Ken Livingstone: ‘Politics is dominated by mad people like Tony Blair and David Cameron’
PUBLISHED: 08:00 14 April 2016
PA/Press Association Images
The Minister for Zimmer Frames, Ken Livingstone, talks Jeremy Corbyn, anti-Semitism claims and fearing Boris Johnson with Daniel Wittenberg.
In September, Ken Livingstone remarked that he was almost ready to be Minister for Zimmer Frames.
Now, the former Mayor of London is back on the treadmill, rejuvenated by the upsurge in left-wing activism, and he has even written a manifesto for the future of the Labour Party.
As the most experienced and conspicuous ally of Jeremy Corbyn – the maverick politicians have worked closely together since Livingstone became leader of the Greater London Council and Corbyn was elected MP for Islington North in the early 1980s – his outlook is significant.
From blaming Tony Blair for the 7/7 London bombings on Question Time to complaining that a hedge fund donation to Labour backbencher Dan Jarvis was like “Jimmy Savile funding a children’s group,” Livingstone has not hidden from the headlines during his Corbynite renaissance.
He unites few except his enemies but, however contentious the cause, however obscure the motive, you have to commend his conviction. So, is this the ‘straight-talking, honest politics’ championed by the Labour leader, or are critics right to call him foul-mouthed and disingenuous?
Livingstone vows that he is going to be “busting a gut” to get Corbyn into Downing Street because he regards every British government after 1945 as a failure.
“There have been only two elections in my lifetime that changed things,” he asserts. “Attlee’s, which created a much fairer society and gave us the best quality of life in human history, and Thatcher’s, which reversed all that.”
Despite saying the same about Ed Miliband before the 2015 election, he passionately believes that a victory for Corbyn would be the third. “Politics is dominated by mad people like Tony Blair and David Cameron, for whom it seems to be about being there rather than doing anything.
“Jeremy would be a complete game-changer because he is focused on the issues – rebalancing our economy, stopping tax avoidance, building good housing, tackling climate change.”
Twice an incumbent of the top role in London regional government, he employed pragmatism in staging a coup of the GLC leadership through an internal ballot of Labour members and drew support from across the political spectrum to seize the Mayoralty as an independent candidate in 2000.
Yet, in moments of complacency or ill-discipline, he has been scorned as an ideologue.
He has been there, done that and, indeed, bought the T-shirt (Livingstone greets me at his Cricklewood home wearing an old-school number bearing the slogan, ‘Old Labour’) but he appears most comfortable debating theory or berating his former foes, starting with a colossal takedown of New Labour.
“They live in this fantasy world, thinking that Blair was the highpoint in human civilization, but it turns out he was so much worse than even I thought. He carried on Thatcher’s policies, wiping out manufacturing, and had no long-term strategy for housing, education or health.”
Although he is widely praised for his pioneering support of issues such as LGBT rights and racial equality while MP for Brent and his leadership as London Mayor during the 2005 terror attacks, when asked about his proudest achievement, Livingstone reverts to tongue-lashing.
“I suppose my greatest success,” he proclaims, “is that I stood up to Thatcher and Blair and I survived.”
Pertinently, he is blistering in his criticism of both the activists who were expelled from Labour for anti-Semitic tweets and its members who claim that the Left has a problem with Jews, describing the notion as “a load of old tosh”. The suggestion by the shadow minister Chris Bryant that anti-Semitism threatens the soul of Labour is “complete rubbish”, he says.
“I have never heard anyone in the party say something anti-Semitic in nearly 50 years and it is not happening on a grassroots level. Anyone who criticises the Israeli government is getting smeared as being anti-Semitic.”
As you might have expected, however, Livingstone saves his most compelling reproach for Boris Johnson. He warns that, along with the threat of “economic catastrophe” if Britain exits the European Union, an ‘Out’ vote in the June referendum could be a vote to put Johnson in Number 10.
“Cameron would be gone within days and Boris would be our Prime Minister. He has secured a huge block of support amongst the Tory Party members who want to leave,” he stresses. “I would personally start thinking about emigrating to somewhere the economy is not going to collapse.”
Perhaps, privately, Livingstone still seethes about his defeats to Johnson in the last two Mayoral elections – retorting that what the public should fear most is “Boris being alone with their daughters” – but he seems infinitely more resentful of his record at City Hall. “Apart from the cable car to nowhere, Boris has not done anything. He has just spent eight years promoting himself.”
The focus for Livingstone, now, is on helping Labour regain ground at the local elections next month and ensuring that his latest charge, Sadiq Khan, becomes his new successor.
A delicate dual role, this requires him to triangulate the divergent programmes of Corbyn and his Mayoral candidate, who is against a proposed windfall tax on banks and the third runway at Heathrow.
He carries it out with characteristic assurance, affirming that he has hardly disagreed with Corbyn, pictured right, over several decades and has “exactly the same top priorities for London” as Khan. Whilst the prospective mayor has cited ‘keeping Londoners safe from terrorism’ as his main concern, however, Livingstone believes that society faces more dangerous threats and that the media lacked perspective when reporting the recent ISIS attacks on Western Europe.
“Nowhere is safe from terrorism but we need to keep it in a context,” he insists. “We need to step back from the horrendous level of coverage of the events in Belgium and Paris and think about issues like air pollution, which threatens to dwarf the lives lost from terrorism.”
You either love him or hate him – and if you read the mainstream media, you probably hate him. Yet, at least until the next general election, the Livingstone grade of ideological, outspoken, progressive, unrepentant politics could become the norm inside the Labour Party.
Being Red: A Politics for the Future by Ken Livingstone is on sale, published by Highgate-based Pluto Press, £12.99). The 2016 London mayoral and London Assembly elections will be held on Thursday, May 5. The EU membership referendum is on June 23.