In conversation with... Ken Livingstone

Written by Iain Dale on 18 March 2009 in Interview
The former Mayor of London has no intention of departing London politics and remains a controversial force of nature. He tells Iain Dale why he will be standing in the next Mayoral election, that his biggest failure in office was not forcing a newspaper out of business and how the civil service is a "malignant conspiracy against the national interest"

KL: From the moment Boris announced I thought he was the one Tory candidate who could defeat me. I always thought it was neck-and-neck and it was only really when I woke up on the Friday morning and switched on the Today Programme and heard that Labour was on 24 per cent nationally, with the Tories on 44 per cent I realised I couldn't overcome that. I came in and started clearing my desk. It was a disastrous period. Even though GDP was still going up, it felt like a recession already.

If ever any of my kids want to go into politics I'll sit them down and say look, if you go into any other career and you're bright you can achieve a lot. Politics is the one profession where you can be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor old John Major didn't deserve to lose the night I won in Lambeth in 1971. That Tory council was the best for 30 years - highly imaginative and I agreed with almost everything it did. All those people like Hattersley and Kaufman whose careers were snuffed out in 1979, or Ken Clarke in 1997. This is the one career where the question of luck is so overwhelming, but I really can't complain. I've had two periods of power on a basis only just below that of what the Prime Minister has.

Do you think you lost the mayoralty, or did Boris win it? Because there is a difference, isn't there?

You had two candidates with high positives from committed supporters but with high negatives from people who loathed them. There was a huge swing to me in some parts and sadly, in more parts, a huge swing to Boris. If you could have taken away the national dimension I think I would have won because Boris's negatives were more than mine. We did monthly polling and from the moment Boris announced my ratings went up and up. It was only in November they started coming down. I then realised it was just tracking the national party's polling. Immediately after the budget, Labour's figures and mine just went off a precipice. The figures slowly came back and if we had had another two months we might have pulled it back.

If what you are saying is that Gordon Brown lost you the mayoralty, why were you so gracious to him afterwards? I thought you might launch a bitter attack on him!

When you have had a defeat like that and you start blaming everyone else you diminish yourself. It wasn't like sudden death. I had been intellectually prepared for defeat from the previous July. The campaign had been horrendous, with all the Evening Standard stuff. It wasn't like a Portillo moment wherethe whole nation is cheering and glad you've lost, so I didn't feel it was a personal humiliation.

Was the campaign strategy against Boris wrong? I couldn't understand the tactics of accusing Boris of racism as soon as he was selected. You should have kept some of that ammunition for the campaign itself.

I don't think there was a strategy towards Boris.

Maybe that was the problem!

Throughout my life I have run positive campaigns about what I believed in. Back in 2004 when I got back into the party I was suddenly made aware Labour had printed a million newspapers attacking Steve Norris personally. I told them I would denounce it if they put it out and they had to pulp them. In 1981 a reporter from the Standard came to me with stuff about Horace Cutler's private life - they had found his love nest, and all that crap - and I said I was more interested in cutting fares.

Why didn't you adopt that attitude in this campaign, because some of the things you said about Boris were vicious?

No it wasn't. Nothing was orchestrated by me. Boris's problem, and he has no one to blame but himself, is that he spent 15 years writing for the Telegraph and Standard. Both he and [Andrew] Gilligan seemed to think it wasn't fair that people went back and read all this. I still get people recycling things I said in 1981! Boris seemed genuinely hurt. But he wrote a load of racist, reactionary, negative, neo-con piffle. The only thing Boris had never taken a right wing position on was immigration. How were we to know he was just writing for his audience? I believed he genuinely believed all this. It's only after the last ten months as I have watched him desperately trying to govern from near the centre that I realised Boris doesn't believe in anything at all, except that Boris should rule the world. If I were one of those BNP people who gave him a second preference and then I listened to him saying that illegal immigrants should have an amnesty, I think I would want my vote back!

But you never seriously believed Boris was a racist, did you?

I had never met Boris. Where would I know Boris? All I had ever seen was Boris being a buffoon on Have I Got News For You. All I can do is believe that the stuff he spent 15 years writing, he might actually believe. Who else in politics has ever used the word ‘piccaninnie'? Or ‘water melon smiles'? You might know he's a lovely engaging chap because you might have met him. I had never met him. We have still only ever exchanged a few words in passing. I know he was genuinely hurt that people thought he was a racist. He's not a racist in the sense that anyone would make that point, but he shouldn't have written that crap. He can't help himself. I have to be careful about revealing sources, but the thing about Boris is that everyone around him gossips about him all the time. Apparently when he meets foreign mayors with distinctive language patterns, he mimics them almost as soon as they are out of the bloody door! He doesn't mean it in any unpleasant way, but it is very easy for people to misinterpret that.

I don't think Boris has done as badly as you thought he would.

It would be hard for him to have been as bad as I feared he was going to be. Why do you think I fought so hard to keep him out?! Boris's weakness is that he doesn't have an ideology. Every leader I have watched try to govern from the centre has failed.

Aren't we in the age of pragmatism now, not the age of ideology?

No, you have got to have an ideology to have a framework to construct a strategy about where you're going. People in the centre are, by definition, devoid of ideology. They make what appear to be rational decisions at the time, but are usually too late, and stumble from crisis to crisis. Tell me a centrist leader who has been successful.

You sound like Margaret Thatcher.

I completely disagreed with so much of what she wanted to do but I did respect her because she believed in something and drove towards it. You look at poor old Neil Kinnock, always trying to accommodate the right and keep the left happy. Also, another weakness is that Boris is not a workaholic and you have to be as Mayor. Private Eye does a spoof about me blaming Boris for everything, but I do actually. My office was always pro-active. Boris's failure to act when we had all the snow was symptomatic.

That wasn't Boris's fault. That was Peter Hendy and Transport for London. Hendy was the operational guy in charge. He's the roadblock to reform. If you want to get from a Livingstone transport agenda to a Boris one you have to get rid of Hendy.

A bureaucracy isn't pro-active. The political leader has to call people in, hold immediate meetings, give clear instructions and expect them to be carried out. Hendy says it's nicer working under Boris. Of course it is. I told the bugger what to do, but Boris doesn't. The Tory Party's problem is that Boris is learning from making the same sort of mistakes I made on Lambeth Council at the age of 26. It's like Tony Blair. Blair hadn't run anything before he became Prime Minister. This is very late in the day to work out how you start handling civil servants.

Is this a wider problem, where you have people going into politics at an ever younger age. It's the age of the career politician, isn't it?

That layer of successful businessmen and women who went into parliament in their fifties, or trade union leaders who did much the same and could say ‘bugger off sonny', there are just none of them left. American or German politicians get to run their cities or states before they go into Federal government. It's a terrible weakness in our system. Obama is only the third President to be elected from the Senate. Every other President has run a state or been a successful military commander. Every German Chancellor with the exception of Adenauer and Erhard has run a Bundesland. No one in Germany would think you can play with the national government until you have demonstrated you can run one of the smaller bits. Only here do we think that posing against your opponents in Parliament is a preparation for government.

What would your advice to David Cameron be?

I think he has already made the fatal mistake which will sink his government. He's not really going to devolve power away from Whitehall. He's already told local government there will be no great change or shift in power. He'll try to run all the schools from the centre. When they talk about localism it's a sham. Neither this government, nor a Cameron one will empower people. Labour's real mistake was to micro-manage everything and try to run everything from the centre. Nowhere else in the world does this work. If Cameron had any sense he would evolve about half of what Whitehall does to regional and local government, but he doesn't believe in regional government. But you can understand it - all those years in opposition waiting for power. When you get it, it's very difficult to give it up.

What I discovered when I became leader of the GLC was that previously everything crossed the leader's desk. The senior civil servants, like Treasury civil servants worked to the leader, blocking off their committee chairs. At my first meeting with the director general, I said ‘I do not want any officer coming to see me other than the director of finance or yourself'. They should work to the committee chairs we have appointed. Immediately, all these things were happening. If it had all had to come across my desk, half of it would never have happened. Although there will be mistakes, a real, massive devolution would start bringing good people back into local government, but there's got to be financial change as well. Ninety seven per cent of all tax collected inBritain is collected by Gordon Brown. When I told the Mayor of Moscow that he said: "That's worse than Russia under Stalin". From the moment Thatcher got power everything was sucked up to the centre and it got worse under Blair and Brown. Civil servants try to keep ministers busy with endless meetings and trivia.

Perhaps you should go and talk to Cameron's implementation team.

Whatever he thinks of my policies, the main lesson Cameron should draw from my time is that if I made a decision it was carried out, and carried out quickly. The civil service is a malignant conspiracy against the national interest. A cabinet minister is the executive head of the department, able to remove the entire top tier. They probably couldn't bring in a Bob Kiley figure from outside, like I did. When I took over we removed 27 of the top 30 people in London Transport. A government minister can't do that. It's tragic. The civil service is filled with crap. I met a government minister every week for eight years. There were a handful who were in charge. Ed Balls obviously was, because he was backed up by Mr Big. The one who impressed me was John Spellar. He and I had fought viciously from opposite wings of the party, but I had loads of meetings with Transport civil servants and they always expected him to endorse their position. When he said: "I agree with the Mayor on this" they were shocked. I saw government ministers read the brief which had been prepared for them and on one occasion I told the minister: "Your civil servants are lying to you" and I demonstrated why. They didn't have an answer. The tragedy is that everyone below Cabinet level knows that the Permanent Secretary in their department does an annual assessment of their performance and sends it to the Chief Whip. It should be the other way around. They know if they go out on a limb, the civil servants will undermine them. Even if you're John Prescott and all else fails, they'll bring the Treasury in, or the lawyers to tell you you can't do something. We've just got to break this. The civil service has its own agenda. In the end most ministers and most prime ministers go native and get sucked in by it.

Looking back, what do you think you got wrong?

I don't think we got any of the major decisions wrong. All the things you could say were mistakes were things about being rude to journalists...

It was a bit more than being rude to a journalist, wasn't it?

I have been rude to journalists all my life. Every time a journalist has displeased me I make an allusion to concentration camp guards, or Nazis. And just because some reporter is Jewish, they're not getting any special treatment. My biggest failure was not finding a way of forcing the Standard out of business.

Do you think you mishandled the Lee Jasper issue?

If I had known he had written some salacious emails at the beginning I would have handled it differently. We'd had two investigations by the director of finance at the GLA, two by the LDA auditors, the Assembly went over everything. We have had ten months of police investigation. One or two organisations may have been set up to steal from us but that's a problem everyone in the public sector has got. What there isn't is anything that links Lee Jasper to any criminality. That justified a couple of stories. It did not justify 25 front page leads and 35 double page spreads. They finally got Lee Jasper for something that was contrary to our code of conduct. If you access the emails of everyone on the BBC or any newspaper you'd find something similar.

Why do you keep going back to City Hall? You even attend Mayor's Questions at the Assembly. It makes you look sad.

I was uniquely lucky in that I got to set something up from scratch. Watching Boris come to terms with what I created is absolutely fascinating. I do intend to seek the Labour nomination again and if I am selected, I want to know more about Boris's administration than he does.

People think it's demeaning.

But they're the ones who aren't going to vote for me. In the debates next time I want to be able to hit back at Boris when he's wrong. Because I am there I can say with authority that the Tory group on the GLA are disappointed he is not more right wing. You can see it in their body language. It's a bit like all those Labour lefties who have waited years for a Labour government and then they get Blair! Boris was going to keep the western extension [of London's congestion charge] until they went and sat on him. If he had had more experience he might take more risks and do his own thing.

He's taken a lot of risks. The amnesty for illegal immigrants is only one example. Moving on, why do you want to stand for a third term when you gave a clear commitment to only stay for one term?

I change my mind all the time on the issue of term limits. The defining thing was George Bush. If America hadn't had term limits, Clinton would have been elected for a third term. I said I would also retain my seat in Parliament because I didn't think the job of mayor would be any more demanding than that of a cabinet minister. I assumed I would then be well rewarded by Blair for having got it all settled down. Once I got elected, by the first autumn, I realised there was huge potential and I had to give up my seat in Parliament and decided it would be the last job I did in politics.

Don't you think that if people are in power for a long time, the risk of corruption increases?

There's no more risk of corruption if I am in power for 20 years than when I get there. You are corrupt, or you are not.

But there are one party ‘states' in local government which are incredibly corrupt.

Then the answer is proportional representation so no one holds absolute power. I'd also have a primary system because the party machines become so small. You get more rapid political change in America than you do here. Insurgents can capture the party machine. Here, you have to brown nose your way up. That's the killer.

The Tories have introduced open primaries for candidate selection.

But not of all the voters...

Yes, absolutely. Anyone can turn up.

I didn't know that. That's excellent.

Do you not think the Labour Party machine will be mobilised against you? You can already see it with these articles about Alan Sugar - they want anyone but Ken in 2011.

This was foretold in the Bible. If you look in the Old Testament in Proverbs it says ‘the dog returneth to its vomit as the New Labour fool returns to its folly'. It will be twelve years. It's time to return to a Frank Dobson moment -the only question is, who is it going to be? [smiles]. It's an Andrew Gilligan story - that sad loner who gets off on destroying other people's lives. Gilligan wrote a piece recently broadly suggesting I was responsible for the credit crisis, calling me ‘Livingstone Brothers'. He, and others like [Nick] Cohen are obsessed. Yes, I would love to be mayor again. I am as certain as you can be, two and a half years ahead, that I will run for the Labour nomination.

If you didn't get it, would you commit now not to do what you did before?

I wouldn't have run the first time if I hadn't won, but I won and it was rigged. There was a huge amount of ballot stealing going on. Piara Khabra [former Labour MP for Ealing Southall] was going round boasting about how he had personally collected 300 postal ballots. They have to have one member one vote. I will be happy to submit myself to one member one vote and abide by the result.I was happy to do that last time, but they changed it.

Have you never been tempted to go back to the House of Commons? You'd stand quite a good chance of succeeding Gordon Brown after a Labour defeat!

That's most probably why they wouldn't let me get a nomination! If I thought I could get to be Prime Minister I would do it, but I don't think so. I would be 70 in 2015. You'd all be saying that this man's too old to be PrimeMinister.

You're probably right...

[laughs loudly] Getting back into Parliament? I don't know. Don't you think I am perfectly made for London politics but not for the rest of the country?

I might have said that a few years ago, but not now. But the way you're talking about it, it's almost as if you haven't considered it before and I have just put the thought into your head.

When I left Parliament, people like Diane Abbott said ‘no, you must stay and go for the leadership when there's a vacancy'. I thought, no, that could be forever. I have a big, demanding job to do. At the next mayoral election I may still look 45, but at the following general election I may look like a pensioner. And I love the London job. The Labour Party tolerates me because I only get to play with London. If they thought I might get my hands on the whole country I think they would be very serious about stopping me. It's just as well Barack Obama is there now. If I looked like becoming Prime Minister while Bush was in the White House then I am sure I would have had an accident. I believe in a neutralist Britain. I'm what Bill Cash calls a ‘Federast'. I believe in the euro, a united Europe. That plays OK in London, but not the rest of the country. I am not in favour of any parental choice in education. You will go to your local school.

That's a pretty bald statement. You've got young kids

They go to the local school and they will go to the local secondary school.

Even if it's a terrible school and you know it's a terrible school? Surely a parent's duty is to get the best education possible for their kids?

Tom's in his first year at school. In his class there are only three kids who were born in this country, and one of them is called Mohammed. He's doing fine because he has parents who read to him and he lives in a house full of books. A school can screw up kids if it's got a bad head who has lost interest and loses control. The home environment is far more likely to screw up kids. The illusion of educational choice has been a disaster for most kids and most parents. So you see, all things considered, I might have some trouble getting elected outside London!

Yes, possibly! What did you think when you heard the news that Peter Mandelson was returning to government?

He's a formidable operator but I am not certain it sends the message of renewal that we want. I had fundamental disagreements throughout my eight years as mayor. I hoped when Brown took over things would change more than they did. But I have not been massively surprised.

You were never a great fan of Brown, were you?

I was very critical of the first two years. The passage of time has shown me to be right.

What role do you think the internet is going to play in the future in politics?

I don't know how rapidly the papers will continue to decline. I regret their decline because the really good papers are providing a good range of news. But you get good stuff on the blogs too. The blogs, even those on the right, have been more balanced about Boris than the Evening Standard was. They were just cheerleaders. I tend to find out what's going on from what I am getting off the blogs.

Have you ever been tempted to start your own blog?

Once I have finished writing my autobiography I might. I've written 40,000 words and I am only up to the age of 30. It will be out in time for the party conferences. Once that's finished I shall be twittering all over the place!

How do you best fight the BNP?

I've always been in favour of exposing them and taking them on. The far right do well when a Labour government is failing. It's working class voters who would be inclined to be our supporters who become disillusioned. They don't want to vote Tory. If Brown gets a fourth term it will grow as a problem, unless Brown's policies become more popular with the working class. There is a lot of anger out there. The BNP will continue eating into the Labour vote until the government realises it needs to do something for working class people.

You went out on a limb to support Sir Ian Blair, when you used to have a reputation for being rather anti-Police.

You judge a person by the quality of their enemies, and when you have got the Telegraph and the Mail leading the campaign to get rid of Ian Blair you know he must be doing something right. What they wanted was a good old racist copper.

Oh for goodness sake. You can't seriously think they would like to have a racist head of the Metropolitan Police. Get real.

I do. I think they are racist. The Mail is a deeply racist paper. Just read Flat Earth News . I was shocked. Dacre comes over as a bullying racist thug in the book.

What's your prediction for the next general election?

Labour has only one real chance. Providing Brown continues to look as if he knows what he's talking about on the economy and he gets on top of the problems, and Cameron and Osborne continue with the line they have got, you have the mirror image of the 1992 election. You're in a recession but the government is reelected because it looks as if the opposition will make it worse. Kinnock said he would increase taxes. If Cameron says he will put up taxes and cut spending people won't go for that. Everyone else except the Republican right will be saying it doesn't work.

Quick Fire

What are you reading?

Harold Nicolson's diaries - the condensed version

Most formidable political opponent

Boris Johnson

City Hall or County Hall

County Hall

Most romantic thing you have ever done

That's an intrusion, but it involves a log fire and a mountain retreat

Favourite music

I have a very catholic musical taste. Classical, Katie Melua, Alexandra Burke, Stones, Scott Walker, Byrds. I am promiscuous about music.

Last Concert

El Sistema, Venezuelan Youth Orchestra

Favourite View in London

Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath

Tags: In conversation, Ken Livingstone

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