D-tour, December 1997
Ken Livingstone wants to be London mayor – but he thinks the Labour leadership will stop him standing, he tells Paul Anderson
Just three months ago, Ken Livingstone was a marginal figure on the Labour left, out of favour with Tony Blair’s new government, yesterday’s man.
But then the MP for Brent South surprised all the pundits by beating Peter Mandelson to a place on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee – and suddenly he was news for the first time in years. People started talking about him as the leader of the left in parliament and as a candidate for the new post of elected mayor of London. With the Blair government running into its first patches of turbulence, Red Ken has been on the television every other night making trouble.
Relaxing over a coffee in the Italian café on Whitehall, he seems pleased about his return to the limelight. “Politics gets reported as a sprint run,” he says in his famously nasal drawl. “In reality it’s a marathon. You may seem to be totally isolated. But suddenly events turn, and then you’re back in the frame. After being kicked off the NEC in 1989, I had eight years of people saying I was finished. But that isn’t real politics. Real politics is about sticking in there until the circumstances are favourable and then exploiting them as best you can.”
“The circumstances” now are, of course, the election of a Labour government with plans for a London-wide authority with a directly elected mayor and city council. Livingstone was the last leader of the capital’s last city-wide authority, the Greater London Council, abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 – but he’s no enthusiast for the government’s scheme. He believes that an elected mayor will be unaccountable between elections and accessible only to the rich and powerful. “I prefer a system where there’s a leader of a council, maybe calledthe mayor, who’s elected by a majority on the council,” he says. “You then have some way of affecting the mayor’s decisions through the parties, and if needs be the council can get rid of him or her. If you have an elected mayor for four or five years – well, if they go bad or mad, you’re stuffed.”
He also thinks that the new London authority needs far greater powers than the government proposes, not least to raise its own taxes. In the end, however, he’ll back the government plan. “Anything’s better than nothing,” he says.
But will he be running for the post? “I’d very much like to be a candidate,” he says. “But there’s going to be a clause in the bill that says ‘white men born in Streatham in 1945 aren’t eligible to stand’. They can’t have something saying ‘Ken Livingstone can’t stand’, but if they make it a general proscription against a class of people, it’s no problem. I suspect the Labour leadership will say that you can’t stand if you’re an MP – and I’m not going to give up my seat in parliament.”
He’d ideally like to be both mayor and an MP. “The government won’t give London tax-raising powers, so if you’re mayor, your main task is to get back from the government more of London’s money. Each year London puts into the national government £6.2 billion more than it gets back. If we had the same level of public spending per head that Scotland’s got, we’d have an extra £4.4 billion. With that sort of cash, we wouldn’t have people sleeping on the streets or the transport system breaking down. And the best place to make that case is on the floor of the House of Commons. Otherwise they’ll just give you a large brandy and show you the door.”
Livingstone believes that transport is the new authority’s first priority. “You’ve got to be able to reduce fares and put conductors back on the buses so there are fewer delays. And you need the power to make local boroughs put in cycle routes and bus lanes.” Otherwise, he says, the authority should play a leading role in creating jobs in inner London and in arts and culture policy.
The dig at Blair is a reminder of Livingstone’s deep dissatisfaction with the government. He warms to his theme. “I’ll give it six out of ten,” he says. “They’re doing brilliantly on Ireland. But denying Londoners the choice of what sort of elected authority they want is a disgrace. So is the refusal to back the anti-hunting bill and go for tuition fees for students. But the most appalling scandal is taking the six quid off the single parents. Tax revenues are flooding in because the economy is booming. It’s just a macho thing to show the bankers that they can trust us to screw the poor.”
Our hour is almost up, and Livingstone has another meeting. “My life is one long meeting,” he moans as we wait for the bill. “I don’t have a lot of time for a lot of things I love, like hanging around in cafés in Soho. We’ve got to pedestrianise Soho, you know. I get to work at ten, get home to Cricklewood at eleven, watch Newsnight, drink half a bottle of wine and crash out. My record collection peters out in about 1973. The one thing I always make time for though is to take in at least one film a week. That’s my culture. I loved LA Confidential and Excess Baggage. I hated Event Horizon and Face/Off. You can’t believe how bad Face/Off is.”
And with that, he’s back to his office, then off to the Commons for a vote, then a cab to a television studio. “You know, I sometimes think I’d like to give it up and spend half my time just reading books,” he says. “It’s a ridiculous life. But I love it really.”