‘Red’ Ken Livingstone has been a divisive figure during his 40-year career

Ken Livingstone was a figurehead of the Labour left for more than four decades, despite being a divisive figure across the political spectrum.

In his heyday, “Red Ken” was a thorn in the side both of Margaret Thatcher’s Tories and New Labour under Tony Blair.

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Ken Livingstone as mayor of London outside City Hall, London, in February 2008 (Ian Nicholson/PA)

In their efforts to thwart him, the Conservatives resorted to legislation to end his reign at the Greater London Council, while Labour was so determined to prevent him becoming London mayor it stitched up the selection process, to disastrous effect.

But his time in the party ended ignominiously, when he quit the Labour Party in 2018 amid furious demands for his removal over allegations of antisemitism.

Born on June 17 1945 in south London, to a working-class family, Mr Livingstone, the son of an acrobatic dancer and a ship’s master in the Merchant Navy, first began to blaze a trail through London politics in the early 1970s.

Within two years of joining the Labour Party in 1969, Mr Livingstone was elected as a councillor in his native Lambeth in south London in 1971 before joining the Greater London Council in 1973.

In 1981, Labour took control, and he was elected leader, quickly becoming a national figure.

He revelled in being a bete noire of the right, supporting everyone from striking miners to Sinn Fein’s leaders at the height of the IRA’s bombing campaign.

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GLC leader Ken Livingstone beneath the giant sign erected on the roof of County Hall showing the number of people out of work in Greater London (PA)

He goaded Mrs Thatcher across the Thames in Parliament during the turbulent 1980s by displaying the unemployment figures on City Hall.

After she secured revenge by abolishing the GLC, he joined the ranks of Labour’s left-wing MPs as member for Brent East from 1987-2001, harrying the Tories but also clashing frequently with the New Labour modernisers.

When Mr Blair restored devolved government to the capital and created the powerful post of mayor he certainly did not anticipate that it would open the door for his foe’s return.

But every attempt to prevent his worst-case scenario backfired, as Mr Livingstone stood as an independent against official Labour candidate Frank Dobson in 2000 and won.

Such was Mr Livingstone’s popularity that Mr Blair was forced to welcome him back into the fold and ensure he was the official Labour candidate in 2004.

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Boris Johnson gives his victory speech in City Hall, London after he was re-elected Mayor of London watched by Ken Livingstone (Lewis Whyld/PA)

During that second term, Mr Livingstone won widespread praise for the way he stood up for London after the July 2005 suicide bombings and he helped win the 2012 Olympic Games for the capital.

However, he also became embroiled in a series of disputes with sections of the capital’s Jewish community, leading to allegations of antisemitism.

In 2006, a High Court judge said he made “unnecessarily offensive” and “indefensible” remarks likening a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

He was however cleared of bringing the office of mayor into disrepute, a ruling he hailed as a “victory for democracy and common sense”.

His time in office was ended in 2008 when he was defeated by an equally maverick and colourful opponent in Boris Johnson and a failed bid to return to City Hall in 2012 marked the end of his electoral ambitions.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 appeared to have given him a fresh lease of life politically, as he enthusiastically backed the policies of his old ally on the left.

However, he found himself at the centre of a new storm the following year when he came to the defence of MP Naz Shah who had been suspended over offensive social media posts.

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Then mayor of London Ken Livingstone meets Hugo Chavez, then president of Venezuela (Lindsey Parnaby/PA)

Mr Livingstone insisted that, while her remarks were “over the top”, she was not antisemitic, and that he had never encountered antisemitism in 40 years in the Labour Party.

He then sparked fury by going on to claim in a radio interview that Hitler “was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”.

Despite being suspended by the party, he insisted he stood by the comments which he said referred to an agreement in 1933 between the Nazis and some German Zionists to resettle Jews in Palestine.

Mr Livingstone announced his resignation from Labour on May 21 2018, although he maintained his support for Mr Corbyn as leader of the party.

Nearly four years later, in January 2022, Mr Livingstone announced his intention to join the Green Party, although at the same time urging other socialists to remain with Labour, but his application was rejected.