Crowdsourcing the mayoral selection: Ken Livingstone

Ken Livingstone: Time traveller

Assassination, time travel and giant humans are his weapons. Though there’s very little mention of Oona, Ken’s other opponents are clearly defined; he still bears the scars. There is a great pile of fancy biscuits in one of the rooms that makes up Ken’s campaign offices, proudly proffered by the spin doctor. Amid the phonebank volunteers plenty of Yesweken badges are strewn around. There is even a glass wall of red roses and Labour logos.

A tanned Ken arrives and launches into the questions with a swig of strong, black coffee. He’s friendly in his racontes, but sometimes he looks down and gives a wicked little laugh. Ken talks to Uncut about London politics, buying snakes, being a pharaoh and drops a couple of C-words along the way (one of them Crocs). Settle in; everything with Livingstone is a story.

Q. So, Ken. We ask the questions that people send in…

A. I know. I won’t blame you for the questions.

Q (from Micheal) What are your biggest regrets from your last spell as mayor of London?

A. Not putting out a contract on Veronica Wadley, the editor of the Evening Standard. Because she could have been taken out before that campaign started and I might have been re-elected. But it’s a real risk having your opponents bumped off. If it comes out it’s very embarrassing.

Q. Are you an assassin by nature?

A. (Deep laugh) She was actually very intriguing. She refused to meet me. The editor of the main London paper, refusing to meet the mayor of the city from…well she got the job in March 2002 and I saw her for the first time in about November 2007. She resisted all my entreaties to meet for lunch, just was bizarre.

Ken Livingstone, Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley and Boris Johnson

Ken, Veronica & Boris all smiles

Q. Are you bitter about it?

A. No, no. Because, I mean, she so destroyed the paper, the campaign was so unbalanced. When she became editor they were selling 425,000 copies a day. And before the freesheets came, that had gone down to 325,000. And I think people were just turned off by the constant negativity of it. Not just about me, but about everything in London. I mean, people in London like the city, it’s a real buzz, it’s a great city. That’s why they came here. They don’t want to be told it’s all doom and gloom, it’s awful, everybody is corrupt. And I think the way Geordie Greg has now reconfigured the paper to be positive about London, they just put the print run up to 700,000. And so as soon as she’d done her job of getting rid of me, which was basically at the behest of Dacre, who’s the overall head of the Mail group, I think that was it basically. The paper was either given away to a Russian billionaire or it was going to fold.

Q. Is there anyone else on the hitlist?

A. No, no, not really. What’s amazing about politics is some of your most bitter opponents end up on your side. You know, people who would totally be in your camp end up opposed. There are very very few really strong friendships in politics because an issue comes along and divides. I mean, when I was an MP, the MP I liked the most was Alice Mahon, who was a working class nurse, very left wing, in the campaign group with Tony Benn, Diane Abbott and me. And we went up and stopped with her family for meals, and then along came the war in Kosovo. And I was in favour of the intervene in Kosovo because I thought, this is ethnic cleansing. And she was opposed to it, and the scale of that difference when you see people being killed, driven out of their homes, and someone you really like is prepared to just stand back and not intervene, it really ended the relationship.

Q. Is there anybody over time who’s been on the opposing side who you really wish had been on yours?

A. Oh you know, I wish everyone was on my side all the time. But I think Frank Dobson and I had that huge struggle to be mayor back in 2000 and he ended up voting for me. His whole network of people who ran that campaign are supporting me now. His PPS who was the MP for Brentford, she supported me. Frank’s own constituency voted for me by about 65:15 over Oona. So with the passage of time these things all change. Whatever the differences were between me and other people on the left, the difference between all of us and Tony Blair and where he took the party is so great, the gap between you and others on the left just shrinks away.

Q. Have you checked the index of the book to see if you’re in?

A. No, no, I haven’t. I know I am because there’s chunks in the Standard. I think the most interesting one (struggles politely for a minute) I don’t know whether you should use the C word, but one of the most hard line right wing Labour old whips Michael Cox, straight down the line, party apparatchik who worked to get rid of people like Benn, that was in the early 80s. And then in 97 I stood for the NEC against Peter Mandelson. And I was really taken aback because broadly people on the left don’t use the C word, it’s totally unethical with the struggles of feminism. But Michael Cox came up to me at the end of the conference and said “things have got so bad in this party that I’ve had to vote for a cunt like you”. I was really taken aback; this person had done everything to destroy me but finally along came Mandelson. And you see, that’s the problem with politics, there are amongst the politicians almost no permanent alliances, they shift and change. Amongst the people around you, the people that came with me into the mayoralty I’d known for years, I suppose the turnover of people doing jobs in the government, we’ve had 20 transport ministers in 23 years, that’s ridiculous. Whereas the people I put in place were always there and were doing the job at the end of it. There really is something to be said for experience and growing into a job.

Q. (from Dan) What breed of newt is your favourite?

"It has piggy eyes"

A. Well. I suppose you would go for the biggest, which is the Chinese giant salamander. It’s five foot long, weighs as much as you do (points to Uncut), and is unbelievably ugly. It’s the only salamander big enough to eat bits of us. And it has two small little piggy eyes…

Q. It sounds like you’re describing someone

A. (laughs) No, no, no! Seriously. I’m not. I’ve only ever seen them in zoos, but they are five foot long, about this wide (stretches hands to make size of a small person) and they’ve got eyes like pinheads. They live at the bottom of cold streams and the mouth is like that (more hand gestures). They’re not necessarily pretty but…

In Britain the most beautiful is the great crested newt, it’s twice the size of the others, black with a beautiful orange belly. But there are a lot more colourful ones in Europe. There’s an alpine newt which has sky blue all over it and there’s a thing called the great marbled newt which is an emerald green with black. I’ve always quite liked those. I used to breed salamanders. All over Europe you get the fire salamander, with brilliant yellow spots on a black background, they’re really beautiful.

Q. Does size matter in newts or is it plumage?

A. with the exception of the five foot ones, nothing in the newt world is bigger than that. And most are like this (yet more newt-related hand gesturing). So I don’t know why we ended up with these huge ones. It’d be like one race of humans the size of a house but all the rest of us this size.

Q. How would you be mayor of London with some people the size of a house?

A. Well you could deal with your enemies by just treading on them.

Q. So all the big ones would be on your side?

A. (laughs quietly) Yes… (quickly returns to newts) but no, alpine newts and great marbled newts are really beautiful.

Q. What is it about newts?

A. People ask this question like the biggest part of my life is my newt collection. I don’t have one. I had them when I was a kid. I was 13. It carried on into my early twenties, and then I got involved in politics. I’ve got a garden, lots of newts in it, frogs, slow worms. It’s a sort of wildlife haven. At the moment my two smallest kids wanted a pet dog, but they’re only six and seven and they’re not getting a dog until they’re big enough to walk it and clean up its mess. So we went to the pet shop and ended up buying a snake. They wanted everything in the pet shop apart from the tarantula. And we’ve promised them if they’re good they’ll get a dog by the end of the year. Fortunately they’re not being good enough (chuckles).

Q. So are you going to use it in an Obama way? If you win, they get a new dog?

A. Oh no, no, no. It’s not to do with my winning; it’s to do with their behaviour. It’s the big reward up there. Don’t be so whiny. Got to be on time. Brush your teeth. Get a dog.

Q. Is that how it works in politics, like a payoff?

A. In politics, no. For all that there are flawed characters, the vast amount of people come into politics because they believe in it. A lot of them are barking mad. I mean look at Michael Gove, he’s got those swivel eyes going around. He has the capacity to destroy the entire education system unaided by anyone else. But most people are there because they believe in something. I know one of your questions is about corruption, but it’s remarkably small corruption compared to what you get in other countries.

Q. (from Trish) have you ridden on a tfl bike yet? Where did you go?

A. No, no, no, I haven’t. I spend a lot of time using public transport. Not just because it makes sense, but because you can read. I could have cycled to Cricklewood to City hall every day, and the upside is I would have been a stone less. The downside is that, at the end of a long day do you really want to ride from City Hall all the way to the north circular at staples corner, most of it on a gradient up? I really didn’t. And the other advantage is, getting the tube in and reading and back, gives you four working weeks a year reading time that you’re not going to get on a bike or in a car.

Q. What are you reading then at the moment?

A. Well, I mean when I was mayor I was just reading official documents all the time. I’ve been catching up with books I missed, like Cloud Atlas, came out about six years ago, which is thoroughly depressing. They people in it are pretty awful and flawed and ignorant and wiping races out and brutal savagery and slavery, so I didn’t find it terribly uplifting. But now I’m reading Team of Rivals, the book about President Licoln and the key figures around him who had been rivals through the nomination but he made them form his government. Oddly enough, I’ve never read a biography of Lincoln or a history of the civil war, because you pick up so much generally in movies, TV, history you’re taught at school. But this has been hyped up as the best book about Lincoln in the era and I think that’s absolutely true. I really enjoyed it massively.

Q. So when you stopped being mayor is that what you did, catch up on reading?

The box set phase

A. The first thing I did was go into a box set phase. Because, suddenly, there were these evenings at home where I was free. Not now because we’re back to campaigning but there are all these evenings where, I hadn’t had anything like this for 35 years. I watched all the way through the West Wing, the Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and it was quite relaxing.

Q. But you’re back doing this now. Do you think you’re addicted to it?

A. Oh I’m a total workaholic. From when I started work in cancer research at the age of 17 right up to now, I always worked fully and hard. I reckon I’ve mostly had one day a year off on sick. If I can get out there and work, I love work. And I’ve always had jobs I enjoyed. And so, I watch Boris who is very clever but fundamentally lazy. To make the city work you have to be innovating, taking risks, pushing and pushing. And Boris is just in this safety first thing, doing the absolute minimum so nothing goes wrong so I can get back into parliament and take over from David Cameron. All the really great mayors around the world are risk takers. We’re in competition with New York, Paris, Shanghai and Mumbai and Dubai. If you start innovating and changing it’s like running up and down an escalator. The moment you stop, the others are still running up. With the exception of banning alcohol on the tube, he hasn’t initiated anything. All the stuff he’s opening up like the bike scheme, east London line, all things I started. I don’t think he expected to win or wanted to. It was a way of getting his profile out, forcing Cameron to give him a front bench job. And he was horrified when he won. He greeted all the officials saying ‘who does that?’ and they were saying, ‘well, you do’. It wasn’t the life he was used to, the boozy lunches and early evenings and social activity.

Q. (from Bob) Why do many politicians fail to retire gracefully?

A. Well, when the post-war Labour government created the welfare state, they did it so that people wouldn’t be broken and exhausted at my age, and it has worked brilliantly. In 1945 the average life span was 63 years. Now it’s nearly 80. And that’s a tribute to the size of the state, common provision of services and all those things. And they didn’t do this, in sense, my generation is now in their 60s, and all the baby boomers are coming along behind. You can be active and contribute and do things you can do. I feel like I’m 40 inside. I still have a sort of child-like enthusiasm for new ideas. Very often the things I’m most interested in is reading about new discoveries in cosmology, archaeology, the latest fossil finds. I’m still in love with learning.

Q. (from Ribena) you get called ‘Red Ken’…if you were a superhero called ‘Red Ken’ what would your super power be?

A. To travel back in time and change the course of history.

Q. So where are you going to start with that one?

A. Well I think I’d go back to 1945 and there are lots of tragic bits, Britain lost the ability to control its own empire. It poured out in a catastrophic way. I mean, millions of people lost their lives because of it. As France and Britain and Portugal were forced to give up their colonies in Africa, they should have created a united states of Africa. Instead you’ve got all these countries fighting over borders.  And the unresolved issues from that period like Kashmir, Palestine, go on and on claiming lives.

Q. So if time travel’s your super power, is there any point in your life you’d go back to and chage?

A. Oh loads. I’d go back and tell myself to work harder at school. And I’d go back and explain my first marriage wasn’t going to work and avoid it. That’d be good wouldn’t it. Good for both of us. It seemed like a good idea at the time…erm…even for both of us. You don’t know when you get married young how much youre still going to change. I’d like to go back to the early Egyptians, see Hatshepsut, the earliest female pharaoh who had to pretend she was a man most of the time because they couldn’t conceive of women being supreme beings.

Q. Do you think you’d have made a good pharaoh?

A. Oh yeah, I’d have been a great pharaoh. Mind you at the very beginning, the very murky bit of Egyptian civilisation before the first kingdom, what we do know is that the first pharaohs were broadly elected amongst presumably the aristocracy. And at the end of their period of governance when they were getting past their best, they walked around the outside walls of the city and were stoned to death. That was the way you changed your political leader. So I’m not particularly saying we should import all of their habits…walking around city hall and being stoned to death by Londoners and getting stoned to death as a way of getting a new mayor has little appeal.

Q. Do you think Londoners would like that?

A. No, I think we’re all rather against stoning at the moment, based on what’s happening in Iran.

Q. So you wouldn’t stone Boris?

A. No, no, Boris wants to get back into parliament and annoy David Cameron and I’m going to do everything in my power to make that possible. Boris can’t help himself. At Tory party conference last year for the first two days he totally dominated it.  And they forced him to get on the train and go back to London. From the viewpoint of the Labour party, what we’d most like is not Boris winning the mayoralty but getting back into parliament and causing a lot of trouble.

Q. So at what point would you time travel back to to stop him becoming mayor of London?

A. Erm…(laughs) I suppose you could go back and persuade his mother not to marry his father, but that would be unfair on all the other siblings.

Q. We could have ended up with another Johnson as mayor of London

A. Well they all look so similar, I’ve never seen such a strong gene set. I keep bumping into Rachel Johnson, we occasionally do paper reviews on Sky and things like that. And I mean I suspect..because she’s at Tatler? (spin doctor corrects) The Lady, that’s it. I suspect she’s gone through being quite annoyed at the prominence of her brother, but it’s really funny because for all I’ve read about myself in the media that isn’t true I still believe what I read about other people. I don’t know why I always fall for that. There was a story in I think the Standard that she’d made this comment about all the Johnson men are hung like donkeys. I hadn’t met her at this stage and when I did I said “I think it’s amazing that thing you said about Boris and his dad” and she said (adopts upper class female voice) “oh it’s not true I never said it at all”. Why did I believe it?

Q. And how would you know?

A. Eh? Well, oh I think there was a lot of nudity in the early Johnson era. If you’ve read the Boris biog it’s very funny. It was a lot of 60s informality.

Q. I see. (from Joan) Where do you buy your ravishing suits from, your look is quite unique

A. (a good howl of laughter) What can I say. I assume they’re referring to the ones I’ve had since the Olympics.

Q. ‘Since the Olympics’? Is there a period of Ken fashion that you drew a line under?

The "delegation" style is big in '010

A. No, I like clothes I’m comfortable in. if I put a new suit on, within a week it ends up looking like a sack of potatoes. I wear clothes very badly. I slouch around, I stuff things in the pockets. But everyone keeps seeing me in these brown, fairly casual things. The truth is that when I went to Singapore for the Olympic vote, everyone on the delegation had these identical suits made by…I can’t remember. And those of us who were speaking were given two, because if on the morning you dropped your breakfast down you, you had to have a standby. Then two years later when the Tour de France came to London it was the same thing. So I bought four suits made by the same guy, and because the ones for Singapore were made for a hot climate they’re really good in summer. But those clothes, they’re getting very frayed. My staff will be happy to know they’re coming to the end of their natural life. The thing I’m wearing now is Hawkes and Grieves which is a bit more fashionable.

Q. Do you think of yourself as a fashionable man?

A. Not at all. I’m not interested in fashion. I don’t care what you’re wearing. What has always attracted me to a woman is what’s in her face. Not her body or the clothes. I’ve always felt in somebody’s face you can detect whether they’re intelligent or humorous.

Q. So what’s the first thing you look at in a lady?

A. Oh it’s the face.

Q. Looks over personality?

A. Well, the way you wear your hair is a conscious choice about your personality. In my generation we grew up in a great death struggle with our parents to have hair down to our shoulders. My generation started growing our hair long and all the old guys we worked with just denounced us as poofs and queers. It was a long struggle to get freedom to wear your hair as you like. I can remember when young men in the cities started to go to work in banks and wearing a light blue shirt; they were sent home to put a white one on. The struggle to wear the clothes you feel appropriate, we’ve all forgotten now because we just do. It was a real old battle at the time.

Q. Comfortable clothes can mean slippers though.

A. Well, slippers have their place. Basically they’re just a form of crocs.

Q. Do you wear slippers?

A. I’ve had them in the past, parents give you slippers for Christmas. No, I tend to wear Crocs. I bought a nice pair of Crocs on holiday in Greece last year and they’re pretty much nice for flopping around the house.

Q. What colour are they?

A. Grey.

Q. Just grey?

A. Yep.

Q. Any fancy things on them?

A. No. And if I’m gardening I wear Nikes. I was out with the kids at the weekend in them.

Q. (Angus Kennedy) To whom are you giving your second preference in the leadership election, which one of the Milibands is more Livingstonian?

A. First preference is Ed Balls. He was very good at getting millions of pounds for me to spend in London on things like Crossrail, housing, putting on afternoon and weekend activities for kids. But if he doesn’t make the final ballot I have no doubt whatsoever that Ed Miliband is to the left of his brother. So all the Eds.

Q. All the Eds?

A. Multiple Eds.

Q. (after some waving from the spin doctor) If that’s your time up…

A. But have you got any questions you’re desperate to ask, anything funny?

Q. We can ask you the corruption one if you like.

A. Yes I thought you should.

Q. (from Andy) Wouldn’t an independent mayor that’s not affiliated with national politics and therefore not as corrupt be a better option for mayor of London?

A. Well I don’t think corruption is defined by whether you’re independent or which party you’re in, because some people come into politics because they want to enrich themselves, and they might start out thinking that they can do that without corruption, but they cross over. There are others I notice, Labour and Tory, that have simply dropped into Parliament, where a lot of people are much better off than them. And you see them start to take retainers and things like that because they want to have the same nice style as other people. I’ve always been lucky. If someone dropped dead and left me a million pounds I’d spend it and enjoy it. My preference has been to win power to do things rather than to win money. My way to relax is with the kids which is relatively cheap.

Q. The kids aren’t cheap, they want Crocs, and snakes, and…

A. I know, but you don’t have to get a backhander of half a million pounds from a bank to cope with it. It’s a mistake to assume that…People outside politics are more corrupt than people in it. Look at our banking crisis. There are things that are corrupt illegally and there are other things that are legally corrupt, like bankers’ bonuses. Very few people have robbed as much from us as people that run our insurance companies. Sometimes, people who hang into insurance, hang into insurance premiums, and sometimes a third of it is going into the pocket of the person running the fund. Obscene levels.

Q. The tfl bike is very symbolic of Boris. If there was something you’d do next time that represents Ken what would it be?

A. It wouldn’t be finished in my mayoralty, but to get the next Thames barrier before the ice caps melt. This Thames barrier, my guess is it’s only going to save London until about 2050. And the government thinks it can get away with it until 2100. And this is a risk you just can’t take. No one can estimate how fast global warming is and I’m pessimistic on the subject I think it’s going to get much worse, much quicker than people think, and having that great barrier there…when we opened the Thames barrier in 1982 we raised it twice a year. Now it’s raised twice a month and it’s getting closer and closer to the top.

Q. And there’ll be none of London to be mayor of.

A. No. This is the risk New York faces. At the moment they get hurricanes and at the moment they have air force one and two, but the north atlantic gets warmer they’ll get force three and four. And Mayor Bloomberg’s had to build shelters for 2 million people. The whole of the coastal area and up to Wall Street would have to be evacuated and if it was long and destructive then New York might never recover its position. Certainly if we flooded it would take a year or two to get the tube working again, you’d never recover your position. And they’ll take about 20 years to plan and build it so we really haven’t got long to convince this bloody government to get off its backside.

Q. And with that…

A. Oh shit, they should have listened to Ken! Well, you’ll see it built..

Q. So you won’t survive?

A. What, till 2050? I’d be 105. It’s quite possible.

Q. Would you run for mayor again at 105?

A. I think I might give up after 90.

Q. Is that a promise?

A. I promise I won’t seek office beyond my 90th birthday.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply