55 Years On, We Still Need the Spirit of May 1968
AS this is my last regular column before May Day 2023, I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on the significance of the 55th anniversary of May 1968, and what lessons and inspiration we can draw from that historic time for the left today.
It is impossible to fully grasp 1968’s significance without knowing about the decades before.
I was born in 1945 just as Labour came to power and gave my generation the best life in British history, with massive council-house programmes, the welfare state, our beloved NHS and jobs for all.
But although this was a big progressive shift in our economy, our culture remained so deeply conservative it is hard to imagine today.
As a youngster, I had no interest in politics. When I left school I tried to get a job at London Zoo but they had no vacancies, so I became a technician at the Royal Marsden’s cancer research unit.
My parents had always been working-class Tories but now I was surrounded by a dozen other technicians, all of whom were working-class Labour. I started work in 1962, just as a new generation of pop music burst into being, changing our culture for good, and we also saw the sensational new TV programme That Was The Week That Was, which challenged the rubbish we were normally told by the Tory Establishment in the press.
This all sparked an interest in politics, and the following year Harold Wilson became Labour leader, promising change with the “white heat of technology.”
Although it seemed Wilson and Lyndon B Johnson would lead us into a better world, both failed abysmally, with Wilson leading us into economic pain by keeping an overvalued pound and Johnson escalating a war on Vietnam which would kill over three million.
My generation had been changing culture — but as 1968 dawned, we began to challenge the politics of the day.
In January, a massive assault by the Vietnamese against the US and its puppet regime transformed the war, and globally we saw mass demonstrations.
For the first time in my life I found myself on demonstrations, which around the world were chanting: “London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, we will fight, we will win.”
Here in Britain, Tariq Ali and other student protesters became household names overnight and faced off with the police outside the US embassy.
At this point, for many it looked as though we were on the verge of global revolution, but by the end of the year Richard Nixon was president and elsewhere the ruling class had partially defeated or delayed the socialist challenge, including in France where students, workers and others had led an amazing movement for social change.
I then had no doubt that the way to make change was by joining Labour and working with other progressives.
I would later describe this as the only known case of a rat joining a sinking ship, but fortunately, as I was the only person to join locally in the previous 12 months, as hundreds had dropped out in despair at Wilson’s disappointing government, within just a few weeks I had been put on every committee.
Although I had been the only person to join, by 1970 a wave of others surged back into Labour seeking change, much as would happen again with “Bennism” and again more recently when Jeremy Corbyn ran for leader in 2015.
I, like many others who had participated in the struggles that came together in 1968, would take its key points and lessons into the following decades.
These included fighting with the oppressed and those struggling for equality, the importance of internationalism, and the need to build alliances and reject the “divide and rule” tactics of the Establishment.
Both the “Bennite” movement and the struggles that accompanied it, including the miners’ strike and the fight of councils such as the Greater London Council (GLC), not only involved many people who had been politically awoken in 1968 but also represented, in concrete ways, these key principles.
Groups such as Women Against Pit Closures and Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners showed solidarity could be built between all those struggling for justice.
At the same time, Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn, myself and others backed the right of black people to organise themselves in Labour through Black Sections, something that before the struggles of 1968 would have been unimaginable.
In terms of my own political life, by 1973 I was a member of the GLC, and was starting to develop the ideas and alliances that would enable me to lead the GLC and later be mayor of London.
In both those administrations, the lasting effect of the politics and movements that sprung to the forefront in 1968 could be seen.
Describing our approach at the GLC to the writer Tariq Ali at the time, I said: “I am in favour of a coalition. I don’t believe that society can be transformed solely by the male, white working class.
“But the coalition we need is one which includes skilled and unskilled workers, unemployed, young and old, women, black people, as well as the sexually oppressed minorities.
“A socialist political party must act broadly for and with all the oppressed in society. This means us changing… Labour needs to listen to new voices and then change itself.”
Of course, the GLC was vilified by the Establishment, with the Sun famously writing: “This morning the Sun presents the most odious man in Britain. Take a bow, Mr Livingstone, socialist leader of the Greater London Council.”
But we faced this down, and I am proud that the GLC pioneered equality and inclusion, and started to mainstream ideas that had come to prominence in 1968 but hadn’t yet become commonplace in Labour, let alone society.
We weren’t ashamed to support lesbian and gay groups, feminist and women’s movements, disabled people, black and BAME organisations, and others. We didn’t tell those oppressed groups to “wait for socialism” for equality, but instead threw our resources and weight behind their struggles.
We also understood that the struggle for socialism was intrinsically linked to that for peace.
Later at the Greater London Authority we had less power in some areas, but were still able to instigate a series of events, celebrations of diversity and initiatives for equality.
And, again reflecting the legacy of 1968, we again worked closely with peace campaigners against the war on Iraq.
In May 2023, 55 years on from 1968, those who fought on the streets can be proud of the advances that have been won but also know there is a lot more to be done.
Just as in 1968, we still need to fight together for a better world, even when the odds seem stacked against us.
From being honest about the need for radical action to tackle the climate emergency, to standing up against the horrendous Tory war on refugees to backing the striking NHS workers demonised by the Tories, it is through coming together in solidarity we can win a fairer future for all.
Ken Livingstone served as the Leader of the Greater London Council from 1981 until the council was abolished in 1986, and as Mayor of London from the creation of the office in 2000 until 2008.