Ken Livingstone,  The Left

Sensational backroom revelations from lying politician’s inner sanctum

This is a cross post from Adloyada

Think this is a joke?

Read these extracts from Ken and the rise of Socialist Action

In October 2007, the Evening Standard published a list of the 25 most influential people running London.[1] Livingstone headed the list which contained the names of 13 other individuals who worked directly or indirectly for the mayor, four of the people on the list were Livingstone’s closest mayoral advisory they have also been members of a tiny Trotskyist party which has worked closely and discreetly with Ken Livingstone for more than 20 years.

Socialist Action is an organisation so discreet and secretive that it does not even admit its own existence and its members will not confirm they have ever belonged to the group. When I interviewed Ken Livingstone about Socialist Action for this book, he pressed me for evidence at first, before acknowledging its existence and the importance of the role played by those who had been associated with it . It has a website and it has a printing press and those who have been associated with it have enjoyed great influence over London.

By my calculation, at least five of the mayor’s advisors are or have been members of Socialist Action, and there are several others who do work for the mayor or organisations with which he is associated. In 2007 they includedthen : Simon Fletcher, the mayor’s chief of staff; John Ross, then Greater, then director of economics and business for the Greater London Authority (GLA); Redmond O’Neill, then GLA director of public affairs and transport (he subsequently died); Mark Watts, GLA climate change advisor; and Jude Woodward, senior policy advisor.

Others have included Atma Singh, the former advisor on Muslim issues and Professor Alan Freeman, who became prominent in the Unison branch at City Hall, and also runs the Venezuelan Information Centre – a propaganda organisation of which Ken Livingstone is president. The concentration of power by Socialist Action is the more astonishing when according to Ken Livingstone, it has probably had no more than 120 members in the last decade.[2]

On the face of it, Livingstone appears to have drawn much of his political talent from a comparatively small political gene pool. Livingstone’s close association with Socialist Action is an integral part or his story. Under his patronage, the group has become probably the most successful and influential revolutionary Marxist organization in Britain. Socialist Action has long been Livingstone’s guiding light, his foot soldiers, his mentors, and his political family.

It is clear that from 1985, Socialist Action set out to make itself indispensable to Ken Livingstone and to seek control, or ‘hegemony’ over the forces and groups making up the Labour Left. It has proved phenomenally successful. Socialist Action has made remarkable attempts to cover its tracks and even disappear altogether as an organisation, as part of the deep entryist policy adopted in the mid 1980s to protect members from any potential Militant-style purge. In part it has derived its power over the years from its secrecy and its deniability.

As far back as 1983, the group resolved to disappear from public consciousness, or as one internal document put it at the time, to bring about ‘the dissolution of the public lace’.[3] Leading members of Socialist Action are unquestionably talented and highly able but they blundered in thinking they could make their organisation invisible because they have left a paper trail a mile wide. …..

John Ross was at the forefront of the internal struggle to ditch the industrial strategy and get all IMG members to join the Labour Party en masse and then seek to control the Left bloc within it. Supporting Ross was another key figure in Livingstone’s political career, Redmond O’Neill. At the December 1982 conference, Ross carried the day and over the next few months IMG members joined the Labour Party. A minority who disagreed with the policy of ‘deep eritryism’ split away and formed its own party, the International Group which became a political irrelevance.

Despite becoming Labour members, the Ross majority still remained organised as a separate political organization. They decided to rebrand themselves as the Socialist League, and to establish a newspaper called Socialist Action. Like Militant, the group became known by the name of their paper rather than as the Socialist League. ‘ steps towards a revolutionary party comprise a fight for a class struggle within the Bennite current,’ said one discussion paper at the time. ‘For this a new newspaper is necessary – one that is seen as the voice of revolutionary socialists within the Labour Party and which can thereby give political expressions to the mass struggles of workers and youth who in the next period will seek overall political answers within the Labour Party. ‘…

Socialist Action will fight for leadership within the Bennite Current.'[12]

The Socialist League/Socialist Action met for the first time as a central committee at the Intensive English School in Star Street near Marble Arch for the start of a two-day conference on Saturday, 22 January 1983. The official launch of Socialist Action took place the following morning[13] and it first appeared on 16 March. The group’s old paper, Socialist Challenge, ceased to exist.[14] The group’s overall revolutionary objective did not change, only the strategy to bring it about, as an internal document in January 1983 made clear: ‘…

Socialist Action believes that it will be impossible to make the transition to socialism without incurring the armed resistance of the ruling class and thereby the necessity for violent self-defence by the working class.'[15] From the outset, Ken Livingstone was clearly an important force within the ‘Bennite current’ for Socialist Action. John Ross and comrades identified two Bennite wings: the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, a left-wing coalition within the Labour Party comprising Chartists from Briefing, and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, CLPD. Socialist Action identified the second wing ‘crystallising around forces such as the Campaign Group of MPs, Livingstone, the left of Labour Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (LCND)… and the constituency left…'[16] Its slogans were now: ‘Deeper into the Labour Party!’, ‘Deeper into the trade unions!’, ‘For a new newspaper!’,[17] ‘Defend socialist policies!’, ‘Stop the witch-hunt!’, ‘Remove the right-wing Labour leaders!'[18]

In September 1983, Socialist Action took the decision to disappear from public view. This meant closing down the Other Bookshop and taking extreme security measures to guarantee invisibility and deniability. Two months after the decision, Socialist Action’s leadership drew up a document entitled The dissolution of the public face’. It said: ‘This is a historical fact – namely that the public face dissolved itself. This requires no public announcement but all bodies of the [Trotskyist] world movement must be informed and act accordingly.'[23] Some members disagreed with the decision; one wrote: ‘The September meeting took a momentous decision. It voted 23 for and one against to formally dissolve our public organisation. The decision was taken on the basis of a false prognosis: that following the Labour Party conference there will be an immediate witch-hunt of our supporters within the mass organisation.'[24]

Although the purge stopped at Militant, no one at Socialist Action was taking any chances. The paranoia was evident in a Socialist Action document marked ‘top secret’, and called ‘Practical implementation of the new security measures in the centre’.[25] The note warned that Socialist Action had to be on its guard against any unexpected visits from the media, and that ‘any undesirable material should be kept out of sight’. In addition the print shop must be just a print shop and the bookshop just a bookshop,’ it added. There had to be checks on anyone entering both buildings. ‘This is important,’ continued the note cryptically, ‘because these areas have outside visitors, although some the most sensitive visitors at present (i.e. GLC) come UPSTAIRS frequently.'[26] (← p. 261)

One big problem was the post office box number used Socialist Action, it was the same box number as for the bookshop, the newspaper and its youth wing, later called Youth Action: P.O. Box 50, London N1 2XP. ‘We cannot continue with sending everything out with the same box number,’ according to the security document. ‘Moreover, the box number is in the name of an organization.’ Comrades were instructed to consider security even when writing memos and other documents: ‘It is possible to write them so they appear to those not in the know that they do not necessarily originate from an organization – i.e. writing in the third person, using more of a commentary style etc… If documents are written with security in mind, there should not be so many problems.'[27] It also meant being extra careful about what was thrown out: ‘We have a real problem in that we have no idea what happens our rubbish when it is taken away by the bin persons… ‘The only solution is to make the rubbish safe before it is takers a way which means we have to get a shredder.’ [28]

A new cleaning rota was instituted; leading figures, in Socialist Action, including John Ross and Redmond O’Neill, took it in turns to clean HQ. [29] Leading members now started using pseudonyms: Redmond O’Neill was ‘Lark’, Jude Woodward was ‘Lee’, while another member, Ann Kane, was ‘Swift’ [30] Alma Singh, who was ‘Chan’ says, ‘The reason was secrecy so as not to let people outside know who was doing what’ [31] After the closure of the bookshop, members met in rooms above pubs in the local Hackney/Islington area, namely, Cedar Room pub in Islington, the Cock Tavern in Mare Street, the Lucas Arms in Grays Inn Road and Tylor’s in Shacklewell Lane near the print shop. The witch-hunters did not come for Socialist Action, but secrecy and security became second nature to the group over the next quarter of a century.

During the mid to late 1980s, the group did successfully ingratiate itself with the Labour Left, For a fee, Socialist Action put its printing press at the disposal of many left-wing groups, including the CLPD and the Socialist Campaign Group for MPs. [32] At one stage, Socialist Action was losing an average of £762 a week and the press was vital for earning extra income. [33] It experienced money anxieties throughout the 1980s. …..

Trotskyist parties always inflate their membership numbers with their sense of self-importance but by the mid 1980s;.it is clear that about 500 people belonged to Socialist Action. This is made obvious in an internal document which stressed the importance of selling 4,000 copies of Socialist Action a week: ‘This means an average of eight per comrade.'[34]

Later, Socialist Action members would be encouraged lo give 10 per cent of their pay to the party.’ [35] Its members acquired a reputation for being intelligent, hard-working and even subservient to powerful left-wing figures, which meant they were often despised by other voices on the far left. Gerry Healy’s News Line was one: ‘This is how they [Socialist Action] see themselves: the chosen few, the brains trust, the-intellectual elite, the bright people with all the smart answers who are just waiting for the poor old working class to catch up. [36]

Certainly, Socialist Action considered Ken Livingstone to |be influential and clearly took time to cultivate him. In a rather convoluted reference to Livingstone’s importance, one paper from John Ross showed that ‘an intelligent reformism of the Livingstone type can incorporate elements of support for the oppressed. Socialist Action of course welcomes such support. But it does not represent intelligent reformism as the answer to Kinnock.’ [37] Livingstone remembers being paid a visit by John Ross shortly after his falling out with the Chartists and the others on the far left over rate capping. ‘He was the first in to say this was a temporary setback,’ remembers Livingstone. Ross grew in importance, particularly after Livingstone became an MP. He had always felt vulnerable dealing with balance sheets, finance and economics,'[38] as Reg Race had observed at the GLC.[39] With a first class economics degree from Oxford, Ross proved to be a valuable teacher for Livingstone, who says; ‘When I became an MP I employed John Ross to teach me economies, basically to be my economics advisor, and he’d turn up three times a week and we’d go through what was happening in the British economy and the world economy. He’d explain the theories behind it. This went on for two years.

And after about 18 months to two years we were asked to do a debate at a fringe meeting about the way forward and we went through it and I knew I was on top of the brief.’ [40] By 1985, according to Atma Singh, a former long-term member of Socialist Action, Livingstone was possibly the most important figure on the Left; the group considered both Arthur Scargill and Tony Benn to be spent forces. ‘They supported Ken Livingstone to make him as powerful as possible,’ says Singh. ‘Socialist Action understood that what they were after was some political power. If they couldn’t see a way of getting political power, they just wanted to be the most powerful; the term they used was [to achieve] “hegemony over the Left”. So they wanted to be the main group to dictate what was going on in the Left.’ [41]

Socialist Action became increasingly powerful on the left of the Labour Party. Members of the group were elected to important positions in key left-wing bodies and campaigns, including CLPD, Labour CND and various student bodies, including its own, Youth Action. Socialist Action stood for many of the same issues as Livingstone: equality regardless of race, gender and class, troops out of Ireland; unilateral disarmament. It was for the miners and the Greenham Common Women, Fidel Castro and so on, and against Kinnock and his witch-hunt and pretty well everything else for which be stood.

Atma Singh says that Socialist Action was ‘instrumental’ in getting Livingstone elected on to the NEC in 1987 and 1988. [42] ….. Wadsworth claims that Ken Livingstone and Socialist Action now colluded to get rid of him because he would not do what they wanted, ‘Socialist Action thought they could impose decisions on me including how we focused on the Stephen Lawrence campaign,’ says Wadsworth. ‘When I refused to go along with that they said, OK we’re going to get rid of you.’

Through late 1993 and early 1994, the ARA deteriorated rapidly. A former Socialist Action member of the ARA insists Wadsworth’s strategy was wrong, both in terms of the Lawrence campaign and towards the BNP by-election victory in the East End: “The correct response was to have a demo in the East End and Marc didn’t want to do that so he was increasingly separating himself out from the most important issues that were going on in racism in order to pursue his own things.’ [58] On 17 March 1994, Livingstone chaired a meeting of the ARA executive. [59] During the four-hour ‘rowdy meeting’ in a House of Commons office, Wadsworth threw a punch at Livingstone. He says: ‘It was at one of these crazy meetings where he was making these rulings and telling me to shut up that I launched at him. I didn’t actually hit him. I hit his hand. I was going to hit him. This had gone on for months and he treated me like a boy sitting next to him.’ [60]

At another meeting, on 30 March 1994, Livingstone and the Socialist Action contingent failed by only one vote to persuade the executive to dismiss Wadsworth on grounds of professional misconduct. [61] The infighting continued for another six months as Livingstone and Socialist Action attempted to wrest control from Wadsworth.

On 23 September 1994, the Anti-Racist Alliance issued the foil towing statement: ‘Ken Livingstone, supported by a faction called Socialist Action and a handful of unprincipled and unrepresentative members of the executive committee, has been waging relentless campaign to sack the national secretary. This behaviour is undemocratic and has led to unnecessary divisions in the ARA which the chair has made even worse by his repealed attacks on national office staff.’ [62] (← p. 268) ‘When they come for you they are incessant and they are like pit bulls,’ Wadsworth says of Socialist Action. ‘It’s just incessant obsessive politicking.’ On 30 September 1994, Livingstone went to the High Court to determine voting rights for the delegates to the ARA’s forthcoming annual meeting and an out-of-court settlement was reached. At the meeting on 15 October 1994, both Livingstone and Wadsworth stepped down; Wadsworth gave way to Kumar Murshid, a future Livingstone mayoral advisor on race but not a member of Socialist Action. Murshid walked away from the job after turning up at the ARA offices to find that Wadsworth had changed the locks. ARA co

llapsed rapidly after unions including the Transport and General Workers Union withdrew support. By February 1995, the National Assembly Against Racism, or NAAR, had been established largely by Socialist Action members, namely Redmond O’Neill, Jude Woodward and Anne Kane. [63]

Former member Atma Singh says that Socialist Action was so used to splits and sectarianism that ‘breaking one organisation and creating a new one is nothing dramatic for them’. [

64] Lee Jasper, who became Livingstone’s senior mayoral policy advisor on equalities, was its first secretary. He had also been one of the few non-Socialist Action opponents of Wadsworth on the ARA. In 2007, the NAAR was one of Britain’s biggest anti-racism groups with several subsidiary organisations, all supported strongly by then-Mayor Livingstone. Members of Socialist Action would continue to work closely with Livingstone throughout the 1990s. But they would come into their own when Livingstone became the first directly-elected mayor of London.

From Martin Bright’s review of Hosken’s book:

When I was first approached about the project I still believed Livingstone was an essentially benign figure. Like many on the left, I had been shocked when he extended the hand of friendship to the radical Egyptian scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an ideologue of the extreme religious right. But I assumed this could be explained by a combination of the Mayor’s ignorance of the politics of the Muslim world and a characteristic desire to shock conventional opinion.

In fact, it was a self-defeating act of political grandstanding that fatally undermined his claims to be a progressive politician. Pictures of the Mayor standing next to a man who has supported female circumcision, the execution of homosexuals and the killing of innocent civilians by suicide bombers will haunt him forever.

The more work I did on the Mayor’s office and its only incumbent, the more I realised there were serious problems with the way the institution was being run. Many of these lay with the institution of Mayor itself, which was designed to be run as a personal fiefdom. But there was more to it than that: Livingstone’s personal style and his tendency to surround himself with cronies from the revolutionary left on six-figure salaries meant that, in many ways, he was the very worst person to leave with such untrammelled power.

Livingstone once told me at a lunch for the City business leaders he has learned to love that he surrounded himself with people he could trust with his life and that Gordon Brown should do the same.

This is an understandable strategy for a politician with as many enemies as Livingstone. But, as Hosken explains in scrupulous detail, many of these people emerged from one tiny Trotskyite splinter group, Socialist Action. The leader of this group, John Ross, was the Mayor’s chief adviser on economics who prepared himself for helping run London by working in Moscow for most of the 1990s. He returned in 2000 to join up with his deputy, Redmond O’Neill, who had been running the faction in his absence. O’Neill now advises the Mayor on transport and Islamic issues. Each is paid more than £100,000 a year. Other SA advisers included Livingstone’s de facto deputy in City Hall, Simon Fletcher, and his race adviser, Atma Singh, who was purged after he objected to the cabal’s dalliances with radical Islam.

As Hosken explains, Singh has since revealed that this deranged group was still planning a ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ for London when Livingstone first came to power in 2000. They believed they could set up a city state, independent from the rest of the country.

Today, Ken Livingstone’s campaign to be elected Mayor of London for 2012 is led by Simon Fletcher. He remains surrounded by Socialist Action adherents and fellow travellers. He still wants to make London into an independent city state controlled directly by himself:

In extraordinary comments, he told the Standard he will use “amazing charm and subtlety” to get New York-style independence for the capital. Mr Livingstone, 66, added: “I would actually declare independence and run the whole city. They can’t even run hospitals in London. Everything government does in London it gets wrong. If you look at the city of New York, the mayor runs the benefits system, some of the prisons even, and the healthcare and schools. “I’ve watched all my life, irrespective of which government… ministers trying to run hospitals from Whitehall. It’s just too big, too complicated. I’m in favour of devolving everything — not just in London. I think you should have strong regions as well.” The former Mayor added: “I would always say, to this government and also the next Labour government of Ed Miliband, devolve more down. I’d like to take over our NHS immediately. I would like to take over a major house-building programme, I’d like to run the benefits system.”