Livingstone is not underplaying the importance of next year’s mayoral election. “It’s a simple choice between good and evil – I don’t think it’s been so clear since the great struggle between Churchill and Hitler.”
Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London is sitting in a pie-and-mash shop in Shepherd’s Bush Market. A small crowd of residents has gathered, and one local blogger is asking why they should vote for him.
“The people that don’t vote for me will be weighed in the balance, come Judgement Day. The Archangel Gabriel will say, ‘You didn’t vote for Ken Livingstone in 2012. Oh dear, burn forever. Your skin flayed for all eternity...’”
He pauses. “I’ll come round with a serious pitch nearer the time.”
He croaks his signature laugh and moves on to the next question.
Livingstone is having fun. It’s almost a year since he was selected as Labour’s candidate for the mayoralty, and he’s halfway through visiting every London borough on his ‘Ken4London’ tour. In two days, across Lambeth and Hammersmith, he’s visited a school, two construction sites, a bus, a market, a bike shop, a newsagents and a pie-and-mash café.
This is his fourth mayoral campaign. Boris Johnson ended Livingstone’s eight-year reign in City Hall in 2008, beating him by 139,772 first and second-preference votes.
So, what are his chances this time round – standing against a candidate he lost to, on behalf of a party in opposition?
He wants to stress that he’s physically ready for the fight. Taking a break on Clapham High Street, 66-year-old Livingstone orders a snack: “I’ll have a hot chocolate if they’ve got it, and the most disgustingly creamy cake you can find.
“I’ve got a low cholesterol level,” he explains. “My body chemistry is one of the reasons I’m able to run – my doctor says I’ve got the same heart profile as an Olympic runner. I can’t run like a champion athlete, but I can cope with a lot of stress.”
Later, donning a pair of protective goggles to enter a building site, he adds proudly: “And I still don’t need glasses.”
How are his teeth? “Oh, they’re shit. That’s the weakness,” Livingstone cackles.
“Fearless Ken,” Val Shawcross, his running mate, remarks, as Labour’s mayoral hope crosses the road, ignoring a red light.
“Give me the world to run, and I’ll be happy,” Livingstone told one interviewer recently. He nods: “I would sleep like a baby, yeah.” Then why not go bigger?
“They aren’t offering me the world,” he says simply.
“After being prime minister and possibly chancellor, this is the best job in British politics. And Labour has two very impressive candidates for the prime minister and chancellor, so I’m happy with them.”
There is a kind of inevitability to Ken standing again. As one Labour MP puts it: “Who else is there?”
“Me and Boris both have recognition levels in the mid-80s,” explains Livingstone. “The mayoral system focuses so much on the personality rather than the party. Eddie Izzard announced he’d like to run for mayor one day. He’ll most probably get elected, because everyone knows who he is. Most people have made up their mind. People are strongly pro-me or anti-me, or strongly pro or anti-Boris. This must be the election with the smallest group of ‘undecideds’ and floating voters for 40 years.”
Livingstone is certainly recognised (with the exception of one Lambeth primary school where a child asks if he’s Roald Dahl). Cars toot at Ken, old women shake his hand and teenagers ask for a photo on their mobiles. But being familiar will not be enough to lead him to victory in 2012.
Beyond the ‘good vs evil’ bid, what else has Livingstone got up his sleeve?
He says his two main priorities are to get neighbourhood police back on the street and keep travel fares down. “Everything else? It’ll be lovely if we get the money but, you know…” He trails off.
“This time around, we can compare my actual record with [Boris’s] actual record. With the exception of banning alcohol on the tube and setting up the mayor’s charity fund, he’s carried on opening the things I started, but he’s not initiated anything.”
Johnson’s ambitions, Livingstone feels, do not lie with the mayoralty. “His strategy is about getting through this, getting back into Parliament, succeeding David Cameron. He’s not taking risks. The mayor shouldn’t have closed our offices in India and China. The mayor should have opened an office in Rio so that the firms working on the London Olympics could be bidding to work on the Rio Olympics.”
He shows a hint of frustration. “After one of my visits, somebody blogged, ‘You can really imagine, Ken walks into City Hall and by that evening the place has come to life again.’ I’m coming in with all these ideas, whereas Boris came in and thought, ‘Oh shit, I didn’t expect to win this. What am I going to do next?’ I think he was horrified [to win]. I’m surprised he didn’t ask for a recount. Simon Milton, before he died – who really ran it under Boris – said (but not vindictively), after two and a half years Boris has finally got his head around London issues. He just doesn’t know what’s happening in the building.”
One of the reasons touted for Livingstone’s defeat last time was his lack of support in outer London boroughs. In 2004, he won 11 of the 20 outer boroughs. In 2008, he won just six. He expects to do better in 2012 because he’s paying more attention to these areas.
“I was down in Orpington a few months ago, and a woman said to me, ‘We haven’t seen anybody from the Labour Party here since the by-election’, which was in 1962. Why would the Labour Party invest in a seat that’s 98 per cent Tory or Liberal? But in the mayoral election every vote is of equal value. This year, we’ve been rebuilding our machine. We made more contacts in one night in Bromley than we have in the last 15 years.”
He’s realistic that Johnson’s team is being equally calculating about outer London boroughs. “Boris’s team – working out of their luxury offices in Regent Street – I suspect are doing the same thing. And that’s a nightmare for the Lib Dems; two great big machines are being mobilised for an electoral Stalingrad.”
But Labour can’t rely on a revolution in the outer boroughs to transport Ken back to City Hall.
Fundraising will be key. New general secretary Iain McNicol and Ed Miliband have appointed former ITV CEO Charles Allen to oversee a management and commercial review of the entire Labour Party. Livingstone is also running weekly phone banks out of Victoria Street, mobilising roughly 100 volunteers each time. He believes his donations will come from “ordinary people”, while Johnson represents “a rich elite of greedy bankers”.
“I don’t think the candidates will be too involved in fundraising, after all the problems Blair got into with Lord Levy,” he says. “Richard E Grant gave money to my campaign, but 80 per cent of my funding will come from the trade unions, and 77 per cent of Boris’ funding will come from individuals, hedge funds, banks, investment boutiques. It’s quite clear, from who funds us, who we represent.”
Since entering City Hall, Johnson has made a concerted effort to portray himself as a ‘serious mayor’. As one of the mayor’s staff put it: “He is tightly managed, he wears smart suits, he talks seriously.” Livingstone says he doesn’t need a Gok Wan makeover to take on Johnson’s blonde mop. “I lost a stone,” he admits, “but people voted for me as an Independent, then as Labour, because I am what I am. If they don’t like that, I’m not going to be something I’m not.”
Following his re-election to Parliament for the seat of Brent East in 1997, Livingstone was soon tipped to be mayor of the proposed Greater London Authority. He was included in the Labour shortlist in November 1999, despite supposedly difficult relations with prime minister Tony Blair. On 20 February, 2000, Livingstone lost out to former health secretary Frank Dobson in a vote of Labour Party members. A month later, Livingstone announced he would stand against Dobson as an Independent, reneging on an earlier pledge not to. In April, he was expelled from the party. In May, he won the mayoralty.
It is just a snapshot of Livingstone’s often tumultuous relations with Labour. That’s all changed now. He is “incredibly impressed” with Labour’s current leader, Ed Miliband. (“It’s the first time since John Smith died that there’s a Labour leader who actually likes me, rather than just having to work with me.”) They’ve even been on a “date” together recently, attending former rival Oona King’s fundraiser at the Ministry of Sound.
“During all the years I had dealings with Blair and Brown, they’d never say ‘no’ to your face. It’d be a briefing to the press if they didn’t like what you were doing. If I’m in a meeting with Ed Miliband, he’ll just say, ‘Well, I don’t agree with that.’ He’s got the confidence to confront you.”
Long-time City Hall follower and Guardian journalist Dave Hill suggests that Livingstone is now working more closely with the Labour Party than ever before. “That’s absolutely fair,” Ken agrees. “I had to batter down the Labour Party to get in the first time. The second election, in 2004, I was brought back [into the party] in January, which was ridiculously close. Although Blair wanted me back, everyone around him thought I was going to screw him – it was an incredibly nervy relationship. When Brown was there, my team was immersed in running City Hall and his was finding its feet. I don’t think the [2008 election] was very good. It was very much last-minute. This time, the Labour Party took on my team and brought it into the Labour machine.”
He says he’s seen Miliband roughly “half a dozen times” since the Labour leader’s election. “We meet to discuss how the campaign’s going, what the priorities will be. He’ll be totally involved in that. It’s not going to be like last time. Blair was easier to work with. Brown was manoeuvred into a position where we were seen together, and he looked reasonably comfortable with that. I think they had him on something for those occasions.” He’s joking – I think.
So it’s all happy-clappy between Ed and Ken. But has he heard the rumour about bad blood between the leader’s office and Victoria Street? “A lot of the people who would have given Ed problems are the uber-Blairites,” he believes. “They left the Labour Party machine to run David Miliband’s campaign and, of course, aren’t there any more.”
Does this mean that the Labour era of counter-briefing is dead? “You pick up in the papers… briefings that could be termed ‘snidey’, comments by failed cabinet ministers from the Blair–Brown era who know their time’s up. They can be grumpy about what Ed’s doing. But after Ed’s triumph of the last fortnight, who cares what they think? Most of them weren’t even memorable when they were in the cabinet...”
Ed’s ‘triumph’ refers to the Labour leader’s handling of the phone-hacking scandal. Livingstone claims Miliband went “out on a limb to attack Murdoch”.
“People in the Labour Party are so uplifted by that,” he says. “They were sickened by Blair and Brown fawning over Murdoch, Dacre and all the others for so long. After the deviousness of the last 13 years, it’s a breath of fresh air.”
The air, however, isn’t entirely fresh. Around 11 of Ed Miliband’s published media meetings were with News International, compared to 25 of David Cameron’s meetings. Livingstone himself had a column in The Sun in the 1990s, and his arch-journo-nemesis, Andrew Gilligan, claims that Livingstone has had no fewer than 26 bylined articles in News International newspapers since the hacking scandal broke in July 2009.
But Livingstone is on the attack, not the defensive. “Boris was the News International candidate last time, and he will be this time. That is why he was still defending News International after the Milly Dowler revelations.”
He has a theory about his main rival’s alleged relations with News International: “When Boris and George Osborne are locked in a death throe to succeed Cameron, the Mail will vote for Osborne. The Telegraph will vote for Boris because the Barclay brothers have been grooming him for years, and they want access to a prime minister. So, the big media focus is the group in contention – News International. Osborne has been very close to them and Boris needs at least to have them neutral.”
Even if he succeeds in landing a few blows on Johnson over phone hacking, Livingstone has his own controversies to contend with. He was accused of opportunism over the London riots, after claiming: “The economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division.”
And last year, he backed Lutfur Rahman, an Independent running for Mayor of Tower Hamlets, over the Labour Party candidate. This was in breach of Labour Party rules and could have led to automatic expulsion. Rahman later won the election. Livingstone, obviously, hasn’t been expelled.
“The Tower Hamlets thing is very marginal,” he claims now. “But the brutal fact is, all the people in Tower Hamlets who are working for me were on Lutfur’s side, and all the people who were working for Oona were on [Labour’s official candidate] Helal Abbas’s side.”
At the time, Neil Kinnock described the decision not to back the party’s candidate as “ill-advised”. Jim Fitzpatrick, the MP for Poplar and Limehouse, described the actions as “extremely disturbing”.
Did Livingstone receive a negative reaction from local Labour Party members and councillors over his backing of Rahman? “Only from the people who hated me beforehand.” He shrugs. “Those who voted to get rid of Lutfur spent their lives trying to stop me in the machine, anyhow. Everyone in the Tower Hamlets Labour [group], and everyone around Lutfur, will work themselves to death getting me elected. There’ll be two ‘Vote for Ken’ campaigns in Tower Hamlets. I’m not unhappy.”
What about Lutfur’s alleged links to Islamic extremism? “There was all this old codswallop about how he’s Al-Qaida’s man in London,” says Livingstone. “It was hard to believe as he sips down an Irish coffee – the only member of Al-Qaida I know who likes a drink. He voted for David Miliband... he isn’t even particularly left-wing.”
We meet again the next day in a Shepherd’s Bush Market pie-and-mash shop that is marked for demolition. Local Labour MP Andy Slaughter is there, as are a lot of concerned constituents. Livingstone is in his element. “I love pie and mash,” he says, sitting down to a chicken and mushroom pie. “When I was a kid, London was filled with fish-and-chip shops, eel, pie-and-mash shops – I know three or four genuine fish-and-chip shops. Your average fish-and-chip shop can’t do a brilliant Chinese meal, because food is cultural.”
Ken loves to reminisce. He recounts another little memory to his pie shop audience: “I first came here in 1962 to buy some soft-shell turtles from the pet shop. They had Malaysian soft-shelled turtles and I bought about a dozen because my mate owned a pet shop in Balham. I also bought some baby eels and grew them, not ate them.”
Livingstone is a known nature lover. On his walkabout, he stops by a blackberry bush to sample its fruit. “It’s good,” he says. Later, he talks extensively about the best way to grow a silver birch tree. He was the first person to breed the western dwarf clawed frog in captivity, and used to work as a technician for a cancer research laboratory in Fulham, where he looked after the animals that were experimented on. And, of course, there are the newts…
What if he doesn’t win the mayoralty? “I’m going to write a book about my gardening experience in London, and set up a small business to put gardens in for people who want small, manageable wildlife. And I’d stand again for the council for the Zoological Society of London. I was vice president for two years of London Zoo – I loved that. And we must get another dog.” (His current Labrador, Coco, is very sweet. Google him.)
His autobiography is due for publication on 3 November. “People think I’m mad for wanting to write an autobiography just before [the election]. But they know I’ve made mistakes. It was 30 years since I was selected. Over 30 years, it’s hard to think of a politician who has called it right as often as I did.”
The autobiography is to be called You Can’t Say That – “The publisher kept going through and saying, ‘Can you prove this?’” I ask for a juicy morsel. “My fight against cancer,” he replies. That is a sad example, I suggest. “Well, I won!” he retorts. “In my childhood, my battle with dysentery, my struggle with TB. The attempt to assassinate me by the Ulster paramilitaries. I am happy because I won each of these struggles.”
Is the imminent struggle with Johnson on the same level?
“No,” he replies bluntly.
With that, the Livingstone campaign sweeps off to its next destination in the run-up to ‘Ken vs Boris, round two’. He has people to reminisce with, cream cakes to eat, the heart of an Olympic runner and 20:20 vision.
He’s unconcerned about Judgement Day – the biblical variety, at least.