Labour's London problem comes into focus

Ken Livingstone is presenting this year's mayoral contest as a dress rehearsal for the next general

Ken Livingstone had a piece in the Guardian yesterday stepping up hostilities in what is certain to be one of the most important domestic political events of 2012 - the London mayoral election.

The poll is of most immediate significance to citizens of the capital, since it is their mayor being chosen. But the battle, coming as it does mid-term for the coalition, is bound to become a proxy for the relative national electoral prospects of the main parties. Livingstone actively encourages that interpretation. He writes about his ambitions to run London as if he envisages heading a pioneer administration for the "new politics" that, he believes, will inevitably emerge from the combination of financial crisis and rising disaffection with the existing political establishment.

"Labour will make this election about a real alternative," the former mayor writes. It should be, in other words, a referendum on the coalition, David Cameron and the whole direction the country is taking. Livingstone is ramping up the national significance of the poll, which is a problem for Labour and Ed Miliband since hardly anyone thinks Boris Johnson, the Tory incumbent, will lose.

Opinion polls (albeit fairly unreliable at this stage since few voters have yet focused on the race) show a significant number of Labour voters preferring Johnson to Livingston. In fact, the decision by Livingstone to try to frame the contest as a kind of referendum on the general state of the economy reflects a realisation that a re-run of the personality-based prize fight of 2008 would almost certainly yield the same result. In a beauty contest (or rather a least-ugly contest) between the two quasi-celebrity candidates, Johnson would walk it.

As I wrote in the magazine last week, very senior Labour party figures are already talking privately as if Livingstone can't win. Miliband aides are rehearsing their defence, which is that the contest is indeed a peculiar celebrity face-off between two old rivals and not necessarily an accurate reflection of the national mood. Labour are confident that local elections and the vote for the London Assembly (one of the least noticed governing institutions in the country) will depict a healthy swing away from the Tories. London usually has a solid Labour vote - an island bastion of red in the south-eastern sea of blue.

But the reality is that failure to unseat Boris will be widely interpreted as a sign that the whole Miliband project is failing to gather momentum. A senior shadow cabinet member recently told me the boss's team is braced for a round of leadership speculation in the wake of Ken's defeat.

Ken might win, of course. Almost anything is possible. But it is hard to overstate how firm the consensus in Westminster is that Boris will prevail. One former member of the Livingstone team in London - and no fan of Johnson - confidently predicts his former boss will be "thrashed and humiliated". That would certainly not be a good outcome for Miliband. Downing Street is intensely focused on securing a Tory win in the capital precisely because of the effect it would have on perceptions of Labour electability. (Besides, if Johnson loses he'll be after a seat in parliament where he could cause no end of mischief for his old rivals Cameron and Osborne.)

MIliband didn't select Livingstone and the old veteran of London politics runs his own operation in the capital, so in theory the Labour leader could distance himself from a defeat. But that gets trickier if Ken's strategy is to advertise the whole thing as a dress rehearsal for the next general election, which his Guardian piece implies. Livingstone seems to think he can present himself as an outsider battling an elite establishment, bearing the flag for a different kind of politics. That is a pretty far-fetched campaign given that he has been around in London politics since the late 1960s and has already done the job of Mayor once before - not so much yesterday's man as the day before yesterday's man.

Miliband also wants to present himself as the outsider, "ripping up the rules", smashing the cosy consensus. That too is a bit far-fetched coming from someone who has never had a job - or, it would seem, much of a life - outside politics. But at least Miliband is young and unknown enough to carve out some new identity for himself. The last thing he needs is a well-known, battle-scarred veteran of old left politics road-testing his campaign lines and driving them into a ditch.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.