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Friday, 18th April 2014

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Ken Livingstone: the interview (Part 2)

Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, in conversation with Calvin Tucker, co-editor of 21st Century Socialism. Part 2: the Labour Party, the ecological crisis, Russia and the new balance of global power.

Tucker: You were first elected as Mayor of London in 2000, standing as an independent after what you saw as a rigged internal Labour Party selection process. The voters appeared to agree with you and elected you with a thumping majority. You obviously considered your options at that time - you were clearly distressed at leaving, or being chucked out of the Labour Party as a result -  did you consider setting up your own party to the left of Labour? What was the thinking here?

Livingstone: When I announced I was going to stand as an independent, I had to spend much of the first two weeks persuading large numbers of councillors in London and Party activists to stay in the Party. I mean the scale of revulsion against what was happening in the government, you could have done that; but the lesson of history is that whether people break from the Labour Party to the right as Moseley and David Owen did, or to the left as Scargill or the ILP did, it all fails. And you might be moving into a situation where just the weakening of the Labour Party’s structures may mean that one day something will emerge to the left of the Labour party. It is not inconceivable, but certainly ten years ago it was pretty inconceivable.

Tucker: If that situation occurred, is that something that you perceive you might have a role in? I mean, I see you very much as a Labour party loyalist, despite the actions of New Labour and everything that was done to you.

Livingstone: That's pretty accurate, yes. My view is that if you actually look at the pattern of votes, the Greens did quite well at this election, the Liberals did badly. Of course the Greens had had a relationship with my administration, the Liberals had been opposed to it. And there is a progressive majority in London whether you look at the Mayoral vote, the Assembly vote, for the list or the constituency - those three votes; there is a 52 or 53 percent majority for Greens, Respect, Labour and the Liberals, as opposed to the Tories, the BNP, English Democrats and UKIP. And therefore you have got to reflect that reality; I mean, an awful lot of Londoners will vote for anyone in a progressive coalition just in order to keep the Tories out.

If you actually look at the Greens, they did particularly well in safe Labour seats which were multi-ethnic. They did poorly in safe Labour seats that were exclusively white. There is clearly something moving there, and I note that in both Paris and in Berlin you have Green-Red coalitions running the city, and that's effectively what we had here. So, rather than a new traditional Scargillite party to the left, if the Labour Party is going to Rome, then a lot of that support is going to go over to the Greens. And therefore my work is not to try and anticipate some new left-wing party, but to strengthen those links with the Greens, and also a big chunk of the Liberals.

Tucker: The curious thing is that more and more people, I think, are questioning free market orthodoxy, our imperialist foreign policy - of course we had a million people who marched against the Iraq war -  and I don’t think it is too far fetched to say that the ideological hegemony of British capitalism is breaking down to an extent that I haven’t seen in two decades, and yet the left has been so singularly ineffective and unable to make inroads, either within the Labour Party or parties to the left of the Labour Party.

You mentioned the Greens. They do have a left wing within the Greens, on the other hand they don’t have real roots within the working class, or communities. What has happened here? Is there something objective about the political conditions we live in that means the left is doing so badly, or is this just a subjective failure? 

Livingstone: For the last fifteen years the New Labour project has pandered to the Daily Mail, and once they made the fatal error of saying we won't increase tax on the rich and will reduce Corporation Tax, you end up shuffling money around between the middle class and the working class; the deserving poor, such as it is, as opposed to single mothers. I mean, it’s ridiculous, and that was the fatal error of judgment which took a long time, in a relatively benign economic climate, to expose all the contradictions of that.  And that is very demoralizing for Party activists and for trade unionists, but the much bigger thing that is going to hit all of this is the environmental catastrophe that is going on. We have had all this talk about there being a tipping point of irreversible climate change, which is going to be in four years or ten years time. I think it has already happened. 

We are heading for catastrophic climate change; if we are lucky, tens of millions dead globally, if we are unlucky, hundreds of millions. There is a real possibility that human civilization doesn't make it to the end of the Century. I think you can avoid that, and therefore the question of green politics becomes fairly central. What that green politics is about, is planning and sharing. It really reverts to the fairly traditional agenda of the left. You can use market mechanisms to come up with some solutions, but the market won’t do it without state direction, effectively.

Shell came to see me, saying they want to do work with you on hydrogen fuel cells, and they'd given up on the government and so on. But then you've got other companies like Exxon Mobil, who have been climate change deniers all the way through, and they prop up Bush in the White House. So if you actually look around - the last time I went to New York, the Mayor was preparing there for their first force 3 hurricane, and two million New Yorkers would have to be evacuated, and they are building these vast shelters. Because they can’t do a Thames Barrier thing across the mouth of the Hudson, the chasm is very deep.

And so as the North Atlantic temperature rises... they have had force 1, I think they have had force 2 hurricanes, and a force 3 will inevitably happen. It will be stunning for America to have an evacuation of one third to almost forty percent of New York, and it covers Wall Street as well. All the areas that the world knows and understands in New York are all in that vulnerable area.

So there has to be sharing of resources, there has to be, in a sense, an energy democracy. That each of us as a human has the right to a certain amount of energy, with the resultant carbon emissions. And you just can’t have a super-rich elite of billionaires with their own private planes and half a dozen homes, and John McCain not even knowing how many houses he owns and all this nonsense. It is quite interesting - we were talking earlier about the sort of economics around Lenin's time - it really was only after WW1 that you had the growth of what we understand as the consumer economy in the 1920s. The guy who did 'The Power of Nightmares', he did an earlier one about the growth of the consumer economy and how you generated demand, created a demand that hadn't been there [in the USA], and it spread to Europe after the war.

The real danger now is it might spread around the rest of the world, and it is incredibly wasteful of the resources, it is massively carbon generating.  We have got to move away from that concept of buying to dispose of it, to actually keeping things, repairing things, consuming less. All that takes us back to the agenda of the left, but also more than that, it's also the agenda of democracy. There is no way you can get through that autocratically, you have got to build a consensus around people doing this.

Tucker:  And those inroads are possible for the left because of the re-emergence of multipolitarity, the rise of China and a resurgent Russia. Would you say that was key?

Livingstone:  I think that also. The biggest beneficiaries of the Russian Revolution were actually people in Europe and America who were given the welfare state. The terror of Stalin... none of this was conceded out of generosity, it was a fear of Stalin's legions. And the day that Yeltsin came to power, I remember my economics advisor, John Ross, saying they will start rolling it all back, and they have.

Tucker:  Twenty years ago, what is happening in Venezuela would have been inconceivable, wouldn't it?

Livingstone:  Between great powers, now there is room for small powers to manoeuver. We haven’t had that; but even then, in 1958 when Eisenhower decided to invade the Lebanon and restore order and impose the government he wanted and leave, and they just did it and they paid for it. When George Bush the First wanted to turn back the invasion of Kuwait, he had to pass the hat round because the USA couldn’t afford to do it on their own. So that had already been an erosion, and it's continued.

And now you are in a situation where China will be the largest economy in the world in real terms, somewhere between ten and twenty years from now.  I mean, come back in thirty years and you will have a G3, it will be India and China and America, and if it ever gets its act together, Europe could make it a G4 - Peter Mandelson on a zimmer frame in the antechamber, if he can survive long enough. If you already look at the top ten economies, as well as China and Russia, this is a shift. So this is why it is so ridiculous, all this sabre-rattling about the Russians.

Tucker: Turning to that, there are clearly some significant threats as we move into the multi-polar world, with the fighting over South Ossetia, and the emergence of a bit of a cold war going on here.

Livingstone: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, 40 million Russians were trapped on the wrong side of borders. And if all the West is going to do is to insist on the integrity of those borders, many of which are medieval and some of which were created by - I can’t remember if it was Stalin or Khruschev who moved the Crimea into the Ukraine - these are arbitrary.

As long as Russian citizens in the periphery are treated equally, which hasn’t been the case in all the Baltic states, Russia will allow that. But no Russian government, left or right, is going to watch whilst people that are considered to be Russian or close to Russia, get ethnically cleansed. I mean, I remember seeing in the early '90s the talk coming out of Georgia was more about genocide, rather than ethnic cleansing. And it is absolutely ridiculous of the West to start giving the illusion that we are going to fight in Georgia - we are not. I don’t think there is anyone in Britain that would be prepared to fight in the Ukraine.

Tucker: What in your view was behind Saakashvilli's attack on South Ossetia? There is a difference in view about how much he was encouraged by the USA.

Livingstone:  Obviously, the man is not the brightest statesman on the face of the planet. He has risen to power by uber-nationalism, and made a gamble; he believed America would come to his aid - the idiot. It was Kissinger who said that great powers don't commit suicide for their allies, and they won’t. And I think the sort of sullen quiet in the areas like the Ukraine, and even Poland, is a recognition that the West isn't going to sacrifice itself for them.

Although Gorbachev, who was a bit naïve about this, was told as he was winding up the Eastern European empire, that NATO's boundary would never go beyond East Germany. It has. It’s the West that has broken its word to Russia, and is trying to build a ring of satellites around it.

It is ridiculous. Also, when people talk about China’s attitude towards Tibet; the simple reality is: no Chinese government, communist or capitalist, would ever let Tibet go - because they know that within a year there would be a huge American military base there, they would be surrounded on that side, and this is just the reality of big power politics.


Next week: in Part 3 of this interview, Ken Livingstone discusses the pro-war 'left', the politics of London, and his relationship with the media.

Part 1 of the interview can be read here.