You Can’t Say That: Memoirs Ken Livingstone

Faber, pp.710, 25

Charlatan, fornicator, liar, inebriate, pugilist, Marxist, anti-Semite; Ken Livingstone has been called many things but never a writer. Actually, that’s a shame because his words following the 2005 London bombings were brilliantly defiant; perhaps the most powerful speech by a British politician in the last decade.

He can be witty — the former leader of the Greater London Council abolished by Margaret Thatcher began his speech accepting the Mayoralty with the words: ‘As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted 14 years ago …’ Even Tony Blair, who effectively forced Livingstone to leave the Labour party in order to stand, eventually admitted his misjudgment.

Livingstone’s election in 2000 caused the first breakdown of the seemingly unstoppable New Labour spin-machine. Reading this book, you quickly realise why. Triangulation, dividing lines and regimented campaign management — all those techniques adopted from US pollsters by New Labour — had been perfected by Livingstone much earlier during the left-wing blood feuds of the 1970s. By the 1990s, Ken was a more accomplished politician than almost any of his contemporaries gave him credit for. That wasn’t New Labour’s only error.

Livingstone, Blair imagined, remained a radical socialist. His two-term mayoral administration took highly eccentric positions towards Venezuela, radical Islam and Israel but was barely less pro-business than Boris Johnson’s. There is a hair’s breadth between their visions for London. The question for Londoners in 2012 is one of personal competence. And, were you to believe this autobiography, you might think that Ken Livingstone is the only competent politician in Britain.

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Put plainly, he has produced the single most ambitious act of self-justification in modern political memoir. If you are a professional rival, a sceptical bureaucrat, if you once met him in a pub and accidently trod on his foot, you’ll almost certainly find some disobliging reference to yourself in this book. He has meticulously researched the hypocrisies and worst offences of dozens of opponents and colleagues before reproducing them in the course of 700 pages. When the facts don’t fit he resorts to name-calling. Donald Dewar, the famously honourable former First Minister of Scotland and the Labour Whip required to keep Ken in check, is dismissed as ‘bent and scruffy with the air of a vulture’.

The real malice is reserved for Associated Newspapers, whose stories about Livingstone’s regime before the 2008 election were so decisive. He nastily implies that the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, is racist. Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley is simply ‘despicable’. Andrew Gilligan, the Standard journalist named ‘reporter of the year’ who led the City Hall investigations, bears the brunt of it.

Livingstone maliciously alleges that Gilligan, who reported claims that Alastair Campbell sexed-up the case for war in Iraq, ‘was responsible for David Kelly’s death’, that he was sacked from the Standard (not true), and that Gilligan’s criticism of Lee Jasper — the former mayor’s adviser whose sexual and financial profligacy became such a bountiful seam of exclusives — was baseless. The defence of Jasper, in particular, is so feeble that I half expected the pages to crumble in my hands.

In reality, Lee Jasper became a key ally of an elite left-wing cult called Socialist Action which emerged from the International Marxist Group in the 1970s and has agitated for Livingstone ever since. Members of Socialist Action assisted his rise at the GLC, his replacement of the Labour candidate in Brent East, and the mayoral campaigns. They helped perpetrate numerous acts of political assassination and each is unpicked in Andrew Hosken’s masterful 2008 biography. I co-produced a Channel 4 Dispatches programme earlier in that year which discovered that Socialist Action had secretly assumed the prominent advisory positions in Livingstone’s City Hall executive. They merit a single reference in this book.

Other cold-blooded reptiles are exhaustively covered. His childhood bedroom featured lizards, newts, even an incontinent alligator. He rather elegantly admits that he has fathered five children by three different women and tells his Tory-voting parents’ love story tenderly. The incidental detail is good. When Livingstone first meets New Labour fixer Derek Draper he notices that Draper’s student bedsit features a life-sized portrait of Roy Hattersley. At a chance encounter with Thatcher, soon after Livingstone became mayor, she tells him: ‘Resolute, that’s what you must be, resolute.’

Perhaps Livingstone took the advice too seriously. By the end of his second term he had become convinced he was infallible. He took to drinking scotch in morning meetings and quoting from The Godfather at length. The statesman who spoke so eloquently after 7/7 had become boorish. This book’s parting shot at Gilligan suggests he still is:

If I won in 2012, I joked with friends about coming home to find him holding a blood-stained axe over the bodies of Emma [Livingstone’s wife] and the kids.

You Can’t Say That certainly lives up to its title.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, Memoir, Non-fiction