Ken Livingstone, Lindsey German and boneheaded sectarianism


For the last lot of months I’ve been following with interest the arguments in and around Respect on the question of endorsing Ken Livingstone or standing against him. But I’ve held back from commenting, mainly because I haven’t come to a hard and fast view of my own. It is worth, though, looking at some of the issues at stake.

Firstly, I’m not all that enthused about Ken per se. He isn’t really Red Ken these days, nor has he been for quite some time. On the other hand, he is still a cheeky chappie, which has stood him in good stead. What of his record as mayor? Well, he hasn’t made London a citadel of socialism, but then he never promised to. And, however much he’s moved to the right, he remains a relatively serious municipal reformist. He isn’t simply analysable as a representative of New Labour. In fact, Londoners who aren’t members of far-left groups (the majority, in other words) are much more likely to perceive him as being in a state of tension with New Labour.

He does, too, have a few positives going for him. His consistently antiwar stance and his diplomatic moves towards Chávez count in his favour. So too, does his defence of minorities in one of the world’s most ethnically diverse cities. This is especially important in that Boris Johnson, the Tory challenger, is known for coming out with the sort of casual racism that wouldn’t even make it into the Daily Mail or Private Eye these days. All right, a lot of the funds being disbursed by the mayor’s office have gone to black entrepreneurs rather than working-class communities. But, minorities will be asking themselves, will we get a better deal under a Boris regime? The same goes for RMT members who may still be smarting over Ken’s support for strikebreaking, but who will be all too aware of what a hardline Thatcherite administration would mean.

What of the other accusations thrown at Ken in the media’s campaign against him? Well, I don’t particularly have a problem with him running a job club for members of Socialist Action. At least it isn’t the AWL. And what of Peter Tatchell’s complaints that Ken has been cold-shouldering him since the Qaradawi affair? I fear this may be Ken simply protecting his own sanity. Much as I like and respect Peter, it must be said that he’s not the most pleasant person to be around when you disagree with him.

All in all, I think that, if you don’t actually vote for Ken, you should at least be considering a united front approach to his supporters.

This situation might change if there was a credible left-of-Labour candidate. But there isn’t. What there is, at the moment, is Lindsey German.

There are a number of problems I have with the Lindsey candidacy. The first one is that, as was admitted from the start, there was no hope of her winning, so her candidacy was aimed at boosting the (pre-split) Respect vote in the GLA contest. That seemed reasonable. If my maths are correct, you need something like 5.5% to win a list seat on the GLA. That was thought to be a credible target, if Respect could get 20% or thereabouts in East London. This in turn was achievable on the basis that there would be a big turnout from the Bangladeshi community. Now, what with the SWP’s shenanigans around the Respect split, most recently their declaration of a vote-splitting candidacy in the City and East constituency, not to mention Galloway’s rapport with the community, is it likely the Bangladeshis will turn out en masse for Lindsey? I think not.

Again, Lindsey was a relatively strong mayoral candidate last time around because of her prominence in the Stop the War Coalition. (Not least thanks to the StWC having had an excellent press officer.) This time, she was going to be much more reliant on the Respect organisation, much of which has now decamped to Respect Renewal. Not only that, but, despite the SWP’s vainglorious declarations that “We are Respect”, the Electoral Commission seems not to agree. That means that Lindsey, and any constituency candidates, will be appearing on the ballot paper as independents, and why the Rees-pect list is apparently going to be a “Left List”. That’s your brand recognition gone at a stroke.

There is another aspect that will become more apparent as the campaign goes on. During the last mayoral campaign, I became addicted to reading Lindsey’s election blog, due to its often hilarious otherworldliness. Honestly, Posy Simmonds couldn’t have made it up. The overwhelming impression was of a woman who hadn’t set foot outside the SWP centre for the last 25 years. And yet she’s still banging on about how London has one of the worst transport systems in the world. Really, it may not compare well to Paris or Berlin, but in the world? Worse than Kolkata? Worse than Glasgow? I mean, I’m not the most frequent visitor to London, but even I can tell that under the Ken regime the transport system has improved massively.

Which brings me on to the question of united front tactics. The Swops like to claim this as a special strength, and their theory implies that they should be reaching out to Livingstone voters in a non-sectarian way. Yet 90% of their argument is along the lines of “Why Ken is shit”. The existence of a rightwing Tory candidate, never mind one running Ken close, barely features. You would get the impression that the election was a two-horse race between Ken and Lindsey. But it isn’t. And this might have some justification if the ultraleft tone was backed up by a hard Marxist programme rather than a wishy-washy reformist one. But it isn’t.

This is a campaign that, frankly, is dying on its arse. The sensible thing, even from the point of view of an SWP member, would be to sit the mayoral election out. In the absence of a serious candidacy, it has the potential to be an enormous waste of time, energy and money for very little return. As far as I can see, the only reason for this candidacy is a desire on the part of Lindsey and Kim Jong Rees to save face. Which, let’s be honest, is no way for a revolutionary group to conduct itself.


  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    March 1, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    Grateful thanks for directing me to the LG election blog… most entertaining.

    More broadly, hard to disagree with your analysis.

  2. Tom Griffin said,

    March 1, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    Interesting from Nick Cohen on politicalbetting, where there reporting a big swing to Boris in the last day or two:

    Just a rumour but I heard second hand that there’s an attack biography on Livingstone ready to roll so maybe one of the Sundays have it. I’m not a betting man, and my source may be duff, but perhaps it’s worth buying Johnson before the first editions are out a 8.
    by Nick Cohen March 1st, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Also check out this from Newthound in the latest Private Eye: ‘Managing the crisis is almost impossible for the mayor’s army of spindoctors because they don’t know where the next revelation is coming from.’

    The neocons have targeted anyone who has tried to engage with the Muslim community. A big part of Martin Bright’s attack on Ken was over his support for the Met’s Muslim Contact Unit.

    You would think that the head of the Stop the War Coalition would recognise the stakes.

  3. Andy newman said,

    March 1, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    There is another significant factor, which is that the SWP may simply fail to get the required the signatures for her from ten registered electors in each of the 32 London Boroughs and the Corporation of London.

  4. Andy newman said,

    March 1, 2008 at 9:48 pm


    he used to keep axolotl not newts – your picture should look like this:

  5. Ciarán said,

    March 1, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    What are people’s opinions of the Green Party candidate, Siân Berry? She seems to be doing the kind of thing that German’s campaign wishes it could be doing (or what it says it wishes it could be doing), running a non-sectarian campaign with a shot of a relatively good turn-out.

  6. March 2, 2008 at 1:09 am

    I do have a problem with Livingstone running a job club for Socialist Action. The only time I encountered this group in public they were working closely with some very nasty reactionary Serb nationalists, and that’s at leasst as bad in my book as AWL courtship with the Zionists.
    Furthermore, while the AWL and SWP etc at least appear openly and publish their views, Socialist Action seems to operate secretively, popping up in various campaigns etc but never openly discussing or trying to win support – it’s more like the freemasons than a left-wing tendency. Second, if Socialist Action are filling posts out of dedication to the working class and socialism, how come they need such whopping salaries?
    I did not agree with the mayorality in the first place, it
    is not real democracy, but like most people I voted for Livingstone because he represented the GLC resistance to Thatcher in our minds, as well as standing up to Tony Blair and the machine. But he has always kept a distance from the workers’ movement, as we saw with his exorting people to cross picket lines, and he is too keen on the showman role to appeal to business – fancy inviting Formula One a week after bringing in the congestion charge.
    What Livingstone was up to with Qaradawi I don’t know, even if the guy was not as bad as presented what has he got to do with ordinary people who happen to be Muslim and live and work here? Has the mayor (and his researcher who wrote a defence of the cleric) got nothing better to do?
    I’ve defended Livingstone against attacks from the right, Brent TUC challenged the Wiesenthal centre campaign against him, and got through to West Coast union brothers and sisters on this, but now he says he has not got time to speak to us, it seems.
    Many working people and even middle class professionals have grown cynical about politics, and
    feel it has nothing to do with them. “They are all the same” etc. Livingstone had the chance to change that when he was first elected, but I wonder whether he is seen as different now? Socialists have a right and duty to show there is an alternative to New Labour, even f we have not made a good job of it so far. The GLA and mayoral elections give the opportunity to vote in order of preference, and much as I’m not too keen on what’s being offered, you can’t blame people for having a go.

  7. Martin Wisse said,

    March 2, 2008 at 11:50 am

    You’ve left out one big reason to be wary of Ken: his support for Ian Blair and the Met Police and in particular the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes.

  8. Dr Paul said,

    March 2, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    I think that it’s a case of the SWP leadership rather desperately trying to find something to do, an activity that will hopefully provide something around which the party membership can rally.

    The Respect split must have come as a shock for the SWP leadership, however much nearly everyone outwith the party recognised it as inevitable. The SWP had placed its bet on Respect lasting for some time and being the main focus of the party, with all sorts of gains for the party, so now it’s broken up with the SWP almost alone in its half of Respect the party leaders must find something with which to keep the troops occupied. Hence the ‘Lindsey for Mayor’ campaign.

    The SWP is in an invidious position. The party is too small to exist like the old Communist Party (that is, up to the late 1970s), what with the latter’s bigger membership (which enabled it better to manage membership turnover and slippage), implantation in the union bureaucracies at all levels, links with the Labour Party left, and handy subsidies from abroad. The SWP is, on the other hand, too big to exist like the small fry, that is to say, to get by on a diet of polemics against other left groups and abstract propaganda on faraway places.

    It therefore needs a lively campaign or two, some popular mobilisation to which it can relate and in which it can intervene, and/or a reasonable level of class conflict in which it can make an intervention or lead where possible. None of this actually applies at the moment. So hence the London election campaign.

    There’s another basically insoluble problem facing the SWP; namely, the absence of Tony Cliff. He was a ganzer macher par excellence, an almost chemically-pure political group leader. He could provide political theory, often of a innovative nature, and think up imaginative campaigns, and, moreover, was a charismatic leader-figure, with a sensitive feel for a political situation a lot of the time. Can anyone in the SWP leadership replace him; can any grouping of SWP leaders replace him? That the party’s major campaign post-Cliff was Respect, a disaster-in-waiting that nearly everyone foresaw would crash, and did crash without giving the SWP anything in return (how many recruits, how many more paper sales?), is not a good pointer to the group’s future.

    However, I don’t foresee any sudden implosion of the SWP; I think that most members will try to put the Respect fiasco behind them without discussing it too much on the basis that a deep discussion might make too many waves. I doubt if its London Mayoral campaign will bring in many good returns; on the other hand, it may not be the total disaster that many people suspect it will be. But it does smack a little of desperation, an attempt to compensate for the collapse of Respect, and a poor showing will lead to demoralisation within the party’s ranks.

  9. Shoegazer said,

    March 2, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    In response to Ciaran’s observation [5] re. Sian Berry, I think she may be the most genuine of all the candidates in terms of overall political credibility. I’m not a Green myself, but can see the attraction of their politics, and have been increasingly impressed by Sian’s activities. Her current involvement in the campaign for fair pay can only help endear her to the huge amount of Londoners for whom this is a major issue. I believe that she’s aligned with the Green Left grouping within her party and she actually comes across as a likeable and genuine person. Hey, I’ve just convinced myself that if I were a Londoner, I’d give her my vote in preference to any of the other motley contenders!

  10. WorldbyStorm said,

    March 2, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    That’s a great analysis Dr. Paul. Your point about the election being in order to keep the party membership happy (and occupied) rings entirely true as does the tricky position it finds itself in as regards its size. In a way any organisation must develop the linkages you point to in order to survive over long periods of time (I’m told the Irish SWM had some success as regards some unions back in the 1980s… I don’t know myself as I had no experience of same). But then again, campaigns have to have achievable ends, or at least hold out the hope of same. Can that be said to be true of the Mayoral attempt?

  11. March 2, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    I just don’t see German’s campaign faring as badly as you claim. There is a raft of people – in London as elsewhere but probably more so – whose politics are anything from Left Labour to extreme Left.

    An increasing number of those on the right of this group will be completely disenchanted with Livingstone – they may have voted vote him before but won’t again.

    It’s sadly common for Trots (of which I’m one) and exTrots to hate the SWP with avengance. I’m a critic of thiers but also recognise the common features in my politics shared will all other Lefts – from say Socialist Appeal to Workers Power.

    But ‘Lefts’ are few and far between. Most lefts may never have read a Left paper, been a member of a group etc.

    They may be a low paid worker not working in a unionised workplace (‘what’s a trade union? they may ask) or are a student at an FE college studying to be a secretary, not a social worker.

    They may never have come across a Left in their home town of say Romford where you’d never see an organised Left presence.

    And as such they don’t share this unpleasant anti SWP monomania that is particularly pronounced in exSWPers. They’ve never heard of the SWP and think Lenin was in the Beatles.

    If the large number of ‘natural’ lefts become aware of the German campaign, , they could vote for her. Their views are left of Labour and they have nowhere else to go.

    I’m supporting the campaign. German beat the Green and the BNP last time.
    I’d urge any fellow socialists to put their critical views of the SWP to one side until May (I have) so that they can work in a non-sectarian manner to build the biggest possible Left vote in London.

  12. charliemarks said,

    March 3, 2008 at 3:28 am

    Line: Please, less of the Kim Jong Rees stuff.

    Payoff: It’s not fair on Kim Jong Il!

    Joking aside, I don’t see a problem with voting Ken 1st, Lyndsay 2nd.

    The SWP’s “left list” is a sign they know the Respect game is up and hopefully there can be work towards left unity with humility.

    Now I’ve said it, I feel guilty about the cruel joke. No more, I promise.

    Here’s a nice one:

    “Knock knock”
    “Who’s there?”
    “The SWP”
    “What – all of you?
    “I’ve already got a copy of this weeks Socialist Worker”
    “It’s not that big in here you know.”
    “Oh, alright then. I suppose you’d better come in so we can discuss with humility the building of a new workers party… Ignore the mess.”

  13. Cian said,

    March 3, 2008 at 10:36 am

    And as such they don’t share this unpleasant anti SWP monomania that is particularly pronounced in exSWPers. They’ve never heard of the SWP and think Lenin was in the Beatles.

    Unless of course they’ve encountered an SWP front group, an SWP infiltration of an existing campaign, or had the misfortune to get involved in an SWP campaign. A fair number of non-aligned lefties loathe the SWP because of encounters they’ve had. The tactics of the SWP are pretty toxic to getting anything done much of the time – this doesn’t win you too many friends in the long term.

  14. Freshly Squeezed Cynic said,

    March 3, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    A fair number of non-aligned lefties loathe the SWP because of encounters they’ve had.

    Well, quite. I used to be one of those “non-aligned lefties” until the whole SSP debacle, which really made me view the SWP in a less charitable light.

  15. March 3, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    But the point is to do what is best to advance socialism.

    I’ve certainly met quite a few toxic members of the SWP (but good ones as well). I recall Militant as being even more toxic, I’ll relate my theory of ‘biggest Left group arrogance’ sometime.

    But does anyone disagree that it will be good to build support in London for the only socialist candidate?

    I’m afraid you have either are of a sectarian bent or too right, thinking Livingstone is supportable, if you don’t bite the bullet and support German

  16. Phil said,

    March 3, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    does anyone disagree that it will be good to build support in London for the only socialist candidate?

    I think it’s a tactical question. If German’s campaign is run in such a way that it can’t help Boris by leaching away Livingstone’s ‘left’ vote, then socialists should support it. If not, not.

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