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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Sport
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football'Mr Marmite' faced the possibility of a 28-day ban
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
News
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower