OPINION - ‘Red Ken’ had stark highs and lows, but this diagnosis is sad

Ken Livingstone’s family has revealed the former London mayor is living with Alzheimer’s disease (PA Archive)
Ken Livingstone’s family has revealed the former London mayor is living with Alzheimer’s disease (PA Archive)

Not many politicians got the better of Sir Tony Blair but Ken Livingstone has a claim. I remember one late summer’s day in 2005, travelling around Trafalgar Square in a car with Sir Tony, my then-boss and also the prime minister. Around us, people were clearing up after a festival sponsored and endorsed by Livingstone, the mayor of London. Sir Tony spoke, more to himself than to me: “Remarkable politician, Ken, amazingly creative.” Now that the sad news has come through that Livingstone is suffering from Alzheimer’s, it is time to reflect on the nature of that creativity.

In 2000, Sir Tony had blocked Livingstone from being the Labour candidate for the new post of the directly elected mayor of London, even though 60 per cent of Labour members wanted him. Livingstone, though, refused to stand down. Drawing on his singular popularity and name recognition from his days as the leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) in the Eighties, Livingstone described himself as a “London nationalist” and won as an independent. After a term in City Hall he was allowed back into the Labour fold and won a second victory, this time as a Labour candidate, in 2004.

Livingstone’s name as a politician was really made in his battles with Margaret Thatcher. In 1981, Labour’s Left, led and organised by Livingstone, took control of the GLC. Livingstone introduced Fares Fair, a cut to prices on the Tube of 32 per cent which was challenged legally by Bromley council and overturned by the House of Lords. The flat fares within ticket zones survived, and so did the introduction of the Travelcard.

What really made Livingstone a significant figure — “Red Ken”, as he became known — was the increase in funding that went to voluntary organisations, from £6 million in 1980 to £50 million in 1984.

The Ethnic Minorities Committee, the Gay and Lesbian Working Party and the Women’s Committee were the face of a GLC leader who saw himself as the representative of those who had previously been ignored.

By acting against him, Margaret Thatcher simply turned Ken Livingstone into a political martyr

That expanding of the remit of politics is his enduring legacy of the time and what really irritated Thatcher. In 1983, the Conservative manifesto pledged to abolish the GLC even though a MORI poll from April of that year gave Livingstone a 58 per cent satisfactory rating. Quite apart from leaving London with no city government, the abolition of the GLC was an error because by acting against him, Thatcher simply turned Livingstone into a political martyr.

After a spell as the MP for Brent North, he came back into his natural habitat as the first Mayor of London in 2000. The highlight of his first term, and perhaps the boldest move of his career, was a policy that came from the libertarian Right, the congestion charge which was a huge boost to commercial traffic.

Later, in his second term, Livingstone made a serious contribution to London’s successful campaign to win the 2012 Olympic Games, insisting all along that the Games were the only way of raising investment funds to regenerate east London. He also responded with empathy to the July 7 bombings in 2005. Livingstone designed the London Cycle scheme which was claimed by his successor as mayor, Boris Johnson. He can also claim the credit for the fact that there are nearly two million more bus journeys made in London now than there were in 2000.

That was the work of creative Ken, yet in a sense there were always two competing Ken Livingstones. One Ken was the pragmatic politician who worked well with political rivals. The other Ken was the fixed ideologue who never renounced a simple-minded Marxist critique of capitalist America. These beliefs curdled into unacceptable views which led to him being accused of anti-Semitism long before the late, obsessive radio interviews in which he insisted on mentioning the Nazis.

This was the Ken who had been suspended from office in 2006 when a High Court judge found he had made “unnecessarily offensive” remarks likening a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard and who was eventually suspended from the Labour Party.

By the end, Livingstone was a busted politician. He twice lost mayoral contests, in 2008 and 2012, to Johnson. But at his best, in his pomp at the GLC and his first term in City Hall, he was a politician of great creative flair.

As the first mayor of London he did more than anyone to confirm that post as an important locus of power in the city. It is surely for his contribution to his city for which he would wish to be remembered.

Philip Collins is the founder and writer-in-chief at The Draft.