Thursday 24 January 2008

Red Ken: More Like Blair Than He's Care To Admit

As Ken Livingstone is discovering, once people start talking about a scandal, they can talk of little else.

First there was the Evening Standard allegations of a link between Lee Jasper and corruption. Then came the bizarre 'discovery' by the Sunday Times of an alleged "secret Marxist cell" in City Hall and now Lee Jasper's deputy Rosemary Emodi has been forced to resign for lying about taking a free luxury holiday in Nigeria. Livingstone has accused the press and a Channel 4 Dispatches programme made by the New Stateman's Martin Bright of conducting a politically motivated 'hatchet job' intended to influence the forthcoming Mayoral elections. And on the face of it, the individual allegations of scandal seem fairly flimsy.

The Dispatches programme was undoubtedly appalling journalism, which is to be expected from someone like Martin Bright, who memorably claimed in the Observer back in 2001 that "rioters armed with samurai swords" would be attending the May Day demonstration. But let's look at the evidence. I have already written in December 2007 about the attacks on Jasper over allegations that he inappropriately influenced over £2.5 million of London Development Agency funds. The latest claim comes from former GLA advisor Atma Singh, who parted company with the Livingstone inner-circle on acrimonious terms. He alleges that GLA funds were used to smear Trevor Phillips, then head of the Commission for Racial Equality, to try and stop him from becoming the chair for the new Commission for Equalities and Human Rights. Singh alleges that consultant Anne Kane was paid to write a "devastating critique" that eventually appeared on... Blink, the 1990 Trust's (ha hum) 'widely read' website.

Now there is an obvious reason why this allegation is tenuous at best. It's the fact that there have long been genuine policy differences between the Mayor and Trevor Phillips, who used his position as head of the CRE to claim that "multiculturalism is not working" and that Britain was "sleepwalking" into segregation". Livingstone was not alone in warning that Phillips was playing a dangerous game with the comments he was making and seldom has there been a prominent head of a government quango more deserving of fierce criticism - hell, I would have written the report for free. But no-one is suggesting that the GLA intended to ferret around in Phillips' private life, so how can legitimate political debate be described as a smear?

Meanwhile, he 'revelation' that there are a number of members of 'Socialist Action' working for Livingstone has to rank as the worst kept secret on the British Left. However, the very lack of 'socialist activity' by this tiny Trot group in any sphere other than blind devotion to the Mayor hardly constitutes a 'cell', any more than the discovery of a number of Tories working for the Sunday Times would. These 'Marxists' have, after all, been the organisers of Livingstone's cosy relationship with business and the police.

But before we get carried away with the idea that this is a witch hunt against the Left because of mad rants from the likes of Nick Cohen, or even start to reluctantly defend Socialist Action as Dave Osler has done, let's get one thing straight. These people don't deserve our sympathy, for they have done plenty of witch hunting themselves. They used the financial muscle of the Mayor's office to ensure, in an unholy alliance with the Socialist Workers Party, that at the European Social Forum in 2004 only those loyal to their own groups and to Ken Livingstone were heard. They have banned critics from City Hall, brought their allies (like Atma Singh) into key posts and occupied very well-paid jobs whilst doing so. And that is why there is at least one statement of truth in the claims Singh made to Dispatches - that the clique around Livingstone "are driven by a desire to maintain as much political power as possible, through control of London’s finances, control over the staff who run London and the removal of opposition.”

All of which reminds me of another populist leader, one able to ignore the elected assembly supposed to hold him to account, who was ferociously loyal to the close circle of friends and allies around him and who believed that he, and he alone, understood the way to govern. Does that sound like anyone familiar? I appreciate that it's hard to imagine Lee Jasper as London's Peter Mandelson, but it's far easier to recognise the arrogance of unrestrained power.

I can't say I'm surprised that the Mayor thinks he can brazen his way out of the bad publicity he faces by claiming his advisers have been cleared by internal inquiries - after all, it worked more often than not for Blair. Nor am I surprised that Rosemary Emodi lied about her trip to Nigeria - were it not for the unfortunate timing of the other scandals, she probably would have got away with it.

But I am surprised that otherwise sensible people have such difficulties recognising this. Worse still, I'm amazed they are now articulating the very-same Blairite line so often criticised by the Left, that 'you may not like what we are doing, but at least we are not the Tories.'

Seumas Milne in the Guardian has, for example, written that "a defeat for Livingstone would not just be a blow to the broadly defined left, working-class Londoners, women, ethnic minorities and greens. It would represent a wider defeat for progressive politics, in Britain and beyond." This is just nonsense. Livingstone does indeed have a number of progressive policies, but his politics and the manner in which they are conducted is an anathema to the kind of new, progressive, bottom-up and fundamentally democratic agenda that the Left should be embracing.

Ken or Boris? I've argued before that a vote for Livingstone is impossible for those who care about the way the Mayor has responded to the state execution of Jean Charles de Menezes. And anyway, I don't think its as simple as a choice between the 'least worst'.

Instead, I think it's time that so many on the Left stopped pinning all their hopes on the belief that individual leaders, the outcome of occasional elections and the decisions of small, unelected elites are the most important drivers of real political change.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.