The circus of the elections for London mayor and the Greater London Assembly has rumbled on for months. From the controversies over the choice of candidates by the Labour and Tory Party to the interventions of Malcolm McLaren as a candidate and Chris Evans with his £200,000 for Ken Livingstone, there has been a constant attempt to keep this innovation in local democracy in the news. Jeffrey Archer was originally selected because he was supposed to be some sort of ‘character’. His replacement, Stephen Norris, was more famous for his mistresses than his political standing. With the Labour Party the saga that finally lead to the election of Frank Dobson over Glenda Jackson (significantly an ex-film star) and Livingstone, and the subsequent decision of the latter to stand as an ‘independent’, was dragged out longer than even the worst soap opera would ever have dared.
Most people don’t know the name of their local parish, district or borough councillor, or even their MP. Yet for months, the whole country, 85% of which neither lives nor works in London, has been treated to the endless twists and d to the endless twists and turns of this particular local election - from the question of the candidates to the intricacies of how to finance the tube, and the history of the GLC.
The reason for all this attention is not because there is the possibility of a massive change in living or working conditions in the capital. Trains are not going to start running on time and stop being cancelled. Buses are still going to be caught in traffic jams. The wait in casualty departments will still be measured in hours, while wards and hospitals still face closure. There will still be people sleeping rough on the streets. Anything the new Mayor or GLA can change will be marginal, and, with the explicit commitment of all the candidates to business and the capitalist economy, the police and repression, it is clear that any changes will not be undertaken with any concern for the interests of the working class.
All the candidates have commented on the great wealth in London and implied that somehow this makes the problems faced in the capital capable of an easy solution. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no way that capitalism would redirect any of its resources away from the pursuit of profits.
What has been happening with the t has been happening with the elections and all their build-up is a prolonged campaign for the ‘democratic process’ itself - the lie that somehow workers (or any part of the non-exploiting population) can have an effect on how capitalism runs our lives.
The revolutionary position
The understanding that communists have developed about capitalist democracy, its elections, councils and parliaments is based on the historic experience of the working class. In the Theses on bourgeois democracy and proletarian dictatorship presented by Lenin to the First Congress of the Communist International in March 1919 (see International Review 100 for the full text) this is clearly summarised. "All socialists have expressed the idea formulated with the greatest scientific precision by Marx and Engels, namely, that the most democratic bourgeois republic is no more than a machine for the suppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie, for the suppression of the working people by a handful of capitalists."
The specific attitude of communists toward parliament has changed since the nineteenth century because of "the change in the role of parliament itself. In the preceding rliament itself. In the preceding historical epoch parliament was an instrument of the developing capitalist system, and as such played a role that was in a certain sense progressive. In the modern conditions of unbridled imperialism parliament has become a weapon of falsehood, deception and violence, a place of enervating chatter" (The Communist Party and Parliament, presented to the Second Congress of the CI, August 1920). In 1871 Marx summarised the decision to be made in elections as "which member of the ruling class was to represent and repress the people in parliament" (The Civil War in France). In 1917 Lenin showed how the institution had continued to function: "parliament is given up to talk for the special purpose of fooling the ‘common people’" (State and Revolution).
In a word, capitalist democracy is a con-trick. The real power of the ruling class lies behind closed doors, in the boardrooms, in the corridors of Whitehall, in the armed forces. The job of capitalist ‘democracy’ is to try and convince us we have a stake in our own exploitation.
With the elections for the London mayor the ruling class is showing that it knows there are suspicions about what the Labour government has the Labour government has done, but telling us that there’s always the ballot box, the lie that we can change the way we live and work within capitalism.
Livingstone is no alternative
In every election there will usually be one party or candidate that pretends that they’re different, that they can be trusted, that they have the interests of workers at heart. In the GLA election the London Socialist Alliance claims to "speak up for the workers, the jobless, pensioners and students, and against the bankers, the bosses and the profiteers" (see our article on page 2 which shows how the LSA plays its part in the electoral charade). More importantly Ken Livingstone is being hyped as the man who really has Londoners’ interests at heart, with much being made of the myth of the GLC.
The first thing we should recall is that Livingstone has declared his support for "95%" of what the Labour government has done. When you look at the Labour record over the last three years, its attacks on working and living conditions, the decline in the social wage, the increase in the rate of exploitation, the strengthening of the state apparatus of repression, the military actions of British iitary actions of British imperialism against Iraq and Yugoslavia - then a 5% difference doesn’t amount to much.
As for Livingstone’s specific proposals for London, whether he’s proposing more private investment or strengthening the state, liaising with the police or helping business, he’s still defending the basic programme of the Labour Party.
What Livingstone has to offer that is ‘different’ is his past role as leader of the GLC from 1981-85, and the image of someone who opposed Thatcher. In practice, the GLC received a lot of publicity for getting into conflict with the Conservative government, as did other local councils including Lambeth, Liverpool and Sheffield. Although all these councils said they weren’t going to give in to Tory ratecapping and make cuts in services, or put up rates or rents, they all did in the end. However, that didn’t stop them insisting that workers should defend the local state against central government.
Nearly 20 years on Livingstone is trying to pull the same trick, trying to pretend that having him in office will mean some protection from the Labour government. It was a lie with the GLC under the Tories, and it’s a lie today. Both then 46;s a lie today. Both then and now Livingstone has played an invaluable role in providing a democratic cover for capitalist rule.
Workers cannot defend themselves by standing alone in a polling booth marking an ‘X’ or a ‘1-2-3’ on a piece of paper. The struggle of the working class means the holding of mass meetings, the election of recallable delegates, the sending of delegations to other groups of workers. It means discussion on how best to fight for workers’ interests. In London, as elsewhere, these interests can’t be separated from those of the rest of the working class. In a city where more than 300 languages are spoken, there are constant reminders that the struggle of the working class is, above all, international.