Editorial: London Mayor Election

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FRFI 154  April / May 2000

'If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it' 

In May, Londoners will be asked to vote for a new kind of political animal - a London Mayor. There have been many mayors of course - most of them ceremonial like their chains. Even the Lord Mayor to the super-rich corporations in the City of London does not have power to do anything except promote the rich and patronise the poor through charity. But the 'new' political animal, the Mayor of London (Year 2K), will, they say, have the power to run London along the lines of the Mayor of New York City, USA. He or she (let's face it, he) will be a 'mover and shaker'.

London has been without a city-wide governing body since Thatcher disbanded the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1986. So the election of a Mayor and a council -- the Greater London Assembly (GLA) -- will be London's share of New Labour's ill-fated devolution and decentralisation policy. Other mayors of metropolitan areas will follow. Proportional representation, however, has proved a disappointment for New Labour, leaving them without overall control in both the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. The Scottish Assembly is in trouble and despite selection gerrymandering to produce a Blairite Welsh Labour leader, Alun Michael has now been sent packing back to Westminster where he will doubtless resume his career as a dull junior minister. London's mayoral election is looking increasingly like a re-run of the Welsh debacle.

It is possible to judge the character expected of a London Mayor by the quality of the candidates who circle, like vultures, hoping for election. Jeffrey Archer, well-known con-man, fraudster and liar was the Tory candidate until he was finally exposed as a perjurer and forced to stand down. Reluctantly the Tories then replaced him with their only other credible candidate, well-known philanderer Steve Norris. What sort of a job would attract such people?

New Labour's selection shenanigans have been, if anything, more protracted and serpentine. It was clear more than a year ago that Ken Livingstone would stand for selection as the Labour candidate and would be popular with London voters who have fond memories of the GLC's Fares Fair (a 25% cut in fares), housing and anti-racist policies. New Labour hates Livingstone, but it took them months to persuade Frank Dobson to stand down as Health Minister in order to become Blair's choice for Mayor - a poisoned chalice perhaps. It took major surgery to ensure that Dobson won the selection contest including giving him and not other candidates the mailing list for London Labour members, ditching the promised one-member-one-vote, plus several public denunciations by the Prime Minister of the devil incarnate Livingstone. Even then, no one was really convinced that Dobson had won fair and square, with the result that Livingstone decided to chance his arm by standing as an independent. With a 55 per cent lead over all other candidates in the opinion polls, at this stage Livingstone looks like a dead cert for Mayor.

Livingstone's decision to break his promise not to stand against 'the Party he loves' was bad news for Blair and New Labour. They had banked on Livingstone honouring his promise and, failing this, that Dobson would be closer in popularity. He would then be able to overtake Livingstone with the help of the Millbank machine. None of this now looks likely, and the only consolation for Blair is that Livingstone can be expelled from the Labour Party.

These appear to be dramatic events in the context of a New Labour Party which has tightened control of its MPs and its members to the point of strangulation. The issue has been raised - should socialists vote for Ken Livingstone? For the socialist left who still have illusions in the Labour Party and its connections to the working class, this looks like the break they have been waiting for. On the surface, 'Red Ken' has broken with New Labour and will lead the opposition to Blair's right-wing social democratic programme. A Trotskyist coalition led by the Socialist Workers Party, the London Socialist Alliance (LSA), has claimed Livingstone as its leader in the Mayoral election campaign, transforming this, in their heads at least, into the campaign for socialism in London. Harking back to the former 'glories' of the GLC, they are hoping that the mayoral election will bring a new dawn for the left of the Labour Party and for themselves. Great claims are made for Livingstone's GLC, including London-wide progressive education provision under the ILEA. The ILEA was, in fact, nothing to do with the GLC or Livingstone. The LSA's programme for London includes demands for a fully-financed NHS, a decent minimum wage, opposition to the sell-off of council houses and the abolition of student fees. Why not a General Strike and the formation of Soviets? one asks. It is all fantasy.

Livingstone's break with Labour is organisational not political. He has made it clear that he is not standing on a socialist programme and has been quick to dissociate himself from any socialist support. He has proclaimed his loyalty to New Labour, urged his supporters to stay in the Party and to put Dobson as second preference in the ballot. It is clear that, if he wins, his first campaign will be for reinstatement as a loyal Labour Party member. Under these circumstances a vote for Livingstone will be a vote for New Labour and for Blair.

In reality the powers of both the new Mayor of London and the GLA are very limited. There will be a £3.3bn budget (most of which is already spoken for) to cover police, transport, environment, roads. Compare that to the GLC which had much wider powers, including housing, and employed 27,000 people. If the new Mayor wanted to emulate New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's zero tolerance policies (and he probably will), he wouldn't be able to afford it.

Despite predictions by New Labour that big business will instantly leave London if Livingstone becomes Mayor, the City of London has been lapping up the Cheeky Chappie. The City has none of the the illusions of the London Socialist Alliance: the rich know that Mayor Livingstone will be on a short leash, incapable of doing them any real damage. After all he's a comical fellow, unlike Dobbo Dobson, and they are all for a cheap laugh. What both candidates claim as the real difference between them - the future of London Underground - is also a red herring. Livingstone contrasts his proposed 'bond issue' to New Labour's public/private finance initiative. The truth is that neither proposal will come up with enough money to modernise the tube, and the only cheap way of raising the money is for the state to borrow it. Blair and Prescott have ruled this out.

In the last week, Livingstone has been exposed as failing to declare £158,000 of income in the MPs' register of interests. This is the latest clumsy attempt by New Labour to discredit Livingstone and it has failed. But readers should think about this for a moment. This 'socialist' has formed a company called Localaction to receive his very large income from writing for newspapers and making speeches. Rich people can do this and thereby avoid paying tax. Poor people, and some of the poorest in Britain live in London, have no chance of doing this. Progressive taxation is a fair way of funding the services which poor people need but are often denied - the rich pay more. New Labour wants to keep taxation low to help its next election campaign; Livingstone doesn't like taxes and Dobson's answer to poverty in London is to raise £50m through a 'London Lottery' - another way of taxing the poorest and leaving the rich alone.

Are any of these people socialists? Clearly not. So if you are a socialist in London you will not be voting for any of them. Instead you will join the real campaign to expose these hypocrites and to win justice for London's working class and poor people.

* If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it. This is the title of Ken Livingstone's own account of his political career in local government and the GLC. Published by Collins, 1987, £12.00 (hbk), ISBN 0-00-217770-6, 367pp.