A Progressive Agenda to Stop the Right in 2012
Saturday 30th January 10am-5pm
Congress House, Great Russell Street, WC1H
An Interview with Ken Livingstone
They say never meet your heroes. You’re only ever gonna be disappointed. And having had some bad experiences in the past – a particularly awkward conversation with a very reluctant Mark Steel, and managing to pour beer down the very beautiful Sian Berry, whilst coming out with lines that wouldn’t persuade a hooker in a brothel, being two I don’t care to dwell on – given all this, I was particularly trepidatious about meeting Ken Livingstone.
Despite my fluctuating and ever more ridiculous emotional relationship with the Labour party, like many of the young generation on the left, I could never bring myself to vote for them. When I was in VI Form, we got tuition fees. Whilst at university, they took us to war, got rid of trial by jury, threw millions at the private sector through PFI and paved the way for variable top-up fees. But then I moved to London, and suddenly there was the chance to vote for Ken. He was anti-war, anti-fees, anti-PFI and a member of the Labour Party… It was a Labour vote you could be proud of.
But no… I’m an interviewer now for a very reputable blog. I want to push him. I want to ask him some difficult questions that need answering, regardless if it shatters my boyhood dreams… But what if he starts calling me a ‘concentration camp guard’ like he did with that guy at the Standard? Perhaps I should have just let Reuben or Jacob do the interview…? At least they could always fall back on the old “Im jewish and I find that offensive” catch-all gem. Too late… door bell has been rung. And the person I got this contact off said he could be really stern or just disinterested with journos… God, this is going to be awful. Another dream shattering dose of reality, just like the time I told the ticket inspector I didn’t believe in class, that he and I were in the same proletarian boat, and then promptly got issued a £50 fine for sitting in the wrong carriage.
The shutters opened from the darkened front room and a pair of beady eyes glared out at me. “Who are you?’ an authorative voice demanded…
“My name is David… and I’m here to see your Daddy,” I said. Ken opened the door laughing. “Can I offer you a drink? Beer, wine, tea, water…” He was instantly charming and introduced me to his children, Thom and Mia. Panic over. Just as his political reputation suggests, Ken was to prove the exception to the rule.
I thought I’d start strong – attempt to blindside him, ala Frost/Nixon. ”Are you going to run again in 2012?” He laughed and smiled. “I would have thought that was pretty obvious by now.” No exclusive there then.
So what’s the point of Progressive London? And what is it going to achieve? “Well, when we analysed the election results, we looked at our agreement with the Greens. And I made every effort to try and get the Liberals into that too, because broadly in London, Liberal activists tend to be left of centre. And when you looked at both the votes for Mayor and the London Assembly results, bringing them and Respect and the like in, there was a progressive majority of 54%. But the fractioning of that let the Tories come through. So I just thought it would be a shame to let that necessary alliance drift further apart. And that is why we started Progressive London. We want people’s input into a genuine progressive agenda, and this weekend will be asking people to sign up to working groups through which they will define that agenda through 2012 and beyond.”
I mentioned that, as a resident of an inner-London borough, I felt aggrieved that voters in the nether regions of Sutton and Harrow forged the central plank of what became known as Boris’ donut election strategy – a blue ring with a red hole in the middle.
“The few bits of London that don’t really want to be in London are a big chunk of Hillingdon, then Havering, Bexley and Bromley. It is very interesting that when you look at the results, out of 32 boroughs, Boris’ majority comes from just 4 – the four least cosmopolitan.”
“Should they really be considered ‘London’ for electoral purposes then?” I asked. “They don’t have the same experiences and concerns as those of us who feel more acutely the impact of the Mayor’s legislation?” Ken laughed again. “One of my first meetings after the election was down in Bromley. The local paper asked me what my message was. I said, ‘I forgive you.’”
I laughed and presumed that would be the end of it. But what was slowly becoming very clear about Ken Livingstone was that behind his public image as a stalwart of the left, he is incredibly informed about the minute practicalities of seemingly every London borough, and has a real love and knowledge of the city, and a vision for its transformation that is far fresher than his political opponents have succeeded in making out. “The bizarre thing is, who has been screwed the most since Boris’ got in? He accepted my policy of 24/7 on the Freedom Pass but didn’t do what he said he would and extend it to trains. Now if you live in that pocket of South East London, on the outskirts of Bexley, then this hurts you the most. Why won’t they extend the tram link from Croydon up to Crystal Palace where the East London Line is coming in? It was the cheapest of all the proposals we had. So no, we don’t need to axe them. We’ve got the arguments to win down there as well.”
So does he blame the Labour party nationally for his defeat? “No. If you can’t mobilise enough supporters after eight years as Mayor to win an election you need to do things differently yourself next time round.”
Ken is clearly as alive and up for the fight as he was in the days when he taunted Maggie with unemployment figures across the Thames. But I feared that the party, let alone the electorate, would not see it as a matter of policy debate and qualification, but a time for a new face and someone who they thought had a better time of, well, out Borising Boris:
The conversation meandered at my asking to take in his views on Venezuela, Obama and the recession and emerging economies. But I didn’t want to leave without pushing him on two things: namely, could Labour still be a vehicle for progressive politics after all that has happened in its recent history? And secondly, which would be more difficult, why should people like us support him again? I still wasn’t even sure if he could win.
There is much to admire about Ken Livingstone. Unlike so many others in the Labour party today, you know where he stands and you know that he will stand firm. But electorally speaking, that can be a very difficult line to tread. And as a young man who wants to see Labour move forward – not in a Blairite sense, but in terms of how it is perceived as a genuine vehicle for hope and change for the working class – I couldn’t help feeling going into the interview that Ken was perhaps just not the man for the job any more. Like Arnie Vinick in the West Wing, convinced he could win the next time around, was it not perhaps time to pack it in and pass the batton to someone else? I couldn’t see voters going for him again. But I left with the feeling that they should.
To buy into the hype of youth and image, be it on the left or on the right, is to the detriment of our politics as a whole. The final clip, which I found the most telling and most uplifting, came when I really tried to push Ken on his lack of political razzamatazz. I had previously thought it the reason he lost the last election. Having heard him talk about it, I now think it speaks to a depth of character that our politics may not crave, but which it most definitely needs. And it is the reason that I will vote for him next time around.