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How the protests of 1968 challenged the established politics of the day

As we approach the end of a year of events marking 50 years since 1968, KEN LIVINGSTONE reflects on the lessons for the struggle for socialism today

IT IS impossible to understand the significance of 1968 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 the welfare state, NHS, housebuilding and full employment. But although this was a big progressive shift in our economy, our culture remained deeply conservative. 

I had no interest in politics as a kid, spending time collecting newts and studying astronomy. 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. That generation from the 1940s changed our culture, not just in music and fashion but also with brilliant new actors. 

As all this was going on the Establishment came under pressure fuelled by the Profumo scandal but also the daring new TV programme That Was The Week That Was, which challenged the rubbish we were normally told in our papers. 

This gave me 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.

I was about to join Labour at the beginning of 1968, but could not bring myself to do it when the government banned Kenyan Asians from seeking refuge here. 

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.”

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 Establishment had defeated or delayed the progressive challenge. 

I then had no doubt that the way to challenge the Establishment 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 when Jeremy Corbyn ran for leader.

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 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 path, two years after joining Labour I was vice-chair of the housing committee on Lambeth Council. 

By 1973 I was a member of the Greater London Council, 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.”

While (much like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour today) we were vilified by the Establishment, 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 GLA we had less power in some areas, but were still able to instigate a series of events, celebrations of diversity and initiatives for equality, including the annual anti-racist festival Boris Johnson then abolished.

Reflecting the legacy of 1968, we again worked closely with peace campaigners against war on Iraq, including of course Corbyn himself.

Today, 50 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.

Corbyn’s democratic socialist programme includes a commitment to equality for all at its core, plus an understanding of the need to tackle climate change and for an anti-war government, as well as support for an alternative economic policy.

The alliance that has come together in support of Corbyn — including the majority of unions, community groups that are at the heart of opposition to austerity and scapegoating, young people who refuse to accept that there is no alternative, and many others — is exactly the kind of alliance that can not only win a Labour government, but also develop the transformative change we need.

And, just as in 1968, we still need to fight together for a better world, even when the odds seem stacked against us. 

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