Interview with Ken Livingstone

When Ken Livingstone did his talk for the Watford LBC group, I sat down with him to have a chat about his political career, his book Being Red: A Politics for the Future, the snap general election, and his most influential books.

Left Book Club: Tell us about yourself and your political career.
Ken Livingstone:
My political career has been over for some years now, since I lost in 2012 to Boris. But when I was a kid my interest was in science, natural history, and astronomy, I only really started to get interested in politics on the night Kennedy was assassinated. I was 18 and I started reading about American politics and then we had the election of Wilson, and I assumed the world would all be changed for the better.
I got caught up in the anti-Vietnam War campaigns, and in 1969 I realised that if you wanted to change things you had to work your way through the political system so I joined the Labour Party.
I was lucky as I joined just when everyone else was leaving in disgust, a bit like after Blair’s war in Iraq. We had the devaluation, three years of an economic squeeze, and so I was about the only new person to join the Labour Party that year. Two years later, I was stuck on the council and two years after that I was on the GLC [Greater London Council]. I was just ahead of the great wave of new young people coming in, and then of course I fell in love with the GLC because you could do so much there.
I became leader in 1981, and the day I became leader Thatcher made a speech saying I intended to impose a Communist dictatorship like Eastern Europe on the people of London. No leader of the GLC had ever famous before, so immediately there was just this wave of hysteria a bit like Jeremy has had for the last 18 months.
And then she [Thatcher] abolished it [the GLC] of course, I became an MP and Blair came along and created a mayoral system which I thought was a mistake. It’s much better to have a council, so it’s not all power in one person’s hands. Then once again, by trying to block me standing he [Blair] made me popular again.
I mean, I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Thatcher and Blair.

What’s Being Red: A Politics for the Future about? How do you feel it fits into the results of the recent snap general election?
Oddly enough, I was doing a radio programme every Saturday morning with David Mellor, just two old farts rambling on about politics. The LBC [the broadcaster] said they wanted all the presenters to write a small booklet and so I wrote it in something like 2014.
I thought I should draw on the lessons of the 2012 mayoral elections because it was so vile and unpleasant because clearly that’s what’s going to be Miliband in 2015.
LBC refused to publish it, and it was only after Jan [one of our directors] got ahold of me and said that she was helping to set up this Left Book Club. I said, well I’ve got a book. And she got other people to do very long interviews with me about my past and all that, because a generation has grown up and will of never have heard of who I was. They certainly wouldn’t know about the GLC.
So that’s how it happened. It was so that Ed Miliband have lessons about what was going to come, but also it set up Labour leaders to be more radical to win. And sadly, Ed Miliband was good, and he would have been a genuine Labour prime minister, but he was held back by being too cautious.
Only now, as we see with Jeremy, from the moment that manifesto was launched it just turned everything around. He has rebuilt the Labour party, which Blair took apart. Under Blair we were just a rubber stamp for corporate interests.

What do you think the snap general election means for the future of the Labour party?
Well the Tories are on 42.5% and we’re on 40%, no one would have believed that possible. I kept saying for the last 18 months that when you hit the election, because radio and television coverage has to be equally balanced, Jeremy will come through and his policies are popular. Until the election campaign started, all people hear were that he was mad, a terrorist supporter, wanted to borrow large sums of money and bankrupt Britain, all this old rubbish.
But, I always thought that the fact that he’s actually a nice person is an important part of winning an election.
If you’ve actually got a nice candidate, and Theresa May came over as so unpleasant. People keep stopping me on the street and saying, ‘well what do you think about the election?’. And I say that if you had to spend two hours stuck in a lift with Jeremey or Theresa, who would you choose? And they always choose Jeremy.
The other factor in winning is having a sound economic policy, and Jeremy’s focus on investment is the key to economic success. Investing in modernising your economy, your infrastructure and all that, is brilliant.

What do you think the most influential books have been in your life?
I suppose as a kid reading 1984 [Oberon Books, 2013], I must have been around 12 or 13. But also, Brave New World [Vintage Publishing, 2007], which is much more science-fictiony. Those two were more influential than anything I have ever read. I mean, most of what I read was science fiction.
I used to hang around book shops, and I always used to buy more books than I had time to read. While I was mayor, I had virtually no time to read anything. And now, I’m reading all these books that I bought decades ago, like this one on FDR.
I’ve actually dug out books that I’ve had since the late 1960’s, and I’ve now got time to read them. Mainly they’re political biographies, I seldom read an autobiography because very politicians are honest in their autobiography.
I just read one about Rab Butler, who was a predominant figure in Conservative politics in the 1930’s through to the 1960’s. But his fatal mistake, and the reason he never became prime minister, was that he supported appeasement. In his book, he barely mentions it, and it was the crucial mistake of his career.
When I did my autobiography, the publisher called it ‘You Can’t Say That’ and there was a 26 page letter from their libel lawyers asking me to prove all these things that I’ve got in there. But, to make it balanced, I included all the worst things people had ever said or written about me, which was actually much more interesting.