Remember Ken Livingstone? Yes you do, the ex-Mayor of London who had his head stuck so far up Sir Ian Blair's arse that he might actually have discovered the whereabouts of the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner's mythical conscience? The politician who spent a significant proportion of his time in office jumping on every bandwagon, projecting London as a ‘world city’ built on the very finance capitalism that screwed the world economy, endlessly smoozed self-described 'community leaders' like some Tammany Hall boss and both defending the indefensible and insulting the memory of Jean Charles de Menezes after the young Brazilian's public execution?
The man, lets not forget, who ultimately was so successful and so popular that the people of London felt they were better represented by Etonian toff Boris Johnston, for fucks sake?
After his humiliating defeat, Livingstone continued to believe he was the "once and future mayor", so sadly there was little chance he would just bugger off and write a biography. Almost immediately in 2008, he announced his intention to run again at the next mayoral elections and set up Progressive London, Livingstone's own 'big tent' and platform for his future ambitions. It claims to be a "a cross-party, multi-community forum involving politicians, artists, trade unionists, bloggers, community activists and campaigners to promote social progress in the capital," but as James O'Nions said at the time of its launch:
But it didn't happen, almost entirely because of Livingstone himself, the manner in which he governed and his desire to return to the Labour fold. And yet today, the flaps of the big-top have opened once again at the TUC's Congress House for a Progressive London conference purportedly aiming to "Stop the Right in 2010", but which is really an attempted relaunch of Livingstone's career.
"The best chance that Ken had to establish a progressive coalition in London was eight years ago in the wake of his first mayoral election victory as an independent. Having pulled both the Labour left and many other activists into his election campaign, and proved it was possible for the left to win outside the Labour party, Ken had all to play for. A 'progressive coalition' for London (rather than a new political party) would have fitted the mood exactly and would have been more conducive to grassroots-led innovation in local government."
The agenda is a classic example of the way Livingstone operated as Mayor. It includes all the usual suspects: a sprinkling of trade union bureaucrats, some celebrity friends, 'community leaders' and some pals from Stop the War, a fair number of his Socialist Action camp followers and, now that he is safely back in the fold, some Labour Party figures and a few former parliamentary colleagues. Some Lib Dems and Greens were even persuaded to turn up. But the conference was also so completely broad in its range of issues, far beyond 'stopping the right', that many of the workshops seem to have been devised primarily to provide speaking opportunities to people in Livingstone's address book who might one day turn out to be useful political allies.
It's also a measure of how weak and desperate most of the non-Labour Left is, from the liberals to the organised Trots, that a number agreed to participate in this circus. A few people I recognise must have choked on their mid-morning coffee at the prospect of Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, talking about how little he has done on tackling climate change - or a plenary from Labour's Deputy Leader Harriet Harman, for crying out loud. But it's a sign too of the desperation within Labour's ranks (particularly those around the pressure group Compass) that some already have the smell of electoral defeat in their nostrils, are maneuvering for the aftermath of this May's general elections and thinking about their position in 2012, when the London mayoralty will again be contested.
But do 'progressives' really want to used as election fodder for Labour in this way again? After witnessing Livingstone's failures last time and the Labour Party's comprehensive abandonment of progressive politics, is the only alternative really doing the same thing all over again?
Of course it is, that's what the liberal and Trotskyist left have spent a lifetime perfecting and by all accounts, the turnout at today's conference has been quite high. But it also seems like a very old-fashioned event - one focused on finding another saviour, another cobbled-together alliance, not the start of a new kind of specifically anti-capitalist politics that rejects the way things have always been done before. For that reason, I very much suspect that what Josh Garman from Greenpeace apparently calls 'the civil society movement' will stay as far away as possible.