Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 January 2008

All right, I know this makes me sound like a Guardian leader-writer, but I can see both points of view in the gigantic spat that has erupted of late between Ken Livingstone and his media critics, most recently the makers of Monday’s Channel Four Dispatches programme on the London mayor (available through Channel Four’s on-demand service here: registration and so on take a couple of minutes).

On one hand, Livingstone is, as the Dispatches programme’s presenter, Martin Bright, puts it, an entirely legitimate subject for journalistic investigation – and some of the material Bright and others have dug up on him and his administration does not cast Ken and co in a favourable light.

The Dispatches programme showed conclusively that Livingstone has indulged in serious cronyism, with a coterie of old mates, many of them veterans of the Trotskyist groupuscule Socialist Action, occupying key positions at City Hall and getting very well paid for it. And one of Ken’s buddies, Lee Jasper, the mayor’s senior policy adviser on race, is alleged (by the Evening Standard rather than Dispatches) to have engaged in serious cronyism himself: projects run by his pals are said to have received a disproportionate share of financial support from City Hall. These are precisely the sorts of things that journalists should probe, and Livingstone’s dismissal of the Dispatches programme as a “hatchet job” and his attempt to get the programme pulled at the last minute were way over-the-top.

On the other hand, Livingstone does have a case against the media coverage he has been getting of late, including parts of the Dispatches programme – so what if he drank whisky in the morning at a public meeting and is sometimes rude to people? The Evening Standard has undoubtedly been running a vendetta against him (although it gave him space this week to respond to his critics) and the misdemeanours of which he is accused (although not all the allegations about his advisers) are trifles, particularly when set against the GLA’s achievements since he was first elected in 2000: the congestion charge, all the new buses, the Olympics and so on. The fact that Livingstone has a tight-knit group of Trots as his core team is certainly noteworthy and deserves to be in the public sphere – but isn’t it weird rather than chilling?

Think about it. Socialist Action – if indeed it still exists as an organisation in any conventional sense – is an ideological blast from the past. Its origins are in the International Marxist Group, the erstwhile political home of Tariq Ali and one of the four biggest Trotskyist groups of the 1970s. Then, its members (mostly students) turned up to every demo and political meeting to harangue the masses about the necessity of making the IMG the leadership of the coming British revolution.

The revolution never came, and during the 1980s the IMG fell apart after a series of arcane disputes. Socialist Action was the tiny bit of it that was (a) keenest to work as “entryists” in the Labour Party and (b) least critical of Soviet-style socialism. Its members spent the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s keeping their heads down and attempting to lever themselves into key positions in Labour left organisations and campaigns – what used to be called in left circles “the long march through the institutions”. Socialist Action people were prominent in the Campaign for Labour Democracy, Labour CND, the Labour Committee on Ireland, Campaign Group News and a host of other initiatives, most long-forgotten. They proved themselves hard-working and didn’t give up – and that’s what attracted Livingstone to them.

He needed a political machine to further his political ambitions – and he found it in the comrades of Socialist Action. Throughout his wilderness years in the late 1980s and 1990s, they supported him – and as London mayor he has rewarded them with jobs. John Ross is his economic adviser, Simon Fletcher his chief-of-staff and Redmond O’Neill his transport chief. (There are others.)

Now, this is a remarkable success for the Socialist Action strategy in one sense: the group’s key people are in key positions. But if you judge Socialist Action by its original goals – world socialist revolution – it can only count as failure. In nearly eight years, these one-time revolutionaries have managed to increase the tax on London motorists and modernise London’s buses – oh, and cut a rather dubious symbolic oil deal with a third-world populist. Man the barricades, I don’t think.

I was never much of a fan of Socialist Action – but I must admit I have a sneaking admiration for the way Livingstone used the comrades. It’s difficult to imagine where else he could have acquired a core team so completely loyal, and they have played a useful part in the leftist political gestures (support for the 2004 European Social Forum, the Chavez oil deal, initiatives to counter “Islamophobia”) that will probably be enough to ensure that Livingstone does not lose many votes to the Respect or Green candidates in May. Whether you like him or loathe him, he’s a wily old fox, that Ken.

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