Beyond our Ken? The odyssey of Britain’s most unlikely career politician.

Conservative poster

A review of Ken Livingstone, Being Red: A Politics for the Future (London: Pluto/Left Book Club, 2016)

Introduction: Dubious heritages

Being Red is the second in a new series of books bearing the name of Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club (LBC) imprint which published nearly 200 books between 1936 and 1948.  The intellectual culture around these books is often credited as one factor shifting the climate of opinion to the left which resulted in the more left-wing elements in the programme of (and perhaps even the election of) the 1945 Labour government.  The original LBC showed a somewhat limited left-ecumenicalism.  While the LBC published Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (although with an introduction by Gollancz that asserted a more pro-Communist line than sections of Orwell’s text) and the main Gollancz imprint had published Orwell’s three novels of the 1930s, Gollancz rejected Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia without even seeing the manuscript on the grounds that he would not publish anything critical of the Communists since this would weaken the anti-fascist struggle.

There is little doubt that, at least in what are often seen as its glory years (1936-1938), the LBC was strongly aligned with the Communist Party (CP) in general; and in particular it supported its policy of a popular front government of progressive Tories, Liberal and the left against fascism.  Enthusiasm for the popular front Republicans in their fight against Franco was central to this.  Gollancz became more wary of the Communists after 1938 and took a more independent line before finally breaking with them in 1940 as the USSR, aligned with Hitler’s Germany, and the CP denounced the allies the perpetrator of an “imperialist war”.  The CP angered Gollancz by turning some LBC readers’ clubs (always heavily influenced by the CP) into “Stop-the-war” committees.  Gollancz himself supported the war as an anti-fascist.

The new LBC does not seem to appreciate that the politics of the original LBC were not simply against the “growing threat of war” (as the editor’s preface states).  Not only did they support one side in Spain, but Gollancz ended up supporting the allies in WWII.  While Gollancz found room for pacifists, he found no room for those who argued for an independent working class line.  While it may have been possible to ignore the small British Trotskyist movement, Gollancz also cut off the left-wing Independent Labour Party where Fenner Brockway was arguing for a workers’ front rather than a popular front.  In his 1938 book The Workers’ Front, Brockway argued for an independent working class response of fascismwas not published by the LBC, but by Secker and Warburg (who had also become George Orwell’s publishers).[1]  The old LBC certainly carried pacifist material and opposed German militarism, but it had neither a pacifist nor working-class defeatist attitude towards armed struggle.[2]  As the editor’s preface also points out, many of the writers were also against appeasement with Germany.  What the preface fails to point out is that this ultimately meant that they favoured some form of war preparations in Britain to counter Germany.

It might well be that the old LBC did not set a great example and one that the new LBC should hope to transcend.  The problem is with a promise to publish only four books a year, there is little room for a false step but unfortunately Being Red is exactly that.  For a start the book is extremely scrappy.  It consists of only two chapters by Livingstone himself, three long interviews and a slim chapter written by Jan Woolf on Livingstone and the arts.

Worse still, the longer of the two original chapters written by Livingstone himself consists of 12,000 words on why is it disgraceful that Boris Johnson beat him for mayor in 2012.  He draws heavily on Alex Crowley’s insider memoir of Johnson’s election campaign and suggests that he suffered for a lack of support from elements in the Labour Party (and indeed that blames an unknown Labour Party official for leaking his campaign material to Johnson’s team).  There is material here that might interest a contemporary history anorak (like myself), but on the whole the chapter comes across as unreflective and self-justifying.  Although it is reasonable for Livingstone to attack the role of the Evening Standard and some of the Lynton Crosby strategies of Johnson’s campaign, the central issue is that Livingstone lost.  This was despite Labour having won 2 per cent more of the London vote than the Conservatives at the general election of 2010[3]  Furthermore, Labour had improved their position in opinion polls by 10 percentage points since that election and 2012, whereas the Conservatives had lost ground.[4]  Unlike in his 2000 prime, Livingstone was not more popular than the leadership of the Labour Party, but less so.  One has to surmise that this was in part due, at least in part, to his second term of mayor that was characterised more by a series of minor crises of misbehaviour and possible corruption, than policy success.  It would take a very stoical person to unpick how a career based on their personnel appeal had ended, and Livingstone is not that person.  There is little to say about this chapter and I will say nothing more about it here.

This leaves the “main event” in the book which is thus a slim chapter of maybe 8,000 words dealing with “Rebuilding the party, rebuilding Britain”.  This could be the basis of Livingstone critically reflecting on his thirty-five years in London Labour politics and drawing lessons for the new Labour leadership, but it is a chapter with few ideas and even less critical assessment on his record.  Nonetheless, I will consider the points he makes in this chapter in section 2 below.  First, in section 1, I will consider some of the issues that arise out of the three chapters of interviews.  In an odd way, these throw considerable light on Livingstone as a politician.  This light suggests, for me at least, that the role that he is attempting to assume as the elder statesman of the current Labour left is a highly questionable one.

Section 1: The Interviews.

The sections of the book based around interviews are maybe not worthy of much attention.  Livingstone published a long memoir in 2011 which, one assumes, was his definitive statement on events up to that point.  The interviews could be used, of course, to pursue points that were unclear or questionable in the book.  But no.  Instead, there is a rather off-hand attitude towards the facts that runs through the interviews.

His comments on Northern Ireland bear witness to this.  Surprisingly, given Livingstone’s long-standing support for Irish republicanism, his remarks are riddled with factual inaccuracies.  He thinks there were no “non-unionist” MPs before the late 1960s[5] (two Sinn Fein MPs were elected in 1955, two Sinn Fein and one Irish Labour in 1951, two nationalist MPs in 1950);[6] that the IRA’s “armed struggle” started in the late 1960s,[7], whereas most would date this around 1971; that both the Democratic Unionist and the Ulster Unionist parties were part of the Conservative Party[8] (only the Ulster Unionist took the Conservative whip in Westminster, and then only until direct rule in 1972 after which the link was weakened and relations strained, the DUP never had an organisation link with the Conservatives and indeed grew through opposing Conservative policy on Northern Ireland from the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the latter part of the 1980s);[9] that John Major’s early peace talks in Northern Ireland excluded Sinn Fein[10] (they did not, they related to Sinn Fein through intermediaries, particular John Hume of the SDLP, bringing Sinn Fein to the table in a way that would allow Protestant groups to be in talks too was the entire point of the of the process).[11]  One of the errors might be a slip, their collective weight raises questions about Livingstone’s understanding of Northern Ireland.

There is a similar carless attitude towards some key aspects of his times at the GLC.  Through his time as the leader of the GLC 1981-1986 Livingstone was best known for three policy areas, all dealt with briefly in Being Red.  In roughly chronological order these are: first, the Fares Fair policy of reducing the cost of public transport; second, and in my view the most important, was the funding of a variety of community and campaigning groups;  third, the struggle against the Conservative’s attempt to control local government spending culminating in rate capping.  All of these are dealt with in the interviews here but, again, in an off-hand way.  It may well be that Livingstone feels that he has dealt with these adequately in his memoirs (although, on the whole, they are not dealt with well even there).[12]  He is certainly not reappraising these events in the light of Corbyn winning the leadership of the Labour Party.

Much of what Livingstone says here is so vague as to be misleading.  Asked about the GLC’s Fares Fair policy Livingstone is vague about how the courts rejected the GLC’s right to implement the subsidised fair policy, suggesting that the courts ruled that the council should “try and not spend too much, or something like that”.  This insouciance is perhaps a response to the contradictory mess that the court rulings were.  The GLC’s Fair’s Fare policy was ruled as beyond the council’s powers by the Court of Appeal in November 1981, and a ruling upheld the following month by the Law Lords (then, sitting as the House of Lords, the highest court of the Appeal).  Only one Law Lord rested his judgement on fiduciary duty to rate payers (that is the council should “try not to spend too much”), but the majority opinion rested on the judges’ view that the Transport (London) Act 1969 required that the London Transport Executive (LTE) break even “as far as practicable”.  Given the LTE was already making a loss, and that fares were (to a lesser degree) already subsidised it is possible to see the judges as not simply interpreting the law as written, but offering political support to the Conservative government’s attacks to limit to the spending of Labour councils.[13]  It is certainly the case that no-one thought that the policy was problematic before it was implemented (including the GLC’s cautious in-house lawyers) and no-one saw the judgement coming, so it is unfair to suggest that this was a result of the hubris of the newly installed left-wing council leadership (indeed, the fares policy had support from all sections of the Labour group).

Even more clearly wrong is Livingstone’s account of what happened next.  In Being Red he states that the Law Lords reversed their decision through back-channels.[14]  The real story is more bizarre: the government attempted to pave the way to the GLC taking a loan to clear the debt the ruling had created, the GLC turned this offer down instead increased the rates by £125 million to pay off the debt in one year thus losing all of their rate support grant under government spending controls; this led to a surplus in subsequent years that undermined the GLC’s part in fighting rate capping.  Meanwhile, the Attorney General overturned the Law Lords’ decision, something he had no constitutional power to do, and then a lower court set aside the precedent of the Law Lords, again in a way that broke constitutional norms.  It is interesting what lessons can be drawn from this – I would suggest that in the early years of Thatcher’s premiership different elites in Britain were far from being united behind her rule and some pragmatic compromises by the left laid the basis for their later defeat – but the point here is that Livingstone does not use this opportunity to draw any at all.  It also misses out something important in Livingstone’s record – that while some on the GLC left wanted to push on with a campaign of mass defiance of the court’s decision, Livingstone favoured a more limited publicity campaign.[15]  This use of advertising hoardings which rather promised the organisation of resistance to the Conservative government was to become characteristic of Livingstone’s time in County Hall.

A more positive lesson can be drawn from the second key area of GLC policy – the funding of a variety of groups that is perhaps, the GLC’s most lasting legacy.  However, as with much else, it is dealt with only in a summary way in Being Red, and one that perhaps suggests that Livingstone himself has failed to grasp its impact.  This was not simply (as the interviewer here puts it) support for children’s play schemes in a way that prefigured New Labour’s Sure Start programme.[16]  This later programme was aimed at encouraging mothers into work, but what the GLC programme did was (when it worked) was to give marginalised groups in London a space to organise just when central government was attacking them.  It was capable of creating forums where a generation of community based activists coalesced (this was not the first time this had happened, spending on community centres under the Urban Programme from 1969 onwards, and municipal support for community resources more generally, could have a similar impact; the GLC was different for supporting such projects on a larger scale, with overt political intent and in the context of the Conservative attacks on working people of the early 1980s).  For example, GLC support for the Black Trade Unionists Solidarity Movement from 1982 to 1985 is likely to have helped black and Asian trade unionists gain recognition in the trade union movement.[17]  The space given to women’s and LGBT groups could too have been important in their development (although the GLC was only one amongst a number of Labour left councils so doing).  It is notable that Livingstone’s defence of these policies is somewhat muted, he merely suggests that support for gay rights is the norm now[18] while at the time this was a radical move to support those in struggle.  While Livingstone is keen to suggest that he delegated, the truth about the GLC is that the leadership was much more collective than it is portrayed here (for example, Valerie Wise, who was chair of the Women’s Committee was important in her own right and was not acting on delegated powers from Livingstone).  But here, as in his 2011 memoirs, this aspect of the GLC’s work is under analysed: it raises the idea that the state can create a space where feminist, anti-racist and other struggles can develop.

The third area that defined the GLC is the most negative: the struggle against rate capping.  This is another form of struggle, potentially of the working class against the Conservative government and one that has some precedents in the history of the left in local government (Poplar in the 1920, Clay Cross in the 1970s).  It is as close as the GLC came to the promise that it made early on that it would be part of movement to bring down Thatcher’s government.  However, when this most serious conflict with the Conservative government came the GLC backed down in some confusion.  There is very little reflection on this in Being Red other than some comments about his split with the Deputy Leader of the GLC as that time, John McDonnell, the current Shadow Chancellor.  Given this current context it is perhaps unsurprising that Livingstone now seeks to gloss over the past differences and suggest that everyone has moved on (although there is some evidence that they have not).[19]

The collapse of the GLC’s opposition to rate capping in 1984 to 1985 had already been, to a degree, predetermined by earlier events.  Since 1979 most left-wing councils had ducked the issue of cuts to their government funding through the Rate Support Grant (RSG) by increasing rates and rents.  When the Conservatives penalised councils who, in their view, spent too much by cutting their RSG they simply raised rates and rents more.  The argument by many Labour left councillors was that the rates (a local tax proportional to the value of a property) were a progressive tax, and when rents on council properties increased the poorest would be protected since they received housing benefit (broadly, Livingstone was of this view).  In 1978 Livingstone had been a founder member of the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory (and its paper Socialist Organiser) but in late 1979 the group split over precisely this issue, with those in favour of adopting a strategy that included rent and rate increases leaving and forming London Labour Briefing in early 1980.  Socialist Organiser became the paper of those who argued for a strategy of not delaying confrontation with the government.  Although Livingstone eventually ended up aligned with Briefing he did not immediately go with them, continuing to work with those who opposed rate increases in the Socialist Organiser.[20]  Perhaps it is unsurprising that Livingstone does not deal with this in Being Red, he also omits his 2011 memoir that cuts straight to the formation of Labour Left Briefing in 1979 without any context,[21] suggesting he wishes to draw a veil over these events rather than honestly account for them.[22]

Livingstone’s account of the failure of the GLC to join the battle against rate capping in March 1985 as told in Being Red does include some reasonable points, not least that the end of the 1984-85 miners’ strike the previous week meant the acrid taste of defeat already hung in the air, and that the left-wing Labour councillors on the GLC did not have the votes to push through the no-rate option against the combined forces of the Labour right and opposition parties.[23]  But it is also the case that the argument between McDonnell and Livingstone was not only across the weekend when these votes were happening but for the weeks preceding it, particularly over the preparation of a legal budget that contained moderate cuts.  McDonnell’s point was the existence of such a budget gave the Labour right an easy route to retreat down.[24]  Many felt that Livingstone had long had a tactic of proposing defiance while holding the door open to the traditional Labour right to block it.[25]

More importantly, the 1985 climb-down by the GLC over rate-capping is rooted in two long-term factors stretching back to 1981 and even 1979.  The first, and most obviously, is that the Labour group on the council has a slim majority of four, and although the left on the group were a majority there was a sizeable group of councillors from the traditional Labour right.  This was never going to be a problem that was easily resolvable, but the fact that it had not been confronted earlier was down to a second issue: there had been a continued avoidance of a conflict with the Conservatives since 1979 by rates and rents increases, in the GLC’s case the decision not to fight the Fair’s Fare ruling and instead increase the rates.  This was also the practice of many other Labour-left councils, a number of Labour controlled London councils chose to increase their rates by up to 40 per cent in 1979.  This not only delayed the likely confrontation, but allowed the Conservatives to pick the time and nature of the conflict.  Coinciding as it did with a clearer line from the Labour leadership against any meaningful struggle (Kinnock made his “dented shield” speech in February 1985, arguing that it was better for Labour councils to stay legal and manage the cuts the best they could) and with the defeat of the miners, the defeat of the municipal Labour-left was an element of a generational defeat of the working class both on the industrial font, and (thorough the defeat of the left in the Labour Party) on the political front.[26]  Ideological collapse necessarily followed.

Livingstone was clearly part of this collapse.  Although he glosses over the dispute with McDonnell in Being Red, what the events of March 1985 represent was Livingstone accepting Kinnock’s “dented shield” argument and when he led the successful move to remove McDonnell as his deputy leader he was distancing the GLC from the battle against rate-capping.  Livingstone had already decided that his future lay as MP, not in the GLC or local councils.  What Livingstone did from the end of the GLC in 1986 to his election as London Mayor is 2000 is a fourteen-year hiatus that is entirely absent from Being Red.  Again, this shows a lack of honest accounting.  After 1985 Livingstone moved to the right and sought an accommodation with the Labour leadership under Kinnock.  He joined the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (formerly a Bennite organisation, but by the mid-1980s rallying support behind Kinnock and later to be a key force in the Blairite modernisation project) and served on its executive.  Livingstone however, kept his options on the left open and always took a number of positions that would keep his association with the left.

This dual-track approach was seen in Livingstone’s Labour [27] published in 1989.  The book is an odd and rambling mish-mash of ideas.  Given it is Livingstone’s calling card as the leading left-wing MP, although one that Kinnock could do business with, it is extraordinarily short on policy (or perhaps that is why it is short on policy).  On the economy it is a long account but his generic description of British relative decline (caused, it states, by finance capital being more interested in foreign than domestic/productive investment and the associated burden of military spending) lead to a vague proposed cure of regional investment banks with particular emphasis on infrastructure, fibre-optic cables and biotechnology.  The only notable package of polices is on constitutional reform, other areas are slight (a ministry for women, black sections) or rhetorical (a united Ireland).  There is much about how MI5, the USA, the media and finance capital would turn on a government with such a programme, but in reality there was little in Livingstone’s Labour to scare the horses.

More interestingly, there are times in Being Red where Livingstone does not appear to wish to defend some of his past associations.  More than once in the book he points to a story in the Daily Mail in the early 1980s that Gadaffi has given him and the left wing Lambeth councillor Ted Knight, £200,000.[28]  The way that this is presented is odd.  Firstly, the story did not originally appear in the Daily Mail but in Private Eye in October 1981[29] (something that he is unlikely to have forgotten since Livingstone, who is not at all litigious, sued Private Eye over the story).[30]  While the story was untrue, Livingstone does not address what lay behind it.  The real story was that in 1981 Livingstone and Knight launched a new weekly paper, Labour Herald, a paper in large part funded by the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (it was printed on its press and the paper’s one full time worker was on the WRP central committee and, one assumes, paid by them).  The reason why the WRP was able to show such largesse was that it received substantial funds from Gaddafi (and to a lesser degree the Ba’atists in Iraq, on whose behalf the WRP spied on Iraqi dissidents, as well as other middle-eastern dictatorships).  In return, the WRP’s publications (including Labour Herald) had an editorial line that was not only in favour of these Arab dictatorships but was happy to fall in the antisemitic tropes of Zionist conspiracies where any Jewish person was liable to be labelled a Zionist and held responsible for the ills not only of the Middle East but the world.  Thus, while it is true that Livingstone received no money from Gaddafi, the WRP did (and this was widely known on much of the left at that time).  Livingstone through having the WRP produce a publication which promoted him, benefited from this.[31]

This dovetails with the persistent accusations of antisemitism that have been directed at Livingstone.  These are dealt with briefly in Being Red and only in relation to Livingstone’s response to an Evening Standard reporter who attempted to interview Livingstone after an evening function in 2005, which he may have left in a tired and emotional state.  Livingstone responded to some anodyne questioning by asking, “Were you a German war criminal?”  Livingstone’s response to the reporter telling Livingstone he was Jewish was “you are just like a concentration camp guard. You’re just doing it ’cause you’re paid to, aren’t you?”[32]  While it is understandable that Livingstone takes a combative role against the press, it is indicative of a deeper-seated issue with Livingstone.

Take, for example, the section in his memoirs where he defends himself against these accusations (and specifically against the case put together by Hosken in this chapter on Livingstone’s relationship with the WRP).  Here Livingstone launches into a peculiar two page defence of an interview that Labour Herald carried with Lenni Brenner at the time the publication of Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of Dictators.  Brenner (who is Jewish) argued that right-wing Zionists in the 1930s actively collaborated with antisemites, particularly the Nazis, in order to achieve a Jewish homeland.  While this is not the place to unpick the arguments of Brenner’s book (which I would suggest are so one-sided and distorted as to be plain wrong), what is notable is how Livingstone uses the argument.  Livingstone extends the book’s view that some far-right Zionists collaborated with the Nazis first to all Zionists and then Jews in general.  Thus, Livingstone inserts into his argument the suggestion that in the 1930s mainstream Jewish leadership in Britain, the Board of Deputies, shared these pro-Nazi views.  This led to them, Livingstone suggests, not opposing Mosley’s British Union of Blackshirts, which he then elides with the assertion that there was a Zionist-Nazi link.[33]

There are three problems with this.  The first is that this is the classic left antisemitic slippage from criticising Zionism to criticising Jewish organisations in general.  The motivation of the Board of Deputies was not Zionist,  Zionists were trying to capture its leadership at that time but had not yet succeeded. At that time it was based on the conservative long-established (and at that time largely  non-Zionist) Jewish elite in Britain.[34]  Secondly, Livingstone, in his enthusiasm to pursue Brenner’s theses goes further than Brenner.  Brenner’s book is careful and considered in its evidence (before drawing the wrong conclusion from it), so he correctly points out that while both the Board of Deputies and British Zionists (the two were separate) where cautious in opposing British fascism before it became antisemitic, by 1936 some Zionists were involved in the community self-defence in the Jewish People’s Council Against Anti-Semitism and Fascism (JPC).[35]  Thirdly, Livingstone’s blanket statement that the Board of Deputies did not oppose fascism is simply not true.  This was a moderate, small-c conservative organisation that operated by compromise and accommodation.  They did not oppose Mosley early on before his antisemitic turn,  and thought that seeking assurances from Mussolini (again before Italian fascism accepted Nazi antisemitism in 1939)  that Jewish people could continue their lives unmolested in Italy was the way forward.  They were opposed by other Jewish people in Britain, who sought confrontation with Mosley at Cable St. who established the JPC which was politically opposed to the Board of Deputies.  It is not that the Board of Deputies did not oppose the British Union of Fascists after their antisemitic turn in 1935, but that they sought to do so by limited legalistic means, particularly state bans on their activities (the Labour Party leadership had the same position).[36]  Brenner recognises this.  He also understands that and the Board of Deputies, based on the more prosperous elements of the longer established Jewish community had much to lose from the left-wing radicalism of the Jewish working class East End,[37] but as antisemitism became more threatening the BoD reached an accommodation with the more radical JPC in 1938.[38]

In effect what Livingstone is doing is accusing Jewish people of being complicit with antisemites for the purposes of furthering Zionism, seeing Zionism as an unmitigated wrong (rather than an understandable reaction to European antisemitism) and compounding being Jewish with being a Zionist.  These are all characteristic of a left antisemitism or indeed antisemitism in general (that is, judging Jewish people by different criteria, and more negatively, than other groups in society).

Left antisemitism has a long history.  In the late 19th and early 20th century it took the form of the “socialism of fools” where Jewish people (sometimes just some Jewish people) were identified with the worst elements of capitalism, and while this has not entirely disappeared from the left it has largely been replaced with biased attitudes stemming from the Israel/Palestine conflict[39] (although this sometimes contains elements of the older antisemitism when it is linked to supposed networks of powerful Jews).  Livingstone is certainly not the worst example of it (the worst examples in Britain may have been his erstwhile supporters in the WRP) but he is certainly not innocent.  He shows some disinterest when he comes to the way in which he deals with antisemitism, suggesting that it may be have less important in his concerns than anti-black and anti-Muslim forms of racism.

This is seen in Being Red when Livingstone makes the claim that when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006 his criticism of Israel as London mayor meant that antisemitic incidents went down in London whereas they went up elsewhere in the UK.[40]  This is the kind of off-hand comment which abounds in Being Red, and another one which turns out to be inaccurate.[41]  The war in Lebanon lasted from July – September 2006.  According to the figures from the Community Security Trust (CST), the monthly average of antisemitic incidents in the UK in the same period of the previous year (July to September 2005) had been thirty-three.  The average for those three months in 2006 was seventy-nine, so in 2006 during the war there was an increase of 140 per cent in attacks nationally.  The CST does not publish a monthly breakdown of figures by region, but in 2005 as a whole there were 213 incidents in London (47 per cent of the total); in 2006 there were 300 incidents in London (51 per cent of the total).[42]  The indication is thus that there was a slightly greater increase in attacks around the war in London than there was nationally.  Thus the claim that the level of antisemitic incidents decreased in London is simply untrue.  Livingstone’s assumption that the change was caused by his pubic views on the matter is also wrong, the incidents in London increased in line with the national trend.  The comment shows both how Livingstone is both careless with the facts (here on antisemitism) and his inflated sense of his own importance in determining the course of the events. (It is notable that there continues to be an increasing number of antisemitic incidents in London.  The figures peaking at well over 1,000 in 2014.  The number in London has remained at around 50 per cent of the national total,[43] which is slightly lower than the proportion of British Jewish people who live in London, which is around 60 per cent).

Another interview in the book deals with Livingstone’s time at the GLA.  This is less interesting since there are no strong lessons for the left.  What is mainly remarkable about Livingstone’s eight-year tenure as London Mayor is how unremarkable it was.  Other than winning the 2012 Olympics, introducing the congestion charge is possibly the most lasting policy (and one which excludes those on lower incomes from driving into central London).  Livingstone promoted increases in police numbers but has little to say about deaths at the hands of police.  In his 2011 autobiography he trumpets his role in the Metropolitan Police’s “kettling” of demonstrators, but when it comes to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes he has little to say other than blaming the police radio for not working underground[44] (de Menezes was shot as he sat on an underground train after the second attempted London bombing in 2005, a shooting that was followed by a large amount of police lying in a poor attempt to cover their tracks).

Nothing perhaps exemplifies the mainstream nature of Livingstone’s tenure as mayor more than his appointment of Bob Kiley (comically spelt “Kylie” throughout this book, he should be so lucky) to run London’s transport on a multi-million pound pay and benefits package.  Livingstone again evades his role in the appointment: “We advertised and he must have applied.”[45]  This is an evasion.  According to Christian Wolmer’s well informed Down the Tube Kiley was contacted by PwC who were headhunting for the post.[46]  It is inconceivable that Livingstone was not involved in the pursuit of Kiley, particularly given the cost of luring Kiley to London was always going to be high.  By 2005 Livingstone was called on RMT members on the London underground to cross picket lines and ignore their union’s strike call.[47]

What this reflects is a general unwillingness of Livingstone (also seen in his 2011 memoirs) to reflect on what someone on the left (if we think of Livingstone in those terms) could do in such a limited, demarcated and cash-constrained role.  The most likely explanation is that this was not an issue for Livingstone, he appears to have had a genuine interest in administering London and doing what he could to improve services, attract jobs to the area and reform policing (and he was clearly coming in at a time when London policing was beginning to be dragged out of its primordial soup).

Livingstone had attempted to be the standard bearer for the left in parliament in the 1990s, attempting to stand up to the leadership in both 1992 and 1994 but the stringent requirement of gaining the support of 20 per cent of Labour MPs stopped him on both occasions.  He left the Labour Party to stand for London mayor in 2000 just as many Labour activists were turning their backs on the party but sought readmission through an increasing exodus from the party after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003.  Although Livingstone spoke out against them, including from the platform of the Stop the War Coalition, he was at one remove from events.  He played little part in this broader left and in 2004 was re-elected as London Mayor as the Labour candidate.

In the interviews in Being Red Livingstone’s comments on this are solely about his own route to power “If I’d thought I could create a new socialist party and lead it to a majority in Parliament of course I would have done.”[48]  This entirely misses the point, movements are not built overnight nor should the decision of whether a socialist should build that movement be determined by whether it propels them into power as prime minister.  Thus, Livingstone was happy to leave the leadership of the Labour Party to Blair and Brown so long as he was allowed to be London Mayor.  He was a career politician, albeit one of an unusual kind.

Section 2: “Rebuilding the party, rebuilding Britain”

It must be assumed that Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party took Livingstone by surprise as it did everyone else.  I would also guess that the only truly substantial piece of original work in the book, the short chapter entitled “Rebuilding the Party, Rebuilding Britain” should be read in that context.  However, here Livingstone has very little to say about the direction that the current leadership of the Labour Party should take.  (It would of course be wrong to see this a baton passing exercise, Jeremy Corbyn is just four years younger than Livingstone and entered Parliament four years before him; John McDonnell is six years younger than Livingstone was his sometime deputy at the GLC – politically they are all of the same generation rooted in the left in the Labour Party of the 1970s).

But the chapter is very slight.  It starts with a very uncritical view of the 1945 Labour government which is more myth than reality.  This government is seen as one of unmitigated good creating full employment and stable economic growth.[49]  The reality was that Atlee’s government ended its days in 1951 fighting on the Korean peninsula with a strong left emerging in the party opposed to the right-wing leadership in power, but any understanding of its is entirely absent from Being Red.  A similar rose-tinted view is taken on the Conservative government that follows, Livingstone explaining that the Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan was of a generation of Conservative leaders who “fought alongside the working class in both World Wars and respected their courage and patriotism, unlike today’s Eton and Burlington Cub clique”.[50]  That would be Harold Macmillan of Eton and top Oxford College, Balliol, who succeeded Alec Douglas-Home, a hereditary peer, Eton and Christ College Oxford, who succeeded Churchill , son of Lord Randolph Churchill, Harrow school.  While none were members of the Bullingdon club, there were Conservative cabinet ministers who had been (most notably John Profumo).  There is nothing new about Conservative leaders being drawn from a narrow social elite, and in some ways Cameron is a return to older form after Heath and Thatcher with their middle-class backgrounds.

While there may have been generational reasons, as Livingstone suggests, for the acceptance of some of the policies put in place by the 1945 Labour government by post-war Conservatives (in Macmillan’s case, his reaction to the depression of the 1930s), the organisational strength of the working class was a bigger factor.  When Harold Wilson in the late 1960s and Edward Heath in the early 1970s attempted to limit union power, both found that the unions had become a powerful opponent.  Strangely for someone on the left, this element of class is absent from large parts of Livingstone’s analysis.

Similarly, he makes no attempt to understand the British economy in the 1970s in class terms either.  The crises of British capitalism of the period were, in some part at least, the result of the powerful working class resisting private business and the state as employer or regulator of their conduct (for example in strikes).  Instead Livingstone suggests that the main element in these crises was the OPEC oil prices rises of the 1970s: “What was wrong with the ‘70s was that the Saudis quadrupled the price of oil and that wrecked a lot of our manufacturing and fuelled inflation”.[51]  This is not so much facile as wrong.  The crises of the 1970s were premised on the break up of the Bretton Wood international finance system with its fixed exchange rates and pegging of the dollar to gold under pressure of the conflicting pressure on the US dollar.  After 1971 the USA was much more able to export its problem.  It tends to be historians of the right (and even then, not very good ones) who much prefer to blame not Britain’s key ally, but some shady Arabs.[52]

Livingstone suggests that the oil-price rises opened the door for the New Right to pose themselves as the answer, but (he continues) they delivered lower growth than the post-war years prior to the oil shocks.  Thus the New Right are presented as incompetent, not the expression of ruling class interest against the working class.

There are other problems with harking back to a better age of capitalism, particularly Livingstone’s claim about a higher growth rate prior to the earl 1970s is simply not true.  This is illustrated in the graph below considering growth in GDP from the beginning of the post-war recovery in 1947 to the onset of the financial crisis in 2007-2008.


Growth in real terms UK GDP 1947-2007 (Data Adapted from Long-term profile of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the UK, Part of Explaining economic statistics, Long term profile of GDP in the UK Release, Released: 23 August 2013)[53]

Growth in GDP has been steady at 2.7per cent (ignoring the years of the oil shocks and up to the financial crisis of 2007/8 it was a little better than 3 per cent) (this is shown by the nearly black line on the graph).  This differs from the OECD average which was 4 per cent in the 1950s and 5 per cent in the 1960s.  Thus in these years Britain was lagging behind other OECD states.  In the 1970s and 1980s OECD’s growth rate fell to 3 per cent and then 2 per cent.[54]  Thus by the 1980s the British economy was doing better than other OECD states.  This is not to say that this was “good” economic growth, but the figures do not say what Livingstone claims.

Another questionable statistic that Livingstone uses to explain Britain’s economic underperformance is that the UK spent more on its military in the Cold War than France or Germany.  This is true, but only to a degree.  In the 1960s and 1970s the UK spent 6.4% and 7.6% of its GDP on the military, whereas the figures for West Germany were 5.0% and 3.0%.  But this does not explain why the Germany’s economic growth in that period was 4.5% to Britain’s 2.9%.  France 1960/1970 military spending figures were higher that the UK’s at 6.4% in 1960 and 7.8% in 1970.  But France’s growth over that period was higher than Britain’s at 3.6 per cent.  And the biggest example of all is the USA, with military spending of 8.8 per cent in 1960 and 7.6 per cent in 1970, but with an average growth rate across the decade of 3.8 per cent.[55]  There are many reasons for opposing military spending, but that it necessarily detracts from economic growth is not one of them.  Indeed, one book popular on the social-democratic left at the moment argues that the state’s role as an entrepreneur (including military technology) is a driver of economic growth.  It has become a state-interventionist factoid that all the main components of a smartphone are spinoffs from military technology.[56]  And one does not have to be an economist to spot that significant section of Britain’s manufacturing base (Rolls Royce, BAe Systems, much of what remains of the British shipbuilding industry) has a strong relationship to the armaments sector.  To understand that this link is real it is merely necessary to look at the reaction of some trade unions with an manufacturing base to the Labour leader’s proposals to scrap Trident.

There are of course many good reasons why a socialist government would spend less on arms and more on health, housing or education.  However, the main reason that Livingstone suggests this this view is that by switching funds from defence to more general industrial areas, investment growth will increase.  He links this to the view (attributed to John Ross) that the strong growth in a national economy is strongly related to the proportion of GDP which is invested in the economy each year (I am no economist, but this would be what is usually called gross capital formation), and that by the state switching military spending to state investment in manufacturing this can be increased.  It is impossible to criticise this fully, since Livingstone does not give a source for this view, but I would suggest that it is wrong in at least two ways.  Firstly, there is an assumption that military spending is entirely separate for investment.  It may well be that cutting military spending might reduce investment in the armaments industry (again, there may be good reasons for doing this, but this would be switching investment from one area to another which would not boost growth).

There is a second and more fundamental issue.  It is almost a truism to say that there is link between the level of investment and the level of growth in capitalist/market economy.  If nothing is invested in economic activity it will not grow but will shrink.  But simply investing more is not a guarantee of growth – if investment is made in poorly organised industry, or a business which has difficulty selling its goods because they are not useful, or if there is not a market for them, or if there are not workers available to be hired (maybe with the right skills to produce the goods) then there will be no sustained growth.  So imagine an economy where the population is poor and badly trained and an investment is made to make high tech consumer gizmos– this will not result in growth, it will be difficult to recruit the works needed and the gizmos produced are likely to be poor quality, and even if they are serviceable there will be no market for them.  Export is unlikely since the goods are inferior (think of Soviet era Eastern bloc cars), and those locally who can afford gizmos are likely to buy superior imports.  Investment is the result of other things being right for the production and sale of goods, and these preconditions must be in place before investment leads to growth.  Or to give a current real-world example, investing in the British offshore oil industry will not lead to growth because the oil produced could not be sold at a profit on world markets.

Even if this were not a problem then the proposal itself does not make much sense.  Britain currently spends as little as 2 per cent of GDP on defence.  In 2015 investment as a percentage of GDP was 17 per cent.  If the state could take all of that 2 per cent of military spending and direct it towards productive investment that would raise it to the current level of Germany (19 per cent) but leave it far short of the highest levels (Canada at 24 per cent and France at 22 per cent).[57]  In order to achieve a higher level more funds would have to be redirected from non-reinvested profits and other forms of personal and collective consumption (i.e. either by raising taxes or cutting other areas of state spending).

To say that productive investment needs raising is thus is restate the problem.  How this is done is what separates different politicians.  Neo-liberals think that it is done by breaking the power of unions and opening up free markets.  The old Labour answer through an industrial policy that sought to shape the environment of investment decisions through planning agreements, structured taxes, subsidies and, on occasion, public enterprise.  New Labour added more training and education to the neo-liberal package as well as encouraging the economically inactive to enter the workforce through childcare and tax credits.  A socialist answer would be investment for social need under democratic workers control with private productive expropriated into collective hands.

There are some other very odd claims mixed in with this which suggests that Livingstone, who for the last thirty years has been presenting himself as some kind of expert on economic issues, has a tenuous grasp of some of the concepts.  He suggests, for example, that there was “hyper-inflation” in the US in the 1970s as a result of the oil-shocks (inflation only topped 10 per cent in two years, 1974 and 1979, and peaked in March 1980 at 14.8 per cent).[58]  It is certain that increasing oil prices in the period July 1973 to January 1974 and February 1979 to May 1980 added to these high points, but they were not the only cause.  Inflation had been more or less non-existent in the US since the Korean War boom of the early 1950 and the mid-1960s, but crept up from 1.0 per cent at the beginning of 1965 to 6.2 per cent at the beginning of 1970.  It remained relatively high when oil prices were stable 1974 to 1979, between 5 and 12 per cent.  Furthermore, even 14.8 per cent inflation is not “hyperinflation”, this being the level where people stop holding the local currency, this being reckoned to be a figure of around 50 per cent inflation per month.

Amongst this there is material that is right.  Livingstone is correct to point to the deregulation of the UK financial markets in the 1986 “big bang” as boosting the importance of the UK financial markets[59] (although it did much more than that, it internationalised the UK financial sector which has important consequences).  It is worth noting that even prior to this and other forms of financial deregulation pursued after 1979 many on the left saw the City and the financial sector as something particularly bad within capitalism, but reading back that material now with its focus on banks, pension funds and insurance companies it all seems somewhat tame.[60]  Nonetheless, even then, financial capital was seen by the left as parasitic on more honest forms of productive capitalism.[61]  Livingstone’s statement that the financial sector had grown to be 8 per of the economy by 2007 may be an underestimate, it may well have been as high as 9.6 per cent but has fallen back to about 8 per cent since then (indeed, it might be calculated to be considerably more than 8 per cent of the economy if areas of the service sector, such as legal and other business services are included).  But the interesting point to note is that its growth does not date from 1986 or even 1979.  While the period from 1970 to 1997 saw the growth in the financial sector running a little ahead of GDP in general in the UK, its growth spurt of growth of 6 per cent, twice that of GDP, was 1997-2007.[62]  The issue is what has led to this growth since 1997 if it is not deregulation of financial markets itself?  I would suggest that this has been caused by the growth in demand for investment vehicles (asset-backed securities and the like), driven primarily by the owners of private wealth whose weight has grown as global inequality in wealth has increased.[63]

Livingstone implies that it is the strength of the financial sector that has led to a decline in manufacturing jobs in the UK since 1979.[64]  This suggests a model where manufacturing and finance compete for the same finite pot of capital, rather than (as suggested above) the growth in the finance sector being driven by an increasing pool of wealth seeking some interest.  One view is that the reasons for the relative decline of British industry prior to the 2007/2008 financial crash were not strongly affected by this (other than by foreign exchange rates).  Rather, the entire history of British manufacturing’s relative decline has been that of increasing world trade in manufactured goods.  To understand this it is necessary to appreciate that the picture is more complicated than the simplistic one presented by Livingstone.  Primary industries (such as coal) have been in relative decline (that is, as proportion of total world trade) since the 1920s, and manufacturing industry since the 1960s.  This is not caused by the recent rise of the financial sector (it predates it) but by the rise of manufacturing industry in areas of the world with comparative advantage mainly because of lower wages.  The shift in the British economy as a result has not been the financial sector but the service sector more generally (although the financial sector is an important element of this).  It should also not be forgotten that although manufacturing has been a smaller proportion of the UK economy, and has declined relatively as a proportion of world trade, in absolute terms it continued to grow (at least until the 2007/8 financial crisis).

More nuanced views are possible than one seeing a split in British capitalism between a dominant financial sector and a manufacturing sector retarded by that sector.  Colin Crouch has suggested that the manufacturing sector has not been smothered by the financial sector, but is entangled with it.  There are no clearly separate interests and thus policy that favours manufacturing cannot be formulated.[65]  It should not be forgotten, for example, that the origin of the financial crisis both in the USA was sub-prime mortgages, and in Britain Northern Rock’s inflated mortgage book.  This fuelled economic growth in general but allowing a surge in consumer credit which would have boosted, rather than retarded domestic economic growth prior to 2008.

Thus, it is entirely unclear what problem Livingstone is setting out to solve.  To say that Germany’s manufacturing sector is twice the size of the UK is a well worn cliché but Germany’s manufacturing contribution of 23 per cent to GDP is, in European terms, an outlier.  The UK’s 11 per cent (2014 figures) is much more in line with France (also 11 per cent), Spain (13 per cent) and the Netherlands (12 per cent).[66]  To point to Germany having a lower unemployment rate than the UK’s is missing the point that the unemployment rate in most of the rest of Europe is higher than both the UK (5.4 per cent) and Germany (4.7 per cent), with France, Italy and the Eurozone as whole having rate above 10 per cent.  This is not to say that everything is rosy with the UK economy, but to point to Germany and make the demand that the UK economy should look like that is not the answer to any meaningful question.

Most lacking of all in his analysis is what Livingstone believes the causes of the 2007/2008 crash to be and what the alternatives to Osborne’s austerity is.  The sole policy that Livingstone puts forward is a version of the now well known “people’s quantitative easing” (although Livingstone does not use this phrase).  The idea is that if the Bank of England can buy £375 billion of bonds by expanding money supply (in effect creating the money that it buys these bonds with) in the now established programme of QE without this being considered borrowing, then it could be the same for infrastructure projects and housing.  This would mean Bank of England creating money and using it to have houses built and then leased to councils and housing associations, or sold to members of the public; doing the same for infrastructure projects such as railways and fibre optic networks. Livingstone suggests that these assets can be sold although he suggests (in one of the most unworkable parts of the plan) that these should not be sold to corporates but only to pension funds and other more acceptable private owners.[67]  (So what if the pension fund then wants to sell that asset? Will it be able to sell to another buyer?  If not, it is not really an asset at all).  In the case of housing, if an individual buys it, then he suggests that it can only be sold back to a council or housing association.  (At what price?  Again, this is not a sale, but some odd form of lease).

There are other problems with people’s QE.  The first is that Livingstone suggests that this expansion of money supply should not be considered in the same way as debt.  I suspect that if the Bank of England were to do this the IMF, OECD and World Bank might well classify it as debt and (much more importantly) the international currency and financial markets certainly would.  More importantly, the economy would not be fooled by what is (in effect) a sleight of hand.  This is the central bank lending money to the state, although if it were to stimulate enough growth it might be possible to write that debt off without negative consequences.

To understand what the problem is one has to start by understanding how QE works at the moment.  The problem that QE was designed to address in 2009 was inflation which was below the government set target of 2 per cent (and this reflected a low level of demand in the economy which contributed to low economic growth).  The main tool that the Bank of England (through its Monetary Policy Committee) uses to influence inflation is by setting its Bank’s interest rate (which is only the rate that it lends to British banks, but the theory is that this has an impact on interest rates in the wider economy).  This is based on the (questionable) idea that the lower the interest rate is, the cheaper it is be to borrow money and thus the greater the level of demand in the economy which stimulates growth (an inflation rate of around 2 per cent being viewed as a sign that the economy is growing at a sustainable rate).  But with Bank of England interests rates at 0.5 per cent there was little scope for further cutting them, and interest rates in the economy generally remained higher than this.

The Bank of England therefore took another route bringing down interest rates in the real economy and thus stimulating economic activity, by increasing the value of bonds and lowering the yields on them (which thus reduces the rate of interests on loans).  To do this it sought to reduce the supply of bonds by buying them with money it has, in effected, printed (although the “printing” is now entirely a matter of putting money into a bank balance held digitally).  The main bonds that the government has bought up are gilts, bonds that the government itself has issued in the past to finance its spending, that is old government debt.  By increasing the value of these (and other) bonds, and thus reducing their yields and the cost of borrowing in the real economy is (in theory) reduced.  Thus, the main effect of QE is to swap government debt for more money in the economy with the purpose of reducing the cost of borrowing in the real economy and increase economic activity which will be shown by the rate of inflation increasing.  If growth is too fast, it will push the rate of inflation above 2 per cent and the Bank of England will increase interest rates and sell bonds to decrease the amount of money in the economy.  (This is the thinking behind QE, whether this is how it works in practice is not the issue here).  It is notable that this does not cost the government anything immediately (in the long term the cost will be the difference between the cost of the bonds sold and the bonds bought).  The money used to buy the bonds is created by the Bank of England.  It is not intended primarily as a programme of recapitalising banks or other financial institutions as Livingstone implies when he writes that the purpose of this is to rescue the financial sector.[68]  This recapitalisation was achieved through the bail-out and nationalisations of 2008.

What is most notable about QE is how limited its effect has been.  This is indicated by inflation remaining low (in February 2016 it hit a twelve month high of 0.3 per cent).[69]  Although economic growth was 2.9 per cent in 2014 and 2.1 in 2015 it is far from certain the degree to which the cost of borrowing (and therefore QE) has had on this (growth has been entirely in the service sector with no growth in construction or production).[70]

The impact of QE has been less than the numbers suggest since it has not allowed all borrowers to access more loans more easily or at lower rates, nor has it given corporate borrowers the confidence to borrow (and expand their operations) since they are uncertain that the market exists for their increased production (and thus  the talk of what Keynes called capitalism’s “animal spirits” still being somewhat subdued) – indeed much of the private sector has enough money stashed away that it could expand without borrowing if it had confidence in the market for their goods.  Thus, QE’s main effect has been within the financial markets.  Although in the UK the QE is credited with stabilising the financial markets in2009 and thus stopping the crisis deepening, its success at stimulating economic activity more generally has been (at best) limited.

The idea of people’s QE is to remedy these failings of QE.  Thus, Livingstone suggests that the Bank of England creates money and uses this directly to invest in infrastructure (rail, broadband) and housing without increasing national debt.  The problem is that people’s QE would be entirely unlike the existing scheme.  QE has not been hugely successful at creating higher demand in the economy, people’s QE would do so immediately.  Whereas QE replaces government bonds with money which financial institutions can then invest in other bonds, people’s QE would pay construction companies who would in turn buy materials, pay construction workers, architects and so on.  If there were not enough unemployed builders, or no surplus capacity at the brick works, this would lead to an increase in wages and the price of bricks.  If supplies of steel were imported from abroad, this money would simply flow out of the national economy.  It would effectively increase demand but unless there are measures to increase the supply of the kind of labour needed (and that labour being in the place it is needed) the effect would be an increase in wage levels in the sectors affected.  Thus, Livingstone’s claim that full employment can be achieved in short term without an increase in debt[71] is naive.  Like much else here, it rests on a view that all that socialists are interested in is higher wages and full employment and this is easily achievable under capitalism.  The reason why socialism is persuasive, however, is that capitalism cannot be coaxed into delivering even these limited outcomes.

Livingstone’s scheme is thus partial, poorly thought through and not particularly socialist.  It was already clear from his 2011 memoir that he accepts capitalist production for a market economy and has a poor grasp of some basic economic concepts.  I would again emphasise I am not an economist, and I am sure an economist would wince at much of what I have written above, but even I can see the weakness of most of what Livingstone proposes.

Much more importantly, to achieve the goals sought – affordable housing for all, a decent job with decent pay – requires not a sleight of hand but a distribution of resources.  It means removing wealth from the hands of one class and putting in that of another (in part or in whole, by tax or expropriation).  While it might be possible to build a more interventionist state that operates within a predominantly free market economy to deliver moderately social-democratic aims, people’s QE by itself would be unlikely to do that.

It is also worth noting that that Livingstone’s version of people’s QE is to the right of that put forward by Richard Murphy (author of the Joy of Tax and now an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn).  Murphy argues for the creation of a National Investment Bank (NIB) which will be funded by bonds it will sell to the Bank of England (again, paid for by creating new money).  The NIB will then invest in infrastructure, industry and housing.  However, instead of selling the resulting assets, Murphy would have the Bank of England cancel the bonds leaving these as state owned assets.  While this may be preferable (for a left-wing perspective) it suffers from many of the same problems as Livingstone’s scheme.[72]

Other schemes proposed by Livingstone are similarly off-key.  Livingstone suggests a turnover tax to replace corporation tax.[73]  This proposal is, from a socialist point of view, bizarre.  It would minimise the tax on a company with low turnover but high profits, for example a company whose profits come mainly from intellectual property – such as a company that held medical or IT patents.  It would maximise taxes on a company with large turnover and small margins such as supermarkets.  It is possible that in the retail sector such a tax could in part be passed onto the consumer as an additional form of VAT.  As such, this proposal is usually made by the right, notably that old Thatcherite for hire, Nigel Lawson[74] who would be likely to agree with Livingstone that “these policies would benefit corporations”.[75]

The last area of confusion in Livingstone’s chapter on the future is Labour Party democracy.  Livingstone is, of course, absolutely right that Labour Party democracy has been gutted in recent years and power concentrated into the hands of the leadership.  But his view of the degree to which Labour Party democracy existed in the past is highly questionable.  For many years (certainly from 1945 to 1960) the Labour leadership could rely on the trade union leadership at party conference, and on the NEC in between, to loyally carry out the leadership’s wishes.  In effect the leadership had a free hand.  Through the 1960s this lessened, but Livingstone’s claim that when he joined the party in 1969 there was a straightforward movement of policy from local parties, to Labour Party conference and into the Labour’s election manifesto is simply not true.  Nor is the claim that parties were free to chose their parliamentary candidates without interference.[76]  Motions from local parties would find that they had support from the majority of other constituency party delegates only to find their motions votes down by the trade union barons.  Only as the unions’ leadership became more critical of the Labour leadership, in some ways reflecting the militancy of the trade union rank and file, did matters begin to change (as they did through the 1970s).  Thus, in 1973 the Labour Party conference voted to nationalise the leading twenty-five companies in Britain (something far more radical than anything Livingstone is suggesting in his book).  The response of the Labour leader, Harold Wilson, was to publicly state that this would not be the programme of a future Labour government.  Left-wingers in the party formed the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy as a response to this, demanding the mandatory reselection of MPs, putting the manifesto in the hands of the party and allowing the party as a whole to chose the leader (the leader was then elected by MPs alone).

The rise of the left in the party in the 1970s was, in part, the process of winning these reforms.  The left had some success in 1981 (up to the creation of the Electoral College for the election of the party leader in 1981, before this only MPs had a vote for the Labour leader).  From 1983 until 2015 the Labour Party leadership not only sought to undo these reforms but increasingly insulated the party decision-making procedures from both the activist base and the trade unions.  On the whole it has attempted to do this though widening participation in structures which, in turn, have less power over the leadership.  Thus, the task that faces the left in the party now is not a question of turning the clock back to 1960 (or even 1981) but of transforming the Labour Party into a fully democratic organisation at all levels.  It is not the case that relying on the votes of currently left-leaning trade union leaders is enough.  One of the lessons of the rate-capping battles of the 1980s is that some of the best councils found that they did not have the support of their own workforces or the wider organised working class in their struggle (for example Hackney in 1985).  In some cases (and the GLC is an example here) not only did the councils not try to build up rank and file trade union support, they positively alienated it.  If the current left-wing project in the Labour is to succeed, it needs to learn one of the lessons the lessons of the 1980s: that it necessary also to transform the trade unions too.

Conclusion: Who is Ken Livingstone?

The above analysis questions the degree to which Livingstone can be considered a reliable ally of the left in the Labour Party.  His trajectory, particularly since 1985, has been to the centre left.  I have always been of the view that Livingstone took the leadership adage of Harold Wilson seriously, that he hoisted the banner of nationalisation in the Labour Party in order to lead the party away from it.  In other words, a Labour leader rallies the party from the left, but takes to the party to the right for assumed electoral advantage.

There is one reason why this might be a simplification.  Livingstone has always worked not just with the left in general, but with the would-be Trotskyist left.  This started with the forerunners of Briefing in the 1970s and moved on to the WRP in the 1980s.  But the most enduring relationship has been with Socialist Action since 1985.  This is, to say the least, a very odd business.  Andrew Hosken dedicates a chapter of his biography of Livingstone to the subject and suggests that although Livingstone is not a member of Socialist Action, he is its de facto leader.[77]  This is, I think, the wrong way to think about it.

Socialist Action is the remnants of the International Marxist Group, one of the bigger far left groups in the 1970s where its leading role in the student movement and Vietnam Solidarity Campaign brought it high profile (and an endorsement by John Lennon).  By 1983 the IMG had undergone multiple splits, and Socialist Action was one faction with maybe a few hundred members and had dwindled to (perhaps) below one hundred by the 1990s.[78]

Politically, like much of the Trotskyist movement, Socialist Action’s politics became dominated by a sympathetic attitude towards the USSR and other officially communist states, these being seen as something approaching socialism (a group expelled from Socialist Action in 1988, although probably a majority, sold the SWP-USA paper Militant – not in anyway related to either the British SWP or Militant; they followed their American comrades in their worship of Cuba, being popularly known as “Castroites”).  Socialist Action also supported “national liberation struggles”, most notably the Palestinian cause.  Socialist Action became deep entrists in the Labour Party, tending to disappear as an organisation.  Their modus operandi was to work in a variety of campaigns, not necessarily pushing their politics hard but taking on the hard dogsbody work.  Their members became prominent not only in a variety of groups on the Labour left (the Campaign Group, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the Women’s Action Committee, Black Sections) but also in groups outside of the Labour Party (most noticeably CND and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign).  They had far less influence in the trade union movement.

From the mid-1980s, Livingstone was a key ally in much of this.  For example, in the 1990s Livingstone worked with Socialist Action in the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA), and took Socialist Action’s side in bitter conflicts with the SWP-dominated Anti Nazi League as he did in other initiatives with which Socialist Action was involved.  When ARA suffered a split in 1993 Livingstone helped Socialist Action set up a new group, the National Assembly Against Racism.

With Livingstone a left-wing backbench MP in the 1990s, he was just part of the Socialist Action universe.  When he became London Mayor, a number of Socialist Action members joined his staff (probably a large proportion of the group’s membership).  As outlined above, the GLA was not that radical a body so it is difficult to see what was in it for members of Socialist Action politically.  It is notable, however, that Socialist Action at this time became far less visible on the left.  The National Assembly Against Racism joined with the SWP’s ANL to form Unite Against Fascism, and while Socialist Action members remained dotted around posts in CND and the like, other than the Student Broad Left, no new organisations emerged.  When the Stop the War Coalition was formed in 2001, it was the SWP who were at its centre.  It seems that Socialist Action was by this point more of a network for advancing the careers of their members (both well paid and maintaining their image of being on the left) than a revolutionary organisation.

This would explain why there were no clashes between Socialist Action and Livingstone when they had different views.  Livingstone, for example, supported British and EU military intervention in the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, while Socialist Action supported the Serbian ex-Yugoslav state as the remnant of Communist power against the infraction of US and German imperialism.[79]  Livingstone has never been keen on Eastern Europe, which he saw as police states (although there are some sections of his 1989 book Livingstone’s Labour that suggest that under Gorbachev the Soviet Union was about to transform itself into a democratic socialist dream,[80] but these sections bore the fingerprints of Socialist Action’s John Ross)   

After Livingstone lost the London mayoralty in 2008 (and more particularly when he failed to it back in 2012) it is questionable whether Socialist Action has continued to exist.  There is still a website that carries news updates, otherwise evidence of an ongoing project is slight.  Simon Fletcher, another Socialist Action supporter was Livingstone’s chief of staff when he was London Mayor.  After 2010 Fletcher was in charge of trade union liaison in Ed Miliband’s office and was then Jeremy Corbyn’s chief of staff before falling out with Saemus Milne (who is form a Stalinist background, ex-CPGB and Straight Left).[81]  But whether he is “in” Socialist Action any more is not clear, or even if the organisation has any real structure anymore.  Its one asset, Lithoprint Ltd (its printing press) was wound up in 2008.[82]

So what is Livingstone politically?  Charles Moore when editor of the Daily Telegraph described Livingstone as the only truly successful politician of the left in recent British politics.[83]  But for the reasons laid out above, that is a questionable judgment.  Perhaps it is unfair to judge him by his time as London mayor since he had no power to redistribute wealth as he claims that he would have done if he could.  There is, nonetheless, a feeling that he was quite comfortable in this constrained role.  As he told Prospect magazine in an interview in 2007:

“I can put together coalitions of interests around a common agenda. City Hall is the centre of a web. So, for example, you get everybody signed up to Crossrail … Where before I was looking inward to the party machine, now I look outward. It’s a position that, thanks to the prestige of the office enables, you to broker deals with government or the private sector.”[84]

There is no sense that Livingstone was using the platform of mayor for any greater purpose.  Livingstone the mainstream politician supported Ed Balls for the leadership of the Labour Party in 2010 (much of the left went for Ed Miliband, who, as Livingstone recognises in his 2011 memoir, was the more left-wing candidate).[85]  Most jarring are his pro-police views throughout Being Red, a force that “occasionally make a mistake”.[86]  Livingstone returned as one of the elected members of the section of Labour’s NEC in 2010, but has made little impact there.

More than being a guru for the current left, one facet of Livingstone that leaps off the page is his egotism.  Looking back at this time as mayor Livingstone states “I can’t really think of anything I could have done better”[87]  There is only a sense of what he did, and there is no indication that he considers himself part of a movement.  Thus, answering the question of whether his career, like those of all politicians, ended in failure he states “mine’s ended in failure because I didn’t get to be premier and I didn’t create a social democratic heaven.”[88]  There is no sense that he feels himself to be part of movement, that the future lies not with him, but that movement.  This book is subtitled A politics for the future but Livingstone offers no ideas for that future.  Equally, he has failed to reckon with the lessons of his own past.

[Slight corrections and updates: 30th April 2018]

[1] Fenner Brockway, The Workers’ Front (London: Secker and Warburg, 1938).

[2] Paul Laity, “Introduction” in Paul Laity (ed), The Left Book Club Anthology (London: Gollancz, 2001)

[3] (accessed 29/2/2016)

[4]UK Political Info, State of the Opinion Polls, (accessed 29/2/2016)

[5] Livingstone (2015), p7

[6] (accessed 29/2/2016)

[7] Livingstone (2015), p7

[8] Livingstone (2015), p9

[9]  Arthur Aughey and Cathy Gormley-Heenan, “The Conservative Party and Ulster Unionism:

A Case of Elective Affinity “, Parliamentary Affairs (2016) 69, 430–450 doi:10.1093/pa/gsv011,  pp442-444;

[10] Livingstone (2015), p9

[11] See, for example Paul Bew, The Making and Remaking of the Good Friday Agreement (Dublin: Liffey Press,  2007)

[12] Ken Livingstone, You Can’t Say That: Memoirs (paperback edition, London: faber and faber, 2012) (originally published 2011)

[13] Michael Zander “GLC’s fare deal ruled unfair to the ratepayers” The Guardian, 18th December 1981; “Greater London Council (House of Lords Judgment)”

HC Deb 22 December 1981 vol 15 cc889-929 (accessed 29/2/2016); John Carvel, “Chaos at GLC over ‘illegal’ fares ruling”, The Guardian 18th December 1981

[14] Livingstone (2016), p19.

[15] Carvel, John, Turn Again Livingstone (London: Profile Books, 1999), pp113-125, 156-158, 259.

[16] Livingstone (2016), p16.

[17] Wrench, John, ‘Unequal Comrades: trade unions, equal opportunity and racism’ in R. Jenkins and J. Solomos (eds) Racism and Equal Opportunity Policies in the 1980s  (Second edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989), p174; Marc Wadsworth, “Contemporary African Caribbean and Asian political self-organization: the Rise and Fall of Labour Party Black Sections in the 1980s”, Institute of Contemporary History Seminar 30th October 2013.

[18] Livingstone (2016), p15.

[19] Stephen Bush, “Neale Coleman walks out of Team Corbyn – and Simon Fletcher could be next”, The Staggers (New Statesman blog) 20th January 2015,

[20] Colin Foster, Livingstone: goodbye and good riddance, Solidarity, 9/5/2012.  Solidarity is the lineal descendent of Socialist Organiser.

[21] Livingstone (2012), p149

[22] The omission of the SCLV from his memoir can only be deliberate  You Can’t Say That draws very heavily on Carvell’s and Hosken’s biographies of him, and indeed reproduces large chunks of them.  Both include Livingstone’s involvement with SCLV.  Thus, Livingstone has chosen to write this out.  There is no way that he can ignore the defeat over rate capping from his memoir, but instead, the text is confused, largely lacking dates and with some incomplete sentences.  Thus it is impossible to follow what is going on, something that I can only assume is deliberate (again, John Carvel has a serviceable narrative of the events that at least enables the reader to go through the events in the order that they happened).

[23] Livingstone (2016)

[24] Carvel (1999), p200-205

[25] Carvel (1999), pp55-56

[26] David Butler, Andrew Adonis and Tony Travis, Failure in British Government: the Politics of the Poll Tax (Oxford: OUP, 1994)

[27] Livingstone, Ken, Livingstone’s Labour: A programme for the nineties (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989)

[28] Livingston (2016), p12

[29] Hosken (2008), p137

[30] Livingstone (2012), p184.

[31] All of this is examined by Hosken (2008) in forensic detail (see chapter 10)

[32] “Transcript of the taped exchange between Ken Livingstone and Oliver Finegold outside City Hall”, The Guardian (online) 25th February 2016, (Accessed 15/4/2016).  For some of the criticism after that incident see Jonathan Freedland, “I’ve backed Ken Livingstone for mayor before, but this time I just can’t do it”, The Guardian (on line), 23rd March 2012,; “The letter to Ed Miliband from Jewish Labour supporters”, The Jewish Chronicle 22nd March 2012;; “Ken Livingstone and anti-Semitism”, Solidarity, 28th March 2012,

[33] Livingstone (2012), p222

[34] Raphael Langham, 250 years of Convention and Convention and Contention: A History of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, 1760-2010 (London, Vallentine Mitchell, 2010), pp122-138

[35] Lenni Brenner (1983) Zionism in the Age of Dictators, p159-169 [note: references here to a Brenner’s PDF mark-up of the book at (accessed 6/3/2016)]

[36] Nigel Copsey (2000) Anti-Fascism in Britain (Houndmills: Macmillan Palgrave), pp60-75

[37] Brenner (1983), p56 (PDF edition)

[38] Langham (2010), p153.

[39] William I. Brustein and Louisa Roberts (2015), The Socialism of Fools?: Leftist Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism, (New York, Cambridge University Press), chp 4 and pp190ff.

[40] Livingstone (2016), p40

[41] This judgement may be based on Metropolitan Police data on racists incidents (Livingstone (2012), p505)

[42]  Community Safety Trust, Antisemitic Incidents Report 2005 p14, (accessed 29/2/2016); Antisemitic Incidents Report 2006m (accessed 29/2/2016)

[43] Community Safety Trust, Antisemitic Incidents Report 2014, (accessed 29/2/2016); Antisemitic Incidents Report 2015, (accessed 29/2/2016)

[44] Livingstone (2012), p540.

[45] Livingstone (2016), p36.

[46] Christian Wolmer, Down the Tube: The Battle for London’s Underground (London: Aurum, 2001)

[47] Livingstone (2012), p492.

[48] Livingstone (2016), p35.

[49] Livingstone (2016), p100

[50] Livingstone (2016),p101

[51] Livingstone (2016), p57.  The sentiment is repeated on p102.

[52] See for example, the work of Dominic Sandbrook.  In his history of Britain 1970-1974 (State of Emergency – The We Were: Britain 1970-1974 (London: Allen Lane, 2010) the end of Bretton Wood gets a cursory mention without any further comment (p304), with the oil shock being given central billing along with government incompetence and the trade unions in Britain’s economic problems (pp573-575)(London: Allen, 2012)


[54] Stephen A. Marglin, “Lessons of the Golden Age: An overview” in Stephen A. Marglin, Juliet B. Schor (eds) The Golden Age of Capitalism: Reinterpreting the Postwar Experience (New York: OUP, 1992), p1

[55] Figures adapted from Woolf, Charles et al, Long Term Economic and Military Trends 1950-2010 (Santa Monica CA: RAND, 1989)

[56] Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State:  Debunking public vs. Private Sector Myths.(London: Anthem Press, 2013)

[57] World Bank data, Gross capital formation (% of GDP),; Angela Monaghan, “Seven things you need to know about the UK economy”, The Guardian (on line) 24/4/2014,

[58] US Inflation Calculator Historical Inflation Rates: 1914-2016, (accessed 29/2/2016)

[59] Livingstone (2106), P103

[60] See, for example Jerry, Coaklely and Laurence Harris City of Capital (London: Blackwell, 1983).

[61] See, for example, Geoffrey Ingham, Capitalism Divided?: City and Industry in British Social Development, (London: Macmillan, 1984)

[62] Burgess, Stephen, “Measuring financial sector output and its contribution to UK GDP”, Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin 2011 Q3(London: Bank of England, 2011 ) (accessed 29/2/2016)

[63] With thanks to Phonis Lysandrou for this analysis [IIPPEE conference at SOAS, Replacing UK Austerity: Towards Progressive Policies, London, 21st March 2016

[64] Livingstone (2016), p103.

[65] Andrew Gamble, Crisis Without End: The Untangling of Western Prosperity (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p17

[66] (accessed 29/2/2016)

[67] Livingstone (2016), pp106-107.

[68] Livingstone (2016), p105.

[69] “UK inflation rises on dearer alcohol and clothes”, Guardian (Online) (16/2/2016)  (accessed 1/3/2016)

[70] Emily Cadman, “Services data brighten outlook for UK economy”, The Financial Times (online) 3/2/2016 (accessed 1/3/2016); Katie Allen “UK GDP growth rises 0.5% as annual rate slows to three-year low”, The Guardian (online) 28/1/2016), (accessed 1/3/2016)

[71] Livingstone (2016), p106.

[72] Chris Giles, “People’s quantitative easing — no magic”, The Financial Times (online) 23/8/2015, (accessed 29/2/2016)

[73] Livingstone (2016), p106.

[74] “Google deal prompts call for corporate sales tax in UK. The Guardian (online) 30/1/2016, (accessed 1/3/2016)

[75] Livingstone (2016), p107.

[76] Livingstone (2016), pp110-111.

[77] Hosken (1999), p325.   The opinion is attributed to Pete Willsman, but Hosken does not demure from it.

[78] I remember reading a report that an annual conference around 1992 at Conway Hall had 36 people at it.

[79] Socialist Action, “NATO’s goals in Yugoslavia” (1st December 1999)

[80] Livingstone (1989), chp 9.

[81] [Ref needs updating]  Stephen Bush, “Neale Coleman walks out of Team Corbyn – and Simon Fletcher could be next”, The Staggers (New Statesman blog) 20th January 2015,  It has been suggested that Neale Coleman who worked for Livingstone as a press officer, and resigned having done the same job for Corbyn was also in Socialist Action, but the ex-SA member responsible for the best information on SA in the Livingstone camp, Atma Singh, denies this:  Laura Pitel.“New spin doctor is a Boris aide called Comrade Coleman”, The Times  September 18th 2015.

[82] Information from Companies House register access via

[83] Charles Moore, “Make London part of Britain again” The Daily Telegraph (online) 21st April 2007 (accessed 15/04/2016)

[84] Simon Parker. “Interview: Ken Livingstone”, Prospect April 29th 2007, (accessed 14/4/2016)

[85] Andrew Grice, “Cruddas opts to back David Miliband as Ed Balls wins the support of Livingstone”, The Independent (online) 25/8/2010, (accessed 1/5/2016); Being Red, p68; Livingsone (2012), p677

[86] Livingstone (2016), p146

[87] Livingstone (2016), p52

[88] Livingstone (2016), p60