This was a watershed election. For the first time since the New Labour election landslide of 1997 the Tories are in the ascendant. The result of the London mayoral contest demonstrates that New Labour is now in meltdown.
The reaction of the soft left Compass group around John Cruddas, though doubtless an exaggeration, tells us a deal about the likely reaction among old Labour sections of the movement:
“New Labour is now dead. The strategy that saw the Party continually triangulate interests and concerns, tacking endlessly to the right, doing what the Tories would do only doing it first, fixating on a mythical middle England and denying that free market policies are having a damaging effect on society is now finished.”
Like the late 1970s an exhausted and socially conservative Labour government is presiding over an attack on working class living standards. Unlike the late 1970s, the extra-parliamentary and industrial struggle is not on the retreat.
But if we are to exploit this contradiction to strengthen the left and face new challenges from the Tory and fascist right we need to understand clearly what happened to the left in these elections.
The failure of the Livingstone strategy
Livingstone has moved progressively to the right since he first ran as Mayor as an independent eight years ago. He moved right when he rejoined Labour four years ago – and his vote went down. In this election he moved even closer to the Blair-Brown-City axis – and he lost.
Livingstone’s residual left wing reputation meant that his vote was higher than the New Labour vote for the Assembly and his polling figures were higher than the government’s rating, but he was too closely associated with New Labour to be able to effectively combat the Tory tide.
Moreover, Livingstone’s own regime in City Hall was part of the problem, not part of the solution. Livingstone had no independent base in the labour movement. Indeed when he had the chance to build one out of his independent campaign eight years ago he deliberately refused to do so.
Consequently, the City Hall developed its own version of triangulation – combining left wing statements on racism and the Iraq war (which cost nothing) and City friendly policies on property development, the Olympics and privatisation (where a left wing policy would cost money).
The Livingstone campaign tried to reproduce this approach by constructing a huge cross-party bloc stretching all the way from Blair and Brown to the Greens and George Galloway.
This failed in the face of a hard-line Tory candidate who mostly kept quiet and let New Labour’s unpopularity with its own working class supporters do his work.
The Left and Livingstone
Livingtone’s own clientist approach to the ethnic communities in London and the rest of the left reduced the impact of a really independent radical left. The Greens and Galloway claimed to be critical of Livingstone’s neo-liberal economic policy and his loving up to the City, Brown and Blair, but infact have run campaigns that have traded largely uncritical support for Ken in return for his patronage.
This failed for Livingstone, but it also failed for the Greens and Galloway as well.
The Greens got massive publicity in return for calling for a second preference vote for Ken, but their vote stayed the same and they returned the same two GLA members.
Galloway got even less. A sectarian rally held in the middle of the 100,000 Love Music Hate Racism just a mile away at the end of Brick Lane drew less than 200 people to hear Livingstone give a less than explicit plug for Galloway. This was reported in the local press but then repudiated on polling day by local Labour candidate John Biggs.
Other than that, the only fruit of this pact was a front organsiation, Operation Bangla Vote, which issued a leaflet with Livingstone and Galloway’s picture on it.
The Left List took a different approach. The Left List argued that while we prefer Labour to the Tories we will not stop defending working people from New Labour’s neo-liberal policies simply because Labour has made itself unpopular with working people. This approach stressed the need to organise independently of New Labour and Livingstone and not to simply to jump on to a sinking ship.
Anyone who remembers the decay of the Labour government in the late 1970s knows how essential it is to create the widest possible left able to organise independently of the pressure to collapse all points of principle in response to the Tory threat.
The Left List vote was disappointing but the campaign did demonstrate a number of important points:
1. The Left List mounted the only genuinely London-wide left wing campaign. We are the only left force that was able to mobilise enough supporters and raise enough money to stand in the Mayoral race, in all the constituencies and on the London wide list.
2. The Left List campaign was the only campaign that has been able through mass leafleting, canvassing, our entry in the Mayoral booklet, and TV and radio broadcasts to put a left argument to millions of Londoners.
3. In a dramatic final full week of campaigning we were the only force able to effectively intervene in the great joint union demonstration on the 24th of April and in the 100,000 strong Love Music Hate Racism carnival.
4. In husting after husting Lindsey German and our other candidates were able to pull the whole debate to the left. Here is how one contribution to the Guardian online discussion put it:
“Whenever Lindsey German’s been invited to speak, she has quickly become a point of reference: At NO2ID hustings she gave Boris a torrid time. At University of London Union hustings Paddick started mimicking her line on Council Housing. At ULU and Stonewall Livingstone has lied about the name of her organisation to create a naughty confusion between her and former friends. At LSE and Goldsmith College other candidates all used the phrase “as Lindsey said….” at least once.”
We’ve made more impact on the press than any other left candidate, including Galloway who lost out because of the strategic decision not to run a Mayoral candidate at the urging of Livingstone supporters in his group. The Left List appeared on BBC London TV news four times, on ITN news, in the Independent, the Guardian, The Times, BBC radio, BBC News 24, Radio 4’s Today programme, The Evening Standard, the Pink Paper, in local papers, local radio stations and in online broadcasts.
5. The Left List candidates are the only really diverse candidate list in the elections. The Greens only had 3 non-white candidates. In contrast to the unfulfilled promise Galloway made to produce a ‘broad list’ it was actually the Left List that had a mix of trade unionist, Afro-Caribbean, Turkish, gay and lesbian, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, young and old candidates.
The Left Vote
All the left from Livingstone to the Left List were overwhelmed by the massive rejection of New Labour that benefited the Tories and, even more worryingly, the BNP.
The Left List suffered from having a new name. This led to confusion which benefited Galloway. We know that a number of our supporters voted for Respect by mistake. So some of the difference between our 1.3 percent in the Assembly constituencies and the Galloway 2.3 percent on the Assembly list is down to confusion and electoral inertia.
And because voters could vote for the Left List for Mayor, in the constituencies and on the London-wide list the total number of people voting Left List was higher than the total in any one of these categories (i.e. voters gave us one of three votes).
The Left List Mayoral vote was massively squeezed by the ‘stop Boris’ vote for Ken. But it is worth noting that in 2004 we gained 61,000 first preferences and about the same number of second preferences giving a total of 120,000 first and second preferences. This year the second preferences were much higher than the 16,000 first preferences giving a total of 51,000.
The Left List vote was more evenly distributed across London, while Galloway’s vote was an East London centric vote. Although even here the constituency vote for Hanif Abdulmuhit (the only Galloway constituency candidate) was down slightly from 15 percent to 14.5 percent. And Galloway’s own Assembly list vote fell to 11 percent.
Nationally, the Left List is the only organisation with anything like a countrywide presence, and the election results were as good, or nearly as good, as anything the old Respect achieved. In Preston we got 37 percent and missed electing a second councillor by 70 votes. In Sheffield we came second with 25 percent of the vote. In Manchester we won 12 percent and, in a newly contested ward, nearly 10 percent. In Cambridge and Bolton the vote was around 15 percent.
And although Salma Yaqoob’s Sparkbrook ward returned another councillor the vote went down in the neighbouring Sparkhill and Kings Heath wards, both of which would need to see increased votes for her to win the whole parliamentary constituency of which they are a part.
The Left and the decline of New Labour
The crisis will produce two main reactions. New Labour loyalists, not just in the government but in the leadership of unions like UNISON, will argue that we can’t rock the boat and must all stand behind the government or we’ll get the Tories back just as we have done in London. Some of the left will go along or compromise with this view, just as they did with Livingstone (although it will be harder to carry this argument with no left wing banner-bearer in Labour). No doubt if we get the Tories back this lot will argue we shouldn’t rock the boat or Labour won’t be re-elected!
The Left List must be part of that grouping on the left, which will contain many Labour party members, who think that fighting neo-liberalism is the best chance of reviving the left’s fortunes irrespective of what the Labour leadership say.
There are some important developments that have been part of the picture of the last few weeks that show that this approach will have an echo. Teachers, lecturers, civil servants, RMT members are very open to this argument – as the united union demonstrations and strikes on 24th April showed.
In London, the challenges that a Tory Mayor will throw down to the unions and the left may well provoke struggles on a higher plane than those of recent years, especially as the economic crisis continues to eat into working class living standards.
The Love Music Hate Racism Carnival showed that tens of thousands have already been mobilised against the Nazis, and will be ready to fight a threat that has become even more real in the last week.
Beyond this, the anti-war movement remains in strong shape and will need to be deepened as the US presidential race concludes the interregnum in the Washington’s imperial project.
The Left List can become part of this growing opposition to New Labour and play an important part in regrouping the left in the debates that are bound to attend the crisis of the New Labour government.
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This post was written by Left List