Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The once and future mayor?

A political maverick who failed to get elected this year, but is already planning for a run in 2012? Not Sarah Palin this time, but our very own Ken Livingstone. Having run out of political steam in the recent mayoral election, but determined to win his crown back from Boris the next time round, Ken and his allies appear to have been looking for a new strategy. This week, with the launch of Progressive London, we get to see more of what that will look like.

"Progressive politics offer the best approach to dealing with the new economic and political situation" Ken tells us, hence his new coalition, which will advocate "public investment in areas like transport, housing and the environment" as well as "promoting the city's international openness and multicultural dynamism." With a conference planned in January, Progressive London is clearly seeking to provide a more weighty opposition to Boris Johnson's plans for the city than either a free-ranging Ken or Labour members of the London Assembly can. But is this something progressive Londoners should take an interest in?

The best chance that Ken had to establish a progressive coalition in London was eight years ago in the wake of his first mayoral election victory as an independent. Having pulled both the Labour left and many other activists into his election campaign, and proved it was possible for the left to win outside the Labour party, Ken had all to play for. A 'progressive coalition' for London (rather than a new political party) would have fitted the mood exactly and would have been more conducive to grassroots-led innovation in local government.

It didn't happen though, and a few of the reasons why not are fairly easy to pinpoint. They are worth mentioning because, as far as I can tell, they also appear to dog this latest attempt at progressive coalition building.

The first was that it was all about Ken. Livingstone is undoubtedly charismatic and still relatively well liked, but like many such political leaders has a strong belief in having himself in power as the solution. According to the Guardian's Dave Hill, Livingstone has taken to referring to himself as the "once and future mayor", a testament both to his characteristic wit and his problematic attitude to political power.

The Progressive London website uses as its primary colour the same purple that Livingstone first used in his 2000 mayoral campaign, and which he revived on his billboard adverts this year in an effort to distance himself from an unpopular Labour government. Other visual clues include a logo which incorporates the annoying LONDON logo he introduced while in office, the stylised London cityscape used by Transport for London, and a campaign for low fares featuring the oyster card design which he views as one of his triumphs. The website says nothing about re-electing Ken in 2012 as such, but on another level its the main thing it says.

The second problem has to do with the Labour party. Livingstone never meant to leave the Labour party - he was forced to do so because it was preventing him from being elected. Once he'd done that, he sought to rejoin at the first opportunity that wasn't too embarassing for him or it. Thus there was no rationale for any political organistion that could challenge the position of Labour.

Although Livingstone says that the January conference will have speakers "from the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, trade union leaders, intellectuals, artists, cultural practitioners, community activists and city government experts", the list of Progressive London supporters on the website looks decidedly more Labour-oriented. Apart from Labour politicians and Labour-affiliated trade unionists, the list consists only of CND chair Kate Hudson, a member of the Communist party which barely distinguishes itself from the Labour left, and Green AM Jenny Jones.

Jones is no surprise here either. Since she was Livingstone's Deputy Mayor in his first term, and through her tenure as the distinctly less important Mayor's Cycling Ambassador, Jones has always seemed closer to Livingstone than her fellow Green AM Darren Johnson. Indeed, she voted against a motion to sack Met Commissioner and Livingstone ally Ian Blair over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes when Johnson did not. Her inclusion here is no guarantee that the Green party is fully behind this coalition, and it has good reason to be wary.

So is Progressive London simply designed to revive the flagging Labour party? Despite the evidence so far we might be tempted to give it the benefit of the doubt, but the chances of building a dynamic and pluralistic coalition are somewhat limited by a third factor: the involvement of Socialist Action, Livingstone's neo-Stalinist praetorian guard. For those who haven't come across this unpleasant little bunch, I think Oscar Reyes summed it up best in Red Pepper when he said in response to Martin Bright's 'expose' of Livingstone in April:
"the real scandal is not that a left-wing mayor has left-wing advisors or that they oppose racism. The problem, as any left or anti-racist activist who has encountered Livingstone’s guard dogs will tell you, is that they have consistently denigrated community struggles, grassroots activism and anything that veers from whatever they deem politically correct or opportune."
Progressive London's articles page features a variety of articles by Livingstone and a link to his Socialist Economic Bulletin, which although published in his name is almost entirely made up of articles by John Ross, Ken's economics advisor whilst mayor and Socialist Action's main theoretician. Based on their track record, a Progressive London coalition with Socialist Action at its heart may have a veneer of pluralism, but when it comes to decision-making internally, it will brook no dissent.

I would love to be proved wrong about all this. The left surely needs new formations, and local or regional coalitions seem far more feasible for achieving this. But my misgivings can perhaps be best summed up like this: Livingstone's politics in the last eight years have not been about building a progressive movement, but instead about creating an hegemony for himself amongst progressives in London. I have yet to see any evidence that he's changed his approach.


Kevin said...

Great article James.

Yasmin said...

I agree, great article