Ken Livingstone, Being Red: a Politics for the Future (ed. Anna Minton), Pluto Press, 2016
Ken Livingstone is probably not an anti-Semite in any meaningful sense of the term, only a fairly loose-tongued, ill-considered critic of Zionism. The reason that he has been labelled as an anti-Semite (among other things) is because he is a figure of hate for the Daily Mail and other titles of the right-wing tabloid press. Livingstone was the leader of the Greater London Council, taking on Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s (and getting abolished for their pains), MP for Brent East from 1987 to 2001 and then the Labour mayor of London from 2000 to 2008 (initially as an independent). As such Ken became the public face and nasal voice of what the right wing tabloids labelled the ‘loony’ left.
Ken was a leader of the left and much of the left, with a shallow-rooted commitment to democratic forms, is obsessed with leaders. This is the appeal of Ken Livingstone to the new Left Book Club who have issued this review of his impact in political office. The book is a review of Ken’s career that approaches hagiography, including an extended interview with him, the reflections of Ken himself on his political life and a chapter on his support for the arts. Now Ken is not one to hide his talents under a bushel. His estimate of his own worth is not a small one. Hence he is constantly telling us how often the man and woman in the street often comes up to him and thanks him for the difference he made in their lives. What might that difference be? Here the highlights of a lifetime’s work within the organs of the British state are that he lowered rail and bus fares in London in the 1980s and supported the arts during his time as London mayor. Oh and he was apparently a consensus boss, not one of those awful control freaks who have to micromanage everything (well that is his take on it anyway). All well and good as far as it goes, after all who would argue against lower rail and bus fares, especially given the current grossly expensive public transport at a time of wages restraint on the part of employers. It’s just that this doesn’t go very far at all towards changing the balance of class politics in favour of workers (indeed many employers would be in favour of nationalisation and public transport fares at cost, cheapening the price of hiring labour-power). Surely the left must want to go further than this and the Left Book Club must be able to aim higher for its left-wing political heroes. To elevate Ken Livingstone as the heights to which working class leadership can currently aspire is a desperately depressing state of affairs.
Not for me, thanks very much. When the political ambitions of the working class match its potential to be free of its current abject wage-slavery then it won’t need leaders of Ken’s calibre, or anyone else’s.