Leo McKinstry

A working-class villain

Leo McKinstry on Andrew Hosken's biography of Ken Livingstone

Leo McKinstry on Andrew Hosken’s biography of Ken Livingstone

One of Margaret Thatcher’s more bizarre achievements during her premiership was to have transformed Ken Livingstone from municipal hate figure into popular folk hero. When she embarked on her campaign in the mid-Eighties to abolish the Greater London Council because of its perceived inefficiencies, Ken Livingtone, the GLC’s leader, was probably the most despised politician in Britain, reviled for his infantile gesture politics, extravagance with public money and noisy support for violent Irish Republicanism. But the saga of GLC abolition completely altered his image. He was no longer the town hall Trot, the moustachioed Marxist, but the people’s champion battling against the wicked Tories bent on the destruction of local democracy.

Yet, for all his public appeal, Livingstone was left in the political wilderness by the GLC’s demise in 1986. He had once dreamt of becoming Labour leader, even Prime Minister, but, having been elected to Parliament in 1987, he remained a lonely backbencher for more than a decade. It was Tony Blair who revived his political fortunes by creating the post of London Mayor, a rich irony in that Blair loathed Livingstone almost as much as Thatcher did. Blair’s desperate attempts to stop Livingstone filling the new post, including even expelling him from the Labour Party, were to no avail. ‘As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted 14 years ago,’ said Livingstone on his election as Mayor in 2000, returning to take charge of the capital’s governance.

Livingstone’s volatile personality and stormy political career, which now stretches back almost four decades to his early years as a Lambeth councillor, should have made a fascinating biography. His tale has all the right ingredients for a gripping read, including endless controversy in the public arena and turbulence in the private.

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