The AWL and Ken Livingstone

Over the last year I’ve debated the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) twice on the issue of Ken Livingstone’s bid to become London mayor. On both occasions the AWL speakers poured scorn on the idea that socialists should give Ken even critical support.

At the first debate, in late 1998, the AWL’s case was put by its guru Sean Matgamna, who treated us all to a lengthy emotional tirade against Livingstone. According to Matgamna, Ken was responsible for betraying the working class, destroying the GLC, taking vast sums of money off Colonel Gaddafi and having sexual intercourse with Gerry Healy (oh alright, I made up the last bit). My response – that the leftward movement of the masses sometimes expresses itself through imperfect individuals – received short shrift from Matgamna. “Livingstone”, he declared angrily, “represents nothing but corruption.”

Last summer I debated Kate Ahrens on the same issue. She didn’t rant and rave like Matgamna had, but instead affected a dismissive attitude towards the whole question. The mayoral selection, she opined, was a minor matter that would have little political impact on the labour movement outside London. Supporting Livingstone was at best irrelevant.

So imagine my surprise when I picked up the 29 October issue of the AWL’s paper Action for Solidarity and found that the group had launched a “Socialist Campaign for a Livingstone Victory”. My first thought was that I’d like to have been a fly on the wall when the AWL arrived at its change of line.

And now, comrades, thanks to a leaked AWL document, you can be that fly. Or rather you can listen in on the debate that took place at an AWL National Committee meeting a week after the change of line was publicly announced in Action (“Minutes of AWL National Committee Meeting, 7.11.99”). For it would appear that the AWL Executive Committee decided on and implemented the new line before the group’s governing body had a chance to discuss the issue. Evidently the Blairites’ 21st Century Party plan for dictatorship by ECs is already up and running within the AWL.

What is quite astonishing is that the AWL did not anticipate the development of mass support for Livingstone from the start, as they would then have been able to shift their position earlier and avoid reducing themselves to an object of ridicule. Marxism may not be a science of exact prediction, but it should at least give you a rough idea of what’s going to happen, particularly in a case as obvious as this.

That point was made at the AWL National Committee meeting by a comrade identified only as Bruce, who pointed out that the group’s change of line on Livingstone was “an overdue decision. If we’d made it a while ago the ground could have been better prepared”.

We can only applaud the comrade’s realism and foresight, qualities sadly lacking in some AWL supporters – in Bruce Robinson, to take a random example. Attacking Livingstone in an article published in Action in November 1998, Robinson found it “difficult to see why the Blair machine is so keen to prevent Livingstone standing”. Indeed, comrade Robinson anticipated continued silence from Ken on the issue of Tube privatisation “because if he said anything at all it would bring him into open conflict with the government”.

But credit is due to the AWL for finally seeing sense. It is certainly gratifying to observe that comrade Matgamna has come round to the view that “there is big support for Livingstone” – an acknowledgement that Ken represents rather more than mere corruption.

I am also happy to note the comment, by a comrade named Jill, that a refusal to support Livingstone “would set us up as loony sectarians”. What a pity she wasn’t around a year ago to explain this elementary point to leading AWL member Jill Mountford, who at that time took the view that she “would not vote for Livingstone for mayor even if he was standing in a head to head with Jeffrey Archer” (see Martin Kelly’s article “The Left and Livingstone” in What Next? No.12).

To conclude on a more serious point, the AWL’s ridiculous “Socialist Campaign for a Livingstone Victory” has already played a disruptive role, with Frank Dobson making use of it to attack Ken’s own campaign. But this won’t worry the AWL. Like all sects, their aim is to further the narrow interests of their own small group, irrespective of the damage this may cause in the wider labour movement.

First published in What Next? in 1999