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Synthesis/Regeneration 25   (Summer 2001)

"Red Ken" and the Greens in London
(Part 2)

by Howie Hawkins, Syracuse Greens

[Part 1 of this article appeared in Synthesis/Regeneration 23, pp. 9-11.   Link: "Red Ken" and the Greens in London.  It discussed the election of "Red Ken" Livingstone and three of his Green allies as Mayor of London and London Assembly members and how it may be a turning point in Green and Left politics in the UK and an example for others elsewhere.]

The Green Manifesto for this election addressed the Greens' "radical vision for London," a vision of "a multi-cultural London of 300 urban villages" where "the extremes of poverty are eliminated and the obscene gap between rich and poor is diminished" and where "riverside and parks are protected from the encroachment of speculative developers and once more opened up for the use of Londoners and wildlife."

Transportation was a central issue in the campaign. The Greens called for reducing road traffic by 40% by 2008, turning a large area of central London into a "car-free zone," taxes on corporate car-parking spaces, cuts in public transit fees, and, addressing the biggest single issue of the campaign, no privatization of the London Underground, the city's subway system. Prime Minister Blair wants to privatize the system.

The Green Manifesto for this election addressed the Greens' "radical vision for London...

The Greens' environmental policies called for zoning changes to encourage the siting of businesses, shops, and leisure facilities close to residences to reduce the need for car transportation, a Zero Waste Agency to expand waste reduction and recycling, opposition to municipal incinerators, ending nuclear waste transport through London, and making London a "GM-Free Zone" by banning genetically-modified crops from cultivation in the Greater London area. On the economy the Greens said, "London's economic future cannot rely solely on attracting more inward investment from multi-national companies." Instead of corporate welfare for this purpose, they called for municipal support for credit unions, cooperatives, and local shops and businesses. They also called for the creation of 80,000 new jobs in the environmental and public transport sectors of London's economy.

Police brutality and racism is an issue in London as it is in most US cities. The Greens called for a citizens' review board with the power to investigate complaints and sanction violent and racist cops, for the recruitment of more ethnic minority police officers, for community policing by 1000 police officers on bikes, and for an end to the "waste of police time" investigating and prosecuting people for possession of small amounts of marijuana. (1)

Revolutionary Left

Hoping to build on the recent successes of the far left in Scotland, where the Scottish Socialist Party elected an MP, and in France, where a coalition of far left groups elected five MEPs, several British groups in the "revolutionary left" formed the London Socialist Alliance (LSA). Many of these activists were allies of Livingstone in the early 1980s when Left Labour ran the Greater London Council and supported his mayoral campaign. In addition to their predictable economic class issues, they took up the Green issues of banning GM crops and decriminalizing marijuana. LSA created an unprecedented alliance of 5 socialist organizations, but still 4 other socialist parties ran their own tickets and split the revolutionary socialist vote.

LSA created an unprecedented alliance of 5 socialist organizations, but still 4 other socialist parties ran their own tickets and split the revolutionary socialist vote.

The combined "revolutionary left" vote was 5.2% in the party list vote, showing the insanity of all the splits over minor doctrinal differences and turf and power squabbles. The London Socialist Alliance did twice as well in the district votes (3.1%) than the party list vote (1.6%), underscoring the stupidity of the splits, on the one hand, and also suggesting that many of these voters went Green in the party list vote because the Greens had a much better chance to gain seats.

While the socialist left organizations were forming their usual circular firing squad, their real competition for the allegiance of radicals, especially youth, comes from the anarchist left that is growing in direct action campaigns spearheaded by Earth First! and Reclaim the Streets. The political differences among the socialist groups are much smaller than their differences from the growing anarchist movement.

Meanwhile, others in the revolutionary left worked within the Green Party. One of the most prominent is Terry Liddle, a well-known revolutionary socialist active in the The Way Ahead, a left green grouping within the party, and the Green Socialist Network, which links up radicals inside and outside of the Green Party. Liddle received over 12% running for a district seat in Lewisham and Greenwich, where the Green Party is known as "the Labour Party in exile" since the ascendancy of Blair.

Livingstone Then and Now

Immediately after the election and in light of the Greens' strong showing, the media engaged in frenzied speculation that Livingstone might choose the Greens' Johnson for Deputy Mayor. Johnson said he was interested. But Livingstone quickly choose a Blairite New Labour member of the Assembly, Nicky Gavron. Labour did not jump at the offer, but extracted a written pledge from Livingstone that he would not use his London platform as a bully pulpit from which to launch a challenge to Blair on non-London issues and that he back off his pledge not to privatize the London Underground.

Livingstone has asked for re-admittance to the Labour Party and obviously used his choice of Deputy Mayor, and the written pledge, as supplication. After placating his right, Livingstone turned to his left and appointed the Greens' Darren Johnson to head up environmental policy for the GLA; Lee Jasper, a radical black activist who serves as Secretary of the National Assembly Against Racism, as his liaison to the metropolitan police; and Kumar Murshid, Chairman of the National Assembly Against Racism, as his advisor on economic regeneration. Murshid promptly called Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, "an unreconstructed racist" and "a waste of time," and called for the abolition of the monarchy.

These early moves by Livingstone recall his politics during 1981-1986 when he was the leader of the Greater London Council. He was radical on the social issues, but accommodating on the economic class issues. Back then he pioneered the first open contacts with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army; was the first UK politician to give outspoken support for gay liberation; subsidized the arts; provided access for the disabled to public buildings and transport; cracked down on police brutality and racism; and set up an array of official committees and projects for women, ethnic minorities, alternative technology networks, popular planning, and cooperatives, with paid staff. It was a popular patronage system that could have been mobilized for direct action against the Tory cutbacks that were to come.

But when it came to the economic issues, Livingstone backed down in the end from a full confrontation with the Thatcher regime. In 1979, Livingstone wrote in the Socialist Organizer that "those who have a commitment to a socialist GLC need to start organizing now." By the 1981 election they were ready. Their election manifesto said a socialist GLC would demand funding from the Tory government to expand all council services and back it up with direct action: "a Labour GLC and ILEA [school board] will appeal to the labour and trade union movement to take action, including industrial action, to support this stand." (2) The Left Labour strategy was to use the platform of local government to mobilize the local workforce and community to take power from the Tory government. As the Tory government cuts in public services took hold, this strategy was embraced by a majority of activists in national conferences against the cutbacks.

Livingstone is in the same party as the central government… But he is also [Blair's] main rival now. The logic of that situation may force him to turn to the Greens.

The issue came to a head for Livingston and the GLC in 1982 when their popular "Fares Fair" program of cutting public transit fares was ruled illegal by the courts. No clearer issue on which to confront the Tory government could have been found, but Livingstone backed away from confrontation, counseling that it was not yet time. With Thatcher cutting revenue sharing from the central government, the radical left argued for the passage of illegal unbalanced budgets that were designed to meet people's real needs.

But Livingstone and his majority bloc on the GLC kept avoiding a confrontation by raising local property taxes and keeping the budget balanced. Thatcher responded in 1984 legislating the national government's right to cap municipal spending in order keep balanced budgets. With the coal miners strike paralyzing the country that year, the Tory government could ill afford a second front of struggle with rebellious municipal councils and their mobilized constituencies. But Livingstone engineered another deal with the Tory government. The radicals were outraged and Livingstone soon dissociated himself from the "hard left."

By 1985, once the miners' strike was suppressed, Thatcher turned her attention back to the Left Labour councils in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, and other cities, which were threatening rebellion against her funding cuts. The radical left kept pushing for the councils to "go illegal" with unbalanced budgets and mobilize the population to support them and confront Thatcher. This time Thatcher responded by proposing the abolition of these local governments. The abolition legislation was adopted in 1985 and scheduled the shut down for April 1, 1986. The radicals again called for mobilization and resistance, but Livingstone and the Labour Left leadership backed away from confrontation and presided over the demise of their local governments.

Livingstone remained "on the left," soon getting a safe Labour seat from which to serve as an MP. After Blair's forces had succeeded in removing the famous Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution calling for common ownership of the means of production and led to Labour's national election victory, Livingstone began writing a lot about the inevitable problems that New Labour's neo-liberal economic policies will generate and how it would lay the basis for a resurgence of radical socialist politics inside the Labour Party. Clearly, from his new platform as London Mayor, he wants to lead that resurgence.

As Mayor of London, Livingstone will oversee a $5.3 billion budget with responsibility for police, transportation, fire, and emergency services, but not housing and schools. But most of that budget is already allocated by statute. He really has only $80 million for discretionary programs, not much for a city the size of London. Livingstone wants to charge congestion taxes on cars coming into the inner city. The measure not only makes environmental sense; it would bring $600 million a year into the mayor's coffers.

Transportation is the issue over which Blair and Livingstone will clash just as Thatcher and Livingstone clashed. Not only is Livingstone opposed to Blair's plans to partially privatize the London Underground, but Blair is demanding a four-year moratorium on congestion taxes because he doesn't want Livingstone to have that kind of money to build patronage and political support—at least until after the next national election. The logic of the situation points toward the same choice as the early 1980s: use the municipal government to mobilize the people for direct action against the power of the central state, or submit to its imposed agenda. The difference this time is that Livingstone is in the same party as the central government, or at least he wants to be. But he is also the central government's leader's main rival now.

The logic of that situation may force him to turn to the Greens. Stay tuned.

End Notes

1. The Greens' Election Manifesto and election result details and analysis can be read at http://www.greenparty.uk/gla2000/.

2. Colin Foster, "The Once and Future Ken," Workers Liberty, April 2000.

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