Why Ken Livingstone still wants to be mayor of London

Why Ken Livingstone still wants to be mayor of London

Two years after losing the mayoralty to his nemesis Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone is campaigning to run London for a fourth time
Hugh Muir

Ken Livingstone is Labour's candidate for mayor of London
Ken Livingstone is Labour’s candidate for mayor of London. Again. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

It is Labour’s curse to struggle for consensus. Scratch the surface, and it is hard to find senior figures agreeing on policy, or direction, or personnel. They muddle through, but uniformity of thought has never been one of the party’s abiding traits. At worst, it is a maelstrom. At best, they might argue, a broad church.
But on 2 May 2008, one opinion seemed to be shared by most of the leadership, particularly those accustomed to running London. The Day of Ken is done, they said. He has served us well, but if we are to renew ourselves and wrest the London mayoralty away from Boris Johnson, we must have another candidate. A green-skin. Someone who has not been bested at the polls. Someone who, unlike our wearied champion, has not put himself at odds with noisy, vigorous sections of the electorate. Someone untroubled by rumour and the appearance of scandal.
And so, two years later, after a long campaign, we give you the Labour candidate for the London mayoralty in 2012 . . . Ken Livingstone, thrust forward with the full backing of that same Labour establishment that had said he should go shuffling off into the sun. Restored to a status that also saw him top the poll in the party’s national executive committee (NEC) elections at the weekend. Ready to bask in the spotlight on Wednesday with his speech to Labour delegates from the conference platform. How has this happened? The journey tells us quite a lot about the state of Labour at the moment – but more than that, it tells you an awful lot about Livingstone.
In his dust blue suit and shimmering yellow tie, he is rounder than he was in 2008 (eating too many of his children’s leftovers). Certainly he is chipper. “I am looking forward to it,” he says. “It will be a much more serious, intensely political contest than last time. In the next two years, we are going to see severe cuts and people will want someone to protect them from those cuts. It won’t be about who tells the best jokes.”
Livingstone is sunny now, but there have been flashes of darkness in recent days, not prompted by the contest itself – “He loves the challenge,” a lieutenant told me – but, in part, by his opponent, Oona King. Livingstone now says her campaign, by forcing everyone to sharpen their arguments, was good for the party, and good for her too (she was runner-up in those NEC elections). But her best card was to portray him as the candidate whose sell-by date had expired – and Livingstone took exception to being portrayed as a spent force.
“It was pretty naked ageism,” a member of his campaign team told me. “If she had been saying don’t vote for this person because they are disabled or a woman, there would have been an outcry. He seems thick-skinned, but he does hurt quite easily.”
Livingstone has often been magnanimous with his opponents – Conservative candidate Steve Norris ended up on the board of Transport for London, as did the defeated Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer. An offer was floated to Frank Dobson in 2000. He may yet feel magnanimous again, but right now it’s sensitive. Might there be an offer to King if the Livingstone bandwagon rolls into City Hall in 2012? An aide furrows his brow. “I doubt it.”
If the mayoral election was held tomorrow, Livingstone would lose. For Boris Johnson’s honeymoon period has been a particularly long one. He has survived accusations of inactivity and personnel scandals, with one acolyte, a deputy mayor, convicted of fraud. Allegations of cronyism have been levelled, as have sexual claims in the tabloids. He has even had the humiliation of being caught on video falling into a muddy river. But Johnson has risen above it all with brio and self-deprecating humour. Which is a problem for Livingstone, for the way Boris shapes and guards his public persona seems unnervingly similar to the template created by a fully functioning Ken.
Labour’s candidate says he expected to lose last time round. Perhaps, having viewed the private polls, he did – but it didn’t look like that. His concession speech was graceful enough, but it soon became clear that he was shell-shocked, bereft. And he didn’t even bother to take himself away to grieve in private. Instead, he headed to City Hall, attending Mayor’s Question Time to watch Johnson bask in the sunshine to which he himself had been accustomed. Some say that even then he was making a statement and seeking fresh ammunition to use against Johnson in the future. But for the elected politicians who had supported him, and for the officers who rather liked him, it was a wretched sight – like a bereaved parent visiting the scene of the murder, hoping to be told it was all a mistake. “He would sit behind the Labour group and he always looked so awful,” said one official. Everyone was thinking, ‘Why don’t you go on holiday or something? Go deal with it in private.'”
There was compassion in that reaction. But it also said something about the norms in our politics. Livingstone had lost and the convention is that the loser in a high-profile election, particularly one as personality based as the mayoralty, heads for the scrapheap, or at least other pastures. And anyway, why would a politician in his 60s, father to two young children, who had thrice run London – first taking the reins back in 1987 – want to do it again?
Necessity perhaps. “I am not Tony Blair,” he says, as blunt as ever. “I didn’t go bombing Iraq, to be rewarded by nice posts by US banks. With my politics, most of the jobs that ‘respectable’ Labour types get offered don’t come my way.”
Gordon Brown did, though, make him a vague offer the morning after that 2008 loss. “It was something on the environment, but I said there is a problem because I don’t agree with the third runway at Heathrow. And he said: ‘That is a problem.’ There is a lot I could do if I would ignore my beliefs. But my framework of political beliefs is as important as religious beliefs are to Christians and Jews. They determine all I do. The strong mishmash of my parents’ views and socialist ideology is as important to me as religious faith. Without that, people are adrift.”
Livingstone is seen by the right as the ultimate lefty, but those who hold that view have to gloss over some fairly harsh views on law and order, and the fact that some of his fiercest critics reside on the left of the Labour party. Even so, he has a well-placed network of contacts within the constituencies and the unions – which, over the last two years, he has used to good effect. Always good value as a star speaker at functions, nearly always available, and always ready with a critique of Johnson’s administration, he has retained a grassroots following. But the trick of his success in the Labour mayoralty race was to garner support from those whose initial view was that he should walk off into the sunset.
By June, at the start of the nomination contest, they found his campaign well advanced, his arguments honed. Many who instinctively preferred King came to see him as the only heavy hitter capable of deposing Johnson (even King herself admits that, as time passed, Livingstone grew stronger). His triumph, however, is a defeat for those who wanted to mirror what the national party has done by electing Ed Miliband, and turn the page. “Alan Johnson could have done it [the London mayoral candidacy],” said one Labour source. “But he couldn’t reconcile what he would say to the people of Hull had he lost. Mandelson: people were talking to him. And Tessa Jowell.”
But Livingstone started his campaign early, creating the impression that he was unstoppable. This kept the biggest beasts out of the race, and thus made him unstoppable. Sometimes perception is reality.
The election of the London mayor in 2012 is important to Labour. At best, it will be a springboard – after Johnson, of course, came Cameron. So before Livingstone won the endorsement of his senior colleagues, there was some tough talking. Yes, Labour’s general malaise dragged you down last time, they said. But what about you? If we run with you again, how is it going to be different? What about your mistakes? This was thorny territory. Livingstone doesn’t easily admit to mistakes, certainly not in public and certainly not if those admissions give succour to his enemies. “He’s of that generation,” said a friend. “You concede you made mistakes, then people ask, ‘OK, what were they?’ Suddenly you look weak and are having to show contrition for all sorts of things.”
Colleagues hoped for an explicit sign that he had learned lessons, but it is not Livingstone’s way to be explicit about such things. “These are different times, things will be different” was the closest they got to introspection. Did you do anything wrong, he was asked last Friday in the afterglow of victory. “Perhaps we put the congestion-charging call centre in the wrong place,” he replied.
But mistakes there were. The haughty way in which he proceeded with the western extension of the congestion charge; his reluctance to confront the accusation that he was an inner-city “zone one mayor”. His ill-tempered contretemps with the Jewish Evening Standard reporter he likened to a “concentration-camp guard”. His quip that no one will find out what he got up to in City Hall because everything incriminating had been shredded; his cheap oil deal with Venezuela; and his failure to deal adequately with the toxic, largely unsubstantiated melange of allegations levelled by the Evening Standard against his then equalities adviser Lee Jasper. Livingstone still insists he got all the big decisions right. But by the end, he and his mayoralty seemed traumatised and weary.
Jenny Jones, a Green party member on the London Assembly, was generally supportive, but she says: “It was difficult. He had very young kids at the time and I don’t think he had been getting much sleep. He is very committed, but it did look like arrogance.” She sees improvement, though. “I think he has learned lessons. He certainly looks a lot fresher now. He came to my birthday party in a field the other day with his wife and children. We camped out and had a lot of fun. He was up for everything.”
All but one of the eight Labour assembly members backed Livingstone, but Jennette Arnold says she needed some persuading. “During the last 18 months of his last term, there were issues raised. He went into defence mode and I don’t know that that was the right call. People were saying: ‘Is he there for us, or the people he employs?’ But he does have an innate sense of what London needs. I want him out there, showing his leadership.”
Livingstone says he will. Back will come the western extension of the congestion charge, a measure scrapped by Johnson, and an end to tube fare increases and police cuts. In will come a new victims commissioner, further measures to cut pollution, initiatives to protect the green belt.
His foes at City Hall say: bring it on. “We’ll run on Boris’s record,” says Johnson’s deputy, Richard Barnes. “We have held the council tax precept for two years. Ken put it up 152%.” It’s personal, says Barnes. “London has a smile on its face because of Boris. As for Ken, he just didn’t think he could lose. He is still very bitter.”
But if he is bitter, Livingstone insists that it’s because of Johnson’s “disastrous administration”. And so he will hit the road again, the candidate once more, ending a cherished period of extended time with his two youngest children, now six and seven. (Together, they have led a nomadic life in London, visiting zoos, cafes and museums.) He’ll hold off on the travel, advising mayors in Canberra and Bogota, the memoir writing, and the gardening. He will think of platforms to add to his Saturday morning talkshow on London’s LBC radio station, where after an uncertain start, his cheery banter and opinions on everything have doubled his audience over 12 months. Heady times to come, he says.
But there has been a change. Unlike 2008, politics is no longer an all-consuming passion. He has the family shopping to do. His skill, he says, is spotting bargains. After that, the battle proper can begin.

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