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.



'Interview: Ken Livingstone' have 16 comments

  1. 08/04/2011 @ 08:25 titus

    this is so biased its silly.

  2. 08/04/2011 @ 13:11 Sophie

    Yes, it is biased. It is in the comment section.

  3. 08/04/2011 @ 14:08 titus

    ok cool. silly biased articles are ok, cos the’re in the comments bit. in that case, do you think she can copy/paste something from BP too, they’ve really suffered since the oil mishap. end it with something like, ‘you can always rely on BP to oil the truth, even if you dont like what they have to oil’.
    other ideas to include:
    ‘you can always rely on Chavez to tell the Gadaffi, even if you dont like what he has to Ken’
    ‘you can always rely on nato to bomb the truth, even if you dont like what they have to Palestine’
    itll totally fit in with missFitz journo style.

  4. 16/04/2011 @ 11:48 domitian

    Titus: first you complained that the article was biased, and then when the author pointed out that it appeared in the comment section, you revised your appraisal to “silly”. You don’t offer any justification for your opinion, which is a shame, because it makes you look silly.

  5. 16/04/2011 @ 11:50 Anne Beswick

    Titus, have you considered taking English lessons? You appear not to understand the concept of ‘comment’. Furthermore, your punctuation is an embarrassment. Please reassure me that you are not an Oxford student.

    I think dismissing this article as ‘silly’ is cheap. It is an open interview and is not pretending to be something that it is not.

    Anne

  6. 18/04/2011 @ 10:48 titus

    doimini – the author admitted bias. try to read a bit faster matey.

    mr beswick – if you had stuck to your own concept of the word ‘comment’ you surely wouldnt have put on your uggs to squeal about punchuattion.

    although an extract, it doesnt read like an open interview, and seemed to be pretending that its not a pseudo party political script with some veeery cringe inducing lines. its only a student paper, a bit of fun as kids play reporter, but its a shame it can be so easily high-jacked.

  7. 20/04/2011 @ 07:16 Matthew

    “One of the themes of Livingstone’s career is his reluctance to tow the party line” It should be ‘toe’, not ‘tow’.

  8. 20/04/2011 @ 21:00 Jahan

    Let me just say that I was present in this interview with Mr Livingstone and we were genuinely impressed with him. I was constantly looking for traces of ‘leftist’ thought in his analysis. I can say first-hand that he is someone who clearly thinks independently and comes to his own conclusions. Unlike other politicians this is evident in his political career as has been pointed out above.

    As Sophie says, comments articles necessarily take a perspective in order to communicate opinions to the reader. Our starting position was an assumption that Mr Livingstone was viewed by the public as a caricature with hard-line and old-fashioned politics. I was expecting some of that myself before I met him.

    Nonetheless, he had such an incredible knowledge of the practical side of policy-making and ability to keep his political thought on-track with (post)modern developments that we couldn’t help but feel he deserved a fair hearing.

    Yes I am proud to be left-wing and I would think Sophie would feel the same way. What’s unbearably ‘silly’ is when people who disagree emotively make condescending comments. If you’ve got an issue feel free to write your own article based on novel research. I’d be happy to post personal attacks on your article.

  9. 24/04/2011 @ 13:05 auditthemedia

    Notoelectedexecutivemayorintowerhamlets

    You state: “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”.
    There is nothing in the body of your item to substantiate the statement that Livingstone “faced ANY expulsion” at all. What you have confused as “facing expulsion” is the plethora of ROUTINE media hypes around Ken Livingstone. As for the statement that it was his “decision to support” an individual about or “in the” “mayoral election”, a few core facts need to be added for pure evidence and reference. Livingstone did not just support any named person in the event, he had been THE most-publicly identified Labour Party Personality who had been USED to promote the YES campaign even before that campaign had any known basis to claim “victory”. On Saturday 6 February 2010, it was Livingstone who appeared as THE MAIN PERSONALITY associated with THE LABOUR PARTY who addressed the “launch” of the “YES FOR A MAYOR” campaign in Tower Hamlets. At that stage, even a “referendum” on the question of whether the borough [of inner city East London] should have an elected mayor or not had not been held. So nobody was identified as a candidate. Nobody could be. After that date, it was again Livingstone who played the key PERSONALITY role in promoting the YES VOTE at the referendum during several months of the campaign. He was the ONLY SUCH PERSONALITY that was featured in the glossy promotional leaflet produced for a YES VOTE at the referendum [that was at that time scheduled for 6 May 2010]. After the 6 May 2010, it was again Ken Livingstone who played a key role in promoting the interests of those who wanted an elected mayor system. It was after those stages that any name was mooted as a possible candidate in the name of the Labour Party. Livingstone did not face any expulsion. And the rumours in the media were routinely floated about Livingstone “deserving” expulsion on all manner of grounds long before it was even suggested that Ed Miliband would be in post as the holder of the post of “Leader of the Labour Party”. Why is it that Livingstone did not face expulsion? The controlling bureaucracy in place in the name if the Labour Party has known the utility of allowing Ken Livingstone to pose as the most effective and tends-linked recruiter of vote fodder from the relevant sections in the eligible electorate. Livingstone has done this in his 40 year career as a handsomely paid and rewarded Labour Party bureaucrat. His selling point has been his diversity slogan!

  10. 26/04/2011 @ 21:55 Liz

    “it doesnt read like an open interview, and seemed to be pretending that its not a pseudo party political script with some veeery cringe inducing lines. its only a student paper, a bit of fun as kids play reporter, but its a shame it can be so easily high-jacked.”

    Have you ever read a newspaper titus? If an interview is set out like a script, it’s a pretty shabby write-up. Good interview articles embed the interview in an article that should be making points of its own, as is done here. Your immature and strangely bitter tone really undermines any legitimate points might have had… if you’d had any. Maybe you ought to lighten up. You obviously don’t think that the paper is ‘a bit of fun for kids’, or you probably wouldn’t have taken it so shamelessly personally. If you can’t stop taking yourself so seriously, maybe you should keep your sour opinions to yourself or your counselor, rather than inflict others with it in public spaces.

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