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London Defeats Tony Blair: The Consequences of Citizen Ken


Tariq Ali

In

these times of political adversity for the left, Ken Livingstone’s spectacular

triumph against the culture and politics of New Labour marks an important

turning point in English politics. Blair refused to accept Livingstone as the

Labour candidate because he was ‘too leftwing’, even though Labour Party members

had voted for him in the primaries. Livingstone broke dramatically with New

Labour and stood as an independent. He won 58 percent of the votes cast. The

Toty Norris was second with 42 percent and Blair’s poodle, Frank Dobson came

third with only 13.1 percent of the vote.

The

victory should not be underestimated simply because it was expected. This is no

isolated fissure. It has wide implications for the future and an objective

impact, which is independent of anything Ken Livingstone may or may not do in

the coming months and years. Blair was humiliated in London. The desperation of

hard-core Blairites who voted for the Conservative candidate, Steve Norris as

their second preference failed to affect the final outcome. The Murdoch press

could not deliver a victory against Livingstone. Nor could Polly Toynbee and

Hugo Young in The Guardian convince recalcitrant readers to vote for Norris or

Dobson. Former supporters of Livingstone (Paul Boateng, Tony Banks, Margaret

Hodge), who were wheeled on to TV programmes like a troupe of performing monkeys

and danced grotesquely to the tune of the organ-grinder at No 10, had no effect.

Cuddly old left MP, Denis Skinner, revelling in his role as a tame parliamentary

mascot, was happy to please Blair in public and denounce Ken’s ‘betrayal of

Labour’ (i.e. the decision to take on Blair and let the electorate decide). It

had nil impact. The negative campaigning rebounded against the New Labour

machine, isolating them further from their traditional supporters. Citizen Ken

defeated the machine.

Thus

was a mighty blow struck against the Blair Project. New Labour’s paid

spin-doctors, not to mention careerist weasels of every stripe (robotic implants

of the Mandelson-Campbell regime in the media) will be working full-time to deny

this while simultaneously attempting to reassure the ‘core vote’ from now till

the next general elections that Blair is working in the interests of the

disadvantaged. New Labour’s most favoured enema for its supporters in the PLP

and the media is a frothy combination of historical amnesia and plain untruths.

But the old spin is no longer working working. An opinion poll published in The

Guardian on 16 May shows a very sharp drop in support for New Labour and in

Blair’s personal popularity. A discredited and ultra-reactionary Conservative

Party under skinhead leadership is only 4 percentage points behind. This

confirms the local election results in which the Conservatives gained 593 seats

and won control of 16 cities. Labour lost 598 seats and 15 cities. The reason

for this turnaround is not that Labour voters switched sides. They stayed at

home in protest against New Labour’s capitalist policies. The ‘third way’ , a

crude presentational device is dead. Professor Giddens’ attempts to render this

absurdity more profound will rebound badly on any credibility he still retains.

Ever

since he succeeded John Smith as leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair and his

cohorts, New Labour bureaucrats, whose horizon of reference was wiped away by

the mudslide of Thatcherism , have been telling us that traditional

social-democracy was over, that New Labour represented a break with old

reformism, that there was no real alternative to the rock-strewn path laid down

by Margaret Thatcher and that in order to succeed, New Labour had to become a

party of free enterprise. Livingstone’s victory challenges this thesis. More

importantly, it opens the door for others to do the same. The political and

psychological impact of what has happened will be felt over the next few years.

The Blair-people, who till recently proudly stressed their continuity with

Thatcher and pledged to outdo her ‘radicalism’ by ‘modernising’ the social

welfare system and carrying on with her programme of privatisation’s: the

post-office, the air-traffic controllers and the London Underground. To oppose

this, Labour Party members were told, was futile. There was no alternative. The

‘third way’ was the mask chosen to disguise unadulterated neo-liberalism.

Inequalities between rich and poor have continued to increase under Tony Blair.

This is the difference between New Labour and previous Labour governments,

including the one led by Harold Wilson. The scale of Labour’s electoral victory

in the May 1997 general election surprised its leaders. They had fought a banal

campaign, strong on presentation, weak on politics. It stressed continuity with

the old regime rather than any serious change. Blair’s presidential demeanour

smacked of Bonapartism. His image was used to reassure voters that he was not

too different from the Tories who had governed Britain since 1979 and that he

would be a friend of big business. It was publicly stated by Blair and his

spin-doctors that the trade unions would be kept at arms length. It was also

widely hinted that Blair and his group would like to detach the Labour Party

from the trades unions altogether. A modern, democratic party had no time for

old-fashioned conflicts. The culture of New Labour is, essentially, not simply

to maintain the status quo, but to defend it as an achievement of the free

market and insist that there is no conflict between corporate interests and

those of working people. The result is that social inequalities have increased

under the Blair regime. Small wonder that Roy Hattersley, a traditional social

democrat, began to sound very radical whereas all he was doing in his regular

Guardian column was reiterating traditional Labour commitments to a modest

degree of social justice. All the ‘core vote’ wants is a little dose of the

Hattersley. But if Blair begins to concede to this pressure both he and his

project might collapse.

Ideally

Blair wanted a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats to lay the basis

for a new Centre Party that could dominate politics for the next fifty years. At

least that was the desire, but the big electoral majority made any such wish a

utopia. The chance could now recur, opening up space also for the emergence of a

new, broad party of the left which unites socialists to the new breed of

anti-capitalists and environmentalists. Britain, because of its electoral

system, is the only country in Western Europe which has not yet witnessed a

serious electoral grouping to the left of old social-democracy. The Labour Party

has, till now, utilised the system to preserve its monopoly hold on democratic

representation of the working class and radical middle-class voters. The

introduction of a form of PR in Scotland and Wales broke this monopoly.

The

one area in which New Labour found it difficult to renege on pledges made while

in Opposition was devolution. It was the single issue which would have brought

out all the simmering tensions and hatreds within the Labour Party. Blair’s

statement to the effect that new Scottish Parliament would be similar to a

parish council provoked real anger. The control-freakery was designed to prevent

the new bodies from being effective by making sure that the New Labour filter

trapped and trashed the dissent at an early stage. It was a crude measure whose

aim was to ensure that whatever happened, Downing Street was in control. The

strategy backfired. Ken Livingstone’s victory repeated Denis Canavan’s success

in Falkirk. Where New Labour could they fudged the promised changes. The House

of Lords could have been abolished or transformed into an elected chamber.

Blair

opted for a House of Cronies. New Labour, Old Corruption. The referendums in

Scotland and Wales were duly held and the citizens of these two regions voted to

set up their own Parliament (in Scotland) and Assembly (in Wales). The Scottish

National Party(SNP) and Plaid Cymru provided the main opposition to New Labour

and both the nationalist parties were to the left of Blair on issues of both

domestic and foreign policy. In Scotland many former Labour voters deserted to

the Nationalists. The pattern in Wales was the same. Neither of the two

nationalist parties waged an anti-English campaign. Both stressed the importance

of Europe and a progressive social policy.

The

presence of these two parties has partially solved the problem of a

social-democratic opposition to the political-economy of New Labour. Ken

Livingstone’s challenge to Blair is the first serious blow to confront the

Goivernment in England. The victory could change the political mood inside and

outside the Labour Party. Members of the PLP, fearful of losing their seats (as

many of them will) might begin to rediscover themselves. Politics in Britain has

become fairly volatile. The experience of New Labour in office has dented old

certainties. Loyalty to New Labour is far less blind than before. The reason is

simple. The Blairites have transformed the old ‘broad church’ party into a

demented faction. It is this that explains the frenzy of the new apparatus. Any

serious disagreement is disloyal, any alternative policy is ‘why we were

unelectable’ and any attempt to organise the Left is a return to the bad old

days of the Militant tendency. The only way to defend Labour Party democracy was

to destroy it altogether.

A

new party is desperately needed. The high vote achieved by the Greens, the fact

that the London Socialist Alliance (an alliance of a few Trotskyist groups,

dominated by the Socialist Workers Party) denied New Labour a victory in Camden

and Barnett, is a sign of something new, even though the fascist and

ultra-nationalist vote exceeded that of the far-left, a reason to pause and

reflect. Pressure is now building up inside the Labour Party to re-admit Ken

Livingstone. If the Blair machine resists this it will isolate them further from

their own party members. Tony Benn has pointed that if Conservative turncoats

like Shaun Woodward (a former apparatchik in Conservative Central Office) are

being welcomed, why not Livingstone. The answer is obvious. To re-admit Ken

would be to accept that the Blair Project had failed, for the Mayor of London is

now a leader of equal stature with Tony Blair. Livingstone still dreams of

leading the Labour Party and entering No 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister one

day. He is happy to wait. Newspapers which opposed Livingstone, such as the

Financial Times and The Guardian are now panicking, trying to invent excuses.

The former argues that ‘Britain is now in the grip of a new form of politics’.

This is only partly true.

What

we have experienced is, essentially, a protest by Labour voters. They are not

happy with New Labour. Attempts to win them back by putting a bit more money in

education, health and social welfare is unlikely to work. It would need a big

gesture, such as re-nationalising the railways network, that might enthuse

voters, but this seems unlikely. Meanwhile, inside the Parliamentary Labour

Party, there is growing anger and fear. Labour MPs are scared of losing their

seats at the next election. Some supporters of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, are

now not bothering to conceal their hatred of Blair and referring to him as ‘a

Thatcherite’. If New Labour continues to plummet in the opinion polls, pressure

will build up to ditch Blair, though this is unlikely before the next elections.