The decision to readmit London Mayor Ken Livingstone back into the Labour Party has came as no surprise to anybody. For months the spin doctors had been hard at work preparing the ground, silencing the doubters and generally ensuring that the readmission would go smoothly. On the day Labour's ruling body, the NEC, calmly met and after some discussion did what their master bid, like the Roman Senates of old, and pushed through the re-admission. Yet the rules are clear - Ken had another year to go before he could be reconsidered for reinstatement of his party membership. More to the point he was someone who had been soundly rubbished by the very people at the top of the party who were now seeking to bring him back - not least by Mr no-reverse-gear himself, Tony Blair.
Of course this decisions rights a wrong which was committed four years ago. In the lead up to the first election for London Mayor, Ken Livingstone was the clear choice of the London Labour movement to be Labour's candidate. Yet the selection process was rigged by the Blairites in the party machine to keep him out and stick someone else in. As a result Livingstone stood as an independent and gained the support of most of the party rank and file who in effect treated him as the de-facto Labour candidate, winning the election by a clear majority. The actual Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, did very badly despite his high profile as a former government minister.
Four years down the road with the next election for London Mayor due in June, things have been looking worse for Labour not better. All the polls have been predicting that Labour's candidate this time, Nicky Gavron, would have done even worse than Dobson. Things have been looking equally bad for Labour's slate in the elections for the London assembly. This prediction was not only a reflection of Livingstone's popularity as favourite to be re-elected, it was also a direct consequence of the declining popularity of the New Labour government and Blair himself.
Labour lost loads of seats in the last set of council elections in London and more recently had a disastrous result in the Brent East parliamentary by-election, losing to the Lib-Dems. Opposition to the war in Iraq, to student fees, to council tax rises, to ongoing privatisation, to PPP and the Underground, foundation hospitals, etc. etc. All this has eroded Labour's core support both in the capital and elsewhere. The old mantra about Blair being a winner has well and truly fallen from grace.
Now with Blair under attack from all sides, like Custer at Little Big Horn, the prospect of another bad result come the London Assembly and Mayoral elections in June (not forgetting the European ones taking place at the same time) has become a problem he could do without. So what better to shore up the Labour turnout than by bringing Livingstone back into the fold. Hence the U-turn. The original selected candidate has 'decided' to withdraw and the members are now voting on whether Livingstone should be the new candidate for Labour - no one else is on the ballot paper.
All party members should welcome Livingstone's readmission to the party. Indeed all those socialists who have been expelled from the party over the last period should be allowed back, including George Galloway who was thrown out on the flimsiest of excuses, a travesty of justice. This should ensure that come the elections in June party members are not boycotting the official Labour campaign as they did last time. But we should be clear. Even with 'Red Ken' back in the driving seat, many in the party rank and file may still not be sufficiently enthused, given the government's unpopularity - not least among party members themselves - to actually go out and campaign. Many voters may still not go and vote Labour, or possibly just vote for Livingstone, but not for Labour in the other elections.
Much will depend on the actual programme Labour fights the election on in London. Much was made about Livingstone having to declare his loyalty to the election programme without anyone outlining what that programme should be. The London Labour Party at its last regional conference at the end of 2002 voted through a whole series of left wing resolutions. Are we going to have a programme based on these or something foisted on us from above? The process used to draw up Labour's programme for London must reflect socialist ideas, rooted in the struggle of working people, if there is to be any real hope of reversing the electoral decline we have seen over the last few years. Simply just relying on Good Old Ken to do the trick in getting the votes in will not be enough. And what is true for London is equally true for the rest of the country. A third Labour victory at the next general election is no longer the certainty many once though it was. Only through a socialist programme alongside a fighting leadership, rather than the pro-big business bunch we have at present, can a Labour victory be assured and the hopes of the Tories and the rest be ground to dust.