a short appreciation of the career of Ken Livingstone
In May Ken Livingstone resigned from the Labour Party, having been a high profile target of the right wing for many years.
A long standing leading politician on Labour’s left, he became a bane of the right through taking on and defeating in London-wide elections both the Tories (in the 1980s) and Labour’s right wing (in 2000). He demonstrated that there was support for left wing politics, something the right wing like to deny.
When Livingstone ran London’s government (GLC 1981-86 and GLA 2000-2008) it was demonstrated in practice that a left agenda can deliver progressive change and succeed in elections. His policies as Leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s were so popular that Thatcher decided to abolish the council rather than lose another London election to him. At the time Livingstone’s successes in London stood in stark contrast to the failures of Labour’s right wing national leadership, which proved incapable of dislodging a reactionary Tory government – spending time publicly attacking Labour’s left instead of opposing the Tories.
In 2000, despite the right wing rigging the selection of Labour’s London Mayoral candidate, Livingstone won the actual election as an independent, defeating both the Tories and Labour’s official candidate. When Livingstone was re-elected Mayor in 2004, it was as Labour’ candidate – Blair not favouring another defeat at Livingstone’s hands.
The political framework Livingstone has consistently advanced for Labour is one where the party puts forward policies that protect and raise the living standards of the overwhelming majority of the population. This included championing action to tackle climate change. In parallel he advocated policies to advance the rights of those oppressed within society. Whilst resolutely supporting many fights: for women’s equality, against racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, and for lesbian and gay rights; these causes were promoted in conjunction with the battles to make the overwhelming majority better off. Such a political framework aims to build a majority of support amongst voters.
When running London, a central focus for Livingstone was on improving the quality and affordability of transport services. In 1983 he lowered public transport fares by 25% following a long court battle. As London Mayor from 2000 he introduced the policies that improved London’s Overground and bus systems and ensured Crossrail will be built.
As well as fighting neo liberal economic policies, Livingstone spent decades battling a reactionary social agenda. Both the GLC and the GLA provided national platforms to promote the demands of the real struggles taking place. Livingstone’s support for self-organisation helped empower those campaigning for progressive policies. At the GLC he pioneered the resourcing of many groups, including women, black people, Jewish organisations and lesbian and gay people. At the GLA, amongst many initiatives, civil partnerships for same-sex couple were first introduced, which encouraged national government to legislate likewise.
Livingstone’s London government provided the Labour left with a platform for its international agenda. The GLC and GLA hosted initiatives in support of Irish self-determination and the peace process. London government was also a bastion of the peace movement, clashing with Thatcher over nuclear weapons and with Blair over the invasion of Iraq.
Livingstone is a firm supporter of Palestinian human rights, strongly criticising the policies of successive Israeli governments and campaigning for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is of course not at all equivalent to being anti-Jewish. He is also a long-standing opponent of antisemitism, which he has often described as ‘a uniquely reactionary ideology’, that has been ‘used to justify the greatest crimes in history’. He has fought racism and antisemitism throughout his political career, including ensuring that London government resourced these fights and supported Jewish community organisations and cultural events.
The right wing accused Livingstone of antisemitism because of a statement he made in 2016 about part of the Zionist movement’s relations with the Nazi regime in the 1930s. Zionism is a political ideology and it is not equivalent to the Jewish people. So when Livingstone was referred to Labour’s disciplinary body, he was not charged with antisemitism, but with causing offence. Despite being suspended from the Labour Party for two years the right’s attacks on Livingstone did not abate.
Livingstone has always been close to the Labour left’s publications, including to Labour Briefing which he encouraged the creation of at the time of its launch.
When Livingstone resigned from the Labour Party he indicated he did not wish the attacks on him to become a distraction from the key issue of our time – which is electing a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government.