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Friend or foe?

Ken Livingstone

Tory leader Michael Howard has run a nasty and disgraceful general election campaign. He is systematically trying to whip up fear and prejudice against immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Even the traveller and Gypsy community, whose presence can hardly be described as large in this country, has found itself in the sights of the Conservative campaign.

Howard's posters, based on the slogan "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" are deliberately designed to pull into the political arena prejudices that should be confronted, not pandered to. In running one of the most unpleasant and right-wing campaigns in a long time, the Tory Party must realise that it runs the risk of legitimising the ideas and rhetoric of the far-right.

The Tory strategy is clearly aimed at getting their core vote mobilised with the aim of outdoing Labour on polling day among the parties' respective natural supporters. But Howard's irresponsibility in opening this can of worms is only matched by the editorial line of many of our newspapers.

Several of the right-wing tabloids, in particular, have been plugging away on immigration and asylum in a sustained way for many months. The truth is that, in London, immigration is a way of life that has brought dynamism to the London economy. Jewish, Irish, Asian, African, Caribbean, Chinese, Arab, east European - each successive wave of new communities has enhanced London as a global city.

The Tories' election strategy underlines just how much London has to lose from the election of a Tory government. That is even before we get onto the proposed lower spending on public services or the hostility to devolution that the Tories represent.

Thus, the complacency about the Tory threat, which, as the polls show, is not an illusion at all, is alarming. Take the Lib Dems, for example. Writing in the Guardian this month, Charles Kennedy dismissed the Tory Party in complacent terms as a "non-existent Tory challenge."

Similarly, I recently received a Lib Dem leaflet claiming that "Michael Howard is actually going to lose seats in the general election." Of course, the Lib Dems are talking the Tories down because they know that Labour voters will not want to do anything to let the Tories in.

The Lib Dem position would hold more water if they had not spent years in places like south-west London arguing that the Tory threat is very real - in order to get Labour voters in Lib Dem-Tory marginals to vote tactically to keep the Tories out.

But, if the Lib Dem complacency about the Tory threat is driven by self-interest, it is more difficult to fathom the even more confused thinking on some parts of the left. Tariq Ali, for example, argues for a Labour vote only where the Labour candidate opposed the war. I am afraid that this is an argument for a Tory government or, at least, an argument that the election of a Tory government is something that can be tolerated.

Ali has motivated this by arguing that there is little or no difference between Labour and the Tories and that, in some cases, the Labour Party is worse than the Conservatives. This argument is divorced from reality and from a serious analysis of the social base of these two parties. It is exactly the same argument that I first came across over 30 years ago during the 1970 election, when some parts of the left argued that there was no difference between Heath and Wilson.

Indeed, I recall John Lennon being rebuked even after that election by some on the left for arguing out that there may only be an "inch of difference" between Labour and the Tories, but it is in that inch of difference "that we live."

If the left is prepared to tolerate, as part of its programme for the election, the possibility of a Tory victory, then it is cutting itself off from millions of people who will be attacked in the most vicious terms by that government. The consequences of Ali's analysis can also be found in his tactical advice in his own locality of Hornsey and Wood Green, where he is recommending a Lib Dem vote against Labour.

It is one thing to advise, as Billy Bragg does, a Lib Dem vote against the Tories where Labour has no hope of winning, in return for arguing with Lib Dems that they should reciprocate in constituencies where the battle is between Labour and the Tories. Bragg and others are motivated by a strictly anti-Tory perspective. It is another thing altogether to argue for a Lib Dem vote against Labour, without recognising the fundamentally different nature of the Lib Dem party.

The Lib Dems have no relationship to the organised working class through the trade unions. They are not subject to the same pressures and the same debates. Indeed, they have actually opposed some of the more progressive measures introduced by this government from the right, not the left - such as initially opposing the introduction of the minimum wage and then describing recent increases as "dangerous."

The Lib Dem standing in Hornsey and Wood Green simply is not to the left of the Labour candidate.
As a London Assembly member, she refused to carry out a scrutiny of the Tube PPP when she was chair of the assembly's transport committee. She and her assembly colleagues have formed an alliance with the Tories to oppose my budgets and to install a right-wing Tory as the chair of the assembly.

The Tory in question, Brian Coleman, has a long record of making offensive and prejudiced comments towards Irish travellers, Somalis and foreigners in general. Moreover, if the argument is that a Lib Dem vote is permitted in order to get rid of "warmonger" Labour MPs, then I am afraid that this cannot be taken seriously.

The Lib Dems supported the war from the day it started, supported the occupation of Iraq and supported the deployment of more troops. In other words, while there was not a war, the Lib Dems rather weakly opposed it, but, when the war began and the occupation was underway, there was no difference between the Lib Dems and the Labour MPs who backed the war.

Thus, we are left with a purely "moral" argument, that it is in some way impossible to vote Labour because of the war. But this does not constitute a serious strategy to advance the interests of the poorest in our society or indeed of the great majority.

In fact, it deprives them of even the most basic strategy by permitting the election of a Tory government.
It is both possible to retain one's opposition to the war - or any other policy for that matter - and to simultaneously understand that the whole centre of gravity in British society would swing sickeningly to the right if the Tories made significant gains or won the election.

A shift to the right would not only take place in economic terms, as the Howard Flight episode underlined, but on race, immigration, the family and on many aspects of international policy as well.

It is necessary to keep arguing with the government when it is wrong, such as on the war. But, from my perspective as mayor of London, the great majority of people in the city that I represent would be hit hard by a Tory victory.

It may be difficult for some to swallow but the future of public transport, congestion, the level of investment, policies on the environment and housing - all these things in the capital are affected by whether Labour is elected.


April 2005

First published by the Morning Star

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