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London elections: working class alternative needed
On Thursday 1 May, Londoners will be voting for the Mayor of London and Greater London Assembly (GLA). For the assembly, voters will be able to vote for a party list and also for a 'constituency' candidate. However it is the contest between the Tories and New Labour for mayor that is receiving most media attention, with the Tories challenging Labour's Ken Livingstone.
Voters will have both a first and a second preference vote for the mayor. London Socialist Party secretary, Paula Mitchell, explains the political ideas on offer and the attitude that Socialist Party members are taking towards the voting choice on election day.
IF YOU were to base your view of London on the election material of most of the mayoral candidates, you would be forgiven for thinking that the most pressing issue in London at the moment is the 'bendy-buses'. In reality much bigger issues are creating a seething anger and fear for the future amongst London workers. And the most striking thing about these elections is that none of the main candidates offer any hope.
The main battle for mayor is between two maverick figures: New Labour's incumbent Ken Livingstone, "Red Ken", who easily won the two previous elections, and the Tories' Boris Johnson.
This is a choice between two big business candidates: a Tory toff and a former left. They are attempting to out-do each other on issues such as crime and the environment, but both will continue to preside over massive poverty and social deprivation while the City wallows in wealth.
Just 33 billionaires in London are 'worth' a staggering $120 billion between them. Additionally there are about 150,000 millionaires swaggering around this city. About 4,000 city executives in London have raked in billions of pounds between them in Christmas bonuses over the last few years. Despite the worldwide credit crunch and brewing recession, the bonuses at Christmas 2007 broke all records, topping £20 billion.
Alongside this breathtaking wealth is poverty on a major scale. 51% of children in inner London live in poverty, compared to 29% in England as a whole. A quarter of all London children live in workless households. 22% of London pensioners live in poverty. 1.5 million people are on waiting lists for social housing. 70% of all homeless people in temporary accommodation are in London.
The London economy is particularly vulnerable to a world financial crisis. London is the fourth largest 'city economy' in the world, yet only 5% of it is manufacturing. There are more branches and subsidiaries of international banks in London than any other city in the world.
When a recession bites, its effects in London could be devastating. 50,000 jobs are predicted to go in the City, but that could just be the beginning. While this will include some 'city slickers', it will also hit low-paid office workers, cleaners etc.
Already struggling under an unprecedented debt burden and a public sector pay freeze, Londoners could lose their jobs and their homes in droves.
This is the background to the London elections. Conditions are such that all the candidates are forced to acknowledge the gap between rich and poor.
On his mayoral application even Old Etonian Boris Johnson lamented: "I move in a trice past the stuccoed villas of the mega-rich to areas of real poverty and deprivation, and I see families stuck in grossly overcrowded flats, with no hope of a way out". But none of the main candidates offer any answers.
When the London mayor was first introduced in the year 2000, following a rigged Labour selection process that prevented Livingstone from standing for Labour, he stood as an independent. His candidacy was a glimmer of hope for many people disillusioned with the New Labour government.
The Socialist Party welcomed his decision to stand, and said he should make a complete break from New Labour. We called on him to convene a conference of trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists, as a step towards building a new working-class party.
We also pointed out that to fulfil the hopes of those who voted for him, Livingstone would need socialist policies. We called on him to fight against the privatisation of all public services, for rebuilding the NHS, against low pay, and for affordable public housing for all.
However, even before his election, Livingstone declared support for the 'free market', declaring: "I think it is quite clear that as a system for the distribution and exchange of goods, the market can't be bettered".
Nonetheless he has introduced a handful of measures which have benefited poorer Londoners. These include free travel for under-18s and the over-60s. He has introduced the London Living Wage as the minimum wage for GLA employees and a guideline for other workers. Currently set at £7.20, it has been used by cleaners to win better wages.
Livingstone opposed the Iraq war, and opposes the threatened closure of 169 post offices in London. He established an oil deal with Venezuela, and his support for Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is a factor in him still being seen as a 'left'. It is for these reasons, coupled with his radical past as leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1980s, that Livingstone is not entirely trusted by big business to do their bidding.
But he has lost popularity among London workers and is behind Boris Johnson in the polls. In part he is paying the price for his re-entry into the Labour Party. To many, Livingstone is an establishment figure, as much part of the betrayal of working-class people as any other Labour politician.
He has also become mired in the sleaze that comes with capitulating to big business politics. His race adviser Lee Jasper is accused of putting pressure on the London Development Agency to give £3.3 million to twelve suspect projects. Jasper has resigned but this is seen by many as a damage limitation manoeuvre.
Livingstone's policies on some issues have won him the hatred of sections of London's population. Fear of crime is high, and many people welcome the fact that Livingstone has increased 'police on the streets' and pledges a thousand more.
But when thousands of May Day demonstrators were detained in a police cordon for eight hours in 2001, Livingstone hailed the state's brute-force tactics as a success. When Metropolitan police chief, Sir Ian Blair, presided over the public killing of an innocent Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, Livingstone defended him.
The biggest let-down has been tube privatisation, the main issue on which Livingstone was elected. To defeat privatisation would have taken the mobilisation of a mass campaign, including strike action by tube workers. In 2001 tube workers in the unions RMT and ASLEF united and went on strike against privatisation.
If Livingstone had backed them and mobilised London workers in their support, a victory could have been won. Had this happened, the debacle of the collapse of private tube maintenance firm Metronet and the £2 billion bail-out of this profit-sucking company would have been avoided. But Livingstone implored workers to call off the strike. In 2006, Livingstone called on RMT members to cross picket lines. In the eyes of many RMT members, he has declared war on them.
Consequently Ken Livingstone has lost his 'untouchable' position. Recent opinion poll results have shown him behind Boris Johnson by amounts varying from one to twelve percentage points.
Johnson has been ahead amongst young people and women; in fact the only group that has been favouring Livingstone is the 45-54 year olds - those who remember his GLC past and the reality of the Tories in power. There is a real chance that Johnson could win this election.
Like Livingstone, Johnson presents himself as 'not really a politician' - popular at a time when trust in politicians is low. But he is also known as a buffoon, prone to gaffes, and lacking Livingstone's slick ability to turn to any issue.
Philip Stephens in the Financial Times has suggested that the Tory leadership would like him to lose narrowly, showing that the Tories can do well, but avoiding the embarrassment of having Johnson in power.
Johnson wants to be the "greenest mayor possible", although, as Livingstone points out, he opposes the international Kyoto climate change treaty and Livingstone's plan to increase the traffic congestion charge to £25 for gas-guzzling 4-by-4s. He also peppers his speeches with reactionary ideas appealing to basic prejudices, thus championing a mix of populist policies to appeal to different groups.
His big issue so far is crime. Overall crime figures have dropped since 2000, but Johnson highlights the appalling fact that 27 young men were murdered by guns and knives in 2007. But his support for the extension of police 'stop and search' powers, perhaps temporarily popular amongst older workers, could lay the way open for a more repressive London, especially for young blacks and Asians. Potentially inflammatory in London is the fact that Johnson is racist, with a record of disgraceful racist references.
Beneath the buffoonery lies a serious threat to workers' living conditions. Much of big business and their mouthpieces, such as the Evening Standard, support Johnson because he will be more prepared to carry out savage cuts when it is deemed necessary. Livingstone may condemn the RMT for taking strike action; Johnson wants to ban strikes on the London underground.
There will be a big class reaction against Johnson which will fall behind Livingstone, no matter how much disillusionment there may be in him.
With the continuing lack of trust in all the main parties, attacks on workers' pay and services, and concerns about immigration, there is a real danger that the far-right British National Party (BNP) could win an assembly seat.
In the last council elections in London in 2006, the BNP won 12 councillors in Barking and Dagenham. They only need 5% in the all-London lists to win an assembly member. If this were to happen, it could galvanise a new generation of young people into anti-racist, anti-BNP action.
The BNP had given second place on their list to their London organiser, ex-Tory Nick Eriksen, but he was removed when it was revealed that he had made a series of disgraceful misogynist statements. These included saying that "women enjoy sex, so rape cannot be such a terrible physical ordeal ... a woman would be more inconvenienced by having her handbag snatched".
The prospect of a Johnson victory against the backdrop of a looming recession, a ratchetting up of police repression, and one or two BNP assembly members, will mobilise many working-class people to vote for Ken Livingstone as the 'lesser evil', 'holding their noses'.
New workers' party needed
While this is understandable, workers should have no illusions in Livingstone. The only solution is for trade unionists and campaigners to stand candidates, as a step towards building a new workers' party.
In this election a big opportunity to do this has been lost. Well before the election campaigning began, the two Lewisham Socialist Party councillors, who are helping to build the Campaign for a New Workers' Party, wrote to various campaigning and trade union organisations in London to propose a broad anti-cuts, anti-privatisation list for the GLA, and possibly a mayoral candidate too.
They wrote to the London bodies of trade unions that had come into conflict with the Labour government, or who are outside the Labour Party, and to health campaigns and workers in struggle in different parts of London.
At the 2007 National Shop Stewards Network conference, RMT general secretary Bob Crow declared that the RMT would consider standing candidates in the GLA elections.
This would have been an important step forward.
London Socialist Party members entered into discussions with him, raising the possibility of the RMT taking the lead in pulling together trade unionists and campaigners into one list, which could include Socialist Party councillors, with the RMT at the head. Socialist Party RMT members successfully moved a resolution at the London Underground regional council to this effect.
If such a list had been achieved, the London elections would have been different. A working-class alternative would have been presented which could have articulated the enormous anger at the gap between rich and poor, at the decimation of our services through privatisation and cuts, at the crises in both health and housing.
It could have cut across some of the support for the BNP, by not only being clearly anti-racist, but most importantly, by offering an alternative to the small layer of working-class people who vote for the BNP in desperation over the ruin of their jobs, homes, services and communities. It could have been the starting block for a conference of trade unionists and campaigners to campaign for the formation of a new workers' party.
Unfortunately the RMT stepped back from standing candidates. Without a bold lead from a serious force such as the RMT, the creation of a workers' list that could have a major impact has not been possible.
In the assembly election the Socialist Party is, however, standing one of our Socialist councillors, Chris Flood, in the Greenwich and Lewisham constituency. For the vast majority of Londoners though, the options are severely limited.
The Socialist Party is calling for a vote for anti-cuts, anti-privatisation candidates where that is possible. For the mayor, there is only one such candidate, Lindsey German of the Respect 'Left List'.
Understanding the vicious attacks on workers that Boris Johnson would make and the desire of large numbers of working class Londoners to defeat him, we are calling for 2nd preference votes for Ken Livingstone, while arguing strenuously that the most important thing is to fight for a new workers' party.
In the all-London lists for the assembly, there are three to the left of the main parties: the 'Left List', George Galloway's Respect Renewal, and the Communist Party of Britain's 'Unity for Peace and Socialism'.
A vote for any of these would at least be a protest against the main parties. But unfortunately none of them represent forces that are likely to lead to a new workers' party at this stage.
Galloway's Respect Renewal and the SWP-led Respect 'Left List' are two rival organisations emerging from the split in Respect at the end of last year. The Socialist Party expressed its concerns about Respect from the start. The most important of these was that a new workers' party will not develop simply through a group of people declaring themselves to be the new party, and saying that everyone must join them.
A successful new party will only be formed through the participation of a number of serious forces - a fresh influx of workers and young people, and trade union bodies, community campaigns etc - all of whom need the freedom to argue their own points of view and democratically arrive at a programme and method of work.
Unfortunately though, both sides of the Respect split are now calling themselves the alternative and are calling on everyone else to join them or stand aside.
Scandalously, the Left List is even standing a candidate in the Greenwich and Lewisham constituency against longstanding socialist campaigner and health worker, Socialist Party councillor Chris Flood.
The Socialist Party will continue to campaign for significant steps towards a new mass workers' party, including the presenting of a serious and united challenge to the big business parties in future elections.
But we understand that to succeed, alliances and a new party must be developed on a federal and democratic basis, drawing in a new layer of workers, and rejecting the top-down centralised approach that resulted in failures and splits in the small new formations of recent years.
There's voting... and voting
In the 1st May London elections there will be three ballot papers:
- Mayor of London, for which there is two votes: a 1st and 2nd preference. All the first preference votes are counted, and if no one candidate has over half the votes, all but the top two are eliminated. The 2nd preference votes for the top two candidates are then added to their 1st preference votes, to determine the winner.
- Greater London Assembly constituency members. London is divided into 14 constituencies, each with an assembly member who is elected on a first-past-the-post basis.
- Greater London Assembly London-wide members. An additional eleven assembly members are elected from all-London lists, with one vote for one list.
The seats are allocated using a form of proportional representation, called the Modified d'Hondt Formula (details of this are on www.londonelects.org.uk).
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