Popular Front, London-style

Submitted by Anon on 4 December, 2008 - 10:01 Author: Sacha Ismail

Ken Livingstone has launched an organisation called “Progressive London” (http://www.progressivelondon.org.uk), backed by a “broad alliance of individuals, campaigns, communities, artists, trade unions, environmentalists, political parties and groups”. It is for “all those who believe in social justice, environmental protection, good community relations, cultural innovation and the many other areas in which London has made a contribution recognised throughout the world.”

The CWU, GMB, Unison and Unite — or at least senior figures from these unions — seem to be backing this “campaign”, and it is starting to be raised in trade union branches. The AWL will be opposing support for it wherever we can.

In the first instance, this is quite transparently a vehicle for Ken Livingstone to return to City Hall in 2012. In this year’s election we called for a second preference vote for Livingstone on the grounds of Labour’s residual links to the trade unions; but that is no reason for us to positively support the electoral ambitions of this fake left careerist. Particularly not when his fake left coat of paint is such a pale one, as the politics of “Progressive London” demonstrate.

This is a classic — though rather weedy! — example of what Marxists have called a “popular front”: an alliance which ties the labour movement to sections of the ruling class in the name of “progressive”, non-working class, ie capitalist goals. By doing so such alliances stifle the development of the class struggle and independent working-class politics. In some cases (eg France in 1936, Spain in 1936-7) this has meant saving capitalism’s skin from the threat of working-class revolution; in Britain today it means a roadblock to the labour movement rebuilding itself after a long period of defeat.

Who could be against “social justice”, “cultural innovation” and so on? The question is from what standpoint, with what class perspective, such abstractions are approached. Thus, for instance, the founding statement talks about “investment in good public services”, but says nothing about the cuts and privatisation that not only Boris Johnson’s administration but the Labour government are liberally doling out; it talks about anti-racism, but will criticise neither the immigration laws nor the racist brutality of London’s police (who, remember, Livingstone has sought to defend from Johnson’s criticism). It talks about “employment rights”, but naturally says nothing about Livingstone’s union-busting on London Underground.

The organisation’s first “campaign” is against Boris Johnson’s above-inflation increases in Tube and bus fares; no mention of the fact that Livingstone did the same thing while he was in office.

Of course, “Progressive London” cannot and has no wish to raise substantive working-class demands, being made up as it is of mildly dissident New Labour loyalists, Lib Dems, the right wing of the Green Party and other respectables.

Shortly after his defeat in May, Livingstone wrote an article in the Guardian that reveals the underlying character of his new organisation:

Following May 1 some people are posing the choice as between moving “to the left” or “to the right”. This is not the right question. Labour must place itself at the centre of a progressive alliance that can solve the problems facing the country.

What are the key elements of this? There are three tasks for a government and a mayor — to ensure the country and London are an economic success; to ensure everyone shares in that success; and to ensure that success is sustainable in the long run through improving the environment.

Labour’s campaign in London gained major support from business. The Financial Times concluded that the majority of big business in London supported my re-election. There is no way to check that, but I know from meetings that very large sections of big business supported my campaign.

No surprise, given Livingstone’s record, his love in with the City and property developers etc.

“Progressive London” is the organisational expression of this “progressive” business-based alliance. Livingstone must be hoping that in a few years enough London capitalists will have tired of Boris Johnson’s quirkiness and unpredictability to swing a substantial section of business behind his campaign. He can then return to power on the same basis that he held it from 2000 to 2008: an unabashedly pro-business and anti-working class politician.

All genuine socialists must oppose labour movement involvement in this scheme. Instead we should fight for a labour movement alliance which campaigns to defend and extend the rights of working-class Londoners in the current crisis, and uses the 2012 elections as a platform to rebuild working-class political representation. For some ideas see the motion calling for independent working-class candidates passed by the RMT’s London Transport Region in September 2007, reprinted at


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