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Dog whistles and guard dogs

Oscar Reyes on the best course of action for London voters in the mayoral elections

April 18, 2008
4 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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‘I opposed the idea of a directly-elected mayor,’ wrote Ken Livingstone in 1998, because it tends to personalise debate and thus obscure the issues at stake.’ Ten years on, Mayor Livingstone is engaged in a bitter battle with Boris Johnson that comes straight out of Have I Got News For You.

It is a fight that Johnson could win. And while the image of buffoonery can be endearing, his politics are less so: in favour of the war on Iraq, railway privatisation, nuclear power, public schools and staghunting. The left-leaning Compass pressure group labelled Johnson ‘a type of Norman Tebbit in clown’s uniform’. They are right.

Behind the casually racist turn of phrase that has seen Johnson describe black people as ‘picanninies’ lies a more consistent playing of the race card, orchestrated by his campaign strategist Lynton Crosby. Crosby was behind the 2005 Conservative campaign that denigrated immigrants, then asked voters ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’

Thankfully, they weren’t. But this same style of ‘dog-whistle politics’ has been successful elsewhere. The trick is to speak in a code that chimes with racist assumptions, without making ostensibly racist statements. In this case, the Tories are building on a discourse established by the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail’s London stablemate, which has vilified Livingstone for lavishing money on anti-racist groups. Crosby may or may not have orchestrated these attacks, but his campaign message feeds off the racist fantasy that Ken ‘gives all the money to minorities’ just the same. And it is not just Johnson who benefits: come 1 May, there is a strong chance that the BNP could gain seats on the Greater London Authority.

The mud slinging also comes from a neo-con ‘left’ that sees Livingstone’s engagement with Muslim groups as a threat. Martin Bright of the New Statesman came to this position off the back of writing a report on Islamism for the Cameronite think-tank Policy Exchange. Nick Cohen has also taken a break from Iraq war cheerleading to argue that ‘Ken Livingstone is not fit for office’.

These claims are backed up by accounts of Livingstone’s bullying advisers. ‘Vote Ken Livingstone, get Socialist Action,’ as Bright put it. But the real scandal is not that a left- wing mayor has left-wing advisors or that they oppose racism. The problem, as any left or anti-racist activist who has encountered Livingstone’s guard dogs will tell you, is that they have consistently denigrated community struggles, grassroots activism and anything that veers from whatever they deem politically correct or opportune.

Socialist Action does not represent ‘the most successful Trotskyist entryist

operation since Derek Hatton’s Liverpool’, as Bright argues, but the futility of entryism itself. The state is far better at transforming entryists than vice versa – although what remains unchanged, in this case, is a distaste for democracy in line with the worst of left traditions. The problem is exacerbated by the flawed structure of London government. Livingstone once denounced the mayoral system as ‘barmy’ because it concentrates power without accountability. His advisers have set out to prove him right.

The resulting politics are highly contradictory, as was dramatically embodied in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings. Livingstone admirably steered clear of inflammatory rhetoric by referring to it as an attack on all of London’s ‘diverse communities’. Two weeks later, Jean Charles De Menezes was killed by the Metropolitan police, and Livingstone offered unblinking support to the police chief who sanctioned a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy.

On the economy, Livingstone’s positive endorsement of a London ‘living wage’ contrasts favourably with Johnson’s rejection of even the minimum wage. But this has to be set against his extended love- in with the Corporation of London, whose ‘trickle down’ economics have proven so successful that the gleaming towers of London’s finance district back onto some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country.

Despite this, Livingstone continues to project London as a ‘world city’ built

on finance capital. In January, he went to the World Economic Forum to hawk an Olympic Games that will distort development prospects in the east end way beyond 2012. In February, Livingstone attacked the government’s plan to tax millionaire tax-evaders £30,000 a year for fear that it might drive away investment. Such policies have effects beyond London, as the City is a key node of global neoliberalism. Livingstone, like Johnson, supports it.

So whichever way you vote, the mayor always gets in. But sometimes there really is a lesser of two evils, and the electoral system makes this a relatively simple choice. A first preference vote for the Greens’ Sian Berry would send Ken a clear and progressive message. But a second preference for Livingstone remains an important signal that Johnson’s dog- whistle racism has no place in London politics.

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Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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