Ken Livingstone on his hopes for Jeremy Corbyn and why Boris Johnson will be the death of him | The World Weekly
It is said that all politicians are either gamekeepers or gardeners. They maintain the status quo with minimal effort and interference, or they pick up their fork and try to build their vision of paradise. When I arrive at Ken Livingstone’s house, he comes huffing and puffing round from his backyard carrying a spade and an uprooted wisteria, which I wait for him to plant outside his front door before we go in. He is most definitely a gardener.
He served as Labour member of Parliament for Brent East from 1987 to 2001, but Mr. Livingstone is best known, these days, as the first Mayor of London, a position he held from the creation of the post in 2000 until his defeat at the hands of the incumbent Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, in 2008. He first came to national prominence, however, as the leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1981, becoming a thorn in the side of the Thatcher government until the troublesome council was abolished in 1987. When he won the mayoralty, he opened his victory speech with the words: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted 14 years ago...”
In his new book, ‘Being Red: A Politics for the Future’ - published last month by the Left Book Club and Pluto Press - Mr. Livingstone prides himself on his record of using the limited levers of power he had at his disposal, variously at the GLC and, later, in his comeback role as mayor, to build desperately-needed affordable housing, promote LGBT rights, oppose nuclear weapons, keep transport fares down, and tackle congestion and air pollution. He despairs that, with his defeat in 2008, he was leaving London’s poor in the hands of a man who would do nothing except work on his plan to become prime minister. And, Mr. Livingstone tells me, if Britain votes to leave the EU, David Cameron will be gone within days and he doesn’t “have the slightest doubt” the Conservative membership will choose Boris Johnson as his successor. As prime minister, Mr. Livingstone is equally unequivocal, Boris will be a “catastrophic failure”.
The next mayor of London
Mr. Livingstone was given the opportunity of a rematch against Boris in the 2012 mayoral election, but after a heated and, at times, brutal campaign, his defeat ended his elected political career. Indeed, much of his book, perhaps unsurprisingly for a 70-year old veteran politician, is spent looking back at the successes and failures of his past. But even so, with his friend and leftist ally Jeremy Corbyn now leading a Labour Party once thought by many to be forever wedded to the Thatcherite policies pursued by Tony Blair, with a Tory government in power arguably even more right-wing than Thatcher’s, and with his arch-nemesis Boris Johnson set to make a bid for national power, is it not too soon for the memoire? Is there not one last fight left in him?
“I’m supporting Jeremy and I’m doing quite a lot of meetings up and down the country, and I’m also on Labour’s National Executive and joint chair of the foreign policy and defence review with [Shadow Foreign Secretary] Hilary Benn, but most of my time I’m a house-husband,” Mr. Livingstone tells me. “My wife’s just started teaching over in Hackney. She leaves about ten past 6 in the morning and gets home at 7 at night, so I have to get the kids off to school, feed them when they get home, stop them killing each other, walk the dog.”
His wife, Emma, was his officer manager while he was at city hall and she put her career on hold for him. Now it’s his turn and despite Labour looking set to recapture the mayoralty in this year’s election, Ken opted not to run again. Instead, he has every faith his would-be successor Sadiq Khan will win the election and carry on the policies he initiated and Boris abandoned.
“I don’t have the slightest doubt Sadiq will do the things London needs to be done,” he says. “There wouldn’t be any dramatic difference between his administration and mine. And there’s some point, now I’m 70, it’s time to let another generation come ahead.”
Ken Livingstone’s tenure as mayor, indeed his entire political career, has been marked by a combative relationship with a right-wing dominated media, whom he accuses of inventing all manner of scurrilous stories about him, from former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi giving him £200,000 in a Swiss bank account, to a rumour he’d had a vasectomy which prompted a concerned phone call from his mother. Among the latest press rumours to emerge around Ken and this year’s mayoral race is that Mr. Khan has sought to distance himself from his predecessor. Boris Johnson’s face can be seen everywhere in his would-be successor, Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith’s campaign material, but, writes Adam Bienkov for politics.co.uk, “when it comes to Labour, you could be forgiven for believing the party has never had a London mayor before”, absent as Mr. Livingstone has been from Mr. Khan’s literature.
Mr. Livingstone, however, maintains that he will do anything Mr. Khan wants him to do.
“I played a very big part in Sadiq’s campaign to get the nomination,” Ken says. “But this election is between Sadiq and Zac, it’s not a rerun of me and Boris. I need to keep out of that. Sadiq needs to get across who he is as a person, what he stands for politically. You really don’t want the previous generation of mayors hanging around. One of the things that strikes me is Zac seems to try and have Boris in shot for virtually everything he does and I think that’s a mistake. Because I don’t think Boris’ charisma will rub off on Zac. Zac needs to be promoting himself and the policies he believes in.”
“Whereas Boris came across as this great charismatic figure that everyone had a good laugh about, Zac seems much more insecure and uncertain about what his policies are going to be,” he adds, pointing out that Labour’s campaign to recapture the mayoralty would be much more difficult if Boris was running for a third term. “Because he still remains the most popular politician in Britain, God knows why.”
Like Boris, despite being about as establishment as it’s possible to get as an Eton-educated son of a billionaire businessman and Tory MP in Richmond, Zac is seen as something of an outsider to the Conservative establishment. But, with the latest polls putting Mr. Khan on 32% and Mr. Goldsmith on 25%, it does not appear as though this has translated into the same kind of mass support for Zac that Boris received. Mr. Goldsmith has received praise for his opposition to Heathrow expansion, with the Independent’s Matt Dathan describing him as “a strongly-principled MP and independent-minded environmental campaigner”. However left-wing journalists have been particularly scathing, with Charley Allen of the Morning Star writing of Zac Goldsmith: “He’s underperformed as an MP and looks good only up until he opens his mouth. Think Boris without the brains.”
This is not an epithet Ken Livingstone shares of the Tory contender. “It’s Boris without the comedy side,” he says. “I don’t doubt that Zac’s bright. There’s also quite a lot of Tories who worry whether Zac’s a Tory. He’s really just Zac, he has his own interests in environmental issues and so on. I don’t see a clear agenda around Zac. Whereas Sadiq has that. And there’s a stark contrast. Here you’ve got a multimillionaire who’s never had to struggle for anything up against someone like millions of other Londoners who was born quite poor and had to work his way up and has done quite well. Sadiq knows what it’s like trying to find somewhere to live.”
Mr. Livingstone is frequently seen as a figure to the left of the Labour Party, whereas Mr. Khan is often considered more of a moderate. But despite the fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership has opened up a renewed debate within the party about its direction of travel, Mr. Livingstone believes, when it comes to the mayoralty, “most of it’s not to do with left and right, it’s about what you do. I was a very proactive mayor initiating a lot of things, Boris is just coasting along and promoting himself and now London’s getting a huge housing crisis. Nothing like the level of investment we need in transport. Sadiq will be focussed on delivery rather than promoting himself.”
While Boris is often given credit for the 2012 London Olympics and the popular bicycle hire scheme now colloquially known as ‘Boris Bikes’, these were both initiatives begun under Ken.
Ken versus Boris
Despite coming at politics from polar opposites and their wildly different backgrounds - Ken came from a working class background and didn’t stay on at school to do A-Levels; Boris is an old Etonian who famously went on to join the elite and riotous Bullingdon club at Oxford University - the two perhaps have more in common than Mr. Livingstone might care to admit. As maverick politicians who have forged their own paths beyond and, often, above their respective parties’ fortunes, and as highly recognisable occupiers of the most powerful directly elected position in Britain, they have become political celebrities. In his book, Ken acknowledges this fact, though he insists that unlike Boris, he never set out to be a celebrity, but just tried to do his job.
Such shots at his successor are a common theme throughout Mr. Livingstone’s book, as well as our discussion, and from his comments it is clear he has little time for Boris Johnson. But if someone held a gun to his head and forced him to list a genuinely good quality that Boris has, what would it be?
“I can’t think of one,” replies Ken without any hesitation, suggesting he’s probably spent quite some time considering this question. “Apart from being prime minister or chancellor, being mayor of London is the next best job in British politics. It’s wonderful. You’re leading what is now the leading world city. You can initiate new ideas, like the C40 (a network, which now includes 83 of the world’s megacities, designed to take action to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, initiated in 2005 under Mr. Livingstone’s leadership). Boris has just done nothing. The whole thing has been about promoting Boris. When he got elected, with the exception of the bike scheme, he cancelled everything we had underway. Now he’s reliant on the cycle routes he’s revived as painting blue lines on roads didn’t provide safety for cyclists, as death tolls continue to rise. The damning indictment is he was told about the scale of fatalities from our air quality and has done nothing about it. I’d just introduced the Low Emissions Zone. One of the first things he did when he was elected was postpone the next stage of that. We could have had a dramatic improvement in our air quality by now, but he’s always terrified of upsetting the motoring lobby. Seventy-five thousand people will have died during his eight years as Mayor because of our air quality and he hasn’t lifted a finger. But neither has Cameron - there’s 40,000 deaths a year nationally and just under 10,000 a year in London.”
A new generation of cycle superhighways are on the cards, with fully separated cycle routes and protected junctions set to open in the summer. Looking back on his time in office as it comes to a close, Mr. Johnson defends his original blue line approach, saying they were a “compromise” and that they were “better than nothing”, however he wishes he’d opted for segregated lanes straight away. “If I had my time again, and if I knew then what I know now, I would have gone straight in with a massive programme of segregated cycle superhighways,” Boris told the Guardian this month. “I probably wouldn’t have been re-elected, unfortunately. That’s one thing to consider. But that would have been the right thing to do.”
It’s for this reason Mr. Livingstone writes that Boris will be the death of him, because he thinks his “most likely fatality will be because of air quality”.
If there is a gulf of resentment between the two men who have led London since the mayoralty was introduced, publicly at least it appears to be largely one-way. In his book, Ken talks about how Boris would seek insights from his political career in their private chats, would check to see if he was ok after a bruising battle, and would seem hurt when batted away. It almost sounds, from Mr. Livingstone’s account, as if Boris wants his approval.
“He wants everyone’s approval,” Ken says. He claims that while there will always be people who praise Boris highly while working with him, once they are no longer of any use to Mr. Johnson they are cut out completely and it is such former colleagues who are often the most scathing. “The former editor of the Evening Standard, Max Hastings, said he wouldn’t leave him alone with his wife or his wallet.”
“There must be a desperate insecurity in Boris, he has to have these positions, he has to be prime minister. He should have gone into show business.”
Ken Livingstone is deeply concerned about a future in which Boris Johnson is prime minister, arguing that while “London just about bubbled along for eight years because of all the projects I started that he couldn’t cancel because they were already underway, as prime minister, all he will do is respond to the crises as they arise. There’s no strategy. Thatcher had a strategy of where she wanted to take Britain and its economy, Boris doesn’t have any of that.”
The future of British politics and the Labour Party
With Boris Johnson widely tipped to succeed David Cameron as British prime minister, and an undoubtedly even more divisive maverick right-wing figure with similarly floppy hair in the running for US president, Donald Trump, one might expect left-wingers such as Mr. Livingstone to be pessimistic about the direction of travel for politics. But, at the same time, socialist Bernie Sanders has been conducting an insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination stateside, and Jeremy Corbyn has returned the once Blairite-dominated British Labour Party to its more progressive founding principles, giving Mr. Livingstone cause for hope.
“For the first time since Blair got control of the Labour party, there’s the real prospect of a Labour government that could actually change things for the better,” he says. “What makes me angry is I grew up in a world where things always got better. Since Thatcher and Blair, things have got worse. The generation coming up faces a really difficult life. When I left school, every boy got a job. A few years down the road, you earnt enough to keep a family. If you couldn’t afford to buy a home, you got a council house.”
As London Mayor, Ken Livingstone hosted Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in 2004 and secured a deal to provide cheap oil to subsidise London’s transport.
Mr. Livingstone points out that when he was chair of housing in Camden in the late 1970s they were building 2,000 new homes a year, in a relatively small London borough, and that when people got to the top of the waiting list they were offered the choice of six new homes.
“Had we been able to carry on that programme, by the end of the 1980s we would have cleared our housing waiting list. But then Thatcher stopped building council housing, and then Blair carried on not building council housing. If we’d carried on building council housing at the rate we were doing in the late 60s and early 70s, we’d have 7 million extra homes in Britain. We don’t need that, if they’d built at just half the rate, we wouldn’t have the housing crisis we’ve now got.”
London’s housing crisis, Ken argues, is also having a knock-on effect on education. He points to the example of a teacher leaving university with almost £40,000 of debt, who earns £25,000 a year and pays over half their take-home pay just to live in a one bedroom flat in London’s overheated housing and rental market, asking who will want to become a teacher, in those circumstances, when they see the bankers doing so well, in comparison.
“This government makes Mrs. Thatcher look humane. Since the banking crisis, half of all the wealth created in Britain has gone to the top 1%. Inequality in Britain is back to where it was before the First World War. The stupidity of all that is that economies grow more strongly and consistently if there’s a fairer distribution of wealth. Poor and middle-income families tend to spend what they earn. If it’s all being concentrated at the top, it ends up in some dodgy deal through a hedge fund manager overseas.”
If his friend Mr. Corbyn is to turn things around, after decades of Thatcherite neoliberal consensus between Britain’s two main political parties, then he will have an uphill struggle, not least against members of his own Parliamentary party who have grown increasingly vocal in their opposition to the new direction of travel under their leader, who had himself spent much of his political career as a rebel. Some are even talking now of a coup coming against Mr. Corbyn, in the next few months, but Mr. Livingstone doesn’t believe this will happen because there’s a majority in favour of the Labour leader on the party’s National Executive Committee, of which Ken is a member. “And if one of these grumpy old Blairites did stand against him, Jeremy would win a bigger majority than the year before,” he says.
Many Labour members quit the party after then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, a war of which Mr. Livingstone was a vocal opponent - in fact, during a state visit by Mr. Bush to London in November of that year, Ken held a ‘peace party’ in City Hall. Despite this, Mr. Livingstone insists the majority of Labour members who dropped out under Mr. Blair and his successor Gordon Brown did so because of the way democracy was stifled by the New Labour leadership from the right-wing of the party. “When I joined the Labour party, it was a way in which ordinary people could influence politics. Blair shut that down. People were excluded from making policies, selecting the MPs they wanted. There was no point in being in Labour under Blair. Ed Miliband gave parties the freedom to select the candidates they wanted again. And Jeremy now is presiding over a real rethink about how we restructure the party to make it democratic again. I’m really optimistic about the future of Labour.”
Mr. Livingstone has had his own run-ins with the party machine under Tony Blair, who opposed Ken’s campaign to be Labour’s candidate for mayor in 2000, due to the damage he believed leftists did to the party in the 1980s. Mr. Blair and his spin doctors fought hard to oppose Ken’s candidacy, refusing to allow a fully democratic vote among members because they knew he would win. Ultimately he opted to stand as an independent, defeating Labour’s official candidate Frank Dobson, and was expelled from the party. They could not expel all of Mr. Livingstone’s supporters, however. “After I won, around Blair and the officials, they took the view, if they expelled people who supported me, they would decimate the London Labour party. They didn’t even expel the people who nominated me. They didn’t even expel Simon Fletcher who was my campaign manager. They had a general election coming up within a year and they didn’t want to decimate the London Labour party because there’s so many marginal seats in London.” Mr. Livingstone’s electoral popularity and success in his first term led to his reinstatement to the party and Mr. Blair allowed him to be Labour’s candidate in the 2004 elections.
It is an uncomfortable fact for Labour that it hemorrhaged a lot of working class votes in the last election, most notably in Scotland to the left where it was all but wiped out by the advance of the Scottish National Party - in part over Labour’s perceived alignment with the Tories over the independence question during the 2014 referendum - but also, perhaps more surprisingly, to the right-wing, eurosceptic UK Independence Party led by another maverick, Nigel Farage. “In the general election, I was in marginal Tory seats, working class people said, what did the last Labour government do for me? And that’s absolutely true. That’s what American voters say about Clinton.”
Mr. Livingstone thinks Mr. Corbyn is well-placed to win back those votes. “What they find attractive about Nigel Farage - he comes across as a regular guy who says what he thinks - that’s exactly how they perceive Jeremy. He doesn’t sit there and wait for a spin doctor to tell him what to say.”
“Jeremy’s exactly like me, in one sense,” Ken adds. “When I became leader of the GLC, there was a similar overwhelming media hostility. But I never changed my policies to accommodate Tory papers and Jeremy isn’t, and gradually that gets across to people. That’s a strength of character.”
I campaigned for Blair’s re-election in 2001 even though he’d expelled me from the party. Because the country would have been much worse off if it was run by William Hague.” - Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London
It’s an interesting phenomenon that, after so many years of global economic policy being dominated by the doctrines of Thatcher and Reagan, there should suddenly be such an insurgency from a left once thought buried in the rubble of the Berlin Wall. Besides Mr. Corbyn in Britain and Mr. Sanders in America, the leftist Syriza government in Greece has been trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to fight back against the austerity measures imposed by the country’s creditors, while in Spain Podemos has been shaking up the political establishment. “Right the way across the Western world, there’s this anger that since the Thatcher-Reagan neoliberal economic agenda came in, ordinary people have been squeezed, our quality of life diminished, chances for our kids diminished,” Ken says, although he cautions that it is not just his side that is capitalising on this anger, but the far-right as well, pointing to the rise of the National Front in France. “It can go either right or left. Fortunately for us here in Britain, Jeremy has cornered that anger and gives it a positive forward direction, rather than relapsing into something deeply reactionary.”
Mr. Livingstone has himself, during his years in Parliament, attempted to forge a new direction, putting his name forward in 1992 to replace Neil Kinnock for party leader, but his nomination was rejected due to a lack of support from MPs and - in the same way all political careers end in failure - he regards it as a failure that he never became prime minister. He made a second failed attempt when Mr. Kinnock’s successor John Smith died in 1994. On the second occasion, the Labour left in Parliament considered campaigning for Ken to be leader and Mr. Corbyn his deputy, but the breakthrough for the left would only come after former leader Ed Miliband changed the rules for selecting leaders and turned it into more of an American-style primary. Suddenly, Mr. Livingstone argues, people saw they had someone to vote for. “Jeremy stood up and opposed [acting leader] Harriet Harman on the attack on benefits, and that just defined everything. That was the electrifying turning point. Before that, most people had never heard of Jeremy Corbyn and, suddenly, there’s this figure standing up and they thought, my God someone’s going to stand up for us.”
Although Mr. Livingstone backed Jeremy Corbyn this time round, he has not always supported the most left-wing candidate in Labour leadership elections. In 2010, instead of supporting Diane Abbott, he threw his weight behind Ed Balls, who would go on to become shadow chancellor. He explains this is because Ms. Abbott had no chance of winning and, while Ed Miliband was dithering on whether to stand until the last minute, the two people whose names were most prominently in the frame, after Gordon Brown lost the election and resigned, were Ed Miliband’s brother David, the Blairite former foreign secretary, and Ed Balls from the Brownite camp of New Labour.
“I’d worked with both of them and I didn’t have the slightest doubt David Miliband would be a disaster who’d just do what his civil servants told him,” Ken explains, pointing to a big falling out they’d had after Mr. Miliband, at the time environment secretary, refused to back Mr. Livingstone’s plan to recycle waste in London because his officials wanted incinerators and he listened to them, over the mayor. Conversely, he says of Ed Balls, former economic secretary to the Treasury: “Because Gordon Brown wouldn’t deal with me directly, anything on the Treasury side of things, I just dealt with Ed Balls and there was never an official in the room with us. He’d make a decision and he’d push it through. And I thought, if the contrast is David or Ed, I know who I’d want to run the country. Although we had political disagreements, I want someone who's gonna be the boss.”
Ed Balls, leader of the Labour party and prime minister was not to be, however. Nor was Ed Balls, chancellor of the exchequer, and no longer Ed Balls, member of Parliament for Morley and Outwood, after he lost his seat at last year’s general election. Is Mr. Livingstone sad about this?
“It’s sad. But it’s his own fault because we went into the election as austerity lite. I was pushing Miliband and Balls to adopt a more radical programme. It’s actually one Jeremy now has for the economy. If we’d done that, we wouldn’t have won a majority, but I think it would have been virtually a dead heat. They were just too cautious. The enthusiasm behind Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders shows that’s a mistake.”
If Mr. Livingstone’s analysis is true, then it’s not one shared by the majority of the media, Tories, much of the Parliamentary Labour Party, or a sizeable section of the public, among whom the narrative persists that Labour lost the last election because it was too left-wing. This is despite the fact that, economically at least, Labour was further to the right under Mr. Miliband than it was under Tony Blair, because it had accepted Conservative spending plans and austerity measures after the financial crisis.
“Most of the papers we read are owned by Murdoch, Rothermere or the Barclay brothers and they’re full of lies,” Ken counters. “There’s no serious analysis in there. It’s all about keeping a small elite in power. When I think about all the lies I’ve read about me over the years. Our libel laws have become so expensive that, effectively, unless you’re a millionaire, you can’t afford to sue anyone. I haven’t got any assets, apart from the house, and I’m not putting that at risk.”
The difficulty Labour faces in the media, Mr. Livingstone identifies, is that the press tends to be less interested in Mr. Corbyn’s economic policy, and is frequently more concerned with the trivial issues, such as how he is dressed, whether he’ll wear a red or a white poppy on Remembrance Day, or whether or not he, as a republican, will bow before the Queen. Even the issue of whether or not Britain will renew its Trident nuclear weapons system - which Ken accepts Labour needs to engage with considering the forthcoming vote in Parliament - is peripheral in comparison to winning the economic argument. “In 1964, we won the election, although we were committed to getting rid of our nuclear weapons, because there was this slogan, the white heat of the technological revolution. Harold Wilson was talking about modernising our economy. In ‘92, although we promised to keep nuclear weapons, we still lost, because we didn’t have a credible economic strategy.”
Even more important than the personal qualities of a leader, Mr. Livingstone says, is the question in voters’ minds of whether Labour will be able to run the economy better than Chancellor George Osborne, whose budget this week continued the trend of tax giveaways to wealthier people and corporations, while introducing further austerity measures which have hit poorer and more vulnerable people hardest. “The way things are going, people will probably realise pretty soon, they’ve been relentlessly lied to about the state of our economy,” Ken says.
Given this, is Mr. Corbyn, a lifelong peace activist and vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, putting too much attention on the Trident issue?
No, says Ken, he’s pushing the economy. But Trident is also an economic issue. “What we’ve got to get across to people is the cost now looks like £40 billion to build four nuclear submarines, and you’ve got all these Brexit nutters running around saying we end up contributing £8 billion a year to the EU, and that’s less than we spend on one bloody nuclear submarine.”
Fundamentally, however, Ken does not believe Trident answers the core security questions of the modern age. He points out that most of the people in the military he has spoken to, off the record, think it’s a waste of money, not least because Britain has a significantly diminished army - the most diminished it has ever been in his lifetime, he says, and probably for 100 years - and the real threat is not coming from a North Korean nuclear attack, but from terrorism. On this point, Mr. Livingstone is not only talking about Islamic State, but the threat of the far-right arming itself.
The following clip is of Mayor Ken Livingstone’s speech in the wake of the 7/7 bombings.
As mayor when London suffered its worst ever terrorist attack on July 7, 2005 - in which Islamist extremists detonated bombs on three trains and a bus, killing 52 people - Ken Livingstone has some insights into the threat of terrorism. Domestically, he advocates having more neighbourhood police officers that communities can come to know, and to whom people will pass information. “Most people aren’t going to phone up MI5 and say I’m worried about a family at the end of the road,” he says. “And one of Boris’ worst crimes is just doing away with that neighbourhood policing. And it’s also very good because kids get used to seeing a copper coming round the street and they know, if they’re doing something naughty, they’re gonna get caught. In those long years when police were taken off the street and stuck in patrol cars, a kid could be into organised crime in their 30s before police even knew who they were.”
Abroad, somewhat surprisingly for such a staunch opponent of the Iraq War, Mr. Livingstone believes it is necessary to put boots on the ground to tackle jihadi terror groups such as Islamic State.
“If you think back to Hilary Benn’s speech about bombing Syria, he invoked a great point in our history where we stood up to fascism,” Mr. Livingstone says. “But what he didn’t point out is that we didn’t defeat Hitler by bombing him. We defeated him by millions of troops with our American and Russian allies on the ground. You can bomb ISIS and you can bomb Boko Haram, but if you haven’t got an extensive armed force on the ground they’ll continue to be there.”
As he sees Britain, France and the US as being thoroughly discredited through their interventions in the Middle East, Mr. Livingstone wants to revive the concept of the UN as a policeman of the world, with a multinational force that can intervene in Syria without being seen as Western powers once again attempting to control oil. NATO is not enough, he says, that too is seen as an American tool.
“If Donald Trump does win, it’d be interesting to see whether we can continue to be in a military alliance led by a madman.”
No comprehensive approach to countering jihadi groups can avoid tackling the financiers of the ideology that spawned them. Mr. Livingstone recognises the key role that Saudi Arabia has played in this, but he also points the finger at Western foreign policy.
“When Jimmy Carter took the decision to provide weapons to the mujahideen, he lit the fuse that led to 9/11,” he says. “Because once the mujahideen and the Taliban, who were mainly funded by Saudi Arabia, had defeated the Russians in Afghanistan, they looked around to who else is occupying Muslim territory. It’s the West.”
George W. Bush’s belligerent foreign policy squandered much of the sympathy America received after 9/11 in an administration noted for launching the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the US has a much longer history of controversial foreign interventions, involving itself in overthrowing democratically elected governments in numerous countries such as Iran, Brazil and Chile.
“When you hear Obama going on about how America doesn’t intervene for its own interests, but to spread peace and democracy, I’m afraid that just isn’t true. America has been overthrowing democratically elected governments and supporting corrupt dictators ever since the end of the Second World War.”
The European question
This year will see Britain make what will almost certainly be one of the greatest foreign policy decisions of our age - whether or not to remain in the EU in June’s referendum - and Ken is on record as arguing that the country should not leave.
“If someone can prove to me our economy would do better outside the EU, I’d vote to leave,” he says. “But no serious economic strategy has been developed by the Brexit people. If you were lucky, you’d have two years of negotiations to get us out. In which period people aren’t going to be coming here to invest with all that insecurity. Then you’ve got to negotiate over 50 separate trade deals with different nations round the world. Americans cars have to pay a 10% tariff if they’re sold in Europe. If we want to be excluded from tariffs in our trade in Europe, we have to accept free movement of labour. And that’s the big issue for Brexit people.”
Not everyone who wants to leave the EU is on the right, however. On the left, many are concerned over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) being agreed behind closed doors with the US, which could see corporations sue governments for loss of earnings if they introduce measures that are a barrier to their activities. But Mr. Livingstone does not believe this is an argument for Britain leaving the EU, quite the reverse. He argues that if Britain leaves, it will have no say over the TTIP deal and will just have to accept whatever is agreed between the EU and America. The point is to some degree moot under the Conservative government, which is one of the leading proponents of TTIP, but if Labour were to win the 2020 general election, Mr. Livingstone says Mr. Corbyn could exercise a veto.
“And he absolutely should,” he hastens to add. “America and its influence, through the World Bank and the IMF, have been pushing the neoliberal economic agenda, undermining national sovereignty all the way through, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And there’s a clause in the treaty that would make it illegal to bring a service that has been privatised in the NHS back into state control. Ridiculous.”
Another criticism the EU frequently faces, from the left and the right, is that it is at its core undemocratic. Mr. Livingstone’s answer to that is to abolish the European Commission and make the directly elected European Parliament the sovereign body, with a second chamber comprising the 28 heads of the EU member states.
Into the garden
Ken’s voice is beginning to go as we near the end of our interview and he has a cough. There are no prizes for guessing whose door he lays the blame for this at: Boris Johnson.
“Because of our air quality, I have to suck a couple of bloody lozenges during my Saturday morning radio show [on LBC]. I can remember standing out and being able to speak for an hour without interruption. Now, just in this interview, I feel the strain on my throat. I’ve worked in central London since I was elected to the GLC. If only we’d known about it when we started switching to diesel, about the consequences.”
Ken recalls how he grew up in a world where the old industrial smogs were killing people, when London’s dire air quality was down to smoking stacks and coal fires, telling me he remembers the days in 1952 and 1953 when he was not allowed out of the house and couldn’t see across the road because of the pollution. “There was a real effort by the government, uniting all the parties, to tackle that and by the early ‘60s we effectively had. We just didn’t see this creeping up on us. And we can’t see it and that’s the problem. We never knew the impact of diesel, until it was too late.”
Perhaps it is Boris Johnson who is to blame for us leaving our conversation there. But it’s early in the morning, the sun is shining and there’s plenty of day ahead. As I leave, Ken Livingstone returns to his gardening.