How Red Ken turned cuddly

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The Independent Online
IT IS more than 17 years since Londoners woke to the news that a little-known, left-wing firebrand called Ken Livingstone had been chosen as their new leader.

In a spectacular piece of behind-the-scenes political manoeuvring, the man who was to be dubbed "Red Ken" by the tabloids had seized control of the Greater London Council's Labour Group and of County Hall itself.

Less than 24 hours after Labour had squeaked home to win the GLC elections by 42 per cent to the Tories' 40 per cent, the 35-year-old councillor won a caucus vote to head a party riven with internal division.

Within weeks, Mr Livingstone's affection for Sinn Fein, his lack of love for the Royal Family and his backing for homosexual, women's and minority rights had turned him into a national bogey figure.

His unconcealed loathing of Margaret Thatcher, symbolised by a huge unemployment update banner draped on the front of County Hall, and his gift for self- publicity meant that he was a constant thorn in the Government's side. Such was the Prime Minister's annoyance with the Livingstone phenomenon that she eventually abolished the GLC.

Yet today, Red Ken has become Cuddly Ken, a lovable, media-friendly politician who is always ready with a quick-witted quote with self-deprecating humour. The transformation from a man who was for years an embodiment of the Loony Left to a respectable, newt-loving Labour Mayoral candidate is indeed remarkable.

He regularly tops opinion polls as Londoners' choice as their first directly elected mayor and, along with Tory peer Jeffrey Archer, has dominated the television screens to such an extent that many people already assume he is Labour's official candidate.

Yesterday, the Brent East MP claimed he was proud of his record and even suggested he had proved years ahead of his time. "Virtually everything I did as leader of the GLC has become official party policy," he said. "Pro-public transport, democratic control of the police... homosexuals in the Cabinet, over 100 women MPs, even the negotiating with Sinn Fein..."

However, his opponents say he has not ditched his radical views. He may fondly recall the popularity of the GLC's "fares fair" policy of cheap travel but, they say, he is glossing over the furious controversy of his backing for Sinn Fein.

Millbank officials, the MP's avowed enemies, say his attempts to rewrite the history of his GLC tenure will not fool anyone within the party. A party source said it was clear he was trying to "airbrush" his image.

However, Livingstone supporters said last night it should be left to party members to decide whether they wanted Ken, be it the Red or the Cuddly one. "Nobody can say that his past is a secret, can they?" one said.