Gerald Kaufman: Don't be fooled by this smarmy charlatan

The mayor is a master of reinvention, but the old, divisive Red Ken still lurks behind the cheeky grin, argues Gerald Kaufman
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Funny. The last time I met Ken Livingstone, at a reception at the London Film Festival not long ago, he raised the subject of Jews.

Funny. The last time I met Ken Livingstone, at a reception at the London Film Festival not long ago, he raised the subject of Jews.

Livingstone and I had not been on good terms for many years. During those dread 18 years of Labour in opposition, we had intermittently traded insults on the state of the party, his about me generally being cruder than mine about him, though I did once describe him in the House of Commons as "a smarmy charlatan". At one point I had advocated his expulsion from the party, a state of affairs he brought about himself when he stood as an Independent for Mayor of London in 2000. I fruitlessly opposed his readmission to the Labour Party in time for the 2004 mayoral election. I voted against him in 2000, supporting the Labour candidate, Frank Dobson. Last June, unwilling to vote for any other candidate but Labour but equally unwilling to put my cross next to Livingstone's name, I spoiled my ballot paper for Mayor while voting Labour in the Assembly elections.

I was, therefore, flattered when at the Film Festival reception Livingstone, displaying the charm which has won him many friends, approached me in the most amicable manner and generously complimented me on a newspaper article I had written about the hunt supporters who had mobbed me with anti-semitic taunts at last September's Labour Party conference. When a photographer asked to take a picture of us together he said to me in a reference to my support of the Palestinians' cause: "This will prove to the Jewish Chronicle that you are a self-hating Jew."

So, up to last Friday, Livingstone and I were, perhaps, on the friendliest terms that we had ever been. Then came his exchange with the Evening Standard journalist, Oliver Finegold, outside the party Livingstone was giving for Chris Smith. It was deplorable enough that Livingstone should ask Finegold if he was a German war criminal without knowing he was Jewish. In this year of the commemoration of the Auschwitz liberation, such a comment was crudely insensitive, to say the least. But for him to continue on that theme when Finegold said that he was Jewish was totally unforgivable. That, of course, is the view that has been expressed by the London Assembly, by Labour MPs - many of whom advocated Livingstone's return to the party last year - and of the entire spectrum of the press, from far left to hard right.

Livingstone could easily have said he was sorry and buried the whole episode without trace. He had a lot riding on his doing so. Not simply the potential impact of his remarks on the International Olympic Committee representatives who have been visiting London this week, but on his personal reputation.

For Livingstone is the only man I know in politics who has been able to transform his own personality, achieving in spades until the last few days what Michael Howard has not the tiniest idea how to bring about. From being one of the most intransigent members of the hard left, Livingstone remade himself, with immense success, as a non-ideological cheeky chappie whose charm even the hardest hearts found almost impossible to resist, and which worked its spell on me at that Film Festival encounter.

Yet, we now know, behind the grin the old Ken Livingstone still lurks, that same old Ken Livingstone whose extreme left politics, together with the activities of Anthony Wedgwood Benn and the National Union of Mineworkers leader Arthur Scargill, played a key role in creating an image of the Labour Party that kept the party out of office from 1979 to 1987.

There are, too, other legacies that Livingstone has left us. Never forget that, immediately after the Greater London Council elections in 1981, he ousted Andrew McIntosh, who had led Labour to victory in those elections, from the leadership in an instant post-election coup. Good Labour issues, such as the "Fares Fair" transport policy which helped the party to win, were misrepresented by Margaret Thatcher as extremist because they were associated with Livingstone and resulted five years later in her abolition not only of the GLC but of all the other Labour-controlled metropolitan county councils.

As Shadow Environment Secretary at the time I had the disagreeable duty of attending the last GLC meeting at County Hall, over which Livingstone had flaunted a banner during his period of leadership periodically giving the latest number of unemployed. The GLC itself was now numbered among those unemployed. County Hall had been the home first of the London County Council and then of the GLC. From this historic building Labour administration had achieved great benefits for Londoners, including most visibly the superb Waterloo Bridge for which Herbert Morrison was responsible.

I go there now from time to time, and a depressing relic it is. The marvellous old chamber where the LCC/GLC met is now used occasionally for corporate-sponsored debates by the South Bank Senate. The building which made history for Londoners is now part-hotel, part-aquarium, part-art gallery (named after one of the family whose Tory-commissioned advertising agency helped Thatcher to stay in power) and fast-food outlets. The inscription on St Paul's Cathedral, said to have been written by the son of its architect, Sir Christopher Wren, reads: " Si monumentum requiris, circumspice" [If you seek a monument, gaze around]. Anyone looking for a monument of Livingstone's ill-fated leadership of the GLC needs only to look at the sad edifice which County Hall has now become.

Livingstone's next electoral venture was into the House of Commons, as MP for Brent East. Unlike his former GLC colleague Tony Banks - who is very popular in the House, was a sparky Sports Minister, and can credit among his achievements this week's marvellous hunting ban - Livingstone was a loner who made no impact whatever in the Commons.

Having started in electoral politics in 1971, serving successively on the notoriously leftist Lambeth and Camden councils, Livingstone during his political career has uttered millions of words, some funny, many contentious and, as he himself has accepted this week, at least a few offensive. Over this third of a century he has amassed a vast rhetorical vocabulary. Only three words seem to evade his eloquence: "I am sorry."