Johann Hari: Why I admire Ken, a unique politician

Forget rows drummed up by his enemies, says Johann Hari. Livingstone has been brave and his views vindicated by history
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Indy Politics

Haven't we heard this tune before? In the blue corner, Ken is accused of evil crimes by the right-wing press. In the red corner, Ken says it's all a gross distortion and won't back down. The crowd takes its position on the Mayor's cheeky chappie persona - and the facts are quickly forgotten.

Haven't we heard this tune before? In the blue corner, Ken is accused of evil crimes by the right-wing press. In the red corner, Ken says it's all a gross distortion and won't back down. The crowd takes its position on the Mayor's cheeky chappie persona - and the facts are quickly forgotten.

Well, just for a moment, let's block out the nasal voice and the long-buried moustache, and look instead at the truth about Ken. The current row about Ken's supposed anti-Semitism is a case study of how his arguments have been distorted throughout his career.

If you depended on the reports in the Evening Standard or the rest of the right-wing press, you would think Ken had randomly, viciously singled out a Jew and deliberately accused him of being a Nazi. Here's what happened in the real world. In the middle of the night, Ken was approached by a reporter from a newspaper that has been running a vicious and highly personal hate campaign against him. My guess is that the reporter was there for one purpose and one purpose only: to stitch Ken up. The Mayor snapped at the reporter, asking him why he worked for a company that has a history of supporting fascists and remains stridently right-wing today.

This was a bit of a cheap shot, but it's perfectly true. The first Viscount Rothermere - whose family still owns the company that publishes the Evening Standard and Daily Mail - took a pro-Nazi line throughout the 1930s, writing articles like "Hurrah for the Blackshirts" and writing fawning accounts of their meetings with Adolf Hitler. His newspapers attacked the Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany for bringing "crime and disease" in remarkably similar terms to those used in the same papers today.

I don't know how lucid Ken's critics are when they leave a party at midnight after a few drinks, but Ken is clearly like most of the population: a bit all over the place. He didn't make his argument very well, and ended up comparing the reporter to a concentration camp guard. Crude? Yes. Anti-Semitic? Don't be silly.

But these basic facts - which are not in dispute - have not prevented the right-wing press whipping up a fake row. Never mind that last year, anti-Semitic attacks in Britain rose by 40 per cent, or that the most grotesque defamations about Jews are creeping back into our public debate. Nope; the real problem with anti-Semitism comes from the Mayor of London - a man with a long history of opposing all racism, all the time.

Distortions like this have plagued Ken Livingstone throughout his career - and in the long term, it's usually Ken and not his critics who is vindicated. Look at gay rights. At the height of a hysterical homophobic campaign about the "promotion" of homosexuality to children - led by the Murdoch press and their playthings in the Conservative Party - Ken dared to stand in defence of London's gay community. He funded and tirelessly defended "loony left" policies like helplines for gay teenagers and the distribution of leaflets aimed at children with lesbian mothers - and in return, he was dubbed "the most odious man in Britain" by The Sun. And now? Even Michael Howard and The Sun clamour to support gay marriage. When it comes to gay rights, we are all Livingstoneites now.

And in another, even more controversial area, Ken has turned out to be more right than wrong. As head of the Greater London Council, Livingstone invited Gerry Adams - the head of Sinn Fein-IRA - to this city. Northern Ireland was on fire, and the smoke was getting into the eyes of every British citizen. The British government was arming a sectarian war, and within a few years it would - we now know - back paramilitary death squads. Retaliatory IRA bombs were exploding across Britain, often - appallingly - against civilian targets.

At the time, the Northern Ireland issue was widely presented as a question of "terrorism"; Margaret Thatcher declared that the IRA were "simply criminals, nothing more" and said: "Belfast is as much part of Britain as my constituency." Ken, by contrast, understood that we were not in the middle of a crime spree but a war, and it could only be brought to an end by a negotiated peace. At the time, this argument - never mind negotiating with Gerry Adams - was depicted as an act of raw evil.

And now? Adams has been greeted and embraced by a British prime ministers. These days, only eccentrics deny that Sinn Fein - the elected representatives of a majority of Northern Ireland's Catholics - have to be at the dead-centre of peace in Northern Ireland.

And there's more. Ken saw the importance of well-funded public transport, at a time when Margaret Thatcher was saying that "anybody who still travels by bus at the age of 30 is a failure". Ken understood the importance of environmentalism long before it entered the political mainstream, and he is currently pushing through plans for London to become far more dependent on renewable energy sources. (But who cares about such trivia when there's a juicy, stupid row to be had?)

Is he perfect? Of course not. His influence on national Labour politics has often been appalling. He was far too close to the anti-democratic madmen of Militant tendency, and he made a terrible misjudgement when he opposed Neil Kinnock's party reforms and later - bizarrely - attacked Gordon Brown as a "right-wing influence dragging down Tony Blair". Recently, he brought the far-right Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi to London, played down his extremism and slandered critics of Qaradawi as "Islamophobic".

But Ken's willingness to veer wildly off the political script in strange directions can also be an asset: he is, for example, the only senior British politician today calling for "a United States of Europe" and vehemently defending refugees.

Perhaps that is his greatest strength of all: Ken is resolutely, violently un- boring. In an age of Geoff Hoons and Michael Ancrams - pure electoral Valium - Ken keeps us awake. You can order me a triple espresso of Livingstone any time.