Progressive London: a front to elect Ken Livingstone?

Yesterday Progressive London held a day-long conference in, appropriately enough, London. The organisation was created by Ken Livingstone following his defeat in the last London Mayor election with the stated aim of building a broad coalition of people who share progressive views and oppose Boris Johnson and his policies. (Alix wrote an excellent post earlier today on the thorny question of quite what progressive means.)

Why did Ken Livingstone found Progressive London?

Ken Livingstone himself has been keen to present the organisation as being neither a Labour front nor a front for a future bid from himself to become Mayor once again, as for example in his interview with The Guardian, timed to coincide with the conference:

The “once and future mayor,” as Livingstone has been known to describe himself, rebuts the suggestion that Progressive London is a five-syllable synonym for the Re-elect Ken campaign and his planned journey back to his natural habitat of City Hall.

The Lib Dems, for one, would not be involved if the Progressive London alliance were just a Ken machine, he says; it is about “common cause”. The next general election will be called before the London mayoral poll in 2012, and he is incredibly keen to ensure David Cameron’s party makes few electoral in-roads.

“The liberal vote really collapsed in south-west London and mainly went to the Tories rather than to me. Those people aren’t going to go Labour but I’m really keen they should vote Liberal Democrat. It’s not going to make it a better city if five Liberals in the south west of London lose their seats at the next [general election]. They have a real interest in winning.”

Neither is it just about the next election. “Here’s a city the whole world looks to and has had a really tremendous decade and you want to continue to make certain that not just Boris but the borough councils and the government is responsive to our agenda. So it’s not just about lobbying Boris. There’s an awful lot that borough councils aren’t doing terribly well, and there’s a lot the government isn’t doing right, like the [Heathrow] third runway.”

Progressive London and Liberal Democrats

The formal Liberal Democrat involvement in Progressive London yesterday involved two MPs and one Assembly member (Susan Kramer, Lembit Opik and Mike Tuffrey). Having three speakers take part in an event is perhaps rather less grand a degree of involvement than implied by the interview, but I think it’s fair to say they, and the paryt more generally, have approached this new organisation with an open mind and a willingness to engage if it turns out to be more than just a ‘bring back Ken’ operation.

So how did yesterday’s conference stack up? All in all, there was plenty of grounds for scepticism. For whilst there were the three Liberal Democrat speakers, of the formal slots given to MPs, MEPs or Assembly members, two-thirds went to those from the Labour Party, and every single session chair who holds public office was a Labour person. Most of the rest were former City Hall staff who worked under Ken Livingstone and of the handful of others, they included people such as Kevin Maguire and Bruce Kent who all pointed to a “Labour plus friends” approach rather than an agenda really looking to reach out to a wider audience.

Seth Reznik, round 2

And then there was the first session of the day which I attended. Described as being about lessons from Barack Obama’s election victory, it had three speakers – the polling guru Bob Worcester, Dawn Butler (a Brent Labour MP) and my new best friend, Seth Reznik of Blue State Digital.

Bob Worcester gave an excellent talk on what the polls tell us about why Obama won, but – and this is most likely a criticism of the organisers rather than of him – he didn’t touch at all really on how Obama managed to build a broad coalition, just the topic which would be of relevance you’d have thought.

Seth Reznik was more impressive than I expected given his previous Guardian piece, though again I thought his comments were a little too full of how wonderful the American are. For example, when someone made the very good point that party activists in the UK seem to expect a greater involvement in their party’s policy making than those in the US, and that this perhaps colours or should colour the use of the internet in each country, he responded with the FISA bill incident. This was a piece of legislation that was extremely unpopular with many Democrat activists, who organised online to lobby Obama when it became clear he was going to vote for it. And how did Obama respond? By posting an online response, but going ahead anyway. Well whoopy do. Politician posts response online saying, “You’re wrong; I’m not changing my mind.”

Yes, the British use the internet too

There is of course nothing new about this in the UK, at least outside of the Labour Party. Responding to online policy debates is something MPs in both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties regularly do, and have been doing for several years. It’s true that it is still very rare in the Labour Party (though that appears to be changing) but again I was left with the impression that (a) Seth Reznik was rather underrating what people have already been doing in the UK, and (b) that it was a talk really aimed at the Labour Party, not a broader audience.

Dawn Butler, on the other hand, left me in doubt at all as her opening words were “I want to talk about Labour and how we get Labour re-elected”. Yes, well. And that didn’t even at any point become “and one of the ways is to build a broader coalition across parties…” (Though, to be fair, given the mutterings I heard from Labour members sat near me she did perhaps unite us across party lines in our views of the overall quality of her speech.)

What does Livingstone need to do to make Progressive London work?

In other words, this really was a Labour Party fringe meeting, and much of the rest of the day was the same. An honourable exception for the excellent session on blogging (even if the threatened water fight didn’t materialise) and London politics and to Labour GLA member Len Duvall, but overall the verdict very much has to be: if you really want to convince people that this isn’t just a vehicle for yourself Ken and that a broad movements mean something more than saying “Please, former Labour Party members, come back and join us”, you need to do rather better than yesterday.

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  • The alternative, Mark, is to steer well clear of Labour front organisations. We only give them credibility by attending. Labour is a broken force, and the more broken they become, the better for Liberal values.

    Ken L is trying to build a new coalition for himself around opposition to the Tories. We do not need to help him. Rather, we should be leading the opposition to both the Tories in London and Labour in central government, and invite disillusioned Labourites to come over to us.

  • Good grief, you must be young if you think Leninspart does anything that will not directly and exclusively benefit him and him alone.

    And how could you diss Ms Butler, who Obama thinks is so indescribably wonderful?

  • David Heigham 26th Jan '09 - 12:13pm

    If Ken Livingstone wants to lead a London Progrssives grouping in the style of the pre-Labour Progressives v. Moderates mould of London politics, he will have to go back to being an independent. Any chance he had of ‘re-capturing’ Labour form New Labour has surely faded forever; and he has to recognise that he has no political future within Labour.

  • The involvement of Lib Dems in Ken’s Progressive London is perplexing to voters in all manner of ways.

    I am but a poor ignorant soul but I thought LDs were opposed to the Thames Gateway Bridge but as part of PL they now apparently support it.

    I also thought that LDs were opposed to the policy of build what you like where you like as long as it is at least thirty stories high and the site ownership is is vested in an offshore single purpose vehicle ensuring that no UK tax is paid on the profits. Apparently I was wrong about that as well.

  • Letters From A Tory says Ken is a “complete irrelevance”. This is wishful thinking. Anyone who can pull together the Greens, Respect, Lib Dems, bloggers, trade unions and the left of the Labour Party as well as two cabinet ministers is hardly irrelevant.

    Lucia’s comment is similarly inane.

    The Tories will smear Ken no matter what he does because they fear him and the coalition he is able to build.

    Whether this is part of an election campaign isn’t the point. Any progressive person should support an campaign to bring together broad forces to stand up to Tory reaction and elitism.

  • Bill seems to have missed the point of the conference.

    I guess Bill wasn’t there so he would not have heard Mike Tuffrey tell the audience that the way to build a progressive London is not to assume that all ‘progressive’ forces in London necessarily need agree on all the same things, or how change might be brought about. Mike also went on about how progressive politics was more about a smaller government, having more trust in people, rather than the ever-expanding empire that Mr Livingstone seemed to develop at City Hall.

    The Thames Gateway Bridge is the classic example of that. Liberal Democrats in London have always opposed the bridge, and always will. Why? Because it is quite clear that local people didn’t want the bridge, nor would it deliver the economic benefit that Transport for London claimed.

    Politics thrives on dialogues and discussion and just because you may not agree with one particular policy or theory, isn’t an excuse to stop all contact with the opposition.

    After all Boris Johnson was only too happy last week to adopt the Liberal Democrat plan to extend half price bus travel in London to people in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance. And where did Boris get that idea? From a debate where Mike Tuffrey suggested he do exactly that in November of last year.

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