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.