Ken Livingstone has been in frontline politics so long that in 1986, when Boris Johnson was at university, theatre goers flocked to a stage show called The Ratepayers' Iolanthe, satirising Livingstone's career as Britain's most famous council leader. Its star, David Kernan, did a superb impersonation of his distinctive London twang.
Every step in Livingstone's extraordinary career has been marked by controversy, starting with his emergence as leader of the Greater London Council in 1981. Before polling day, the Labour group was led by a mainstream politician named Andrew McIntosh. But when Labour seized control of the GLC from the Tories, the much expanded Labour group sacked McIntosh and installed the very left wing young Livingstone in his place.
Under his leadership, the GLC introduced a dramatic cut in fares – until the Tory-led Bromley council obtained an extraordinary court judgement ordering them to put the fares up again. Livingstone also hit the headlines by advocating negotiations with the IRA, championing gay rights, and spending lavishly to try to attract jobs to London – all highly controversial policies at the time. The Sun named him "The Most Odious Man in Britain".
The government abolished the GLC, but Livingstone obtained a Commons seat in 1987 – again in controversial circumstances, after a former minister Reg Freeson was deselected by the Brent East Labour Party to make room for him. By the time Livingstone arrived in Parliament, his outspoken criticisms of Neil Kinnock and aspects of his past made him so unpopular that the Labour whips spitefully refused to find him a desk or any work space in the building.
His years as backbench MP were unsuccessful, so he set his sights on being London's first ever directly elected Mayor. The party, under Tony Blair's leadership, was equally determined to stop him, and wielded the union block vote to ensure he was not adopted as Labour candidate. Despite having promised not to, Livingstone ran as an independent, and humiliated the Labour candidate.
As Mayor, he made the bold move of introducing the congestion charge, which no one else would have dared do, and was sufficiently popular that the Labour Party – from which he was expelled in 2000 – welcomed him back so he could be their candidate in 2004. While his strengths included his immense knowledge of London, his attention to detail and a willingness to take risks, he was hampered by a love of controversy which involved him in pointless scrapes and alienated most of the capital's Jewish community. At one point, he was suspended from office by some obscure body with the authority to do so, because had insulted a Jewish journalist.
In the current campaign, he added to his difficulties when it became known that his substantial earnings were paid into a company so he could avoid income tax, after he had insouciantly condemned other tax avoiders. He could blame his defeat in the 2008 mayoral election on the unpopularity of the Labour government, but yesterday's defeat was personal.
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