Nobody else in British politics has been around as long as Ken Livingstone. He was a household name before Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were even in Parliament, when David Cameron and Boris Johnson were still at Eton. He was cutting his teeth in politics as a young London councillor before George Osborne was born.
Now, for the fourth time in a little over a decade, the nation’s best known newt fancier is asking the Labour Party to adopt him as their candidate for the London mayoral election.
His rival for the nomination, Oona King, is of the same generation as Ed Balls and the Miliband brothers, whereas Livingstone is at least 20 years older than the next Labour leader, whoever he may be. If he wins the Labour nomination, he will be running for Mayor at the age of 66, and if he wins that, he will be nearly 71 when his term of office ends.
One argument deployed in King’s favour is that she is the future, while Livingstone is a throwback to Labour’s election losing past. Equally unsurprisingly, one of the causes Livingstone now champions with great fervour is the right of pensioners’ to carry on working.
“We of the post-war generation are incredibly fit,” he says. “When my parents’ generation reached their fifties they were exhausted. Now the Government is going to have to get used to people working into their seventies. Boris even said we have all got to work into our eighties, so I’m just helping out.
“I watched Tony Blair as Prime Minister make mistakes that I made as a 26-year-old councillor in Lambeth. He spent his first term learning how to do the job, and it’s painfully obvious, watching Boris, that’s exactly what he’s doing as well.” The implication is that Oona King would be another inexperienced pair of hands.
This is all vintage Livingstone – a touch of humour to round off a serious point, an outrageous denigration of a Labour leader, and total self-belief. If Livingstone ever experiences self-doubt, he never allows it to show. He has courted controversy time and again, often appearing to provoke outrage for the love of the attention it achieves, but he has never gone on record to say that he was wrong.
Some of this overweening confidence comes from being proved right against people who thought they knew better. It is hard to imagine that another mayor would have taken on the motoring lobby and introduced London’s congestion charge. Now no one seriously proposes to abolish it. When The Sun denounced Livingstone nearly 30 years ago as “The Most Odious Man in Britain”, it was because he advocated dialogue with Irish terrorists, a dozen years before a Tory government opened talks with the IRA.
If he was right then, it follows – at least in Livingstone’s mind – that he must be right now when, for example, he embraces Yusuf al Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric who has defended suicide bombers in Israel, who has denounced homosexuality as a perversion, and who is quoted as having described the Holocaust as God’s punishment for Jewish corruption.
“We’re not going to get al Qaradawi on the next (Gay) Pride march, and we may disagree with him about suicide bombers in Israel, but when I spoke to him I heard him say that men must not strike women, and homosexuals must not be persecuted. He was the first leading Muslim to condemn the attacks in London on 7/7.
“There are loads of lovely, radical leftie Muslims who represent groups of a few hundred, but if you look at how Sunni Muslims are divided internationally, the two dominant strands in contention are the Saudi-backed Wahhabi – intolerant, broadly underpinning the Taliban and al-Qa’ida – and then you’ve got Sheikh Qaradawi writing about how Islam can engage with he modern world.”
In remarks like these, Livingstone’s admirers hear the voice of a civic leader anxiously reaching out to the capital’s large Muslim population, but his detractors see something else. Livingstone may be an experienced councillor who talks knowledgeably about transport systems, urban development and inward investment, but there is a side of him reminiscent of Dave Spart, Private Eye’s fictitious toytown revolutionary.
We meet to talk in Tavistock Square, north London, where 300 mostly elderly peaceniks were taking part in an open air ceremony that resembled a religious service, commemorating the dead of Hiroshima. Livingstone, who has to earn a living as a broadcaster and writer, as well as being a constant presence in London’s city hall, thought it worth his time to join them and give a short speech on the pernicious influence of the US arms industry.
He is almost unique among British civic leaders in seeking advice from Trotskyite intellectuals. He was unembarrassed by a television programme presented two years ago by Martin Bright, then the Political Editor of New Statesman, which revealed how many of Mayor Livingstone’s highly paid advisers belonged to a Marxist grouplet called Socialist Action, founded by a 1960s radical named John Ross. Even as Livingstone is seeking endorsement from the Labour Party, he still turns to Ross and others for advice. Why?
“Because these are brilliant people,” he said. “We didn’t turn round the transport system without having really talented people who understood the politics of these things. The civil service are risk averse. When we were pushing through a policy of free bus travel for the under 18s, every single transport professional was opposed to it. The reason we did that was a redistribution of wealth. That’s a political dimension that Sir Humphreys don’t want to engage with.”
And Trotskyites are not the only rare and secretive creatures on whom he lavishes devotion. How are the newts? I asked.
“You don’t really see the newts much because they hide, but they turn up in late February to have sex,” he replied. “You wonder how any creature can enjoy having sex in cold water in late February, but they do. As soon they have laid all their eggs, they leave the pond, about June, and spend the rest of their time living under logs, in tiny crevices. I have got a big log pile basically running all the way around the garden. Every branch I cut as I prune goes on the log pile.”
Switching topics without a pause for breath, Livingstone added: “My dream is that one day stag beetles will start laying their eggs, because I haven’t seen a stag beetle inside the North Circular or South Circular for 30 years. I’d love my kids to come running in saying ‘Look, there’s this vast beetle, with huge antlers’.”
Yes, leaving aside stag beetles, who gets Livingstone’s vote in the ongoing Labour leadership election?
The answer, surprisingly, is Ed Balls. This is surprising because when Livingstone was Mayor, his relations with Balls’s mentor, Gordon Brown, were even worse than with Tony Blair. His explanation is simply that he believes that if Balls were Prime Minister, he would control the civil service, whereas the front runner, David Miliband, would be ruled by civil servants. This judgement is based on his dealings with them four years ago, when they were, respectively, Economic Secretary to the Treasury and Environment Secretary four years ago.
When he asked Balls for £5 billion of public money towards the cost of an east to west rail link across London, he got it. “Of all the ministers I dealt with, he was the one most in command of his department, whereas when I went to see old David Miliband and I said ‘I want you to transfer recycling to the Mayor’s office because in London we’ve got the worst recycling record anywhere in western Europe’, his officials said ‘you can’t do that’ and he just went along with it.”
But Livingstone is not speaking as a detached observer. As he himself pointed out, the MPs and unions who have nominated David Miliband almost exactly match their London counterparts who are backing Oona King, while Livingstone has hoovered up most of the nominations which, nationally, have gone to David Miliband’s four opponents.
The main difference between the two contests is that, in London, the ideological division is clearer, because Livingstone is to the left of any of the four male candidates in the leadership election. Oona King is a Blairite, while Livingstone does not even credit Blair with being a vote winner in Labour’s great 1997 landslide victory. In that year, Livingstone claims, the public was so sick of the Conservatives that Labour won have won if their leader had been “Neil Kinnock, John Smith or the proverbial pig’s bladder on a stick.”
Remarks like that would cost Livingstone heavily if he running for the national party leadership, but the London Labour Party is traditionally to the left of the party in the rest of the country. If the number of nominations he has picked up him are an accurate guide, he is on course to beat Oona King. The big question is whether he could then beat Boris Johnson in 2012.
London was invited to choose between Livingstone and Johnson in 2008, and a lot of people wonder whether they are likely to give a different answer if they are asked a second time. Livingstone is convinced they will, for reasons that are characteristically immodest:
“After eight years of me as Mayor, people forgot just how messy it was when I took over,” he said. “People didn’t feel threatened. There was nothing particularly gloomy on the horizon. So along comes jokey Boris, and they vote for him.
“The next election’s going to be much more serious. There is no way you can make a joke about the scale of the fare increases he has already done, let alone what he’s going to do.
“Boris is incredibly clever, but he’s also lazy. I don’t think he actually expected or intended to win. His real problem is that instead of accepting this as the second best job in British politics, he basically wants to return to Parliament to succeed Cameron. All great world cities need mayors who are innovative, take risks, and Boris is risk adverse.”
Some people have unkindly suggested that Livingstone is like some ageing thespian who cannot bear to leave the stage even when the audience had had enough. But he does not see it like that at all. It’s not that Livingstone craves for his old job back; it is London that needs Livingstone – or so he firmly believes.