London Special - Ken's friends

Few doubt that the Mayor of London has been successful in promoting the capital as a major global fi

His enemies have always thought Ken Livingstone rather fancied himself as a left-wing dictator of a Latin American state. The Mayor of London's latest forays into foreign policy will have done much to confirm them in their views. His oil deal with Hugo Chávez's Venezuela is a classic piece of Livingstone political theatre, designed for maximum impact. But quite how he will square the import of Venezuelan diesel with his latest pledge to cut London's carbon emissions is yet to be explained. It also suggests a mayor who sees himself as an alternative focus of foreign policy to the national government.

As elected leader of a major world capital, he can claim political legitimacy for using his limited powers to develop policies in the best interests of Londoners. As a result of the Chávez deal, 250,000 poor Londoners will benefit from half-price travel. But as the Conservatives have point-ed out, the deal means that one of the poorest countries in the world is effectively subsidising the transport in one of the richest.

The mayor will argue that it is a mutually beneficial arrangement: London will advise on redeveloping Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, as a modern international city. He might also point out the novelty of the Conservative Party taking an interest in the slum-dwellers of Caracas.

His interests extend beyond South America. Livingstone has just hosted the mayors of Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Beijing in London. And now there are reports that his officials have been "scoping" links with Brazil's left-wing president Lula da Silva. While the Blair government parades its close relationship with the Bush administration, Livingstone is developing a network of alliances with the US government's opponents in its own backyard.

To his critics, Livingstone's Latin American approach is the perfect complement to his Middle East policy - fiercely anti-American and anti-Israeli. (Livingstone supports the radical Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has applauded suicide bombing of civilian Israeli targets, female genital mutilation and the execution of homosexuals.)

John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington who is standing as a left-wing candidate for the Labour leadership, worked with Livingstone on the GLC. The two have not always seen eye to eye, but McDonnell believes the mayor's foreign policy is consistent with a lifetime commitment to international causes: "He's had a genuine interest in Latin America for years and wants to demonstrate solidarity for the Chávez regime."

But it is not only Conservatives who are critical of Livingstone's new initiatives on the world stage. One former Labour Party colleague from his GLC days said Livingstone risked becoming a figure of ridicule: "He's had one really good idea, congestion charging, but that doesn't give him the licence to become a world statesman."

Oddly, Livingstone's policy on South America did not figure in a recent statement on "Globalisation and the International Promotion of London" presented to the London Assembly. This concentrated on the importance of developing links to the emerging economies of China, Russia and India (the GLA has "embassies" in Shanghai and Beijing and plans to open two more in Delhi and Mumbai).

According to figures from the mayor's office, London now has over 60,000 foreign students, of whom 7,300 are from China and 4,300 are from India. Tory attacks on Livingstone for wanting to make 2007 the year of promoting London in India rightly backfired, as did attacks on the quality of London's universities and the wisdom of attracting foreign students. But critics have noted a disjuncture between the pragmatic politics of representing London's interests in a changing global economy and some of Livingstone's more ideologically driven initiatives.

The veteran left-wing journalist Nigel Fountain, who first met Livingstone in the early 1970s and has taken a close interest in Venezuela, believes the mayor was wrong to take up Chávez as a radical cause: "The left has always loved a man in uniform who claims to be left-wing. Chávez is a populist authoritarian sitting on an oil well. Ken Livingstone gets incredibly enthusiastic about things. But he doesn't have any idea what Venezuela is really like."

Livingstone would do well to at least address some of the concerns of Chávez's left-wing opponents in Venezuela itself. Take, for instance, Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual. Petkoff, a former resistance fighter who founded the democratic left-wing party Movimento al Socialismo in 1971, has called on the international left to expose the contradictions of the Chávez regime. Asked by the website Harry's Place to describe the country, he provided the following useful pen-portrait.

"Venezuela is a racially mixed [mestizo] country and you can find white and dark-skinned people on both the pro-Chávez and anti-Chávez sides . . . It is true that Chávez's social programmes have reached the broad masses of poor people, but his economic policy has increased poverty by 10 per cent since 1998 according to official figures from the National Institute of Statistics."

Livingstone has already been rightly criticised by those on the traditional left for his dalliance with the Islamic religious right. There remains a distinct possibility that his alliance with Chávez will prove equally difficult to justify as a genuinely progressive political strategy.

A senior adviser said the mayor's office had examined and rejected claims about the authoritarian nature of the Chávez regime. "We prefer to deal with a government that spends its oil revenues on health and education rather than exporting it to banks in Florida," he said.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times