Interview: Ken Livingstone – Red Ken set for London comeback?

First Published 18/02/2010 1 February 2012

Ken Livingstone shares his thoughts on Boris, Hugo (and newts!) with Mari Shibata

Ken Livingstone has been a potent and controversial force in British politics throughout the last three decades. Dubbed ‘Red Ken’ by Private Eye, he was expelled from the Labour Party in 2000 for refusing to toe the party line.

As Mayor of London he drew criticism over the congestion charge, the Olympics and his relationship with Hugo Chavez. Ever outspoken, when TCS caught up with him on Wednesday night ahead of his talk at the Union he let us know what he really wanted to achieve with the Olympic bid, his plans for re-election and what he really thinks about newts.

So, how did you come to Cambridge today?

Public transport – I just took the train up here.

I thought you would opt for that – you don’t really like cars do you?

Well, if you work it out, using public transport will get you there at a reasonable time. And even on a relatively short journey like I have in London – which is half an hour on the Tube in, another half an hour out again – that’s four working weeks a year? That’s a huge amount of time. Whether you are reading for work or for pleasure, I’d rather do that on the train than sit in a car listening to some garbage.

Some of that thinking time I’m sure has been dedicated to planning your strategies to re-stand for Mayor of London in 2012. How far have you got with planning the campaign?

I took that decision the week after my defeat. We analysed the election results and saw that my vote had actually gone up, the Liberal Democrat vote had collapsed and some votes had gone over to the Tories. So we thought, clearly the base is there and you would be mad not to go for it again. I love it; it’s a great job.

Why do you think you lost the election?

I mean, the Labour vote nationally had slumped; it was the lowest in 40 years. We had just entered the recession, though we didn’t know it at the time; the government was in a catastrophic disaster, having done away with the 10p tax payments which benefited most of our core supporters. It wasn’t a favourable background.

Why should people vote for you in 2012 rather than a fresh face?

Well, I think that sort of trivial approach is politics. You know, a new face equals glamour; it’s going to take a bit of a knock because it’s a much more serious world. We might be in a recession that will last a decade if the Tories get in and make massive cuts. We are in a position where we are heading towards a catastrophic climate change.

So to say that these two decades of post Cold-War doesn’t matter, that Tony Blair is very nice and Boris Johnson is funny – your lives start to move away from that sort of world.

There was an awful poll about the under 25s, who said that 40% wanted Jeremy Clarkson to be the next Prime Minister, I think you’ll move away from that sort of world because peoples’ lives just aren’t depending on it.

What was your proudest achievement when you were Mayor of London?

It’s very difficult to pin down – rebuilding the bus service, getting the police back in the beef and winning the Olympic vote.

But I think the one that matters most internally for me is the way we coped with the bombings and the fact that nobody attacked anybody else and that Londoners stood together.

There was a ridiculous BBC docu-drama about a bomb in London about a year before the real event which had showed Londoners screaming and panicking.

But in reality, when the real thing happened, mayors from the rest of the world – for other reasons – came to see me after the bombings and all of them commented on how they couldn’t believe how well London had coped. It really vindicated our strategy of multiculturalism and accepting diversity.

You mentioned the Olympic bid and that you are proud of securing that. But you are also quoted as saying that you secured the Olympic bid in order to ensnare  the Government and then put the money into regeneration.

Yes, that’s absolutely true. With the collapse of the Docklands in the 60s and with the collapse of manufacturing in the 70s and 80s, all that the East End definitely needed some investing; employment was wiped out and there were no formal programs of investment by any government.

I knew that I would never get seven or eight or nine million pounds out of any government just to regenerate a run-down area. But if you won the Olympics, there would have to be investment in the infrastructure; new transport and new power lines would need to be implemented.

Nothing on earth will persuade me to spend billions of pounds for a sporting event, it cannot be justified. Even if it’s just a billion pounds for three weeks of sport then no, I wouldn’t have opted for it. So yes, it was an attempt to ensnare. When the principle of the International Olympic Committee came to see me and asked me if London would be interested in hosting it, I said yes but only if we could regenerate particular areas that really need it. I never mentioned sport.

On regeneration, what is your role out in Caracas at the moment?

None whatsoever, because Chavez’s candidate had just lost the elections and the right-wing lot have no interest with my advice at all. Had it gone the other way round I would probably have been popping over advising and all that.

What is your relationship with Hugo Chavez?

Well, Chavez is just a friend really. I haven’t been there since August 2008 when I spent a week meeting with their candidates for four districts of Caracas.

How do you feel about working with a man who has a questionable human rights record?

I don’t think he has a questionable human rights record at all; that’s all American propaganda.

An awful lot of it seems rather like police brutality – the problem is that he doesn’t run the police. They’re run by the new Hispanicise. The only election he had lost was on a referendum challenging constitutional changes.

The people who were killed during the American vacuum were killed by the American batch of troops who were trying to overthrow the democratic government. I’ve met Chávez, he would perfectly fit into politics and certainly under the Labour party.

And on the subject of the Labour party, do you think they will lose the next election?

I really don’t know – I’ve never found it more difficult to call an election. I wouldn’t be surprised if Labour weren’t in power given the current circumstances.

Do you think Gordon Brown is making a mistake in participating in the televised debate?

Oh no, I think he is absolutely right. I don’t think you should be allowed to stand for the public offices if you are not prepared to stand up in a public debate like that. You should be forced to debate about the real issues and your policies.

What if he was to lose in the next election, who do you think would be the next leader of the Labour Party?

If Labour loses, the final power would be either with either Ed Balls – who has always been supported by the Brownites in the party – or one of the Milibands, most probably and not inevitably David, who is supported by both the Gordon and Blairite wing.

Finally – could you tell us about your newts?

I think that when people get married without a family, they don’t have time to carry on their childhood interests. I didn’t get married until I was in my mid-40s and seeing as I was very busy, it’s never really been a problem.

So the newts have replaced the family?

Well…I’m very relaxed about my gardening; I have a pond with frogs, newts and other things. I have squirrels and foxes running around; it’s a typical London garden. There is more wildlife here than in your average farm where you are sterilising it with pesticides and fertilisers.

Mari Shibata

First Published 18/02/2010