Ken Livingstone 1


In a warehouse on the Mitcham Industrial Estate – a fittingly mundane location for the final GLC advert – Ray Brooks (described by Ken Livingstone as “the best spiv in the business” for his performance as Robby Box in Big Deal) leans over, examines the tray of cream cakes provided for himself and Livingstone, and in the softly seductive voice used for every other advert on TV, concludes: “Ah, now there seems to have been some erosion of the cake position… Not on your side of the tray, no Ken. But then you’re a bit sly like that. You’d probably nip over the top and take the biggest cake from my side.”

“Yes,” laughs Livingstone. “I probably would.”

Watching him on the set, ‘Red Ken’ (as you really feel obliged to call him – affectionately or otherwise) has the air of someone who is almost professionally weary: a man who’s just been asked to run up a Down escalator, again.

As ‘Abolition Day’ gets closer, the load of press and public appearances facing Ken Livingstone is getting larger, whilst the time to preserve his legacy (by ensuring the GLC’s more radical work is sustained) gets shorter.

Livingstone has already spent the morning doing phone-ins and afternoon lifting boxes for the cameras, doing his trademark raised eyebrow for the close-up as he does. Nevertheless he takes time to see his interrogator from BLITZ is fed and driven home. He sits me on the throne of County Hall and wonders, with genuine interest, what made me want to be a journalist. His driver later makes a point of telling me he always takes the trouble.

His face – like a blind puppy’s – gives him the look of a cartoon villain who suddenly pulls a mask off. But he never does. A political enigma, a clever outsider, Livingstone is neither the Mr. Nasty nor Mr. Nice Guy he’s made out to be. He has more fun playing the two off against each other. He is amenable, bland, always calm.

“Sometimes I feel very tempted to release my emotions,” he drawls, in that famous drone. “But if I did it on television, I know I would never recover from it. If I told them what I thought of them and their sanctimonious hypocrisy…”

The dry ruthlessness in that final phrase, without his usual smarmy charm or friendly cunning, makes you long for that time when Ken Livingstone’s placidity snaps.

Although he uses phrases that real people don’t but politicians and media players do (like “at the end of the day” or “people throughout the length and breadth of the country”), Ken’s speech is always impressively measured and persuasive. Besides his supreme articulacy, a crocodile smile and a brilliant confidence (which he says “wasn’t there when I was 20”), his most notable trait is his disarming honesty. And that, for a politician or otherwise, is very charming.

Livingstone tells Ray Brooks he had seen him in The Knack (part of Channel 4’s recent Films of the Sixties series), but doesn’t add any kind of compliment. That is not the point of mentioning it.

“The thing about those films…” he chortles delightedly. “Is that the Labour Party still sees society in exactly the same way.”

With the sort of outspoken honesty and sly stirring that unnerves both his opponents and his own party, later he tells me that no politician – not even himself – should be trusted. He admits that he “gets great satisfaction from manipulating things”, says Shirley Williams is “offensive”, and complains that Militant are “reactionary, racist and make revolution boring.” “What sustains me? I believe what I’m doing is right, whilst at the same time acknowledging that I might be wrong.”

“The abolition of the GLC,” he states in that dry drone of cold reason, “will probably mean the long term memory of it will be of this brief, shining, moment of Socialism that was unfairly snuffed out.”

Again, the timing of his pause is brilliant as he adds:

“If they’d left it, everything would’ve gone wrong and everyone would’ve said ‘What a load of old crap that was’.”

Nothing is artificial.

“I haven’t changed at all,” he says proudly.

Kenneth Robert Livingstone was born in Streatham, appropriately opposite the police station, in 1945, just before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His parents, a Scottish merchant seaman and an acrobatic dancer, met at a show where his mother Ethel was performing alongside an illusionist who cut people in half. A sickly child, Baby Ken was so ugly, Ethel said later she used “to put a blanket over his head when we went out and tell people not to disturb him.”

His aptitude for show business (as well as innumerable appearances on Question Time, for a while he co-presented After Midnight with Janet Street-Porter) and his aptitude for controlling  his press image clearly comes from his mother.

“From my father? I inherited my ability not to lose my temper. My ability to deceive and manipulate people comes from my grandmother.”

It was a stable, comfortable, upbringing (“my parents were very much in love”), but although his teacher reported that he kept the whole class amused with his tricks and singing on his first day at school, he admits: “I was always an outsider yes, even when I grew older. In five years at the GLC I’ve had three evenings when I’ve gone to the other GLC members’ houses for a meal. I don’t want my private life to be absorbed by politics as well.”

As a boy he became interested in reptiles and amphibians, collecting snakes and salamanders, baby alligators and three-foot monitors. The stories of him taking his bullfrogs for walks on his shoulders and the time he rescued a baby ostrich from a cooking pot on a hiking holiday and carried it one thousand miles, becoming ill through pre-chewing its food himself, later helped Fleet Street’s change from portraying him as a Commie Monster to appealing eccentric.

He failed his 11-plus and left school with just four ‘O’ levels but qualified as a teacher before working in a cancer research unit. Motivated by a local repatriation debate, he joined the Labour Party when he was 23 and found himself swiftly rising through the ranks, largely because of local apathy and disorganization and his own enthusiastic idealism and dedication. After three years he became a Labour councillor for Lambeth and in 1981 led Labour to victory in the GLC elections, confirming his reputation for skillful, cunning, organization of alliances and purges with the Fares Fair debates and a long de-selection battle for the Brent East Constituency (now finally secured), where the heady combination of betrayals and back-stabbing allegations of corruption and calculated power-switching resembled a heady mixture of Animal Farm and Dallas.

Once in power, Livingstone was catapulted into the national limelight with a series of brilliantly provocative, radically effective, policies and comments that occasionally blurred some of the GLC’s most important initiatives (such as their showcase 32% Fares cut) but which at the same time set about making politics relevant, exciting, and even vaguely subversive.

He rejected his invitation to the Royal Wedding “bean-feast” and spent his day releasing black balloons in support of the H-Block Hunger Strikers. He spoke of some of the Royal Family being “quite revolting characters” and made London a Nuclear Free Zone. He declared “Everyone is bi-sexual”, condemned Michael Foot’s support for the Falklands campaign, and told reporters he thought Transport Secretary Norman Fowler wanted him for his body. When he then said that the British had treated the Irish worse than Hitler had the Jews or the Boers had the Blacks, and stated that the IRA weren’t criminals or lunatics, he won the accolade of becoming The Sun’s ‘Most Odious Man In Britain’. The Daily Mail demanded that he be charged with sedition, he was denounced in the Commons, attacked in the streets, and turned on by his own party – all from the comfort of his £20-a-week bedsit.

Somehow he survived unscathed.

“Exciting times,” he says now, sounding decidedly unexcited. “But I don’t miss them, no.”

Livingstone says that accusing him of provoking Thatcher into abolishing the GLC is “like accusing a Jew in 1939 of being responsible for Hitler. You can’t blame an innocent child for the activities of the child molester. I was elected. It is then up to me to say things I believe are right. I can then be elected out. It is not up to a very disturbed, autocratic, sinister, mind to obliterate opposition by cancelling elections. I was prepared to give up being Leader of the GLC if it meant not saying things I believe to be true about Ireland, the police, and discrimination in London.”

Ultimately of course Thatcher, Denning, and The Sun actively assisted him.

“At every key stage in my political career, my opponents have advanced my interests by behaving stupidly. I think Sir David English of the Mail actually believed there’d be Russian troops on the streets of London if something wasn’t done. We would never have achieved the notoriety or support we did if they’d ignored us. Now they need new monsters. If someone said Ken Livingstone sleeps with camels, no one in Brent East would believe them. Or in Brent East, it would probably be acceptable.”

His problem now, I suggest, is that he’s become embarrassingly trendy. From NME readers to old grannies, anyone who is anti-Tory loves Red Ken. He’s been reduced to cosy harmlessness.

“I was always nice,” he oozes. “I’m not trendy though. I can assure you that if I get anywhere near achieving power, you’ll find an awful lot of people who think I’m very harmful. The Sun did this editorial saying that what’s wrong with Britain is that we think people like Livingstone are acceptable. This is progress ! If I’m acceptable today, Bernie Grant will be acceptable tomorrow.”

Given the constraints and attacks on the GLC, Livingstone feels they’ve achieved a great deal, with the main achievement being the reduction of prejudice against blacks, gays and lesbians in London.

“In the long term young people who’ve seen what the GLC was and who thought it was exciting and right will come through. Ideas touch people. You can’t abolish ideas.”

What have you learnt ?

“The viciousness of our opponents, the ruthlessness of the Right. I’ve learnt that you must eliminate opposition more decisively. We should’ve done what Roy Hattersley does: not bother to have an open access policy to the press; just concentrate on radio and television. Thatcher ? Thatcher surprised me only in that she was so stupid to spend two and a half years dealing with the GLC. We’ve saved a lot of the Welfare State by absorbing so much of her time.”

With the Left’s allegations of re-alignment and the old charges of opportunism, carpet-bagging, and careerism, would he admit he’s learnt to believe in the means to an end ?  In compromise ?

“I’ve always believed in compromise. A successful politician has to be an opportunist. I couldn’t have become leader if I hadn’t. I’ll accept half a loaf it it’s the best I can get. I’ll wear any compromise that allows me to survive or to move in the right direction. ‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’ wasn’t a cop-out no, although I agree the idea of these individuals making this anarchistic protest was a glorious idea, yes. How could I be a carpet-bagger when I deliberately took Paddington because it was a marginal seat?”

As he points out, he still supports nationalizing the banks, pulling out of Ireland, getting rid of US bases, and the introduction of black sections in the Labour Party.

“If I haven’t been house-trained by now, I’m not going to be at this stage, am I ? The Left has turned viciously in on itself and is looking for traitors. I’m interested in working with Kinnock because he’s the only leader we’ve got. He has tremendous potential to be a brilliant Prime Minister, or equally to be a disaster. I’ve said publicly that his handling of the Miners Strike was appalling.”

And what about Militant ?

“I’d vote against expelling Militant. My objection to Derek Hatton is that he’s been Deputy Leader of Liverpool Council for three years and there are no more black people working for that council now than there were three years ago. In a city which is 8% black, there are 1% black workers. That is evidence of systematic racism. Militant are quite reactionary. They don’t tackle racism and sexism. They don’t challenge Britain’s imperial role in Ireland. They make revolution boring, frankly. Kinnock should be exposing their conservatism.”

How did he feel when the Unionists brought the Dunlop orphans to County Hall ? Did he feel that he’d hurt them – by saying the people who’d blown up their fathers weren’t criminals ?

“No I wasn’t prepared to use kids like that, it was sick. I didn’t talk to them about politics. They hadn’t heard what I’d said. We bundled them off to a toyshop. It’s not my job to cushion people from what I believe to be true. I couldn’t distinguish between the agony those kids must feel for their dead mothers and the agony of the mother of Thomas McElwee, who died on Hunger Strike. That’s the whole tragedy of Ireland, so many people locked into this historical trap, being torn to pieces… Northern Ireland is a completely different part of the planet to Britain, really.”

When he was with Gerry Adams, did he feel rather insignificant, that Adams’ life was Real Politics ?

“It’s a different form of politics. If I’d been brought up in Belfast I’d probably be in Sinn Fein. If he’d been brought up in London he’d probably be in the GLC.”

And riding elephants ? Presenting TV shows with Janet Street-Porter ?

“Yes,” he says, ignoring the insult.

Can we trust him ?

“No. You can’t trust any politician. They’re only human. I don’t trust myself. If you give people massive power, they make mistakes. That’s one of my weaknesses. I give too many people a second chance. And I like to enjoy myself too much.”

Why should people vote for him ?

“Because I’ve got blue eyes and an engaging smile,” he purrs sarcastically. “People should vote for me if they agree with what I say. If they want to give people control over their own daily lives and break up the concentration of power… The problem with the British Ruling Class is that they’re so bloody awful at the job. Parliament is a conspiracy. It’s a Gentlemen’s club where you sit around getting zonked out of your mind. Most of them are overwhelmingly mediocre too. In my view, you should spend as little time as possible there. Get round the country instead… Britain is all style and no substance. Look at the British Empire. The biggest, most wonderful, con job of all time !”

Will he be as good an MP as Skinner ? He doesn’t respect or talk to any Tories.

“Skinner is wonderful for the way he uses Parliament without absorbing their rules. I respect Tories like George Tremlett at the GLC who say what they think. I respect and fear Tebbit. He actually does believe in all this. He doesn’t flummox around pretending he’s nice. I’m generally very suspicious of any politicians who claim to be patriotic, on God’s side, or who have higher moral values than the rest of us. I don’t trust politicians who are simply interested in their own power.”

The first speakers who Livingstone admired were Kennedy and Harold Wilson, both of whom soon disillusioned him. He says now he has no political heroes. He is perhaps the first left-winger to reverse Tony Benn’s much-followed Policy over Personality creed. He has understood and exploited advertising as successfully as Thatcher has.

“The world is a communicating world. It’s show business and advertising, yes. Lenin had to know how to write good speeches and pamphlets. Today, he’d have to know how to use advertising. If you’re out of time with the mechanics of power you’ll become irrelevant. The thing I enjoy most is communicating, explaining what we’re doing. The people on Kilburn High Road who say they support what you’re doing are much more important than the press or even the party.”

Is politics the most important thing in (his) life ?

“Oh totally. It’s what I’ve dedicated my life to doing. However trivial it becomes, politics determines who lives and who dies. It’s life and death.”

What about the cost to his life ? Was it why his marriage broke up ?

“No. People either grow apart or they grow together. As marriages go it was probably better than most. I can keep a chunk of my life private. The media aren’t interested at the moment.”

Given the remarkable apathy towards politics today, weren’t the riots the best thing to happen to this country for a long time ? A flicker of defiance, of caring, or reaction…

“No, the riots were an expression of despair, not a good thing. Rioting under this sort of Government doesn’t achieve social change. They play into the hands of reactionary elements like Sir Kenneth Newman who trundles along explaining why he needs Plastic Bullets or CS Gas. Next time he’ll be explaining why the Metropolitan Police needs tactical nuclear weapons to take out Brixton… If there is going to be political violence in this country it will come from the Right, or the military or the police. That doesn’t put me in a dead end, no, it just means that if the Left wish to see political change it will have to come through persuasion, winning hearts and minds and elections. There is no way the Left can take power unconstitutionally in Britain, not with a well-armed, disciplined Army and Police force. We need to win commitment from at least fifteen million people, that’s all.”

As we arrive back at County Hall, the political Bonsai world that Ken Livingstone has clearly grown out of, I ask him what he would say if he had one minute to address the nation before the nation’s Television and Radio was closed down. Would he preach revolt then?

“There are two quotes which I always felt encapsulated what I think. One is from a contemporary of Christ’s – a Rabbi – who said: ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ And the other is Trotsky: ‘To make the individual sacred, we must destroy the society which crucifies it.’ The only thing I say about me is: ‘What you see is what you get.’”