For a man who has spent his career in the Premier League of British politics, Ken Livingstone cuts an understated figure. His sloping shoulders and flat-footed limping gait are certainly not in accordance with the Cameronian guide to political body language, and the open-chested, glad-handing dynamism which that primer espouses. The two-time London Mayor has been a thorn in the side of two figures who have towered over modern British politics—Prime Ministers Thatcher and Blair, and he’s now going for his third run.
Ken lost the mayoralty to Boris Johnson in 2008, having governed the capital for two four-year terms, originally as an Independent when Tony Blair and the Labour Party withheld their endorsement in 2000. After a resounding victory in that election, Blair shamefacedly readmitted Livingstone back into the Labour fold in 2004. It was not the first time the leftwing firebrand had attracted the ire of the most powerful person in the country—in 1986 Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council of which Livingstone was leader, in large part because of her aversion to his leftist views.
After his defeat in 2008, it was not long before he threw his hat back into the ring for this year’s race, comfortably winning the Labour candidacy for the role in 2010. Until recently he had languished behind Boris in the polls, but a game-changing pledge to cut transport fares by 7 per cent—the so-called ‘Fare Deal’—overturned what had been an 8 per cent deficit last November and put Ken a whisker in front in January. The race is currently too close to call.
Considering the pivotal importance of the Fare Deal to Ken’s bid for City Hall, the Johnson campaign has unsurprisingly gone after it vigorously, claiming that the money for the cuts “doesn’t exist,” that it would be disastrous to essential investment, and that Ken’s claims are nothing less than “fraudulent.” And as Londoners feel the pinch of inflation-busting fares on an overcrowded, ramshackle Tube system, is the Fare Deal really affordable, given the pressing need to upgrade outdated infrastructure? “Oh God yeah. The cost to TfL of cutting the fares is £270m a year,” Ken explains. “That’s three per cent of TfL’s budget, and last year there was a £700m surplus in the fares account. The first nine months of this year is £330m. If you’ve got a budget of £9bn and you can’t shift three per cent of resources without damaging investment then you shouldn’t be in public life.”
The fluency with which these figures trip off Livingstone’s tongue confirms my suspicion that when it comes to London, Ken is a true political anorak, well-versed and confident in the navigation of the labyrinthine governance and administration of the city. This is a man who you can picture whiling away a happy Sunday afternoon poring over TfL’s Annual Report and Statement of Accounts—whether he’s Mayor or not.
Boris has tried to counter the Fare Deal by unveiling a giveaway of his own, promising to cut council tax every year if he is re-elected. But Ken insists his own plan saves Londoners more money overall. “You have four, five million people using the public transport system everyday—in every household there’s at least someone” he says. “For the average public transport user in London the difference between me and Boris over four years will be £1000. That’s money they’ll spend in local shops. Boris has cut the council tax by £3.10. That’s fine – just don’t spend it all in the same shop. Even with our poorly taught generation in terms of maths, I think you can work out which is the best deal there.”
Although as Mayor he presided over the boom years in the City of London, Livingstone is now considered to be a bête noire by the capital’s financiers. He has called for an increase in the top rate of income tax, and more jocularly, for Londoners to “hang a banker a week until the others improve.” So what does he think about the recent eviction by bailiffs of the Occupy London protestors camped outside St Paul’s? “I think it’s deplorable. They had sequestered an area which didn’t impede people getting to local shops. I don’t believe all the stuff in the press about disease and crime. If there was, the police would have moved in right away and dealt with it. It’s a political strategy because the City authorities are embarrassed to be reminded on a daily basis of the catastrophic errors of judgment that they made which landed us in this mess.” Ken views his rival in the same light—he sees Boris as a defender of powerful forces in society more than capable of looking after themselves, while he sticks up for the powerless: “I watched Boris Johnson denounce the protestors outside the Israeli embassy during Operation Cast Lead as anti-Semitic. I’ve watched quite peaceful demonstrators occupying Fortnum & Mason who accidentally knocked over a pile of chocolate being dragged off and arrested. The Mayor has to defend the right to protest.”
While Ken is extremely critical of Boris, observers have often detected a grudging respect between the wily political adversaries—even a rapport. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: they are both mavericks, and the only people in British politics identifiable by their first names alone. But this may be where the similarities end. Ken is quick to point out that the two men do not move in the same circles—he claims they’ve scarcely even met. “He’s refused to debate with me for four years until last week,” says Ken, “so I have no way of knowing what he’s like. He’s almost as hard to get to as President Obama, and when you do get to him he’s nothing like as much fun.” Now that the two men are once again warily circling each other in the arena of political combat, Ken takes a stoic look back at his 2008 defeat and explains what’s different this time around.
“Life isn’t fair,” he says. “We had a very good record (in 2008). We were subject to a vicious campaign by the Standard. And then you had the other problem that Gordon Brown’s government got us into the lowest level of popularity for exactly 40 years. Now Boris Johnson has got a government round his neck and I don’t have.”
With Ken bullish about his record and setting his face against the Square Mile, the Standard—sympathetic to its City-dominated readership—will almost certainly side with Boris once again.
But for a man who is frequently criticised for loose talk, Ken is determinedly on message, and it may be just what he needs. This year the maverick, the leftwing icon, the encyclopedia of London politics, is coming at the mayoral race with a more conventional, but no less powerful angle: he’s a man who wants his job back.
Will Hazell is a politics blogger. Read more here.