstone and the GLC clashed with Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, resulting in the abolition of this regional London government by the Tories.

It will be instructive for US Greens to watch how the new London government unfolds and how Greens and Left Labourites relate to each other over the next couple of years. The election clearly indicates popular dissatisfaction with Tony Blair's Clinton-style New Labour "third way" and puts the Greens into the most significant elected offices they have ever held in the UK. The Labour Party had campaigned in the last national election to restore a measure of self-government to London, but "Red Ken" Livingstone and the Greens is not what Prime Minister Blair had in mind.

Blair's Americanization of the British Labour Party

Blair has restructured the Labour Party from a membership-based party based in local branches and trade union affiliates into an American-style electoral machine. Power is now firmly centered around politicians—particularly Blair at the top—instead of organized members in locals and trade unions. While claiming to expand party democracy with party policy plebiscites of the "grassroots," Blair in fact really goes around the organized party activists to get confirmation for focus-group and poll tested policies from an atomized base of Labour Party members. Top-down marketing is replacing grassroots debate, decisions, and power. (4)

Blair has restructured the Labour Party from a membership-based party…into an American-style electoral machine.

But just to be sure of the results, Blair has also set up centralized structures to thwart popular challengers from below like Livingstone. So it was with the nomination of the Labour candidate for mayor of London. Rather than one-member, one-vote, an electoral college was set up to make the nomination and stacked with Blair loyalists. Though Livingstone had the clear popular support, a Blairite hack named Frank Dobson got the nomination. Dobson is the Health Secretary for the UK overseeing Blair's continuation of the Thatcher policy of underfunding and gradually privatizing the National Health Service.

The irony here is that Blair had taken up the longstanding demand of the Labour Left for One Member, One Vote. The old Labour Party structure gave one-third of the voting power in the annual party conference to each of three constituencies: the locals, the affiliated trade unions, and the Labour Party Members of Parliament (MPs). For the left, One Member, One Vote was a way to make the Labour Party accountable to the grassroots party activists in the local Constituency Labor Parties (CLPs) who generally stood to the left of the trade unions and especially the MPs. For Blair on the right, it was a way to disempower the CLPs because he took it beyond One Member, One Vote in party conferences to a party based on an unorganized mass of at-large members with no regular participation in party affairs.

In the London Labour Party mayoral nomination, each London MP and MEP (Member of European Parliament) had a vote weighted 450 times more than a regular party member. Some of the trade unions voted as blocks, while others voted proportionally based on internal votes of their rank-and-file members. The results were revealing. The trade unions that consulted their members voted 75% for Livingstone, while the trade unions casting block votes gave 80% to Dobson. The regular party members voted 60% to 40% for Livingstone. Counting the votes of trade union members where they were consulted, Livingstone received about 70,000 votes to Dobson's 20,000 for the nomination. But the electoral college gave the nod to Dobson thanks to the weighted votes of the MPs, MEPs, and trade union block votes.(5)

In the Supplementary Vote System, one is limited to ranking only one's first and second choices instead of as many as one chooses to rank.

Livingstone decided to run anyway as an independent, prompting an almost immediate explosion from the Labour Party of which he had been a member for 31 years. With the preference voting system, it was hard for New Labour to paint Livingstone as a spoiler, especially when he urged his supporters to give Labour's Dobson their second preference. The election used the Supplementary Vote System, which is somewhat similar to what we call Majority Preference Voting or Instant Runoff Voting. In the Supplementary Vote System, one is limited to ranking only one's first and second choices instead of as many as one chooses to rank. If a candidate who receives more than 50% in the first round, s/he's elected. If not, the two candidates with the highest number of first place votes stay in the race, all the others are eliminated, the eliminated candidates' ballots are distributed according to their second choices, and the remaining candidate with the most votes, whether first or second preference, is elected.

Election results

Blair's candidate Dobson was obliterated. The only candidate not to issue an election manifesto (platform), Dobson resorted to red-baiting Livingstone, calling him "red scum" in one campaign leaflet. Dobson came in a distant third in the first preference vote and fourth with second preferences added in. At first Blair threatened to expel members who supported Livingstone, but when he realized New Labour would have to expel at least a third of the London membership, he quietly dropped the threat.

Meanwhile, in early March, Livingstone let it be known that he was considering asking the Green mayoral candidate, Darren Johnson, to be the deputy mayor. The Greens were equivocal at the prospect, with Johnson's spokesperson saying "we really have got to see how green [Livingstone's] policies are going to be." The Greens are cautious about who the real Ken Livingstone is. His radical reputation as "Red Ken" from the 1980s belies a checkered record of sometimes radical rhetoric and frequent concessions to the power structure. More recently, Livingstone supported NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia and the Greens opposed it. Livingstone supports a single European currency and the Greens are opposing it with an "internationalist and progressive campaign against the single currency rather than the narrow and nationalistic campaigns" of the British right, according to the UK Greens' Speaker, Mike Woodin. (6)

Most voters on the Left did not want the progressive vote split between Livingstone, Labour's Dobson, and the Greens' Johnson, because it could open the door for the election of a Conservative mayor. With the limited supplementary vote instead of full preference voting, where ranking one's first choice first could not help one's worst enemy, Johnson was discarded for the lesser evil, Livingstone, in the minds of many left and Green voters. This decision was made easier by the fact that Johnson was at the top of the Green Party list for the Assembly, so he was very likely to be in the London government as a member of the Assembly anyway. In this context, with 2.2% of the first preference vote and 13.6% of the second preference vote, Johnson's votes from 15.8% of the voters demonstrated strong support in the electorate for the Greens' policies.

The Greens owe their seats in the Assembly to the use of the Additional Member System...because it combines the election of district representatives and party representatives.

The Greens received 11.1% of the party list vote, entitling them to three seats in the London Assembly, which were taken by Darren Johnson, Victor Anderson, and Jenny Jones. Johnson also ran for mayor and received 2.2% of first preference votes and 13.6% of second preference votes, coming in fifth behind the independent Livingstone, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour, counting both first and second preference votes. In all, the Assembly seated 9 Labourites, 9 Conservatives, 4 Liberal Democrats, and 3 Greens. With the Greens on the far left of the Assembly spectrum blocking with Labour on the center left, the Liberal Democrats in the middle between Labourites and Conservatives hold the balance of power. The Greens came only about 28,000 votes, or about 1.7% of the total of 1,659,990 party list votes cast, from electing a fourth Green to the Assembly and becoming the party holding the balance of power.

The Greens owe their seats in the Assembly to the use of the Additional Member System, also known as Mixed-Member Proportional Representation because it combines the election of district representatives and party representatives. In this London election, the city was divided into 14 districts, each of which elected a district representative by the traditional plurality-take-all method. To make the London Assembly proportional, 11 more Assembly members were elected from party lists based on a party vote. So each voter voted once for their district representative and once for the party they supported. In addition to any seats won in the district elections, each party was allocated "top-up" seats in proportion to their overall share of the party vote. Any party reaching a 5% threshold was entitled to representation in proportion to the vote they received.


1 Sara Parkin, The Life and Death of Petra Kelly (London: Pandora, 1994), pp. 128-130.

2. For the last 30 years of struggle over the direction of the Labour Party between the socialist New Left and the pro-capitalist New Labour, see Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour (London: Verso, 1997).

3. Darren Johnson, "Reds and Greens Must Work Together," Red Pepper (May 2000).

4. See Peter Mair, "Partyless Democracy: Solving the Paradox of New Labour?", New Left Review (March-April 2000) for a discussion of Blair's contradictory rhetoric of dispersing power and practice of concentrating it.

5. "Livingston to Turn to Greens," BBC web site, March 2000. http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk_politics/newsid_679000/679442.stm.

6. Philippe Marliere, "Challenge to New Labour: London's Mayor versus Tony Blair," Le Monde Diplomatique (May 2000).

Party List Vote for Assembly

Labour Party: 502,874 (30.3%)
Conservative Party: 481,053 (29.0%)
Liberal Democratic Party: 245,555 (14.8%)
Green Party: 183,910 (11.1%)
Christian People's Alliance (right -wing): 55,192 (3.3%)
British National Party (neo-nazis): 47,670 (2.8%)
UK Independence Party (right-wing): 34.054 (2.0%)
London Socialist Alliance (coalition of 5 socialist organizations): 27,073 (1.6%)
Peter Tatchell (independent "Green Left" gay activist): 22,862 (1.4%)
Campaign Against Tube Privatization (Trotskyists in public transport union): 17,401 (1.0%)
Socialist Labour Party: 13,690 (0.8%)
Pro-Motorist Small Shop (right libertarian): 13,248 (0.8%)
Communist Party of Britain (old line Stalinists): 7,849 (0.5%)
Natural Law Party (transcendental meditation): 7,559( 0.4%)

Part 2 of this article will discuss the campaign platforms of the Greens and Livingstone and how they will rekindle the 1980s conflicts between London and the national and shape the future relations between the Greens, Livingstone, and the rest of the London left.

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