Article

Ken Livingstone

THE KEN CONSPIRACY

Smiling slyly, it doesn’t take long before Ken Livingstone is casually confirming that everything the Labour Party has been saying about him is true.

Portrayed by the Party hierarchy as untrustworthy, self-centered and, above all, an incorrigible mischief-maker, he seems to take considerable delight in blithely deriding even those colleagues in the government that he likes.
“Mad Frankie Dobson”, “Glenda Jackson – the cabbie’s pin-up”, and even “Saint Mo” Mowlam all get a mention.
“She destabilises the Unionists just by being touchy-feely !” he marvels, like a connoisseur of such subversion. “She goes and throws her arms round Ian Paisley and he freezes rigid with horror !”

Sitting in one of the ‘corridors of power’ outside Committee Room 11, in two hours of conversation he seems to enjoy himself immensely this way, seemingly oblivious to the wisdom of showing more tact given that he has spent the past year and a half campaigning (or claiming to be campaigning) to become the party’s official candidate for Mayor of London.

It is also Budget Day in the House of Commons – traditionally a time for party unity, for backing the Chancellor, and (theoretically) an opportunity for building bridges.
“Gordon Brown’s real name is not Prudence but caution – caution elevated to the point of disease,” he purrs, with relish.

He decries the Chancellor’s mantra for that day’s budget
– Family, Enterprise and Work – as reminiscent of Orwell’s ‘1984’. Then, evidently deciding this is too mild, he adds that “it sounds like something you see over a Nazi death camp ! ”

It’s all ostensibly good-humoured of course, but reminds you he has frequently described the House of Commons as “dire… a dreadful institution”, and reinforces the impression that Ken Livingstone does not strike you as someone who remotely belongs here.

We are meeting of course, to talk about Ken’s campaign to be Mayor of London, which the following evening was stepping up a gear with a benefit show at the Hackney Empire hosted by Jo Brand and Billy Bragg.

The campaign has been in the strange position of escalating in direct parallel to the setbacks it has suffered virtually simultaneously. Increasingly, the Labour Party has maneuvered to counter-act his growing support among the general public, seemingly aiming to snuff out his chances before the public have the chance to vote for him, even hinting at altering the rules of the race to stop him. Millbank’s efforts to do this have been so brazen and so concerted, one journalist at The Daily Telegraph summed up his chances of even appearing on the initial list of prospective Labour Party candidates with the concise appraisal: “Zero”.

Among other journalists, politicians and interested observers, this view is not just the consensus but unanimous.

The only person who does not seem to think so is Ken, whose demeanour and optimism remain supremely, suspiciously, cheerful.
“I think we’re going to win,” he explains simply.

His confidence is unshakeable, intriguingly so because it seems so mis-placed, but then more than a few journalists have come away from interviewing him and ended up resorting to describing as “an enigma”.

Livingstone has always prided himself on his ability to keep his emotions to himself and his face makes him hard to read – like someone wearing a Ken Livingstone mask.

He is implacable, bland, almost still. His slanting, slightly weary-looking eyes are sage, patient and inscrutable, adding to the comparison to one of his beloved reptiles, like a turtle.

“I’m working on the assumption that I’m gonna be the Labour candidate,” he says repeatedly, like some sort of karmic mantra, and it is impossible to tell if he is serious.

I tell him repeatedly that his argument is ridiculous, but he remains unfazed, looks at me dull and poker-faced, before breaking into one of those sly smiles you would trust about as much as a crocodile’s.
“I genuinely don’t think Tony Blair’s made up his mind,” he muses, calmly, looking out over the Westminster ramparts like a potential Guy Fawkes.

“It may float into his consciousness as he lies in the bath in the morning, and he thinks, “I wonder what good old Ken’s up to these days… I bet Tony’s thinking: ‘will I be able to get along to the Hackney Empire benefit on Wednesday night…”

He seems absolutely relaxed, like a man secretly holding all the aces. The crafty chuckle he gives convinces me that either he knows something we don’t. Or that Ken Livingstone is up to something.

Up until now, Ken Livingstone’s campaign has, ostensibly, been totally open.

Having originally said that he did not want to be a candidate, he has gradually relented to the momentum created by being ahead in virtually every opinion poll, and has become more and more interested in running.

Last June, when the National Labour Party Conference voted that anyone nominated by ten constituencies would automatically go on to the party’s list of candidates, Ken Livingstone’s name looked virtually certain to be one of the names on the ballot sent to the 69, 000 London Labour Party members voting. Since November, when the London Board proposed an alternative procedure, to set up a vetting panel to veto candidates instead, he has been campaigning on the platform of Ken’s Right To Stand and insisting that this was all he wanted: to one of the names on the Labour ballot.

So the lines were drawn. The impasse has been viewed as a power struggle between the centre and the left; Ken’s old-fashioned Socialist principles versus Tony Blair’s New Labour opportunism; a battle between the maverick outsider and the party machine.

But you could also see it in more personal terms: a battle of wits, a game of bluff, a head-to-head test of nerves between two maestros of public relations, two grand-masters of charm. Politics as poker.

Livingstone’s gamble has been that Tony Blair will not dare to fly in the face of public demand/rank-and-file support, and veto him.

While Blair has been following his hunch that if he does block him (as seems virtually certain), Livingstone will not leave the Labour Party and stand as an Independent, possibly going on to win as a result of the support the veto has generated.

In recent months the Millbank machine has clearly been trying to bully Livingstone into folding, even going so far as threatening to disqualify him even he does get on the list and even win the Labour nomination (by dint of the expenses his campaign has already run up).

Stories quoting Labour sources supporting this possibility have appeared in the liberal broadsheets and the Murdoch press has seemingly been deployed to back up the attack.
“The Times did an editorial saying it was wholly acceptable if Tony Blair uses the methods of Stalin to destroy Lenin,” Ken smiles, again with unnerving satisfaction. “I liked that.”

In response, Livingstone has simply raised the stakes, publicly denouncing his opponents tactics and promoting his own hand through a combination of high-profile benefit gigs, public rallies and advertisements aimed at raising money for Ken’s Right To Stand. He has also cunningly used the third player in the game – the Tories’ candidate, Jeffrey Archer, supposedly his adversary – as his bogey-man, his joker – daring Blair to risk rejecting Livingstone in favour of a weaker candidate, and thus lose the election to Archer.

The consensus has been that Livingstone’s assumption has not worked out though, because Blair will take his chances on surviving the damage a row over vetoing Livingstone would bring him in the short-term, rather than watch him gain a high-profile platform with which to embarrass his government by campaigning for radical policy changes on welfare reform and the economy.

Either way, the odds seem stacked against Livingstone, which begs the question: why is he bothering ? Anyone else, and you would say he was sacrificing himself as a stalking horse, stirring things up to force Blair into adopting a milder centre-left candidate. But as his recent newspaper ads (a huge picture of his friendly face) suggest, Livingstone is surely too ego-centric and too much of a loner to pave the way only for someone else to take the glory. At the same time, he is surely not wasting time, effort and money just to be a thorn in the party’s side and is clearly too canny a campaigner to run a race he cannot win.

Livingstone has surely judged correctly that Blair will not risk letting him on to the official list of candidates in case he wins the actual party nomination.

This risk is simply too great – even though Blair could probably persuade party members to toe the party line and vote for a more Blairite candidate, as he did with Rhodri Morgan in Wales.

But what if being vetoed from the official list is actually what Ken Livingstone wants ? What if the campaign for Ken’s Right To Stand was a bluff, a trap – one that would diminish his chances of winning support within the party, but boost his popularity with a much bigger electorate, one that would, in fact, be able to back him in an election he could actually win: with the general public ?

If he was allowed on to the Labour party’s list of course, only members of the London Labour party will be able to vote for him. But the general public could vote for him if he was forced out.

A Blair veto would not only enhance his reputation as someone prepared to stand up to the party machine, it would seal his position as a symbol for all the discontent Blair had created over the last two years, a focus for all the dissent over the various broken election promises and his tight control over the party.

Already ahead in the polls, it could be that Livingstone has cunningly calculated that a Blair veto would create exactly what Thatcher’s abolition of the GLC achieved for him: a cause celebre behind which all manner of voters would then unify – provided of course that they ever got the chance.

If this theory were true, it would mean Ken Livingstone was canvassing for votes not from within the Labour party but from the general public. It would mean that he was already campaigning. As an independent.

Livingstone’s reaction to, what is admittedly, a fairly outlandish theory, is amazed amusement – but then he could hardly admit it. It reminds him of an old phrase his mother used to say, he chuckles: “if you swallowed nails they’d come out as screws.”

It says quite about him that he seems to take this remark as a compliment.

His other comment is more revealing.
“That is the paranoid scenario that grips the Millbank machine,” he smiles, delighted. “I’m not going to give up the Party I’ve devoted my entire life to. I wish to be the official Labour Party candidate.”

The fact that he has absolutely no chance of doing so only convinces you that something else is going on. He has, after all, pulled off such masterly strategies before.

In 1981, aged 35, he took control of the GLC one day after the previous Labour leader, Andrew McIntosh, had lead the Party to victory, a pretty formidable political coup.
“There was a vacuum there,” he shrugs, “and, you’re right, I moved to fill it. My opponent was not a skilled politician.”

You could argue the post of Mayor is a similar vacuum.

Then there was the way that two years ago, he won a seat on the NEC, scuppering a massively orchestrated campaign by Tony Blair and the Party hierarchy for Peter Mandelson to win the seat at a time when Mandelson had virtually been left in charge of the country as honorary deputy Prime Minister. Such politics-as-plot certainly seems more exciting than trundling along as a back-bencher.

“Oh it was electric,” he sighs with unusual agitation. “Because we hadn’t known ! It was only ten minutes before they announced the vote, when a senior Labour Party official leant over and says ‘ don’t worry you pissed all over him’. MPs who hadn’t spoken to me for years gave me a hug or just squeezed my arm. The unlucky ones were caught live on camera applauding !”

No wonder he says he loves being in elections. It’s certainly arguable that such ploys are part of his nature. He admits he has never sought to present himself as someone asking to be trusted – “On the contrary, I’m asking you to watch me like a hawk.”

Eminent political journalist Neal Ascherson once described him as “a shameless carpet-bagger and opportunist” and “an obsessive manipulator.” James Naughtie, reviewing the book Livingstone wrote after the demise of the GLC prior to becoming an MP (titled, ironically, If Voting Changed Anything, They’d Abolish It) remarked upon his “ruthlessness and ambition.” “These skills,” Naughtie wrote presciently, “do not desert a politician and they can be used again.”

One of these skills is exploiting his adversaries’ weakness – such as, for example, Blair’s tendency to be excessively controlling.
“At every stage in my political career,” Livingstone once said, “my opponents have advanced my political career by behaving stupidly.”

In the case of his triumph over Mandelson for example, he had narrowly missed out on a seat on the NEC for years as “all these bright young stars leapt past me – Mo Mowlam, Harriet Harman, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair… every year there was a vacancy and every year some new bugger jumped by me.”

Jack Straw was in line to be the next one, but was told to stand aside to make way for Mandelson – “thus reviving my career single-handedly !”
Now, he says, the Millbank spin-doctors have made the same mistake.
“They should have ignored me…. At the send of all this, they’ll probably send me a bill for their services.”

The doubt that nags away most is whether he can really walk away from the chance to be Mayor. Already 53, he will be nearing 60 by the time the second election comes around, by which time, the Labour Party’s campaign to find a more palatable candidate will surely be more organised. It is now or never.

Even he would not deny that Ken Livingstone’s whole political career has led towards this chance. His five-year stint as leader of the GLC of course still lives in the public’s memory, and has become part of London folklore – hence his automatic lead in the polls. The only other role of his adult life – as an MP – has gone nowhere, blighted first by Neil Kinnock and now by Tony Blair.

The combination of his own lack of diplomacy and dogged idealism/extremism also hasn’t helped. For years he has campaigned on issues such as negotiating with Sinn Fein, increasing the number of female MPs, gay rights and the Met’s relations with London’s ethnic minorities – issues that have finally entered the mainstream, rendering him increasingly redundant.

Naturally, he does not accept his career as an MP is in a cul-de-sac; that he has nothing left to lose.
“Nothing is permanent in politics…. Two years ago, I would’ve told you I’m not going to stand for mayor. Who knows ? In two years time, Tony Blair may have brought me into his government.”

Given that he is not someone you could accuse of being naive, this seems so absurd it can only be disingenuous. He has suffered years of opposition from the Party. Expecting to be hailed as hero because of his battle with Thatcher and the Law Lords over the GLC, his first two years as an MP were notable mainly for his public humiliation at not even being given a desk. (He was adjudged to be too left-wing, too ambitious and, untrustworthy: ne plus ca change…) His NEC victory two years ago meant he was allowed his first conference speech since 1980.
“I was aware of a scale of bitterness much greater than I’d anticipated,” he says now, mildly.

Then, as now, he gambled on a high profile response.

“He’s 20 years older than me, so he should die first,” he said cheerfully of the Chief Whip responsible, during an interview in YOU magazine, telling the journalist, “misspell his name and put down all I’m saying about him, it might bring on a heart attack.”

As with his 1992 leadership campaign (with Bernie Grant as his deputy), his campaign to be mayor is hardly likely to have endeared him to the powers that be.

One compared the Party’s opposition to him standing to Thatcher’s abolition of the GLC.
“Once again certain people are attempting to deny Londoners the right to vote for him. Ken has no intention of going quietly,” it stated, somewhat obviously.

After ten years, he has spoken disparagingly about his frustration of becoming simply “a whinging back-bencher…droning on about the government” describing it as “not a job for a grown man”.

The case against him always includes the facts that, never really a party player, he has also voted against the government on student tuition fees, opposed the Millennium Dome and has continually mocked the Party hierarchy (Brown, Cook, Straw, Prescott.)

He is not exactly a proponent of The Third Way. In one newspaper questionnaire, asked which Tory he would choose to be on a desert island with, he declined, saying he would prefer to remain solitary confinement. Also, he cheerfully points out, “unlike so many of the modern Labour Party, I’m not a practising Christian. I represent a return to Paganism !”

The logic of returning as the king in the bonsai world of local government, seems unavoidable, the natural culmination of a lifetime lived in London and working in local government.

He left the GLC on its last day in tears and admits that the possibility of a role based on the big city mayors in the States gives him “a real buzz. There is that almost organic relationship between the individual and the city there. You have to love the city.”

Livingstone was born in Streatham, opposite the police station in 1945. His parents, a Scottish merchant seaman and a shop worker/former acrobat, 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 once said, she used to “put a blanket over his head when we went out and tell people not to disturb him.”

Living on Streatham High Street, he was kept mostly indoors and looked after mainly by his grandmother, “made to feel like her little Lord” as he once put it, which perhaps explaining the lure of the limelight.

If his aptitude for showbusiness (shows like Have I Got News For You, co-presenting After Midnight for a while with Janet Street Porter) comes from his mother, he has proudly claimed that he inherited his ability not to lose his temper from his father.
“My ability to deceive and manipulate people comes from my grandmother.”

He had a stable, comfortable upbringing, but he was always an outsider. (In all his years at the GLC, it was said fellow members only came to his house only once or twice the entire time.) As a boy he became interested in reptiles and amphibians, collecting snakes, salamanders and baby alligators.
“The blow-flies were terrible… If an alligator defecated just after I left for school, it smelt pretty bad by the time I got home… It did nothing for my relations with the opposite sex.”

His childhood dream was to work in the reptile house at London Zoo. Instead he went into politics. Motivated by a local re-patriation debate, he joined the Labour Party when he was 23 and after three years became a Labour councillor for Lambeth, skilfully networking his way up to leader of the GLC – despite being not only a loner but something of a genuine oddball. It’s a sign of his adeptness at marketing himself that, remarkably, he mastered a way of exploiting stories like taking his bullfrogs for walks on his shoulders to help change his Fleet Street image from Commie Monster (“The Most Odious Man In Britain” according to The Sun) to harmless, entertaining eccentric.

A glance back at the halcyon days as leader of the GLC make you realise why he wants them back, and why the Party don’t.

People remember the Fares Fair scheme but forget things like he rejected his invitation to the Royal Wedding, spending his day releasing black balloons in support of the H-Block hunger strikers.
“If Mrs Thatcher had ignored the GLC, I would be a complete and utter unknown,” he told me, a few days before the abolition. “If she’d left it alone, everything would’ve gone wrong and everyone would’ve said, ‘what a load of old crap that was’.”

“Instead of arguing about our policies or tax rate, she turned it into an issue of democracy and London’s right to choose – and this is exactly what’s happened now. Because the whole focus is on Ken’s Right To Stand, people haven’t got on to examining what my policies are – they might not like them !”

Certainly, no-one can doubt how much he wants to be mayor.
“By about this time last year,” he reflects happily, “I’d be dozing off to sleep at night and my last thoughts would be about how you’d have the bus lanes !”

Although he says he will never run as an Independent, it’s worth remembering that when the post of mayor was first announced, he insisted he wasn’t interested, saying now that the public opinion polls and the latent desire to beat Archer drew him in. The idea of running, he says, “grew on me like an unpleasant verruca.”

His manifesto includes returning conductors and guards to the buses and the underground, pedestrian zones in Soho and free entry to London Zoo and Kew Gardens, paid for with a tax on passengers passing through Heathrow. A cut in the subsidy London pays to the rest of the country is the sort of prelude he would like introduced before creating tax-raising powers for the post. Exactly the type of policy Tony Blair wouldn’t.

And yet, he continues to maintain he will only run as the Party’s official candidate.
“I think I can win whoever the prime minister is backing. I’ve got to get on the list. After 30 years, I’m not going to walk away from the Labour Party. I love the Labour Party !! It’s my life ! It would be giving up my relationship with everybody you know. The SDP all wrote about how traumatic leaving was in their biographies. Besides, if I was to leave the Labour Party, the people that would denounce me the most would be the left.”

Of course you could argue that just as Blair can distance himself from the row that a veto would create by deflecting the blame on to the selection panel, if the veto takes place, Livingstone could justifiably say he had no option, blaming Blair. He says running as an Independent would be too expensive but the Ken’s Right To Stand campaign is already raising money.

The strength of Ken’s ambition was obvious by his reaction in November last year when the Greater London Board proposed the possibility of a short-list and the power of veto – thus side-stepping a National Party Conference vote that anyone nominated by ten constituencies should automatically be on the list of candidates.
His odds at William Hill lengthened from 5-2 favourite to 5-1 over night.
“I am not going to be like some pig that goes quietly to the slaughterhouse,” he said, seething. He spoke to the press of the “bone-crunching pressure” that was coming from the “control freaks in the Millbank Tendency complaining: “if you nobble a horse race, you get sent to prison.”

By March this year, The Independent quoted “senior Labour figures” declaring his candidature as “dead and buried” – thanks to the (previously unmentioned) prospect of extending the Greater London Assembly rules about election expenses (covering his ad campaign and mailshots) for prospective assembly members to the Mayoralty itself.

“Tony Blair did not revive the concept of a London mayor to give Ken Livingstone back to the people of London” a “senior minister” was quoted as saying.

And yet here he is on Budget Day, as relaxed and confident as you like. He smiles.
“I don’t think Tony’s aware yet of the richness of the quality of life that I would bring to London, or the pleasure I could bring to his remaining years as Prime Minister. I’m sure once he thinks about it, it will come to him… I’ve always been an optimist, so I always assume the best is going to happen.”

He maintains that “several cabinet ministers have urged me to stick on in there” – albeit only in private. “In a tight election, you’ve got to run your strongest candidate.”

He is already, somewhat mischievously, floating the notion that the Labour Party could lose as many as 2000 seats at the forthcoming local elections, Euro elections and Welsh and Scottish assemblies. In this eventuality, he says, they would never run the risk of Archer winning. He points out that in a poll of 42 constituency parties, 29 told the BBC he should be allowed on the shortlist and in a Carlton TV poll of 1000 Labour Party members in London, 50% said they wanted him.

He accepts it will come down to Tony Blair.
“9 people on the 12-person panel will do as Blair says.”

The Stop Ken campaign emanating from Millbank, he insists, is “all from lowly creatures down the bottom of the food chain who never meet the bloody leader… ghastly little creatures who think they know what the leader wants.”

They’re right, I point out, exasperated.
“They’ve often been wrong in the past, landing Blair in great problems.”

Another smile.
“I’ve always got on very well with Tony Blair.”

Were you invited to any of Tony’s Cool Britannia parties?
“Well, no, I’m a bit of a Blur fan myself.”
Exactly.
“I think it’s a 50-50 chance. I’d bet that they will let me stand,” he says calmly.

A sign of how seriously Millbank is taking the threat Livingstone represents is that there are rumours that Frank Dobson, Chris Smith and even Mo Mowlam have already been pressurised into standing.

His supposed ally, former GLC chairman, Tony Banks, has also been mooted as a possible palliative to the left.
“That makes him sound like a suppository !” he smiles, delighted.
“I don’t think Tony Blair sees Tony Banks as the government’s suppository for London.”

“Saint Mo”, on the other hand, he admits would beat him.
“Saint Mo would beat Tony Blair ! Saint Mo could most likely be elected Prime Minister and Queen and Pope all on the same day.”

He seems so confident, he almost had me convinced, but not quite.

“Politics is a marathon,” he once said to Anthony Clare, “it’s the person who hangs on until the end that usually wins.”

He has the calm of a man who has worked out how to win.

It’s not just that he is such a clever operator or so involved with London life. Ken Livingstone strikes me as a man profoundly aware of his sense of legacy. Going down in history as The Man Who Defied Thatcher and Provoked Her Into Abolishing The GLC was fine at the time but he has achieved nothing lasting as an MP. The legacy of being The Man Who Should Have Been Mayor But Didn’t Run sounds potentially haunting. The Man Who Let Jeffrey Archer Win is even worse.

Although he says he could still have “20 years of active political life left”, this is his best chance, the bandwagon is rolling as powerfully as it ever will be. There is the added factor the men in his family, including his father who died when Livingstone was only 26, have a history of heart problems.
“None of the males in my family have lived beyond 60,” he once said. He himself was seeing doctors about chest pains when he was as young as 36. He is surely too wily and too committed just to step aside.

All those years – against Thatcher and Kinnock, Mandelson and Blair – he surely knows how far the Maverick ticket can go. Being barred from the official list of candidates would suit him fine.

Although he proudly points out that a Mori opinion poll showed that “out of 250 Captains of industry and commerce in the city, asked, ‘who do you think would be a good mayor ?’ 19% chose me. 5% chose Branson. 5% Chris Patten, 5% Archer. Nobody else got more than 3%. I’m not certain Tony Blair’s aware of this yet”, unless they’re members of the Labour Party, the only way those Captains of industry will be able to vote for him is if he runs as an Independent.

I remind him that his mother once told him not to fall out with Tony Blair and ask if, like Tony Banks or Paul Boateng, he didn’t wish he had cultivated the Labour hierarchy’s favour a bit more over the last ten years.
“I’m not much of a cultivator,” he smiled. “I save my cultivating for my garden haha. I don’t regret that, no ! It’s not in my character to do too much of the old brown-nosing.”

This does not seem like the sort of answer of someone expecting to win the Party line or resisting the chance to capitalise on his status as a maverick. My final question is to ask him who’s going to be the first mayor of London.
“If I was a betting person – which I’m not – I’d put money on me.”

Political poker, he suggests, is not his game because he was always “lousy” at gambling. “Because when I’m asked a question, I tell the answer.”

His beloved mother, who died only last year on the other hand “went to the betting shop every day of her life and just about broke even. If she’d just lived another couple of years, she’d have been able to combine her two great passions: her son’s career and her gambling.”

Maybe it’s in the genes.

ends