For the first time in his life, Ken Livingstone didn’t vote Labour at the European elections last month. But don’t panic: he didn’t vote Liberal Democrat either. Not for him the (supposed) treachery of Alastair Campbell. In fact, he didn’t vote at all. The former mayor of London was in Angola, making a speech to the World Tourism Forum, a trip that came up at the last moment, leaving him with no time to arrange a postal vote. Did the result, disastrous for both Labour and the Tories, shock him? (In west Africa for less than 24 hours, he was back in good time for the TV coverage.) No, not at all. It struck him as utterly predictable and he sees no cause for concern on the Labour side. “I think there’s a consensus now that Labour have got to campaign for the UK to remain in the EU,” he insists, as if such a position was the most straightforward thing in the world. (It isn’t, especially since the byelection in Peterborough, a constituency that voted strongly to leave, which Labour managed to win.)
Livingstone’s old comrade Jeremy Corbyn, whose fence-sitting in this matter barely serves to conceal his Leaver tendencies, will soon, he believes, have other things on his mind than the question of Europe. “Jeremy has always been a critic of the EU,” he says, almost fondly (Livingstone voted Remain in the referendum, “without any doubt” in his mind at all). “And half of Labour MPs are in seats that voted to leave, so they thought they’d have to respect that. But I think that’s all behind us now. There isn’t a majority in parliament for leaving without a deal and the Tories are going to elect a leader who will go for a hard Brexit. So there must be a prospect of a general election soon.” Labour will, he claims, win this election and thereafter it will swiftly become clear that Brexit was merely “a brief diversion”. Britain will stay in the EU and Corbyn and John McDonnell will then set about leading what he believes will be the best and most reforming Labour government since that of Clement Attlee in 1945.
Crikey. As conversations go, this one has certainly kicked off at high speed. What makes it all the more dizzying – the idea that Brexit is just a “brief diversion” strikes me as preposterous, if not a touch mad – is that it is so unexpected. For one thing, Livingstone is ostensibly here to talk about Livingstone’s London: A Celebration of People and Places, a gentle little book full of historical statistics and stuff about blue plaques that he has written for a new publishing company set up by his wife’s two sisters; before our meeting was fixed, we were told that he wasn’t keen to talk about politics. For another, his words, punchy and far reaching, are somewhat at odds with his bearing. He’s perfectly affable, a smile permanently spread across his face, but there’s something rather frail and depleted about him, too: if he talks proudly of being a house-husband, behind the boast it’s possible to detect a certain purposelessness and sense of loss. His wide, royal blue braces only add to this effect. They seem to belong to another man altogether.
He and I meet in a private club in Soho (neither of us is a member) on the morning of Trump’s visit – and yes, if he wasn’t seeing me, he would be out there protesting alongside Corbyn. “This is the worst president of my lifetime,” he says. “A most irrational man and if things go wrong, we’re going to have a bloody war.” He travelled here on the tube and will return home the same way; he never learned to drive and no, he has never ridden a Boris bike, either. Outside, a pneumatic drill attacks another London street, but the terrible din seems to affect Livingstone far less than it does me.
His answers to my questions are long and digressive, reaching ever further backwards into the past. I have the feeling that whatever lengths he might have gone to when he was mayor to protect his privacy, he rather likes doing interviews. “Politicians don’t answer questions any more,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why Farage has done so well. He says what he thinks. When I was campaigning against Boris [to be mayor], one of the things that always amazed me was that he always said what people wanted to hear, whatever the audience.”
At whose feet does he lay this trend for half-truths and empty platitudes? Apparently, for this as for so much else, we can blame New Labour: “It’s the legacy of the Blair era. You tell people what they want to hear.” Livingstone thinks those polls that suggest more people would now vote Remain than Leave are correct, but that this can be put down to the business community rather than politicians: “The worries of business have got across to people.” If he was a Labour MP in a Leave constituency, he wouldn’t hesitate. “People were lied to. If I was an MP, I would be campaigning to say: this was a mistake. We must remain or you will lose your jobs. I suppose they worry that the party will be decimated if they do, but I can’t see the point unless you say what you believe. Only eccentrics like Kate Hoey [the MP for Vauxhall] and John Mann [the MP for Bassetlaw] voted Leave. Everyone else knew how bad it would be for the economy.”
Has he said any of this to Corbyn and McDonnell? “They don’t need my advice. But if they asked, I would tell them.” His greatest regret – the only regret he is willing to admit to me – is that he didn’t return to parliament after losing to Boris Johnson for the second time in 2012 (Livingstone was the MP for Brent East from 1987 to 2001) and so won’t be available to join their cabinet. “I don’t think we have ever disagreed about economic issues,” he says. “As I say, Labour is going to come out in favour of Remain, whether by means of an election or a second referendum. The real issue isn’t the EU. The real issue is that Cameron and May make Thatcher look like a progressive liberal. They have made cuts she would never had dared to. Would she have cut 22,000 police? No, it’s inconceivable.”
The way forward is, he thinks, perfectly obvious. “We do not need to increase taxes on ordinary people to rebuild our state. We just need to stop the super-rich and the corporations that pay no bloody tax. If we make them pay their share, we’ll have all the money we need.”
But there may be other reasons why no one asks his advice just lately. Livingstone is not currently a member of the Labour party, having resigned his membership last year because he did not wish to be a “distraction” following allegations of antisemitism made against him (until then, he had been fighting disciplinary action that followed after he told the BBC in 2016 that in 1932 Hitler had championed Jewish emigration to Israel and was “supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”). Does he feel sad about this? “Of course. But the trouble is that when Jeremy became leader the disciplinary unit was stuffed with Blairites, who hate lefties like me. They dragged it out for two years and were clearly planning to drag it out for more. I was just being used to undermine Jeremy.”
Hmm. I’m not sure I buy this argument, if only because the party expelled Alastair Campbell so quickly – and simply for having admitted, after the election, that he had not voted Labour (it took them about two seconds). But he’s not to be put off. “The rules are clear. You can’t support other parties and stay in the Labour party.” Why, then, has no one disciplined his old friend Kate Hoey, who likes to be photographed cosying up to Nigel Farage? He laughs. “I know. When she was a Marxist, I completely agreed with her. But she has bizarre views now.”
Still, he’s hopeful that the issue of antisemitism in the party will soon be resolved. To my amazement, he is utterly “delighted” that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission is formally to investigate whether Labour has unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish, an inquiry announced last month after it received a number of complaints of antisemitism in the party. “It’s brilliant,” he says, banging the table so that his coffee cup rattles. “If they’re going to do a fair investigation, they’re going to find that about 250 members have been found to have tweeted something antisemitic, that about 100 are still under investigation, and that this is about 0.08% of our members.”
Even better, the investigation will give him the chance to clear his name, to prove once and for all that journalists have wilfully misquoted him and that he never said Hitler was a Zionist (he did, however, unquestionably say that Hitler supported Zionism). “I’m writing to them. I assume they will want to question me.”
What follows, in this part of our conversation, is dispiriting, to put it mildly (and from a man, too, who will later tell me that he has just finished reading Simon Schama’s “quite remarkable” The Story of the Jews). When I ask him about the experiences of Luciana Berger, the Jewish former Labour MP who required police protection during last year’s Labour party conference, he says only that the abuse she gets “on the internet” comes not from party members, but “from bigots” (she would doubtless disagree, given the behaviour of some members of her local party). When I ask if he doesn’t see the point made by Margaret Hodge, another Jewish Labour MP, when she notes that the mere fact of the EHRC investigation brings shame on the party, he will respond only off the record. When I ask if some Labour activists don’t wilfully and perniciously conflate Judaism and Zionism, he talks for some while about Ben Gurion, Benjamin Netanyahu and a book called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, after which he insists that he wouldn’t know what people say online “because I’ve never been on the internet in my life”.
In more than 50 years in the Labour party, he never saw or heard anything antisemitic. “If you’re antisemitic, you’re not going to join the Labour party, are you?” And why’s that? “Because the most prominent Jewish MPs are Labour MPs.” The allegations against both himself and the Labour party are not upsetting to him, first because he has had “38 years of lies and smears” and, second, because he knows they’re the invention of the media. “You plough through these stories and there’s almost no examples [of antisemitic abuse].”
Livingstone was born in 1945, into a world in which things seemed always to be getting better: “the luckiest generation of Londoners in history”, as he puts it in his book. Thanks to the Labour government’s commitment to housebuilding, when he was five, his family was able to swap its tiny south London council flat, which had no bathroom, for one with hot water and a bedroom each for him and his sister. His dad, a former merchant seaman turned window cleaner, and his mum, a former music hall dancer, were Tories, but they were socially liberal and not, for the times, particularly strict and their son wonders now if this didn’t have to do with the fact that they were more interested in each other than in their children. “They were passionately committed to each other and didn’t plan to have kids. They met when Mum was dancing and Dad and his mates were hanging about at the stage door. They went for fish and chips afterwards and by the end of the evening, they knew it was the relationship of their life. The fourth time they met, it was their wedding.” He sounds a little awestruck. Does he find this romantic? “No, I just wish it had happened to me.”
In his book, which is part memoir and part guide (there is a whole chapter devoted to restaurants, about which he used to write for the Evening Standard, and in which he reveals that his favourite chippy is the Nautilus in Fortune Green, and that it was the Birds of a Feather star Lesley Joseph who introduced him to pink champagne when they ate at the Ivy), Livingstone makes a lot of his hardscrabble beginnings: one pair of socks and one pair of pants used to have to last all week, or so he says.
But it wasn’t really his family’s relative lack of wealth that influenced his politics (in any case, his parents went on to buy their own home in West Norwood). Nor was it his sense of being different, though different was undoubtedly how he felt. “I almost died of gastroenteritis when I was two,” he says. “I was physically three years behind everyone else, the smallest, runtiest kid. I couldn’t climb the bars in the gym; I used to come joint last with a fat boy in running races. I was weak and nerdy. I was the last kid in my year to get pubic hair.”
So what was it, then? What turned him leftwards? “It was just about doing things. That’s why people went into politics then, on both sides: to get things done, not to be a bloody celebrity.” John Major, he reminds me, was, just like himself, on Lambeth Council’s housing committee as a young councillor: “You’ve got to remember that Tory leaders then had fought side by side with working-class men in the war, whereas the political elite now haven’t had any contact with working-class people. That’s why they’re so unrepresentative.”
His father worried about him, this boy who was obsessed with astronomy and amphibians and who never seemed to have a girlfriend (women, he says, found neither his face nor his “boring voice” attractive; he was 21 before he drunkenly lost his virginity). But it was a time of full employment and when he left school, like every boy in his class, he soon found a job, in his case, working as an animal technician at the Royal Marsden cancer research unit.
And then there was politics. Livingstone joined the Labour party in 1968 when everyone else seemed to be leaving it and as a result, in the 70s, he rose swiftly and smoothly through the ranks, first as a councillor and later on the Greater London Council, which he would eventually lead. He was always a controversial figure. His support for gay rights, he says, led to one report in the press suggesting he was importing pills from San Francisco that caused semen to be strawberry flavoured. But he has just as often been vindicated. The London congestion charge, which he brought in as mayor, has, for instance, been copied by other cities and towns and no future politician would ever think of rolling it back now.
Does he miss running the city? “Yes, I loved it.” Is there anything he wishes he had done differently? Seemingly unable to understand the question – though I rephrase it a couple of times – he launches into a list of his achievements, from enabling planning permission for the Shard, the capital’s tallest building, to the revamping of the city’s overground train services. Of course, the first time he stood to be mayor in 2000, it was as an independent against Labour’s official candidate, Frank Dobson. Blair would rather have had just about anyone other than him in the job, including (according to Livingstone) Delia Smith. What does Livingstone think of Blair now? Has time softened the edges off their enmity? “The problem with Tony was that he was very talented and bright, but in his years at Oxford, he never went to any political event. He was into acting and music.”
I’m going to get into environmental campaigning: there’s a real possibility of extinction by the end of the century
I laugh a bit at this, because to almost anyone else, this might be seen as a plus: a politician with a hinterland and thus, perhaps, a sense of perspective. But Livingstone continues smoothly on. “He had to join Labour or Cherie wouldn’t have married him, so he comes into politics with no background or understanding and he reads all this crap about how I’m a Soviet agent.” Is Corbyn’s Labour party too apt to forget the achievements of New Labour? “Well, he will keep the policies on race and sexuality. But they didn’t restructure the economy. That’s the damning indictment.”
Livingstone has five children: teenagers with his wife, Emma Beal, whom he married in 2009, and three older children, two girls and a boy, whose existence only became public during the 2008 mayoral election campaign (in a memoir he published in 2011, he revealed, oh-so-casually, that he had agreed to help out their mothers, friends of his who both feared they might miss their chance to have children; at the time, he was still with Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK director and the partner with whom he spent 20 years before he met Beal). Are his children Corbynites? What do they make of their father’s politics?
“My children are not into politics,” he says. “The three older ones are in their late 20s. They saw what I had to put up with and that’s not going to encourage you. But they’re all progressive: my older girls [Georgia and Lottie] work in the NHS; one is a midwife and one works in administration. Liam runs a website. Tom [his son with Beal] spends all day on the computer and Mia shops with her friends. She wants to be a marine biologist.” Are they proud of their father? He replies by answering a question I haven’t yet asked. “We all go out for meals together regularly and we get on well.” Is it true that they all used to go on holiday together? “Yes, it is.” You’re the great paterfamilias, I say. “Well, look how old I am with kids in their early teens. It’s unusual. But they keep me young. That and walking the dog.”
Does he believe his political career is over now? “Tom and Mia are 15 and 16. They don’t need me hanging around any more. So I’m going to get much more involved in environmental campaigning, because I’m pessimistic: I believe there’s a real possibility of extinction by the end of the century.”
Are there still newts in the pond in his north London garden?
“There are, but the tragedy is that 10 years ago in the springtime, there would be a dozen frogs laying spawn and now there are none. The population has collapsed and there are very few newts, too, comparatively. It used to be heaving with amphibians! We are destroying the planet. When I was a boy, we assumed we’d go to Mars. But we know now that’s too expensive and there’s deadly radiation. We evolved to live on this planet – look how astronauts are when they spend six months at the space station. They can hardly walk. So we can’t just spread out across the universe. That’s not going to happen.”
Talking of newts and far-off planets, he looks, and sounds, highly animated. Nevertheless, in his heart ambition and perhaps even (whisper it) regret are, I think, still swirling around in such a way as to put a bit of a crimp on a man’s retirement. “If the Labour party was to bring me back in, it would be all screaming about antisemitism,” he says. “But Jeremy has the chance now to run the best government since 1945.” So he would like a job? His gaze shifts beyond my shoulder. “I would do… anything.
I had no option but to stand as an independent for mayor, and won a convincing majority on 4 May 2000. The first words I said after the result was announced were: “As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted 14 years ago.” The Daily Mail warned: “Leftwing extremist Ken Livingstone seizes control.” The Daily Telegraph said: “Livingstone represents the Beckhamisation of politics.” The Independent on Sunday warned “Ken has his eyes on No 10” and the Sunday Telegraph said I was not up to the job.
Oddly enough, Margaret Thatcher came up to me at an event and said: “Stick to your guns: everyone will be trying to tell you to do something else, but you must keep your resolve. You’re now the leader of the equivalent of a small nation. Resolute, that’s what you must be, resolute.” This struck me as a bit odd, given just 15 years previously she was comparing me to a communist dictator, but the mood on the streets was amazing, with everyone shaking my hand and slapping me on the back. After the vote was analysed it turned out that I had got the support of 46% of Labour voters, 33% of Lib Dems and, bizarrely, 24% of Tories.
As leader of the GLC I had been managing the 47 other Labour members, but the American mayoral system, which is used at City Hall, is completely different. You’re the chief executive of the whole machine and every decision is made by you. Just 10 days after the election I was completely knackered and woke up one morning to find my leg swollen. My GP thought it was thrombosis and whisked me off to hospital. Fortunately it turned out to be a Baker’s cyst caused by my spending too long on my knees gardening.
One of the most important things was to clamp down on the way the bus companies were ripping London off. Back in my GLC days, tube and bus drivers earned the same, but after bus privatisation bus drivers’ wages had been slashed to just £16,000 a year, compared to the tube drivers on £25,000. Having organised a wage increase for the bus drivers, I couldn’t get on a bus without the driver congratulating me.
A lot of people were amazed when I appointed to run Transport for London the American Bob Kiley, who had joined the CIA in 1963 and ended up as executive assistant to CIA director Richard Helms, who had been given a suspended prison sentence for lying to Congress and covering up assassinations. But Bob and I hit it off immediately and I was delighted to discover that he had spent a lot of his time driving Robert Kennedy to election rallies in his campaign to be president in 1968.
Although everyone thought I wouldn’t get on with the head of London’s police, both Sir John Stevens and his deputy, Ian Blair, had a great working relationship with me. Towards the end of my first year in office, I was with Sir John at a police officers’ annual dinner when he got word that there had been a fire in my office. Fearing this might be a deliberate attempt on my life, Sir John sent armed police to my home. Sitting in the car with Sir John, his protection officer asked me: “Can you think of anybody who might have a grudge against you?” I laughed and said: “How long have you got?”