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Ken Livingstone's Farewell: A Blow to British Socialism

Red Ken was never really so red in office but his politics were infused with enough influences from the Marxist left to make him a symbol of British socialism — his defeat in the London mayoral elections effectively marks the death of that movement.

It has been a slow death for a tendency which was once at the heart of the Labour Party, helping shape the policies which created the welfare state, but which now lacks even a single figure around which it can rally. There is no left-wing radical capable of garnering enough support to even irritate the Labour leadership — Prime Minister Gordon Brown was elected uncontested as Labour leader because the handful of old-school socialists in parliament simply couldn’t muster enough nominations to even get someone on the ballot.

In the 1970’s the Labour left was a broad coalition ranging from radical democratic reformists, the kind who had helped build the party in the post-war years, through to Stalinists and Trotskyists who really had little in common with the party’s purpose. The left was still at the heart of the labour movement. Socialists led trade unions into militant industrial action, left-wing figures led a large and active peace movement and the Labour Party leadership – although in the control of relatively conservative social-democrats — always had to take into account the views and potential response of the comrades to their left. But the beginning of the end came with Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979.

Thatcher called the left outside for a fight and made sure she was ready for the battle. Her right-wing government took on the once-powerful miners’ union, led by the Stalinist Arthur Scargill, and smashed it to pieces – it was the beginning of a sharp decline for the trade union movement. In local government Livingstone led the resistance in London and Thatcher removed him with a touch of Soviet style — dissolving the Greater London Council that he headed. Meanwhile the Labour Party leadership, sick of their efforts to regain electoral popularity being constantly undermined by Trotskyists entryists, primarily the thuggish mafia known as the Militant Tendency, expelled many leading activists.

There were protests from the likes of Tony Benn and sections of the old ‘broad church’ on the Labour left but most members were glad to see the back of the Trots and the party attempt to regain the trust of an electorate who had viewed them as unable to deal with extremists. Then came a decade of Labour, led by Neil Kinnock, then the late John Smith and eventually and most radically Tony Blair, marginalize the hard-left and reposition the party in the center ground.

Blair ended even the formal pretence of socialism in the Labour Party – removing references to ‘common ownership’ from the constitution of a party which had already replaced, as its symbol, the communist style red flag with the softer touch of a red rose. There was plenty of moaning and sarcasm but little resistance from the left and when Blair proved that gaining the center ground was the way to win — the left’s long claim that moderation didn’t win votes was proved to be utterly false.

At the height of Blairism there was only one figure of the old-left who maintained any sort of profile and who garnered a reasonable level of support — Livingstone. Blair wanted him far away from power but he ran for the newly created post of executive mayor of London as an independent and won. He was later brought back into the Labour fold and won again.

A popular media figure, Livingstone remained attached, for a yet to be explained reason, to a small Trotskyist sect known as Socialist Action whose members were rewarded with well-paid advisors jobs in the London administration. During his second term Livingstone, turned to communalist politics by allying himself with Islamists and alienating the Jewish community. Although it is probably true that he lost more support over his decision to replace the capital’s red double-decker buses with more modern ‘bendy buses’ than over his anti-Israel and pro-Islamist posturing, Livingstone’s ‘jobs for the boys’ with his leftist supporters was surely one of the factors behind his fall.

He also paid the price for Labour’s overall fall in popularity. The premiership of Gordon Brown has failed to deliver the ‘bounce’ that was promised when the Scot replaced Blair as Labour leader and Prime Minister, his leadership has deluded the party faithful and unimpressed the voters and so there was no party factor to help Livingstone against the clownish, but likeable, Conservative Boris Johnson.

The British socialist left’s last recognizable figure is out of power just at the moment when the moderate wing of the party is facing an acute crisis. It may seem like a missed opportunity for Livingstone and the left but it is typical of a movement that has failed, utterly to offer an alternative to Blairism at any stage in the past decade and who since the 1970’s have produced little but a list of failures.

Some American readers may rejoice at the death of British socialism but the problem for those trying to build a serious left of center politics in the UK is that without socialism as an anchor, the radical left has drifted into a pathetic, nihilistic oppositionalism and allowed itself to be entranced by Islamism, crude ‘anti-imperialism’, anti-Americanism and even Anti-Semitism.

Livingstone traveled that road himself and his defeat, while bad news in the short term for Labour in London, will have caused few tears among those looking to build a new and progressive centre-left politics.

“Jimmy Bradshaw” is the pseudonym of a British Social Democrat.