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Ken Livingstone: the interview (part 3)
Tucker: As Mayor of London you built a multi-cultural coalition in the inner cities involving some middle class people, but predominantly black and white working class people. And that endured for quite a long time. You did that in your GLC days and you were able to recreate that in your position as Mayor. And then you lost. And there seemed to be a strong racial element to your defeat. I have a friend of who is an electoral returning officer, and she was quite shocked at the number of voters who had voted first preference Conservative and second preference BNP. So this wasn’t simply a matter of BNP racist voters voting for Boris Johnson [the Conservative Party candidate] as their second preference.
There appeared to be a certain backlash against that multi-culturalism, and also some division between those such as Trevor Phillips who seems to take what he would call a sort of integrationist approach, and yourself. Can you just enlighten me here?
Livingstone: Well, I think your analysis is right. In the two previous Mayoral elections, Stephen Norris [the then Conservative candidate] was absolutely strongly anti-racist and very pro gay and lesbian. The BNP and UKIP never actively made him the second choice, and he was very rude about the Daily Mail's editor; and so he wasn’t an attractive second repository for racist votes. In Boris they had that, I mean all the stuff about "picaninees" and "watermelon smiles", two men marrying a dog; all that stuff played very well with the latent bigot. And the six percent difference between me and Boris is more than explained by the fact that between the BNP, UKIP and the English Democrats, they got almost ten percent of the vote. So they had somewhere to go, I think that's certainly the case.
Also the climate had changed, because even in 2004 you hadn't had that long campaign of Islamophobia in the media. I mean, if you actually look at the Mail, the Express, the Telegraph, it is quite virulent. The Muslims have become the enemy within - it used to be the Irish.
Tucker: There are some people within the Labour party, or people who would describe themselves as being on the left, who seem to be participating in this Islamophobic campaign and have been quite hostile to you.
Livingstone: I would not say that I consider people like Bright or Gilligan...
Tucker: Martin Bright of the New Statesman?
Livingstone: Yes, Martin Bright, Andrew Gilligan of the Evening Standard, and Nick Cohen. I see these people very much like a layer of the left in the post-war period. As the world faced this choice between America and the Soviet Union, there was a layer in intellectuals on the left who became fervently pro-American, and it wasn’t just that they were anti-Russian or anti-Soviet, the people they most spent their time attacking were those people around the Bevanite strand, who were trying to argue for a middle way between those extremes. Who wants to choose between America’s rampant capitalism and Stalin, for god's sake? It’s not the choice you want to make. And so this layer of people who sold out, effectively to American interests, spent all their time trying to destroy anyone who was offering an alternative. They wanted the world to face Stalin or Eisenhower; it’s the starkest choice.
And therefore what the American right, the neocons, want is a stark choice between them and Al Qaeda. I refused to say that is the only option before us. It isn't just the Express and the Mail - it's also the BBC that is quite bad. Any mad fundamentalist Muslim can get ten minutes on the Today Programme, and it creates a completely distorted view.
Tucker: But you were accused yourself of inviting over Al-Qaradawi, who has himself has been pilloried, fairly or unfairly, as a mad fundamentalist. What happened there?
Livingstone: Well, Al-Qaradawi just happened to be coming. To my shame, I was so ignorant about the theological disputes between the various wings of Sunni Islam, I knew nothing about Al-Qaradawi...
Tucker: Not part of the job description of the London Mayor then? [Laughter]
Livingstone: No, I rapidly found out. Effectively, you have the Wahabi strand of Islam... they had the first real encounter with the West and that was Gordon's defeat at Khartoum. But it was taken up by the Saudi royal family, funded massively, and it is a particularly intolerant and backward looking strand of Islam. Then you have Al-Qaradawi, whose writings and programmes are accessed by hundreds of millions of Muslims, who talks about engagement with the West, whose own daughters have all been educated in the West. The Wahabi and the Saudis are virulently anti-Qaradawi, and that’s the choice.
Of course, some people might say 'ah, there is a small group of twenty five wholly secular Muslims who are all good socialists' - that’s fine, I really want to work with them. But the choice you have actually got is Wahabi or Qaradawi. Qaradawi's not perfect, he is not going to turn up on a gay rights march. But that’s the choice that’s being fought over in the Muslim world, and you therefore work with the most progressive elements.
When John the 23rd became Pope in 1958, people didn't say 'oh, he is not very good on women’s rights'. They were just delighted that here was a Pope saying 'well, we don’t think the Jews murdered Christ'. I mean, he started that great commission on contraception, which had he lived would have actually changed Catholic policy, but he died. And then Paul the 6th changed the composition, with catastrophic results for humanity.
Tucker: These personal attacks on you, there was that guy from the Evening Standard, Oliver Finegold, and you were being accused of being an anti-Semite, etcetera. Given your record as the guy in London who was the ahead of the rest of the pack in the 1980s and did so much on anti-racism, did that hurt on a personal level?
Livingstone: Media coverage I found painful in the early '80s, I have become immune to it. It hurts only when they go after friends and family, when in a sense it hurts them. I recognise I get this shit because I represent something they are frightened of. Which is, you know, a way forward - there isn’t this classic choice between American neo-liberals and fundamentalist Islam. That's a ridiculous choice.
It is important to remember now that Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilisations pamphlet, which then became a book, wasn't just talking about the West versus Islam. It was also the West versus Confucianism. I mean, there is not much America can do about that because if the Chinese government decides to stop buying American bonds and dollars, they are going to go into a catastrophic recession. Chinese governments make their own very clever analysis of all that, you make yourself basically indispensable. So there's no question of America doing a nuclear attack against China, and it leaves China to carry on propping the USA's economy up. I can’t remember, do the Chinese buy $200 billion a year of American currencies and bonds? It's something like that. Without that, wow, interest rates would have to go up dramatically.
Tucker: You mentioned that what hurts is when the press go after friends and family. You've managed to keep your personal life very personal. What has been the secret of that?
Livingstone: Well, you have to be absolutely clear, you can’t use your family a little bit. This is what Tony and Cherie Blair found out. They thought they were dealing with one really nice journalist from the BBC, and they'd have a film clip of Ewan playing on the piano. The moment you allow any access, they become fair game, so I never discuss my private life with the media. And as for all the people who share my life, they take broadly the same view. They didn’t have a relationship with me on the grounds they are going to read about it in some bloody kiss and tell drama, twenty years down the road.
It is one of the things I find quite interesting. It was really started by John Kennedy, when he had photographers taking pictures of Caroline and John running around the Oval office - it looks lovely, you think 'oh, it's a normal human being'. But the moment Kennedy was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy brought down a real shutter; and the press were frozen out of the rest of those kids' lives. Look, you've got to do that. Also, I suppose the thing I find abhorrent about our politics, is that it is becoming more and more about personality and style, and less and less about ideology. And, you know, if it's personality and style, I am never going to get anywhere. Stylish is not me.
Tucker: I don’t want to bang on about it, but do you think you came to some kind of rapprochment with the press over your private life? I am happy to do this bit off the record if you like...
Livingstone: No, no, that's fine.
Tucker: There were these revelations about your kids. I knew about this fifteen or twenty years ago - but nobody wrote about it, and that’s what I found interesting.
Livingstone: Thousands of people knew I'd had three teenage children. There was a layer of activists who knew, but then there were the thousands of kids and parents who went to the same school that saw me at the school gate, or when I went to the local fete, and things like that. What I find really quite nice is that in all that period, nobody ever picked up the phone and said 'I've got a story for the [newspapers]'. And it's great. If it had been a secret it would have come out, but it was private and people respected it. Once they got to be sixteen, they are no longer covered by the Press Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct is absolutely clear. No child under the age of sixteen can be used, however notorious the parents, as long as you don’t use them. And I'd always assumed that once they all hit sixteen it was going to be a field day.
It was quite good actually, that it all came out in the middle of the election, where my opponent has an even more colourful private life than I do. And so they couldn’t use it.
We had a brief flurry, there was a story that ran on the 6.30 BBC regional news on the 3rd. The last journalist gave up camping outside houses on Saturday morning.
There was this lovely moment on my walkabout in Islington the following day. There was this huge media scrum, because they all wanted pictures of me with babies. And the party, the senior party officials, all turned out to be there to manage this; no-one in that first 24 hours had any idea how this was going to play out. And there was this lovely moment when this little old lady pushed through the journalists and said: "Mister Livingstone, I think you should have all the girlfriends you want". [laughter]
And you just realise - this is London. As long as people are consenting adults, no-one gives a damn. It's like New York. Mayor Bloomberg said to me - his partner wants to get married - "We are going to get married at some point. But if I do it before the election, it will be said I am doing it for electoral purposes."
Well I said, "When you get married, we’ll get married."
In New York, who cares?
In these great world cities, people have got more problems to cope with than worrying about who their leaders are sleeping with. So that’s what's is nice. I don’t know if I would have got away with it in Ross Cromarty & Skye.
Livingstone: As I have never been there, I don’t know.
Tucker: You come across as a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand, you appear to have quite a thick skin. And then again, watching the declaration of your defeat as Mayor, you were almost in tears. There is an emotional side to you as well. Is that something that has led your political ambition?
Livingstone: I grew up in a world in which boys don’t cry, which was seen as a terrible sign of weakness. Somewhere in the 1970s this began to change. And I was so glad my two sons can grow up in a world in which they can show their emotions. Because I remember what the 1950s was like, and it was awful, really stultifying. I think some of the excesses in the 1960s were actually because of an over-reaction to the 1950s. And I don’t see any point in trying to pretend that things don't hurt.
Watching the Olympics and our single gold medal in track and field... I did stuff with Christine earlier on when we were doing the Olympic bid. And then there was her exclusion because she missed the three [drug] tests. And I always thought, you're talking about a young woman in her late teens, early twenties - at that age you will make those sort of mistakes. I was really delighted she got back into the Olympics and did an incredible run at the last minute. I was watching it, and I had tears streaming down my face because I know the person. I know what it costs to get there. I’m glad that is the world we now live in, rather than the one where I was brought up as a kid where boys weren’t supposed to cry. We do. You are as much likely to cry because something moves you, as because of something that hurts.
All through that... I woke up on the Friday morning [the day after the local and Mayoral elections] and heard the Today Programme say that Labour’s vote nationally was down to 24%. And I thought, Christ, I can’t overcome that.
Tucker: Was that the first point that you considered defeat? A week before the election it was clear to me that you were going to lose. What was going through your mind? Had you reconciled yourself?
Livingstone: There were the YouGov polls that I didn’t believe, that gave Boris margins of anything from six to thirteen percent. And then all the other polls said it was neck and neck. And that’s what it felt like on the streets.
Tucker: What streets were you walking, the outer London streets?
Livingstone: No no no. Boris worked the outer, and we worked the inner.
In about a fifth of the wards in London there was a swing to me, and so therefore it was a very divisive election in that sense. But no, you go through an election to win it. And I thought there was every chance of doing that, just because of the enthusiasm I was getting. And Boris was getting the same enthusiasm in their areas.
And it was only going to be on the day, that we discovered which machine had grinded out the most of the vote. So it was only when I woke up on Friday morning - I thought: 'oh shit'. And so I went in and started clearing the desk, and what was quite good was how much closer it was than I feared it might have been when I heard Labour was 20% behind the Tories. We came down to just 6%. And I also thought my personal vote would be, because of the viciousness of the Evening Standard campaign, my personal vote would be squeezed down to much closer to the Labour vote. And it went up to13%, instead of just being 10% ahead of the Labour vote.
So actually, it wasn’t like that Portillo moment, where there was this huge personal rejection of Portillo; he goes away and rethinks his life and becomes a different human being. I almost felt like that was an endorsement given the state the Party was in.
Tucker: Except in your concession speech you took full responsibility for your defeat. But that wasn’t true was it? It was a white lie. It was New Labour that lost it for you, wasn’t it?
Livingstone: In the first place, you aren’t going to get up when you have lost and start blaming everybody else. That just looks bad, but also...
Tucker: Nobody believed that part of your speech.
Livingstone: Well, I had built up a personal vote of a quarter of a million over the last 25 years. If I could have built it up to a third of a million, I'd have won. But who am I to blame? Because there's what you can do for yourself, and what your party does to drag you down when its having a bad time.
Tucker: How are relations between you and the Labour heirarchcy? Do you speak to Gordon Brown, do you ever chat on the phone?
Livingstone: I was in Venezuela when you had the Olympic handover ceremony to London. And Gordon was there [in China] with Boris. And having done all those interviews, the first thing he did was to phone me in Venezuela and say, 'I think it's really really unfair you're not here, but this is your achievement'. A very nice little phone call.
I explain - because I started out with no expectations of Blair and Brown; and I came to recognise, in very different ways they had immense qualities and I was able to get, eventually, good working relationships with them which tremendously benefited London. So my autobiography next year will not be the classic pattern of all these New Labour biographies, being high hopes and then embitterment. Mine is pretty scathing contempt, and then actually improving! Mine will run against the general trend.
Tucker: New Labour is often characterised on the left as simply a neo-conservative, neo-liberal project. Isn’t it truer to say that in fact, Blairism is occupying a space between the old fashioned social democracy during the Soviet era, and neo-liberalism? And it is that space that has been carved out, and some tax money redistributed, the edge taken off extreme poverty, etcetera.
Livingstone: I absolutely agree with that. It's really ridiculous to just lump Blair and Brown in together, and certainly to lump them in with Bush and Cheney. I know from my own experience in dealing with Number 10, that Blair always saw himself as moderating - I think a slight naivety in that - moderating the American adventurism.
I actually think a lot of the problems of New Labour come not from the ideology, but the lack of experience of government. If you look at American politics, with the exception of this year and Kennedy in 1960 - whoever is elected this year is going to be a Senator, without ever having been a Governor or a Mayor. And there was one other election in the past, it was Harding in 1920; only three American elections where someone has gone from the Senate to the Presidency. Every other election they had been a Governor, a successful military commander, in one instance a Mayor. And if you look at Germany, every Chancellor since Adenauer, and who was briefly his successor? Ehard. Every other Chancellor since then has successfully run a Länder. Everywhere else in the world, people are Mayors, Governors, and you are not allowed to play with the national state unless you demonstrated you could run the local one.
Here in Britain, the local government experience has been squeezed right out. Everyone leaves university, works in some PR firm or as a researcher for a MP, and the first experience they have of managing anything is when they find they are a Cabinet Minister or a Prime Minister. So I watched Blair and Brown and everybody, except for Blunkett and Dobson and Chris Smith, who'd had strong local government experience - all these people learning and making the sort of mistakes that I made when I was a councillor in Lambeth my 20s, but on the national stage. Blair would honestly say to you that he spent his first term as Prime Minister learning how to do the job. That's a luxury. Boris is now spending his first term as Mayor learning how to do the job. This is a luxury that you really can’t indulge. It is really only in Britain with this obsessive centralised state, that you've got to be Prime Minister, or virtually nothing else is worth doing. It has got worse under New Labour; in Mrs Thatcher’s time, being a Cabinet Minister you had a real air of responsibility, and were left to get on with it.
Now everything is run centrally, and it will be under Cameron I suspect, if he gets in, and this is a terrible weakness. You need to have demonstrated administrative experience. Now to my surprise, I expected a lot more casualties of people who turned out to be incompetent ministers. But it was still a wasted first term. A lot of the errors that were built in were that. There were the ideological errors of saying we are not going to increase taxes on the rich.
And then were just the errors of omission. How long does it take you before you realise those civil servants aren’t yours, and they have their own agenda and they are just very good at seeming yours? I learnt that when I was in Lambeth Council in 1970s before I was 30. And then Blair had to learn it in his premiership.
Tucker: I'll finish. Bendy buses: they are too long for our streets, they blow up in the middle, they squash cyclists, left right and centre...
Livingstone: You're a mouthpiece for Boris. [laughter]
Tucker: ...and they're free aren’t they? Because nobody has to pay; you just walk on and you don’t have to tap your Oyster card. I mean, was that the idea - to re-introduce free public transport on the sly?
Livingstone: They are the most popular bus we run.
Tucker: 'Popular' in the number of people who are using them, or by popular acclaim in the streets?
Livingstone: People who don’t get on them have bought all this propaganda. Remember where this came from. Policy Exchange started the campaign to bring back the Routemaster and savage the Bendy Bus. The people in Policy Exchange don’t need public transport. The simple fact is- on our market surveys, when we asked people what they thought about the particular buses they use, bendy buses are slightly more popular than double deckers.
Take the one that goes down Stoke Newington Church Street, which I always thought was going to be one of the most difficult to run. We put that in there because you couldn’t get enough double deckers down to cope with the demand. And a friend of mine who lives there, gets the bendy bus in every day, and he said 'I like the bendy bus.' I said 'what was it like before?' And he said, 'I couldn’t get on the bus.' And where you have got a bendy bus route, they are broadly carrying the same number of passengers on that route as the entire Manchester tram system.
And what Boris will find when next year he cancels- he is just not renewing the contract- he will have to put an awful lot of double deckers on to cope. Part of the problem is a lot of people won’t go up the stairs in a double decker. If a bus is going to burst into flames you would want to be on a bendy bus, rather than on the top of a double decker. No-one has ever died in a fire on a bendy bus. No cyclist has ever been killed by a bendy bus.
Tucker: You don't like tall buses, but you do like tall buildings. We are a congested and overcrowded city; does building upwards make sense?
Livingstone: It's a question of density, per hectare. Where you have got tall buildings, if they are residential it is usually because very rich people want to live with a wonderful view in a well organised building. There is one opening shortly on the Isle of Dogs. It should be interesting to see how that goes in the present climate. Or it is like the Gherkin or the London Bridge Tower, you want a signature building. There is a limited demand for them, and you don’t have to go high for any purpose of maximising homes or jobs, unless there's an asthetic reason for doing it. But Bendy Buses - no, people will miss them when Boris gets rid of them.
Tucker: What has been your single greatest achievement during your eight years as Mayor? What are you most proud of?
Livingstone: There’s too much. People used to say, what was my biggest mistake? and I think that on all the major issues we got it right. If you actually look, Boris and the Tory campaign against me is all about trivia. It was about bendy buses, it was all about things at the margin. On the big issues: the way we re-built the bus service, got neighbourhood police back on the streets, won the Olympic bid, prepared for 7/7, so that we recovered so rapidly. The reason I am spending so much time going abroad, is all round the rest of the world, city governments see London as the success story of the first decade of this millennium. They think it was transformed from a basket-case to dynamic, overtaking New York. If only we could have got the British press to report it in the same way, I might be there still.
Tucker: Over your political career you have socked it to two prime ministers. Thatcher won, but it was a pyrhic victory and you returned from the ashes. And then Blair had a go and you emerged victorious again, against your own party.
Livingstone: I am proud of the fact that the two most powerful prime ministers of modern time tried to destroy me and they both failed, yes.
Tucker: Just a personal question, do you use the internet?
Livingstone: No. I am going to start now. When I was a MP, one of the first things I did was that I went and did a touch typing course and my second book, (my first book I wrote by hand and had it typed up) my second book I typed up onto the word processor, and then right the way through the 1990s...
As we started the first Mayoral campaign, there wasn't was the time to do that, and right the way through my years as Mayor... I mean, people bring me stuff- you deal with it, there isn’t the time to log on and browse. Now, I will get into all of this. But I noticed it with Blair, where you are doing these photocalls and so on, it was quite clear that neither of us could directly access whatever we were being asked to do, and you don’t in that sort of position.
Now, my life being a little bit more leisurely, I am really looking forward to it. Because actually, things like Conservative Home and Ian Dale's - in actual fact it's the blogs over the last three months that have been much better at exposing what is going on in City Hall than the press have been. It has been quite chaotic in there, and you have still got the Telegraph and so on lauding it as the apex of human civilisation.
Tucker: A one word answer if possible, Ken- are you going to run in 2012?
Livingstone: There isn’t a one word answer to that. I mean, if Boris stepped under a bendy bus tomorrow...
Tucker: That would be a vindication of your transport policy!
Livingstone: ...and if you ask would I like to be Mayor in 2012? Yes of course I would like to. But the party won’t start the process of selection until 2011. If you ask me now, the answer is yes; but you can’t be certain.
Tucker: How about as a Member of Parliament?
Livingstone: No. I see no point in being in Parliament unless you are going to be Prime Minister. There once was a point. 30 years ago Parliament had some real power but, under a combination of Thatcher and Blair... I mean, because of the narrowness of the Labour majority, some of the back benchers have had some impact. But even members of the cabinet now, their areas of responsibility are so circumscribed. We have become the most centralised state in the Western world, and it has no appeal whatsoever. Because once you get into parliament you are a prisoner there, you have to be there for votes.
I could achieve much more, I’ll be doing a lot of work around the environment for instance and that is much more important. I remember my second book, Livingstone's Labour, which I wrote whilst I was an MP. For eight months, it meant getting up at four o’clock in the morning and typing away on my old word processor until nine or ten, and then going in to do parliamentary stuff, and this has no appeal. So really, I couldn’t do all these things that I've got lined up to do now.
Since this interview was recorded, Ken Livingstone has re-founded the Socialist Economic Bulletin.