BEYOND OUR KEN
Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone has vigorously defended the Metropolitan police for the killing of an innocent young Brazilian, and attacked the jury in the Health and Safety case brought against them, for returning a guilty verdict; he called it disastrous. Two months previously he – with full media coverage – had attacked the RMT trade union for holding London Underground strikes in defence of its members’ rights. It does not seem coincidental that juries and trade unions are organs of ‘civil society’ rare in that they have real power. This is why they barely get a mention in its now dominant neoliberal version, something put on a pedestal in the attack on the state as a possible source of wealth redistribution and social justice. This version of ‘civil society’ with its public-private partnerships, charities, faith schools, precisely precludes autonomous organs with the power to be both oppositional and effective. It is in this kind of selectivity, that the Bolshevik characteristics of neoliberalism and its New Labour version are apparent. Within it many ex-Bolsheviks with a new faith regained their confidence in espousing both the virtue and inevitability of global capitalism. It is a bitter irony that Mayor Livingstone who nailed this phenomena with his joke that New Labour, in its early days, was the ‘Millbank Tendency’, should now be playing the neoliberal Bolshevik himself with these attacks on top of his increasingly loud London Olympics fetish.1
The bitterness and sorrow is amplified in my case, being old enough for a London Transport Freedom Pass in a few months time, and to have lived through the days of the old Greater London Council when, for a brief period of the early 1980s, until the defeat of the miners strike, London summers were full of free music in the parks and decent prices on public transport. It felt for a while as though the global capitalist offensive from the mid-70s had been suspended. Ultra leftists thought Livingstone must be a tosser simply because he was an elected party politician. But he spoke his mind and didn’t take things lying down. Most of all, and this is really an age thing, he was admired because he was one of very few voices to speak out against British militarism in the north of Ireland. Unless you’d actually, been on the London march for Bobby Sands, let alone gone to Belfast with Troops Out, it is hard to describe the hatred in the eyes of the London’s “honest coppers” (as Ken describes the killers of Jean Charles de Menezes) at that time. That hatred became standard during the miner’s strike, but for any elected party politician to say that negotiation with the IRA was wise and necessary at that time was to really stick your neck out.
That’s as far as the history, or even the character of Livingstone himself goes, what matters is that a real politician with a history – at least till recently could stand his ground with hecklers (unlike Mr Blair or Mr Brown for example), and therefore that much more dangerous, should now be so signed up to New Labour’s “core values”. That he has stood out on a limb in support of the Palestinian people for example against a politically vengeful Zionism, opposed the invasion of Iraq when it mattered, loses its power when he then stands up for a domestic police force that acts with impunity, the only defence against which is a jury system he has attacked.
To trace his personal trajectory is not in itself important, explanations only matter in taking on board that such an adept politician with such a history should now be such a menace. A conspiracy theorist might argue that the Met have ‘got something’ on Ken, but fact is, he did not have to say anything after the Health and Safety verdict. The notion of “sell-out”, and ‘all politicians are sell-outs’, does not help. That ‘All power corrupts’ is banal and fatalistic – what matters is how power is delegated, recallable, accountable, and its scope clearly delineated – but in the case here it’s true that the Mayor does have a lot of power and is now looking for a third term against feeble opponents. Power in this situation may well corrupt. But none of this I believe accounts for the attacks he has made on juries and trade unions.
When he was first elected as Mayor, and even this is now history, it was in defiance of the New Bolsheviks who wanted their candidate (poor Frank Dobson, fucked over inside out) because Ken was not just radical on ‘foreign affairs’ but had directly attacked Gordon Brown’s initially monetarist economic policy. Since then as the Mayor of the world’s leading centre of various sectors of finance capital, he has accommodated himself to what has remained New Labour’s default neoliberalism. It may even be in the news clippings that he has spoken of the financial ‘community’. It is a globalized urban parochialism that he plays. It may have been that BlairBrown simply swallowed their pride, realized our Ken was a vote winner and taken him back on board that started the change, but the Londonitis and its euphemized but necessary dependence on the world of global finance was already there. It may be, going further back that this too was inherent in the politics of the old GLC, strong on identity politics, but avoiding the intensely class nature of the city.
It is however the Olympic Games for 2012, the bid and its success that have really flipped the Mayor. I have heard from intelligent, political astute, and sympathetic comrades the most convoluted explanations for his support of the bid. For example, that he supported it only because he knew it would lose, but that in the process he would gain some national money for London infrastructure. In which case, Ken must have been sleeping. In addition to smearing opponents and victims, another great New Labour expertise is in the selling of good intentions. We had a taste of it ourselves, the New Bolsheviks letting rip, the domestic selling of the Games was Stalinist in its relentless scale aided by some post-Iraq French-bashing.
But that is to give credence to such a convoluted rationale. The Olympics was perfect for London as the greatest-city-in-the-world, that fetishized version of the place as presented by Ken. It is a classless world, a special version of the urban as a virtue-in-itself which has turned multi-racial multiculturalism, created over 50 years by the London multi-racial working class, into a commodity. A commodity sold with vigour during the bid for the Games. It is a commodity version in which heavily weighted racial discrimination by the same Met police’s Stop and Search does not exist, and of which Jean Charles de Menezes was, in Ken’s eyes, not a member.
East London has already experienced ‘regeneration’ and the class privileging it involves. The Olympic Games will be mark II as has been well documented. It is neoliberal Bolshevism at its purest, top-down imposed planning, construction and destruction. The expenditure it involves is costing not “The Arts” as such but walk-in projects for the poor from Tottenham to the Roman Road, manifestations of civil society that The Mayor cannot claim credit for and control of.
Nothing, but nothing must be allowed to get in the way of the 2012 Olympics as a spectacular global success of televisual sport. And certainly not trade unionist tube drivers and staff. Ken has spoken. If Bob Crow (leader of the RMT union involved) thinks he is going to mess about the Olympic Games with these silly strikes, he’s got another thing coming. He then went on to do a caricature version of Bob Crow speaking, a double caricature. What he said was how New Labour’s Bolsheviks like to imagine militant trade union thinking and talking; they are dinosaurs speaking an obscurantist language from absurd rules books simply for the sake of making privileged trouble. How he said it was in the caricature voice one expects of consensus satirists, archaic, irredeemably white, working class East London. Ken, like me, speaks London lower middle class, mine North, his South of the river. It felt an outrage coming from him, such a caricature of the very different voice.
Mayor Livingstone has been for many years, an opponent of the use of PFIs on the London Underground and fought New Labour, and specifically Gordon Brown, on this issue for many years. The onstage embrace between the two at this years Labour Party Conference was a classic for those believing that all professional politicians are inherently hypocritical. What an irony it could be said then, that he should be attacking the union in such a hateful manner for striking in defence of its members who were in line to be shafted by the contractual process of the PFI following the bankruptcy of Metronet.2 The union undeerstood that Livingstone’s promises were not realistic. Whether they were given in good faith or not is irrelevant, and this is in itself intolerable to New Labour Bolsheviks and psychically to Ken the leftist. His promises could only cover the Metronet receivership period and would not apply to whatever succeeded Metronet.3
This time it’s the turn of juries, their realism also intolerable. Somewhere in the judicial system there was enough concern if not about justice, then about the sheer level of incompetence of the Metropolitan Police which lead to shooting dead –seven dum dum bullets chrissake – ‘the wrong guy’. We still don’t know the full horror of it, still haven’t heard from the other passengers sat in the stationary tube train at Stockwell on which Jean Charles was about to read his free paper, the Metro. But at the very least, this trial, Health and Safety laws being seriously applied for once (not dismissed glibly as (‘red tape’), revealed certain real things: the Met’s incompetence; its stop-at-nothing determination to deny responsibility via both smear, re-writing of events, and special pleading; that the victim, if he had been a suicide bomber, had time to ‘press the button’ when it was obviously about to come on top; and was then shot the seven times when under a restraint that made it impossible for him to press any button. This, a jury of ‘ordinary Londoners’ well understood.
Mayor Livingstone and others have made much of the context, that there had been terrible bombings just recently in London, and what looked like an attempted repeat the day before. This is true, those 7/7 bombings were real, real dead people, mangled bodies, and still people now, putting together use of the limbs that they still have. It should be said that many leftist commentators at the time were far too quick to slide over these realities, too impatient to say, however true, that it was because of the invasion of Iraq. Too glib, however true, in saying that hundreds times more had been killed or maimed in Iraq itself, since saying such a thing can hardly make the pain and suffering of those thousands of Iraqis any more real, not if the pain and suffering of London’s maimed survivors could not be taken on board.
It was a nervy time, but there were, and are, other contexts. A series of repressive measures from New Labour governments have been constant, and followed those of previous Conservative governments. These have been aimed in skewed fashion at “terrorism” in marked contrast say to Spain, ones which give the police more and more powers to detain; at the immigrant poor; at demonstrators against injustices and stupidities; and against the non-immigrant poor of this country. What has been consistent – lick-arse up, and kick-arse down – is the strategy if isolating and enemy, and on this Ken has previous. In the lead-up to May Day 2001 he urged Londoners not to go4; this in addition to a heavy media campaign with leaks from the Met aimed at frightening people from going. On top of the already existent tactic of “Rule 60” New Labour’s faithful Observer talked of specialist firearms teams being brought in; The Evening Standard displayed Wanted Posters; and a ‘senior officer’ saying he thought armoured vehicles inappropriate, as if they might have been considered appropriate. The aim of this media + Ken campaign was to scare off many people who would have liked to celebrate May Day as an occasion to reject capital’s monopolization of reality; who did not want have to be corralled for hours on end under an edict, get a criminal record, let alone face armed police. The result, that only the ‘really committed’, the ‘hard core’ turned up, which conformed the analysis of those – including the Mayor – who had worked to ensure that this was exactly what would happen.5
This tactic has become a strategy for New Labour to such an extent that it, and the mainstream media now talk of a civil liberties “lobby” as if any concern about such liberties were restricted to marginalized cranks or “the chattering classes”. And yet fear is not unreasonable in the context of police impunity. A series of deaths in custody (police and prison) – usually of black people of London’s real multi-racial world, has taken place. Harry Stanley, a white Hackney man was shot dead, bullets in the back from the police. None of these deaths have resulted in sanctions against anyone involved. Jury verdicts which have assigned responsibility, or demanded answers to unanswered questions in a variety of courts, have been routinely sidelined or overturned. These are the juries who with Ken’s sleight-of-hand cease to be the Londoners that “honest coppers” are protecting, just as striking London Underground workers cease also to be “Londoners.” Londoners are people who the Mayor says are Londoners, like those two ‘honest coppers’ who fired the fatal shots. It is more sleight of hand, no one has questioned their honesty, but it’s the seven dum-dum bullets into the head of a man who had already had the time to detonate the imaginary bomb, that people question. It was at such a moment that the accumulated sense of impunity – nothing will happen to me regardless – allowed such awfulness. A moment too when, on the question of honesty, the Mayor might have asked why the original dishonesty about who had been shot, and then the smearing of the victim during the hearing. Speculation about traces of cocaine, which indicate a fantasy notion of a “London” without it. How does he think his cutting-edge London works?!
Worst of all in the Mayor’s Radio 4 “Today” interview was his remark that “At the end of the day, mistakes are always going to happen in wars or situations like this.” It brooks no argument, this “At the end of the day”. You can say what you like, see things the way you want, but “at the end of the day,” this is reality. This allied to the smugness of it, on the lines of Donald Rumsfeld’s version of ‘shit happens’ when talking of the post-invasion horrors of Iraq. In consequence it is one more technique used to sidestep any question of responsibility in the neoliberal world, while it demands citizen responsibility as exchange value for citizen rights.
We are of course lucky to live here. For a whole variety of reasons both shameful and honourable we are lucky to live in London as opposed to many, many other places in the world, but they are all historical reasons. Civil liberties and trade union rights are not set in stone. And now they have been a little further undermined by a politician in many ways much better than others, and perhaps all the more dangerous for it. A Ken who has created a fictitious London, the one made into a brand for the Olympic Games. The police who killed Jean Charles also live in another world, secure from censure and so cut off that they could not understand that this real live Londoner, with all the quick-witted logistics this requires, saw that Brixton tube station was closed, thought nothing of it, and jumped on a bus in the hope that Stockwell, having the Northern as well as the Victoria line, might be open; interpreted a normal logistical decision as suspicious. One can be sure that when the Olympics Organising Committee sized up London they were well shepherded on London’s Underground on which rare the tannoy announcement “Services on all lines are running normally” is just waiting for a pat-on-the-back.
1 For an fuller explanation of the joke, see Barker “INFANTILE DISORDER AND THE NEW BOLSHEVIKS” 2004 at http://amsterdam.nettime.org/Lists-archive/nettimel-0-0408/msg00.114.html
2 This is well described by Unterschreiber in Mute magazine 05/09/07. See www.metamute.org
3 Something similar – and the ‘road to hell’ comes to mind – is described by Mark Saunders in Mute magazine 12/09/07 about those London Olympics. “A common feature of regeneration schemes is verbal promises given by people who are clearly unable to deliver those promises.” An epithet for the success of the Olympics bid might be the ex-munitions worker quoted by David Widgery in “Some Lives”. “That’s the trouble with us. We cockneys think we’re so tough but we get taken for a ride because we want to believe.”
4 Evening Standard 24.04.01
5 “Attempts to reduce anti-capitalism to a menacing monoculture of violence are so far wide of the mark as to suggest they are being strategically divisive.” Jim Carey: Squall magazine April 2001