The Colour Of London


We have been here, or somewhere quite like it, before. Britain’s modernising Labour government presiding over a financial crisis; people’s incomes squeezed by a rise in the cost of living; the government afflicted by its close links to an American administration fighting an unpopular foreign war; and many people worried about the effects of immigration. The voters used the opportunity of the local government elections to humiliate the national government. Labour even lost its London stronghold. This would be the precursor to a Conservative victory in the next general election.

 

Of course, the specifics were different forty years ago. Harold Wilson had a more engaging personality and was closer to the common man than is Gordon Brown. Nevertheless, when Prime Minister Wilson declared in November 1967, following the devaluation of the Pound Sterling: "It does not mean that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket, in your purse or bank has been devalued", his credibility crumbled. The people’s mistrust was vindicated when inflation rose from about 3% to over 6%.

 

There followed, in April 1968, the infamous speech by the Conservative Shadow Defence Minister Enoch Powell, in which he quoted Virgil, a poet of the ancient Roman Empire:

 

As I  look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like    the Roman, I seem to see `the River Tiber foaming    with much blood’.

 

Powell appealed to the white-skinned plebians in the home island of the defunct British Empire. He identified the dark-skinned migrants from the other lands of the ex-empire as the cause of the troubles of the native workers:

 

…they found themselves made strangers in their    own country. They found their wives unable to    obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children    unable to obtain school places, their homes and    neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition, their    plans and prospects for the future defeated; at    work they found that employers hesitated to apply    to the immigrant worker the standards of discipline    and competence required of the native-born    worker…

 

In case anybody should fail to get the message, Enoch Powell quoted from an alleged conversation with a working class man living in his Wolverhampton constituency:

 

…In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the    black man will have the whip hand over the white    man.

 

The other leaders of the Conservative Party could not be seen to sanction such inflammatory statements. They did not want rivers of blood to flow, and they did want the additional and relatively inexpensive labour which immigration brought to the British economy. In fact Powell himself, during his period as Conservative Health Minister, had encouraged black workers from the Caribbean to come to Britain in order to fill the low- paid positions in Britain‘s National Health Service.

 

Powell was dismissed from his post. But through this speech, Powell had snatched the political whip from the faltering hand of the Labour Party and put it into the hand of the Conservative Party. As the chronology in the ’1968 in Europe‘ Teaching and Research project recalls:

 

09.05.1968: Local elections in Britain include race    as an unofficial, yet important issue. In polls 74    % claim agreement with Powell while 15 % claim they    disagree with him and 11 % are undecided.

 

The Labour vote collapsed, the Conservative Party was triumphant. The Conservatives went on to win the general election of 1971. While the Labour Party’s fortunes would recover, it would always remain vulnerable, especially during periods of economic hardship, to the loss of a significant number of poor and working class voters who are influenced by racist ideas.

 

And Enoch Powell had inflicted severe damage, not just to the Labour Party, but to community relations in Britain. One of the main figures in the task of re- constructing ethnic relationships was a London-based Labour politician, Ken Livingstone. In 1981, during the dark days of Thatcherism, Livingstone unexpectedly emerged as the leader of the Greater London Council (GLC). Unable to persuade voters in the capital city to remove Ken Livingstone from his post, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986. However, Livingstone’s successes in his position, which included reducing the price of using public transport, and community development through a multi- cultural approach, left a powerful and positive memory.

 

In 2000, a locally elected political leadership for Britain‘s capital city was re-constituted, in the dual form of the Greater London Assembly and the position of Mayor of London. In defiance of Labour Party leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who saw him as too left wing, Livingstone stood for the post of mayor, and won overwhelmingly.

 

Vindicated in defeat

 

We have moved on. Nowadays, most people in Britain would not claim agreement with the divisive racist rhetoric of Enoch Powell, and fortunately, there is currently no figure equivalent to Powell within the mainstream political establishment. But, no less than in May 1968, the outcome of the May 2008 election in London hinged largely on the intersection of ethnicity and class, with the scene for failure set by the inability of the UK government to deal with global economic and political problems.

 

Ken Livingstone, the incumbent Mayor, graced his defeat after eight years in office with a noble untruth:

 

"I’m sorry I couldn’t get an extra few points that    would take us to victory and the fault for that is    solely my own. You can’t be mayor for eight years    and then if you don’t at third term say it was    somebody else’s fault. I accept that responsibility    and I regret that I couldn’t take you to victory."

 

Other politicians were right to disagree. The BBC reported:

 

…Justice Secretary Jack Straw said Labour as a whole should shoulder the blame for Mr    Livingstone’s loss.

 

He told BBC News: "I disagree with Ken in one    particular only, that we all share the    responsibility for the defeat that he suffered    yesterday."

 

Mr Straw admitted that the row over the 10p tax    rate had left some voters "understandably very    upset".

 

Brian Paddick, the unsuccessful Liberal challenger for the post of London mayor, put it more personally: "Labour suffered because of the failure of Gordon Brown."

 

These statements are undeniably correct. In the rest of England and Wales, where the record of Gordon Brown was the matter on which the voters delivered their verdict, the Labour vote fell catastrophically, putting the party into third place, behind the Liberals. In London, where the records of both Prime Minister Brown and Mayor Livingstone were put to the test, it was a much closer contest, and one in which the Labour vote actually increased from its level in the previous contest in 2004.

 

An examination of the election results in London shows that in every constituency, the vote for Ken Livingstone as mayor was much higher than the vote for the Labour Party candidates for membership of the Greater London Assembly; also, although he lost, the actual number of votes cast for Mr Livingstone was significantly higher than in 2004.

 

The London election was preceded by a long and intense smear campaign against Livingstone, in which he was accused of having links to Islamic terrorism; making anti-semitic remarks; employing a cabal composed of Trotskyists and financially corrupt individuals; being drunk on duty; and of being an apologist for the murder, by Metropolitan Police officers, of an innocent Brazilian immigrant.

 

This campaign, led by the capital’s only non-freesheet daily newspaper, the London Evening Standard, rose to a crescendo after the Conservatives adopted a celebrity candidate, the affable Boris Johnson.

 

As the results demonstrate, the anti-Ken campaign made little dent in Livingstone’s main base of support. Rather, correctly fearing that he would be defeated in a close contest, the social groups to whom Ken Livingstone most appeals turned out in very high numbers; and when they got to the polling stations, most of them also voted for the Labour Party candidates for the Greater London Assembly (GLA). So, although in the rest of the country the Labour vote collapsed, in London it increased. Labour held all its existing GLA seats, and in one London constituency, Brent and Harrow, the Labour Party candidate for the GLA position unseated the incumbent Conservative. Even in defeat, Livingstone proved to be an asset to the Labour Party.

 

But those who would vote for Boris Johnson, the celebrity candidate of the Conservative Party, turned out in even higher numbers.

 

Class, race and city

 

The outcome of the contest between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson illustrates the enduring relevance of some hugely important political factors. Firstly, those of class and ethnicity; it shows also how closely class and ethnicity are related. The people who surged into the polling stations to support Livingstone included the black and other ethnic minorities, most of whom are working class and / or poor; and also the majority among the poor and working class whites who do not hold racist opinions. These groups, who mainly although not exclusively inhabit the inner-city areas, were not put off by the virulent anti-Ken smear campaign- because not only does Ken speak for them, he has also delivered to them.

 

Surrounding the class and ethnic aspects was an emotional issue: that of identification with London – not merely as the capital of ones country- but London as ones home city, wherever one was born or ones parents were born; and furthermore as a multicultural city and an international city. Livingstone’s promotion of multiculturalism, during and since his period as leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, and his promotion of London on the world stage since becoming Mayor, has helped to transform, and to strengthen among many people, the feeling of identity with the city. This has been assisted by a material factor also- the rising global importance of London as a hub of world finance.

 

Of course, the social groups which comprised Ken Livingstone’s core base are the same groups which have traditionally been the core base of Labour Party support not just in London but throughout Great Britain. As Gordon Brown is discovering, if a party or a leader becomes perceived by their core base of support as no longer articulating their interests or delivering to them, he, she or it will begin to fail.

 

Livingstone did deliver. His success in delivering, within the limited range of powers available to the Mayor of London, has involved some byzantine compromises; indeed, as mayor for eight years, he demonstrated in practice his mastery of the mixed success: difficult compromises, ensuring that the deals he made had positive effects outweighing the negatives. But, due to the nature of these covert agreements, he could never ask to be judged on this great ability; neither could he escape responsibility for the negative aspects.

 

One of Mayor Livingstone’s successes was the tackling of racist behaviour and attitudes within the Metropolitan Police Force. To achieve this, Livingstone needed to win over and shore up the faction among the senior police officers who would get on board with his anti-racist agenda. To simplify, one aspect of the de- facto deal was that the police would receive a rise in funding, allowing a generous increase in the number of policemen and women; this- so long as they were not racist police officers- was no bad thing, and it allowed the mayor to claim credit for the overall reduction in crime which has occurred in the capital. But there was another necessary aspect of the tacit compromise- the mayor had to give his unstinting political support to the police, and particularly to the leader of the fragile faction within the force which was with Livingstone’s agenda- Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair.

 

Fortunately for the Conservatives, disaster struck in the aftermath of the  7/7 terrorist bombing  in London. Suspected as a potential bomber merely because he was a man who was in the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong colour skin, the Brazilian electrical worker Jean Charles de Menezes was lynched at Stockwell tube station in South London by an armed unit of the Metropolitan Police on the 22nd of July 2005. There then followed a campaign, opportunistically supported by the Conservative Party, to dismiss Sir Ian Blair from his post. The logic of his position required the mayor to excuse the shocking murder and to defend the Commissioner. For this, Ken Livingstone became the subject of hypocritical outrage.

 

Manufacturing dissent

 

Another of Livingstone’s mixed successes was his management of the public transport system. Defeated in the struggle to prevent the part-privatisation of the London Underground rail network (known as the tube), he was left with the responsibility of managing the dire consequence- to get to work using the tube, it costs the equivalent of about ten US dollars a day, thus either excluding or exacting a punitive tribute from lower-paid workers. Those who can afford, or have no choice but to use the tube, face their entry to the tunnels with little hope of a comfortable journey and no certainty of punctual arrival.

 

However, on the buses- used for short journeys by most people, and even for long journeys by the poor, the lower-paid workers, the nightworkers and also the night revellers- it was a different story. Bus services in England as a whole have been declining since their disastrous privatisation and de-regulation by Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1980s, thus forcing people into their cars or into isolation; in the English shires and metropolitan areas excluding London, this dismal process has continued under New Labour. But, in an unacknowledged concession for Ken Livingstone’s acceptance of defeat on the issue of tube privatisation, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair permitted the London Mayor to aquire sufficient powers and funds to roll hundreds of new and improved buses out onto the roads. As transport pundit Christian Wolmar wrote:

 

Livingstone… concentrated on a deliberate and    systematic policy of improving bus services.

 

New routes have been introduced, the bus fleet has    been modernised, notably through the introduction    of 300 bendy-buses that are easier to board and leave than the old double deckers, and frequencies    have been increased. This has reaped major benefits    in terms of passenger numbers.

 

The buses were cheap for anyone to use, free for children and pensioners; and thanks to a deal with Venezuela‘s President Hugo Chavez, half-price for the very poorest Londoners. Under Mayor Livingstone’s reign, bus passenger numbers in the capital increased by 45%.

 

Livingstone could not be allowed to get away with this achievement. Ken had produced buses, but the media and the Conservatives could manufacture dissent. The unruly behaviour of some of the children who rode to school by bus was blamed on the mayor. Boris Johnson took up cycling- a means of transport for which Ken Livingstone has been the acknowledged champion; Boris rode out as an enthusiastic exponent of the ‘health and safety culture’, hitherto denigrated by the Conservatives. His foppish blond hair flying in the polluted wind of London’s West End, Mr Johnson declared that the ‘bendy- buses’- a key component of the new public transport fleet- were dangerous, their articulated rear-ends a fearful menace to the bicycling fraternity. He proposed to replace them with an updated version of the obsolete but fondly remembered double-decker ‘routemaster’ bus.

 

Of course, there was an anti-Boris campaign which sought to match the anti-Ken campaign; pointing out that Boris Johnson is a posh ‘hooray Henry’, an Eton educated buffoon, prone to making remarks that insult poor and black people: a man with not a care in the world and unfit to hold a responsible job. And when pressed, Mr Johnson had no idea what it would cost to phase out the bendy-buses and replace them with his proposed new routemasters.

 

Paradoxically, the negative campaigning led not to a decrease but to an increase in both the number of votes and the share of the vote for both the main candidates. The attacks on Boris Johnson did not deter the kind of people whose votes a Conservative candidate was likely to attract; and these were in any case people who were unlikely to consider voting for Livingstone: mainly the better off white people, who live in the suburbs and therefore identify less with London as a city, who are more likely to travel in a four-wheel-drive car than a bendy-bus, and who would not be affected by a revival of racist policing. Another group also voted for Johnson: a minority among the poor and working class whites who, believing that they are in competition with immigrants for jobs and social resources, are influenced by racist ideas.

 

Because it was clear that only Johnson or Livingstone could win, and also because the nature of the ballot allowed voters to spread their crosses between different candidates and parties, a good deal of tactical voting took place. From the results it can be reliably surmised that a large number of Liberal Party supporters voted for Johnson in order to get rid of Ken Livingstone and to inflict a defeat on the Labour government of Gordon Brown. This added at least 5% to Johnson’s vote. Of equal significance, the fascist British National Party (BNP) told its racially- motivated supporters to vote for Johnson, and nearly all of them followed this instruction. The BNP’s support was just over 5%. Livingstone lost by 6%. In the end, it was this tactical convergence by the fascists and many of the Liberals which gave Johnson the edge over Livingstone.

 

The collapsing compromise

 

Still, as Jack Straw and Brian Paddick observed, the main political factor in the defeat of Ken Livingstone was the perceived failure of the Labour government and specifically Gordon Brown at national level. Reasons mooted for Brown’s failure include his dour personality and his poor tactical judgement; without doubt, he lacks the ruthlessness and the hypnotic charm of his predecessor Tony Blair.

 

But Prime Minister Brown has a deeper problem. Like Livingstone, Brown is a man who pursues his agenda through compromise, and the main compromise which worked for Gordon Brown during his years as Chancellor of the Exchequer has come unstuck. During the first two terms following the stunning ‘New Labour’ victory in 1997, Chancellor Brown was able to deliver, to nearly everybody, something of what they wanted. Big business, the City of London and the very rich got their privatisation, their de-regulation and their tax cuts, and this attracted huge amounts of international money into the UK. Brown used much of this money to invest in public services, thereby not only improving those services but boosting employment and pay levels; some of the money was also channelled through the state benefits system to raise the incomes of low-paid workers and other poor people. Thus resistance to privatisation and de-regulation was blunted and concern about rising inequality was allayed.

 

For nearly a decade, the British economy rode high on the back of globalisation and the increasing role of financial services. This was put down to competence, Gordon Brown took political credit for this, and most groups in society drew a dividend, even though the gains were not equally shared. But now the forces of globalisation are delivering higher prices for petrol and food, and the financial services are in crisis.

 

Perhaps Brown saw this coming. He has certainly sought to create a refuge for himself by advancing the concept of Britishness. But while Ken Livingstone made himself into ‘Mr London’ by bringing the ethnic communities together through multiculturalism, Gordon Brown has been trying to become ‘Mr Britain’ at a time when the components of Britain- England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland- are drawing further and further apart; and while also, Britain’s image as perceived by the people who live in it is badly damaged by the UK’s foreign policy, including the subservient relationship to the USA and the Iraq war.

 

Can the Labour Party recover? Following the debacle of 1968, Labour had recovered enough by 1974 to be winning general elections. One of the main reasons for this was that the Conservative government of Edward Heath decided to take on the powerful trade unions, and in response the unions used their power to smash the Conservative government.

 

But, with the complicity of Gordon Brown, most of the industries in which the unions were powerful no longer exist; the remaining trade union members are hamstrung by legislation which, with the complicity of Gordon Brown, makes it very difficult to go on strike effectively; and, with the complicity of Gordon Brown, an ideological atmosphere has developed in which it is impossible for the Labour Party to be associated with strike action.

 

Nevertheless, even in the darkest days, opportunities emerge, and leaders emerge to make use of those opportunities; as when, in 1981, Ken Livingstone unexpectedly emerged as the leader of the Greater London Council.

 

 

Noah Tucker; I am co-editor of the new British-based web magazine 21st Century Socialism (www.21stcenturysocialism.com/)

Leave a comment