I am standing outside Ken Livingstone’s family home in a pleasant row of terraces in the multi-ethnic, north-west London suburb of Willesden Green (commemorated in the novel White Teeth by the novelist Zadie Smith, perhaps the most widely celebrated daughter of the parish).
If the authenticity of a Labour politician’s socialism can be gauged by the size of his house after leaving office, then Livingstone certainly has the edge on Tony Blair: it’s a long way from the hauteur of Blair’s main residence in Connaught Square. I ring the bell, but no one appears to be in.
Then the 69-year-old former London mayor strolls up the street after doing the school run for his two younger children, aged 10 and 11, by his wife Emma Beal. The one-time scourge of New Labour is in good nick: lightly tanned, jeans-clad, and now without that ashen tinge of exhaustion politicians acquire when they spend too long squinting at policy documents late into the night.
Nonetheless, Livingstone got bitten by politics early on, and it is in his bloodstream. As he makes tea in the kitchen — crammed with tomes on Labour history, Spitting Image figurines, the stuff of a life spent in ideological combat — he conducts a mildly scathing warm-up attack on the ‘neoliberal agenda’ and ‘the five billionaires that run 70 per cent of the papers we read’, like a singer lightly exercising his vocal cords.
Now that the hopeful are assembling for the 2016 mayoral race — the Tottenham MP David Lammy recently declared that he was seeking the Labour party’s nomination — I ask what he thinks about Boris Johnson’s legacy as mayor. He replies: ‘His legacy will be becoming leader of the Tory party’, while predicting that ‘rapid disillusionment’ would ensue with closer scrutiny in the role of leader of the opposition (he is confident of a Miliband victory at the next election).
‘You’ve got to be there at every Prime Minister’s questions, every debate,’ he says of Boris. ‘That sort of shambolic waffle won’t work.’
Seeking the routine display of magnanimity, I ask if Ken likes Boris personally, despite their obvious policy differences. ‘No,’ he says. Later he amplifies that: ‘Every-body who’s never met him loves him, and the people closest to him loathe him.’ Ken’s open dislike hints at the personal depth of the wound caused by the loss of the London mayoralty, which he contested in four elections, winning in 2000 — after standing as an independent, to the panic of the New Labour leadership — and then again in 2004, only to lose to Boris in 2008 and 2012. Livingstone is a combination of a defiant showman and a policy wonk: he clearly relishes close detail. In his head, he’s still making plans for London: more buses, house-building, a tram to relieve pressure on the Northern Line. Seen through Ken’s pale-blue eyes, Boris is like the posh blond boy who strolled in and swiped the train set that Ken had spent his life painstakingly assembling.
When I ask whether he feels emotionally attached to Britishness in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, he immediately replies: ‘I feel emotionally attached to London.’
He always felt English rather than British, he says: ‘My dad was strongly Scottish, my mum was very English… neither of them would have wanted to see an independent Scotland.’ Would he? ‘No, no. Nopoint.’
The childhood so evocatively conjured in his 2012 memoir You Can’t Say That unfurls in a grey, gloomy Britain clogged with overcooked meat and veg, constrained by prudery and illuminated mainly by the sporadic electricity of family feuds. He describes his dancer mother Ethel and father Robert as moderate Tories. But his Uncle Ken — who, being childless, ‘doted’ at first on young Ken — was a virulent right-winger who at one point joined Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts.
I tell him I’m intrigued by the figure of his Uncle Ken, who used to go through the Radio Times with a marker pen striking out programmes that involved ‘black or Irish people, gays, lesbians or David Frost’. Although he stopped talking to his left-wing nephew during young Ken’s leadership of the GLC — an organisation which energetically promoted the rights of all of Uncle Ken’s bugbears, with the exception of David Frost — it was surely very complicated even before then, given that they must have loved each other.
He muses on their brief reconciliation shortly before Uncle Ken’s death: ‘We couldn’t discuss politics. We just discussed the war,’ before saying, by way of forgiveness for the estrangement: ‘I can imagine how I would feel if one of my kids ended up on the right of the Tory party. I’d be appalled.’ He would probably still speak to them, though, I say. ‘Yes, I’d still speak to them.’
I ask if perhaps his relationship with Uncle Ken gave him a yearning to bring illiberal people out of the political deep freeze, as he tried to do by meeting the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams at the height of the IRA’s campaign in the 1980s and the controversial Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi in 2004. He answers without quite agreeing — perhaps resisting the application of the word ‘illiberal’ to Adams — calling the peace process ‘Blair’s biggest success’.
Ken attracted national ire when, as GLC leader, he invited Gerry Adams to London in July 1983. I remember it clearly: I was growing up in Northern Ireland, aged 12 at the time, and the publicity thereby afforded to Adams seemed both painful and incomprehensible. Earlier that year the IRA had murdered a Catholic judge, William Doyle, as he left Mass. Later that year it gunned down a young Ulster Unionist politician and law lecturer, Edgar Graham, in the grounds of Queen’s University, near my school.
I ask Ken, given that a united Ireland is still not on the cards today, what the IRA campaign was for. He answers that its origins lay in ‘an apartheid-style state with gerry-mandering. It was terrible.’
Despite the evident flaws in Northern Ireland’s governance, I can’t help thinking that the exaggerated ‘apartheid’ comparison is straight from the unofficial Sinn Fein 1980s stylebook, which seemed to have a special clause stating that Unionists must be regularly compared to white South Africans. I say that my father grew up on the Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast with Catholic cousins on the Falls in much the same economic circumstances, and that later my Protestant parents lived very happily on a mixed housing estate with Catholic neighbours in the late 1960s (it was the rise of IRA and loyalist paramilitary violence that segregated many communities thereafter). But I don’t think I’ve made much headway: old rallying cries die hard.
We move on to al-Qaradawi, the grizzled cleric who has been widely attacked for his extreme views on homosexuality, apostasy and the treatment of women. Ken says that when he met al-Qaradawi he sounded broadly reasonable, in contrast to what was reported. ‘The only thing he said that was controversial was that suicide bombing was legal because the Palestinians don’t have tanks and planes.’
While I don’t think that Livingstone is personally anti-Semitic — despite growing unease among some British Jews about off-the-cuff remarks he has made — there is surely a blind spot if he can’t fully imagine how deeply threatening a cleric’s defence of Palestinian suicide bombers sounds even to the most progressive member of the Jewish community.
Livingstone’s views are often more complex than his headline flourishes make them sound (he strongly opposes the Saudis and the spread of Wahhabism), yet he is clearly drawn to other politicians in possession of pungent certainties.
Who does he admire on the other side? ‘I respected the fact that Thatcher believed in something and drove it through, even though it was all wrong.’
Considering that Ken has spent much of his political career being called ‘odious’ and worse, in person he is hard to dislike. There’s a notable absence of pomposity in his manner, a propensity to laughter, and his love of an ideological scrap is allied to a calm, sometimes wry style of delivery: it looks fiercer on paper. A couple of years ago it suddenly emerged that he had also fathered three older children by arrangement with two female friends: his domestic relationships appear to be unusual but harmonious.
He won’t commit himself to backing one Labour mayoral candidate: ‘They’re all friends.’ Does he feel a frisson of regret when he contemplates the position? ‘I love running things. If you said to me, “Can you take over and run the country tomorrow?” I’d say yes, great.’
Ed, are you listening?