Interview: Ken Livingstone

An abridged version of this interview was originally published in The Oxford Student on 28th October 2010.

We meet Ken Livingstone at a coffee shop just around the corner from King’s Cross. This doyen of the British left sits alone at a table in the corner, unnoticed by the few remaining customers at surrounding tables, with a coffee in front of him and a characteristic twinkle in his eye. In a way, he seems to be a relic of a time passed – the age of old Labour, when it was still politically acceptable to talk about class, and politics meant more than the colour of your tie; an election victory seemed possible under Neil Kinnock, and the map had not yet been redrawn by Blair, whose version of New Labour was, Livingstone says, little more than “a marketing strategy”. Livingstone is also a figure from an earlier, optimistic era for London, when the capital city, under the Greater London Council, was a cosmopolitan haven from the austerity measures of Thatcher’s government. Marginalised by New Labour, disliked by Blair and Brown, and berated in the media for his radicalism, Livingstone is nonetheless still a vibrant politician, whose career is far from over. The former Mayor of London and 2012 contender has begun a rapprochement with the Party with which he has had such a love-hate relationship. Throughout our discussion Livingstone seems at times less like a politician and more like a history professor, and his strong London accent distinguishes him from the smooth-talking public school career politician of the sort characteristic of the high noon of New Labour.

Ken Livingstone decided the day after he lost the mayoral election in 2008 to Boris Johnson that he would run again in four years’ time. There was, he says, “no point waiting around.” Livingstone has held the office of Mayor of London for eight of the 10 years the post has existed, and he brought his trademark controversy with him. Known for his radicalism and willingness to ruffle feathers, Livingstone recently faced a second expulsion from the Labour Party because, critics said, his decision to support Lutfur Rahman in the Tower Hamlets mayoral election rather than the NEC favourite was an implicit snub to Ed Miliband. But Livingstone is a huge fan of the younger Miliband brother: “I really like Ed Miliband. I feel like we’re the Labour Party again. Not since John Smith have I sat through a Leader’s speech that was so rewarding.”

Cynics might be suspicious of the motives behind Livingstone’s approbation of the Leader of the Labour Party, but he has already won a mayoral election as an independent candidate, and pulls no punches when criticising Labour’s internal politics. He describes the leadership election and party politics in general as “incestuous” and sees the Blairite-Brownite divide as hypocritical and shallow: “Over the next two years they will all reorientate to Ed Miliband’s view.” It was Peter Mandelson’s “incredibly self-deceptive” endorsement of David Miliband in his autobiography that ruined the latter’s chances of becoming party leader, but “the difference between the brothers is really quite small.”

One of the themes of Livingstone’s career is his reluctance to toe the party line. He has always been outspoken and provocative, even when doing so has imperilled his own political career. In 1982 he travelled to Northern Ireland to meet Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison, then leaders of Sinn Fein, after they had been turned away from the mainland on their way to visit Livingstone in London. He was subsequently described in The Sun as “the most odious man in Britain.” He is often mocked for his staunchly leftist political views when he appears on television or when he is discussed in newspapers, but this has never deterred him. He embraces the ‘Red’ prefix that the media has attached to both his name and Ed Miliband’s, though he doesn’t think Ed deserves it. “People need a framework. For me, it’s socialism.”

It is a brave thing for a mayoral candidate to vocalise his political beliefs in this way, and perhaps Livingstone stops short of extending the ‘Red’ soubriquet to Ed Miliband out of concern for the latter’s political wellbeing. Livingstone stills believes the Labour Party is too centrist, but he also believes that “New Labour is dead. But then, it never actually existed. It was a marketing strategy.”

Livingstone’s reputation as an ideological hard-left radical is in some ways unfair: he always puts pragmatism before abstract ideology. It is possible, he says, “[to] have an ideology and be practical. Mayors around the world are very much more focused on the practical side in comparison to Prime Ministers. I still approach a problem by ‘how does it work’?” He gives the example of the congestion charge, which was accused of being a regressive tax that “kept poor people off the roads.” But in reality, he says, traffic into the city was far too heavy and something had to change.

Transport is a central concern for Ken Livingstone; he introduced the ‘Fares Fair’ scheme whilst sitting on the Greater London Council, which made public transport cheaper and increased its use. He phased out the old Routemaster model buses to be replaced by wheelchair-friendly bendy buses, and crossed swords with Labour high command over the privatisation of the London Underground. Livingstone had plans to introduce trams and build a new bridge in London, along a continental model – British transport is “an embarrassment” – and complains that Boris Johnson has “stopped every building project that was not contractually protected,” apart from the bikes scheme. Does it bother him that his flagship scheme has become known as ‘Boris’ bikes’? “At the end of the day people won’t know who Ken or Boris were, but they will still be using the bikes.” It is this sort of attitude that contradicts Frank Dobson’s claims that Livingstone is an egomaniac. He is far more concerned that Boris Johnson “doesn’t believe in affordable fares” or affordable housing, less bothered by his presentation in the media.

The compelling power of Livingstone’s politics lies in his ability to match the realities of the world the way it is with a vision of the world as it should be. He can talk at length about the intricacies of the electoral boundaries, the problem of gerrymandering in America, and the statistical details of municipal infrastructure in a way that seems almost technocratic, but his fundamental views are actually extremely clear. Livingstone avoids Westminster doublespeak, answering questions directly even when it could damage him. When it comes to broader issues, Livingstone has statist, old left views – he would abolish private education and parental selection of schools, and ensure that every local school had a mix of “classes, races and faiths.” As it is, “you have mothers driving little Algernon across North London because they say he would be bullied at the local school, which means there are black kids, basically.” Livingstone has a wicked sense of humour, underwritten by a cold understanding of class politics, but one which he will not admit is Marxist – a dirty word in modern politics: “Almost in every country people pretend like class doesn’t exist. In every society in human history there are those with power and those with wealth, and in many ways history is about that struggle.”

Unlike some of his meeker peers on the left, Livingstone is clear about how he would handle the budget deficit. He is adamant that public spending must remain high in order to protect welfare and prevent unemployment. A baby boomer whose “generation had the luckiest life in British history,” Livingstone, now 65 years old, says that “the biggest single thing to deal with the deficit is that by 2020 we would raise the retirement age to 70,” though not necessarily for manual workers who are unable to keep working. He also believes that a more progressive tax system and Keynesian job creation are the correct way to address the deficit: “Keynes and Marx don’t have a lot of differences – they just have different ways of expressing their ideas. The broad Marxist/Keynesian model of economy is going to be borne out. There are going to be seven years of low growth. It’s barking mad.” Livingstone is in a position to know what he’s talking about: he has already seen one round of Tory cuts under Thatcher result in high unemployment, when he famously placed a billboard listing the rising unemployment figures on the roof of County Hall opposite Westminster.

Livingstone believes strongly in the right to work and says that, contrary to tabloid folklore, the ‘benefit culture’ so often blamed on Labour’s welfare spending was in fact an offshoot of the Thatcherite marginalisation of labour. As an MP in the 1970s and 80s, he witnessed first hand the effect of Tory cuts: “Under Thatcher, no new opportunities were created. I had people coming into my surgery saying they went to get benefits and were told to go on the sick. They started watching daytime television, sat around all day, and they became sick. You lose the will to live. You’re going to be living through it, but it’ll be worse.”

He also believes the Tory cuts are ideological: “You saw Osborne’s ghastly smug face when he was reading out the spending cuts – thinking the poor will have to get off their arses, where he’s never done a real day’s work in his life. Sod me, it ended up like the SDP – ‘we’re all in this together’. They’re not the top 1%. They’re the top 1% of the top 10%.” But at least “Thatcher was much clearer about the class interests of her policies.”

In many ways, Livingstone is patriotic. He is offended by the Americanophilia of Osborne and Cameron, who, he says “just looked for an excuse to reduce the size of the state and make it more like America. They all regret the fact that they weren’t born in America, so they could’ve run for President. They’re all in love with America, like Blair was.” But the London Livingstone loves is a multicultural, democratic and accepting one – characterised by Brick Lane rather than the City, and forward-looking rather than dragged down by sentimental navel-gazing and nostalgic visions of the past. He was criticised for phasing out the much loved Routemaster buses – another example of his pragmatism trumping his own affection for the old buses.

Indeed, Livingstone takes many of his lessons from other countries. He is a fan of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, and also expresses support for some of China’s policies: “China is the biggest economic success story: no country has ever grown so rapidly. They kept control of their great economic powers and let private enterprise grow up around it. Here, the government is begging people to in invest in it. China have got it right – there was no neoliberal experiment of handing wealth over to the corporate sector.” He does not think China is imperialist, but rather that they “have learnt from the West’s mistakes: the West extracted raw materials and sent them to ports.” China, by contrast, concentrates on domestic manufacturing and keeps raw materials within its borders. Consequently, there is now a global shift of power to Asia: “There is a trade imbalance between China and America, but not between China and the rest of the world. America should devalue the dollar.”

China is not only a model in avoiding private sector predation, either. Livingstone – a fervent environmentalist – also sees China as one of the world’s last hopes against climate change: “I think there’s a good chance human civilisation won’t be around at the end of the century. Your children may not be here. Climate change has had such a bad impact already. But China has been making huge climatological studies.” If China has started to take seriously the impact of climate change on its own environment, there is hope that an international agreement about the issue could have real significance.

The coffee shop is closing, and we get up to leave. But I have one last question for Ken Livingstone: why has he never run for Leader of the Labour Party? Despite being lambasted in the media and by the centrists of the Labour Party, he was popular as Mayor of London, and was re-elected even though he faced criticism from the left and right alike. He says the thought did occur to him, but he knew he wouldn’t win. “Our media has a complete obsession with youth and celebrity.” There is also an aversion in mainstream politics to the sort of outspokenness and candour that defines Ken Livingstone. After all, you can always rely on Ken Livingstone to be honest, even if you don’t like what he has to say.



The Oxford Student

Oxford's Newspaper since 1991