Livingstone: still there, still up to his old tricks

by Rob Marchant

Now, Labour Uncut has never been a fan of Gordon Brown’s decision to leave the “Golden Rule” behind and stop balancing the books over the economic cycle. He borrowed more than he should have, with the result that Britain was rather caught with its trousers around its ankles when the global financial crisis came.

But it takes a certain kind of front for a politician on his own side to call the former prime minister a coward (although marginally better, one supposes, than asking for him to be tried as war criminal).

Especially if that politician (a) still holds office at national level (albeit on Labour’s NEC and not an office elected by the general public); and (b) wouldn’t know fiscal responsibility if it jumped up and slapped him in the face with a wet kipper.

It really could only be one person, couldn’t it? Step forward, our old friend Ken Livingstone, who told the Labour Assembly Against Austerity last weekend that the raising of debt was “an act of cowardice”.

Now, let’s examine that for a second as an exercise in multiple levels of irony.

First up in the irony stakes is the issue that he was speaking at the Labour Assembly Against Austerity. Yes, the anti-austerity movement. The primary function of this body, as far as anyone can understand, is the economic equivalent of the Flat Earth Society; that of fighting of any cut of any kind.

Now, although Livingstone later implied – disingenuously – in the same speech that he is open to cuts, this goes entirely against the whole ethos of the anti-austerity movement. No-one can possibly seriously buy that argument, least of all from him.

So, the equation is pretty straightforward: if you can’t cut and you can’t raise debt, you have to raise taxes. That is the clear conclusion of this kind of policy and the modus operandi which has followed Livingstone throughout his political life.

And there’s the second irony. You can certainly say that Livingstone has always been consistent about not wanting to raise debt and securing all revenue through tax-raising, but let’s look at the facts on that.

The key point is this: when mayor, he did not have to raise taxes directly from the people who elected him, because the funds came from the constituent local authorities and from central government.

That’s the way GLA funding works.

In fact, almost as soon as he arrived in office, there was a big increase in the GLA budget, snatched directly from those same local authorities. Clever, eh? Easy to raise taxes from the public through the back door, because it’s the local authorities, not the GLA, that get it in the neck later when the council tax goes up. Admittedly, Labour was not very smart in setting up the GLA with this kind of poor-accountability funding model.

Furthermore, when he was in charge before that between 1981 and 1986, lest we forget, the disastrous tax-and-spend policies of Livingstone’s Greater London Council were, along with Militant in Liverpool and elsewhere, clearly a major contributor to Labour staying out of national power during the whole of that decade. It was lucky for Labour that it didn’t need to get rid of Livingstone as it did with Militant:  a combination of a fed-up public and the Thatcher government did it for them.

Irony number three – listen to what he told the Standard:

“I criticised both left and right. If it was up to me there would be a target of repaying all debt within 20 years. I’m in favour of borrowing to invest, but not to cover day-to-day spending.”

Oh, how our sides ache when reading this. The message is, “I am a centrist elder statesman, above the political fray. I criticise those on both sides when they deserve it. And I understand the economics of balancing the books much better than these national politicians”.

But, for seasoned Ken-watchers, this is a wonderful exercise in weaselling. You have to admire the chutzpah.

What he is really talking about is not the right and the left, but the right and the moderate left, both equally bad from his entirely tangential vantage point on the hard left. His implied criticism of Miliband and Balls is about dissing the mainstream left in favour of hard-left policies which could never get Labour elected nationally in a thousand years.  He is talking about a fairy-tale never-never land, where you rack up taxes on your constituents and they keep voting for you anyway.

For all his faults, Gordon Brown completely understood balancing the books, which is precisely what he did until he deliberately chose not to in 2005. Livingstone has never understood balancing the books, because his rule is simple: we spend what we want, then we tax you to fund whatever we have spent. That is what happens in a governmental setup – such as that of the GLA – with scant accountability back to the voters for spending.

Finally, one has to wonder at the agenda. There always is one, and Livingstone still seems to have some fire in his belly. On the one hand, perhaps he is simply trying to encourage the new generation of the hard left, currently undergoing something of a renaissance, as we have seen in Falkirk and elsewhere.

But, then again, “if it was up to me…” he says, almost wistfully.

Could it just be that…he genuinely thinks that one day it might just be “up to him” once more?

Labour, especially in London, has long been subject to an odd Stockholm Syndrome with regard to the man. For years, it swallowed everything, in a long-suffering relationship which finally ended in the shambles that was last year’s final mayoral campaign; where he was finally caught out saying things which didn’t match up.

We can only hope – for all our sakes – that it has finally learned its lesson.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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14 Responses to “Livingstone: still there, still up to his old tricks”

  1. swatantra says:

    Ken hasn’t ruled out the possibility of running for a 3rd Term in London; but then he’s a glutton for punishment. Ken did say he was a monetraist at heart all the time and believed in balancing the Books. Well you had to in London because the Govt handed you the money to run London, and you couldn’t really raise it yourself.

  2. Rob Marchant says:

    @swatantra: Well, it’s true you couldn’t raise it yourself. But that doesn’t mean you were constrained because of it, quite the opposite.

    The first GLA budget (from memory, and I’d be happy to be corrected on this) increased the amount taken from local authorities by around 50% from what was originally prescribed. In other words, with hardly any accountability, the GLA was able to take a great deal more from councils than had been bargained for.

    It’s a pretty terrible model of accountability back to the voters, because most were probably unaware of this. There needs to be direct accountability back to voters for changes in the budget, and this was clearly not it.

  3. Alfred Marshall says:

    I have to say, Marchant’s continued and self-deluded “somebody who knows about economics being patronising about lefties” routine is one of the funniest but least convincing running jokes around.

    Stick to making up stuff about opponents, paying for dodgy opinion polls and leaking material to Tory papers.

  4. steve says:

    Goodness, Rob, you’re really off on one today. I understand that it hasn’t been good few days for the Labour Party. What, with the enthusiastic military interventionist Dennis Macshane awaiting sentence and the rather sad Paul Flowers episode, I quite understand if you’re feeling somewhat out of sorts.

    But frankly, if Labour wants to escape its reputation for economic mismanagement it should acknowledge New Labour profligacy, show that it is prepared to learn from mistakes and is able to move on. Livingstone has contributed to this necessary process.

    And Livingstone was correct to point out that, in this instance, the failure to face up to reality was cowardice. The failure isn’t diminished because it is Livingstone who has taken the role of Elijah, nor is the charge of cowardice weakened because it is directed at New Labour.

  5. Renie Anjeh says:

    Well, I take a different view. If Ken can preach fiscal conservatism to the Labour Assembly Against Austerity (even if he just wants to punitively high levels of tax) then maybe, just maybe, there could be hope for the Labour Left. We’d just disagree over ways to balance the books.

  6. Renie Anjeh says:

    *to have

  7. southern voter says:

    Hopefully Livingstone never gets his hands on power again in London.
    A more fresher candidate without his baggage would have beaten Boris Johnson
    in 2012

  8. Les Abbey says:

    It must hurt Marchant that he cannot blame the left for the financial crisis. All that blame lies with his buddies. He can’t even blame the left for losing Labour the last election. That was his buddies too. One could almost feel sorry for him; then again maybe not.

  9. swatantra says:

    Probably things were better, democratically, under the old GLC. More accountability and more ability to change things like ILEA, cross Borough working. The GLA was set up as a tool for Thatcher’s henchmen, but Labours decision to create Mayors brought in more accountability. But you’ll still never get a straight answer from Boris.

  10. John reid says:

    Renie ,if Ken denounced all the spend your way out of a recession views he’s had in the past ,then his view maybe credible.

    Steve, it was new labour and Blair that spent what they didn’t have in 2007-2010

    Southern voter true,

    Was t Denis mcshane one of Kens biggest supporters for choice of mayor in 2012′ who were the ones who didn’t want Ken, Dennis skinner, Neil Kinnock, Prescott,

  11. Alfred Marshall says:

    What do you mean, Macshane was one of Ken’s biggest supporters? They hate each other, as far as I can tell, aside from the obvious political differences.

  12. John reid says:

    Re: Mcshane supported Ken, Go on google, he backed him over Oona ,with all his strength,

  13. Robert says:

    What would Rob say if he disagreed with Ken?

    It is arguable that Brown was not sufficiently prudent in the boom years before 2007 but I am not sure that it would have made much difference. The financial crisis was caused by financial institutions bankrupting themselves and nearly ruining the capitalist economy.

    Britain was particularly affected because we relied so much on the financial industry. This was the main reason for the deficit, which has kept the economy going with the help of a low sterling exchange rate and exceptionally low interest rates. None of these are sustainable in the medium term, so we will have a difficult decade. The long term solution will be to produce goods that people want to buy.

  14. Compost says:

    Perhaps if Ken had not used methods to avoid paying tax like most PAYE employees, there’d be more money and less austerity.

    Oh, sorry, tax is for little working-class people.

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