Ken Livingstone

Upstairs at Politico’s, a bookshop-cum-coffee house ten minutes’ stroll from Whitehall, Ken Livingstone is sitting with his back to a television set, cupping a chocolate-dusted mocha in his hands. On the screen behind him, Robin Cook is introducing a short film which recalls the highlights of the Labour Party conference in Brighton: the standing ovations, the scenes of Tony Blair glad-handing the adoring multitude, the shots of delegates holding their hair in place as they walk along the windswept promenade.

But something is missing. Someone, as they say in Argentina, has been disappeared. The most memorable and newsworthy image of that week – Livingstone beaming as he beat the Minister Without Portfolio for a place on the National Executive Committee – has not been included. When this is pointed out to him, Livingstone gives a short laugh as nasal as his voice, thoughtfully sips his coffee and says, ‘Well, there you go. Perhaps the camera mysteriously malfunctioned when it came round to me’.

The 52-year-old Member of Parliament for Brent East has learned to shrug off such snubs with amused detachment. Even when he was a member of the NEC last time around, his invitations to Party events would always be sent late deliberately so that he couldn’t attend. When he became an MP in 1987 he wasn’t allocated an office. And this year is the first since 1980 that the Member Non Grata has been called to speak at conference. ‘Each year I would sit there with my hand up waiting to be called,’ Livingstone says with a lazy roll of heavily-lidded eyes. ‘But I was always ignored, even when the debate was about me. My arm used to ache so much I decided the solution would be to strap a cardboard cutout of it to the back of my chair.’

Not since George Foreman reclaimed the world heavyweight title at the age of 45 has a comeback seemed so improbable. And so poetic – given that it was Peter Mandelson who went down to Livingstone’s Far Left hook. ‘I was given no warning when I was kicked off the NEC back in 1989,’ Livingstone mumbles in his Dalek monotone. ‘And Mandelson made it worse then by briefing everyone about what a momentous defeat it was for the Left. I did think when I saw him sitting there this time with that rictus grin on his face: “I know how you feel, Sunshine. I’ve been there.”’

If this latest development in Livingstone’s turbulent political career were made into a film, then the trailer would have to say: ‘He’s back. And this time it’s personal.’ Only it wouldn’t be an action film, it would be a situation comedy – because in those wilderness years Red Ken, scourge of the bourgeoisie, reinvented himself as Cuddly Ken, Good Old Ken, Ken the People’s Politician. He’s done panto. He’s cracked wisely on Radio 4 quiz shows. He’s appeared in television commercials for Red Leicester cheese. ‘The most odious man in Britain’, as the Sun once dubbed our Ken, has become a national monument lapped by waves of affection so warm and syrupy even the Queen Mother and Terry Wogan would find them a bit cloying.

And now that an opinion poll has named Livingstone (along with Richard Branson) the person Londoners would most like to see appointed major come the election planned for May 2000, it can only be a matter of time before Madame Tussaud’s blows the dust off the waxwork that was so ignominiously put into storage when the GLC was closed down by Margaret Thatcher in 1986. Obviously, Livingstone no longer wears a safari suit. And the comedy ‘Dave Spart’ moustache would have to come off (New Ken hasn’t worn it for two years: ‘I grew it when I was 22 in order to look older,’ he says dryly, ‘that is no longer a priority’) but the essential features haven’t changed much. He still has a round face, rosy complexion and eyes set wide apart like a cartoon of an extraterrestrial.

He still looks pretty scruffy: this afternoon he is carrying his books, pens, papers and damp swimming trunks around in a plastic carrier bag on which the handle has broken; he is wearing jeans, trainers and a blue and white checked lumberjack shirt. The only hint that he might have anything in common with the immaculately groomed, sharply suited clones that occupy the New Labour benches is the black bleeper with red rose insignia he is obliged to wear on his belt. ‘This?’ he sighs as he fingers it ruefully, in the manner of a prisoner revealing an electronic tag. ‘This means Mandelson can track me down any time, day or night.’

The trouble is, Livingstone doesn’t seem particularly at ease with the lovable Cuddly Ken role he has created for himself. He wishes it were an action film he was starring in, not a comedy, and that he was wearing combat boots, not slippers. When he tries to be diplomatic by playing down a ‘misleading’ report in the Guardian which describes Mandelson and him as two Rottweilers gnawing at each other’s genitals, you just know that, secretly, he is delighted by the analogy. Anything is better than the playful Labrador puppy image that seems to have stuck.

Personally, he blames his popularity on his newts. ‘Anyone who keeps pets is going to be popular. My newts are probably the most famous pets in Britain. After the royal corgis, of course.’ Newt-fancying has been a lifelong obsession for Ken. Endearingly, he remembers exactly what he was doing when he heard Kennedy was shot – he had just got back from the reptile shop. And he is at his happiest, he says, when pottering around the 90ft garden he has turned into a wildlife haven for his amphibious friends at his home (in the amusing London borough of Cricklewood, naturally). That newts are for ever associated in the British imagination with Gussie Fink-Nottle, PG Wodehouse’s charmingly woolly-headed creation, makes Livingstone’s pet of choice even more richly comic.

But there is also the man’s easy charm and deadpan, self-parodic sense of mischief to take into account when considering the adorable puppy factor. Livingstone describes himself as an ‘old Trot’ and will always start his speeches with the word ‘Comrades’ because, he says, he knows it will always get a laugh. And, in his temporary, box-filled office situated in a dingy, grey building far out in the uncharted backwaters of Whitehall, he answers the phone, looks across at me, and says: ‘I can’t talk now – I’m being interviewed by the class enemy.’

Another example: he left Tulse Hill Comprehensive School at 17 and spent 12 years as a technician looking after laboratory animals before training as a teacher. In John Major’s day, all this was dismissed with the line: ‘I have four O-levels, which fully qualifies me to be Prime Minister.’ And once, when he was accused of selling out by writing a column for the Sun, he said: ‘I spent five years boycotting all Murdoch papers. But I have to confess it seems not to have forced him into insolvency.’

A good quip, Livingstone believes, can help make a serious point more palatable. But, on the whole, a sense of humour is a disadvantage in politics. At one point, he refers to the Tories as being cold, unattractive human beings led by this strange… Then, remembering Tony Banks’ tasteless joke about abortion, he checks himself. ‘Having a reputation as a comedian has hurt old Banksy and it’s hurt me,’ he reflects. ‘It would be wrong, though, to try and be serious all the time if that is not in your nature. This was old Kinnock’s big mistake.’

Although Livingstone’s one-liners are spontaneous, there seems to be something slightly more calculating about the matey way he will refer to old Banksy, old Cookie, old Kinnock. The chumminess and cosiness is intended to disarm the listener so that when, in the next sentence, he will casually refer to ‘this Mandelsonian evil’, or whatever, you’ll hardly notice. Then you’ll do a double-take and try to read his face to check that he’s joking. A twitch of the mouth would suffice, or an ironic flick of the eyebrow. But his face is just as inscrutable as his scratchy Thames Estuary twang. His lips barely part when he talks and when they do, it is only at one corner of his mouth, like a wartime spiv trying to sell you contraband.

While his demeanour rarely changes, even when he talks about a subject that clearly upsets him, his tinnily adenoidal voice does. In August, his 82-year-old mother, Ethel, asked for a glass of sherry, drank it and then died peacefully in her sleep. As Livingstone talks about how she was still going out to the betting shop just ten days before, his speech becomes halting; a catch is discernible at the back of his throat. His mother wasn’t afraid of death, he says, because she had always been a spiritualist who could hear voices from beyond the grave. ‘For her, death was just a matter of meeting up with people,’ he shrugs. ‘A great sherry party in the sky.’

His mother had been a ‘speciality dancing act’ in a music hall. ‘Mum was able to do the splits up until two years ago,’ Livingstone recalls. ‘And she could still do kicks so that her toes would touch her forehead. Whenever I took her along to an Islington dinner party she would insist on doing the washing-up and the next thing I knew she’d be doing a handstand up against the wall.’ Although Ethel had kept her own house, in recent years she had been spending an increasing amount of time living with Ken and his long-term partner Kate Allen. But the mother had always been close to her son, especially as her husband, a merchant seaman, had been away at sea a lot when the young Ken was growing up in Streatham. In fact, Ken had known his housebound grandmother much better than his father. ‘My grandmother had her knee joint removed and couldn’t get around so I just sat there with her in that tiny flat playing with Plastecine,’ he says. ‘I suppose I learned the art of manipulation from her.’

Ken Livingstone is an atheist and a republican, but his spiritualist, Tory-voting mother could not have been more of a monarchist. When the Thames Barrier was opened in 1984 – with Livingstone officiating – she put on her feathered hat and insisted on travelling down on the barge with HM the Queen. ‘She and Prince Philip gossiped for the whole journey about horse racing,’ Livingstone recalls with what might pass for a wistful grimace. ‘When they reached us, Philip leaned over to me and said, “Your mother’s a lively old stick.” And I thought, ‘Oh gawd, what’s she been saying now?’ It turned out she’d been organising a group bet on the boat.’

It saddens Ken Livingstone that his mother missed his sensational return to favour at the conference a couple of weeks ago. ‘She revelled in all my triumphs and she would have taken the front page of the Guardian and pinned it to her wall.’ It’s to be presumed that Ethel didn’t revel quite so much in the times when her son was a national hate figure. But if she did, and she collected press cuttings from the early Eighties, she would certainly have had a bulging scrapbook.

The claims from his enemies that her son wasted £100 million a year on ‘Loony Left’ schemes during his five years in charge of the GLC would have taken up a few pages of it. And there would have been plenty of cuttings about him wanting to ban the ‘racist’ nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep from kindergartens; about him launching a £44,000 charter for gay and lesbian rights and paying tens of thousands to extreme minority groups; about him twinning London with Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, in recognition of the country’s Marxist struggle; and, of course, about him inviting Gerry Adams to appear at political rallies in London.

And, doubtless, there would’ve been a whole volume devoted to the press coverage given to Livingstone’s public prediction, eight days after the Poppy Day massacre at Enniskillen in 1987, that Gerry Adams and the IRA would eventually win. To this day he does not regret his comments. ‘What have I been shown to be right on? That you would have to negotiate with the IRA one day. But yes, the media was very hostile to me about that. Then again, it was also the year I was voted runner-up to the Pope in a BBC Man of the Year poll.’

Livingstone believes it’s a big mistake for politicians to want to be loved, as Mandelson does. ‘My popularity dipped with the Loony Leftie Baa Baa Black Sheep stuff,” he says. ‘But it bounced back again. Sometimes I would have 2,000 people chanting their support for me. But I knew it was very dangerous. I just thought, “How bizarre that anyone should be interested in anything I say when I know what an ill-educated little oik I really am.” The worst thing you can do as a politician is to believe it when the press says it likes you. I think the present media love-fest is really unhealthy for Blair.’

He thinks that interviewers are letting the Prime Minister get away with too much. ‘The media isn’t scrutinising us properly. If Lord Simon [the share-holding former chairman of BP turned New Labour minister] had been a Tory in the last government, he would have been driven out of public life. Even Thatcher had some checks. Blair doesn’t like a debate – which doesn’t do much for my career prospects… The test for Blair will come three years from now when things go wrong and your ghastly rag drives him into the dirt. Wilson never got over that. It really hurt him. Major got rattled about it as well. My view is I would like you to write nice things about me but if you don’t, I’m not going to change my ways. My view is: “Sod you, then”.’

This, of course, is Livingstone’s ultimate double bluff. He knows it doesn’t pay to have skeletons in the cupboard and so once appeared on television to talk matter-of-factly about the perils of having a mistress. (He was married for nine years before getting a divorce in 1982.) But, hardened though he may be to what the press says about him, he is still a politician, and he does still care what people think. He assumes, for instance, that I’ll have heard so me of the ‘laughable” rumours that are circulating about him. I haven’t – so he tells me about them himself. ‘There’s the old chestnut about me being buggered by six men in succession. Then there’s the story about me being a cocaine abuser. And did you hear the one that was doing the rounds about eight weeks ago? Someone from Millbank Tower phoned me to say that he had picked up a story from News of the World that I regularly visit a prostitute. I just laughed and thought, “How does a story like that start?”.’

Actually, Livingstone is pretty sure he knows where the stories come from: Conservative Central Office. ‘Someone thinks it would be funny to start a rumour and people believe it because they want to’. To prove his theory, he once conducted an experiment: he made up a rumour while waiting to appear on breakfast TV. ‘I said, “The trouble with Lamont now is that his cocaine habit is so bad he has to leave Cabinet meetings to go for a line.” Everyone in that room started saying: “Ooh yes, you can tell it just by looking at him.”’

Conservative Central Office isn’t the only malicious rumour factory, as far as Livingstone’s concerned. He believes MI5 has always conspired against him. In the weeks leading up to an election, for instance, it is traditional for the Labour Party to impose a gagging order on Comrade Ken. In 1992, he was even threatened with deselection unless he promised not to leave his constituency. In the run-up to the General Election this year, he was forbidden to give interviews unless authorised. ‘Within half an hour of my going into hiding, though, some bastard from the Telegraph office had tracked me down,’ he says. ‘I assume he was able to do this because there was a bug in my office. You really can get paranoid.’

Whatever the truth, it’s safe to assume that if MI5 had a file on Peter Mandelson, it would have a whole filing cabinet devoted to our Ken. ‘I think if Blair truly believes in open government, he should give every MP his file,’ Livingstone says. ‘I know there would be a lot of crap about me in mine and a lot of stuff that wasn’t in there that should be.’

It’s not impossible to imagine why, if it did, MI5 would have regarded Red Ken as a threat to national security at the height of the Cold War. But with the collapse of world Communism came a blurring of traditional political divisions. Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister because he seemed to be the most attractive Tory on offer at the time. Even Ken Livingstone is hard pushed to say what the traditional Left actually stands for now. ‘For most of my career the politics of Left and Right has been defined by where you stood on the Cold War between America and Russia. That’s all gone.’ The real split now, he says, is between the likes of him (full steam ahead on devolution, Europe, a stronger bill of rights, and proportional representation) and the Blairs, Browns and Mandelsons (who are, he says, dithering on these issues).

Perhaps there is another divide: between those who, like Mandelson, at least pretend they feel humility, and those who cannot ever admit that they might have misjudged a situation. Livingstone, for instance, once said Labour would be unelectable if it dropped unilateral disarmament. Er…? ‘We were shown to be right,’ Livingstone snaps testily. ‘We opposed spending £10 billion on Trident. We now have four nuclear submarines for which we have no conceivable use.’

We’ll take that as a no, then. But does he at least concede that the general perception is that the Cold War was won because the Warsaw Pact blinked first? ‘I’m not interested in what other people’s perception is,’ he says. ‘I’m just interested in whether my own intellectual position is coherent. A lot of my colleagues who used to be on the old hard Left of the party are now spouting all this waffle that you know they don’t believe. And that takes a terrible toll. Poor old David Blunkett decided he would play by the New Labour rules and he has never looked happy. He has no sense of fulfilment.’

In his small, nondescript office, Livingstone holds up, at arm’s length as though in fear of catching something unpleasant from it, a New Labour document which sets out the rules of conduct for  MPs. ‘It’s a bloody outrage,’ he says. ‘A reign of terror from the whips. Blair is just changing the rules as he goes along and surrounding himself with people who tell him what he wants to hear. Now, if you vote against the Party you are in breach of the rules. What is the point of electing MPs? I ask you.’

At least, he says, you can’t browbeat the Labour membership at home, which is why he’s been elected to the NEC. ‘If Mandelson had been elected, it would have been the final straw for many of us. Blair won every vote except the one that was the hardest to explain to the public. I mean, the spin they put on it was that Mandelson hadn’t consulted Blair before he stood. But is there anyone with an IQ over five who believes that? They are each other’s best friend.’

The New Labour Thought Police also forbid MPs to give interviews to the press without first gaining permission from Alastair Campbell, Tony  Blair’s chief press officer. Judging by the way Ken Livingstone describes Gordon Brown’s economic policy as being ‘bizarrely stupid’ it’s safe to assume that permission for this interview was neither sought nor given. Livingstone believes Brown’s policies are leading us into a recession which will reach its peak in the years 1999 and 2000. And he thinks Blair is giving Brown a free hand to do this so that he can wash his hands when things start to go wrong. ‘Brown hasn’t increased the taxes needed to cool the economy down,’ Livingstone says. ‘Instead he plans to abolish British industry by jacking up interest rates to the point where you can’t sell anything abroad.’

As he talks in his office, Livingstone keeps rummaging around in boxes and filing cabinets to produce graphs and charts that show why he thinks Britain is heading for one last downturn before it enters a period of global stability. He loads me down with copies of the ‘Socialist Economic Bulletin’, a database of independent economic analysis which he produces. Having come away with a U at O-level maths, I’m afraid my mind begins to wander at this point and I become distracted by a framed letter on the wall which describes Livingstone as an ’emerging world leader’. It is from Henry Kissinger. ‘Ah yes,’ Livingstone chuckles when he catches me reading it. ‘This is how the capitalists seduce you. What a load of nonsense.’

Yet Livingstone’s time as a world leader may still come. Assuming he or she has an independent budget, the Mayor of London will have an economy the size of Russia’s and an electorate of five million, which will make him or her the most presidential figure in British politics (even the Prime Minister only gets about 35,000 crosses against his name). If Livingstone gets the job – and with Jeffrey Archer way behind him in the opinion polls and Richard Branson declining to stand, he just might – he says he will sort out London’s traffic congestion and make sure museums and art galleries are free for everyone (to be paid for by a new airport tax).

Livingstone locks up his office for the day, carefully wrapping his keys in his hanky to stop them wearing his pockets, and ambles out into the autumn shadows playing across Whitehall. He has to get back to Cricklewood in time for Friends and, as he heads for the Tube, gusts of wind send leaves scurrying around his feet. Every policeman he passes greets him with a smile and bids him a friendly goodnight. Then, noticing some manure deposited on the road by a police horse, he stops for a moment and contemplates it. ‘I wish I had a bag for that,’ he mumbles. ‘I could really do with it for my roses.’ Red roses, presumably.

This appeared in the autumn of 1997. Despite Tony Blair’s Stakhanovite efforts to rig the mayoral election in 2000 – using an electoral college to put his man, Frank Dobson, in as the preferred New Labour candidate and then giving him access to the London membership database – Ken Livingstone won by a large majority, after going back on a promise not to stand as an independent candidate. His first words as mayor were a joke: ‘As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted 14 years ago…’