Do you like him?

Ian Jack

  • You Can’t Say That: Memoirs by Ken Livingstone
    Faber, 710 pp, £9.99, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 28041 4

Of the two leading rivals for the London mayoralty, Ken Livingstone is much the more difficult to imagine as a child. Nobody, surely, can have that problem with Boris Johnson. The mind’s eye sees Boris as one of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, a bouncy fellow demanding his tea and laying plans ‘to be/the next Prime Minister but three’. But the mind’s eye can be wrong – Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson, records that Boris was a quiet boy who had hearing difficulties – and it may be that the reason we can readily conceive Johnson aged seven is that the public persona of Johnson aged 47 is so irrepressibly boys-will-be-boys. With Livingstone the imagination struggles. The best it can do is a jam jar with a newt inside: the boy is invisible. To will him into existence we need to envisage ways of thinking and behaving that have almost entirely disappeared, along with the social class that bred them in a certain city at a certain time. While the forces that shaped Johnson still flourish all around (and particularly above) us – floreat Etona and no mistake – the society in which Livingstone was reared is now dust and ashes. Almost alone among prominent English politicians, at least those still contesting elections, he carries inside him memories of a place that was very different.

There was the radio, for a start, familiarising us with the catchphrases that made Britain happy in the 1950s. Perhaps we liked them for their reliability: like milk on the doorstep, they never failed to turn up. The Glum family, the favourite segment of the Light Programme’s Take It from Here, always began in the same way. ‘Oh, Ron,’ Eth would sigh to her beloved as they sat on the sofa, to which Ron would reply blankly: ‘Yes, Eth?’ They were courting – a long engagement – but just when it sounded as though their relationship might move on (an ‘Oooh, Ron’, followed by an ‘Oooh, Eth’), Ron’s dad, Mr Glum, would burst through the door with his brusque ‘Ullo, ullo, ullo’ to wreck any chance of intimacy. The scripts were by Frank Muir and Denis Norden, very funny in their day and funny enough now.

Ken Livingstone’s mother was an Eth: Ethel Ada Kennard, a dancer in a three-women act that toured the music halls. His father was a Bob: Robert Moffat Livingstone, at different times a seafarer, a window cleaner and a stagehand. According to their son, the couple hadn’t wanted children. Then one night in September 1944, Bob ran out of condoms. The memoirist writes of his conception, ‘With words Mum never forgot Dad assured her: “It can’t matter just this once, Eth,”’ a line that Muir and Norden themselves might have written (though in the 1950s it could never have been broadcast). But then so much of Livingstone’s account of his early years catches the mood of the Glums. The Glums were never given an address, but their accents suggested London or its suburbs, perhaps close to Tony Hancock’s place in East Cheam, definitely somewhere below the middle of the social scale, a place where couples necked in front parlours and publicans called ‘Time, gentlemen, please,’ but not so far down as to be picturesque and identifiable and within the sound of Bow Bells. Livingstone’s birthplace – 21B Shrubbery Road in the South London suburb of Streatham – would have situated the Glums perfectly. You might even argue that it was his reaction to this Glum world, the need to alter it as well as escape it, which laid the foundations of Livingstone’s politics.

In this very long autobiography – Roy Jenkins managed Gladstone’s life in less – the most rewarding pages come near the beginning. A politician who believes he can still win power is likely to present himself in the best of lights, or at least suppress any awkward self-knowledge he may happen to possess. But the early facts are beguiling. Bob first saw Eth when she was dancing in a theatre in the Cumbrian port of Workington in 1940. He and two of his shipmates had come ashore and drunk enough to give them the courage to invite the dancers for fish and chips. Bob serenaded Eth with a Bing Crosby number and they married eight weeks later in Wandsworth. ‘Love at first sight,’ Livingstone writes, but it was love in difficult circumstances. Bob’s ship was sunk the next year on an Arctic convoy and his subsequent days adrift and freezing on a life raft got him invalided out of the merchant navy. An ‘emotional nightmare’ followed when he moved with Eth into her mother’s cramped flat; his mother-in-law was possessive of her daughter and had a vicious tongue, particularly towards Scotsmen (Bob was born in Dunoon). When the war was over he escaped back to sea and a working life aboard fishing trawlers and Channel ferries. Home again, he suffered his mother-in-law’s sarcastic sniping, to his son’s discomfort as well as his own, almost until the day she died.

The future mayor of London disappointed Eth when he arrived on 17 June 1945. She had wanted a girl and was ‘appalled at how ugly I looked, with no hair and a huge mass of yellow pus in my eyes because the midwife hadn’t cleaned them properly’. Livingstone never skimps on the medical details. In the next sentence he notes that Herbert Morrison, the first Labour leader of London County Council, was born ‘by coincidence’ with the same condition and so lost the sight of an eye. Earlier he tells us about the removal of his grandmother’s arthritic kneecap. Later we hear about his mother’s hysterectomy, ‘complicated by massive fibroids’, and his own close encounters with gastroenteritis and TB. Perhaps he has caught one of the conversational tics of his childhood, the discussion of ailments that followed when anyone mentioned they were ‘feeling poorly’. (In another radio show, Ray’s a Laugh, a plaintive woman used to say: ‘Ee, it was agony, Ivy.’ That became a catchphrase too.)

He grew up a delicate chap, indulged in his fads by his mother and grandma. Baked beans, for example. To most of us, the tomato sauce was the point, but Ken’s mum had to wash the sauce from the baked beans before he’d eat them. At his primary school, persistent colds excused him from trips to the swimming baths. Entering secondary school, he found himself the smallest in an intake of four hundred boys. In cross-country running the only boy he ever managed to beat was ‘incredibly fat’.

His parents were Tories – the National Health Service was a rare Labour achievement that found favour – though not as far to the right in their beliefs as his mother’s brother, Uncle Ken, who joined Mosley’s Blackshirts before the war and, after it, took out membership of both the Conservative Party and the National Front. Uncle Ken married three times but never had children and so transferred his stock of paternal devotion to his nephew, who disobligingly remembers that his uncle ‘went through the Radio Times and TV Times each week with a marker pen obliterating any programme listing that included black or Irish people, gays, lesbians or David Frost’. The relationship cooled when Ken junior joined the Labour Party and ceased completely when he became leader of the Greater London Council, but for a time they lived under the same roof in an intimate and sometimes disagreeable household that included Livingstone’s grandmother, his parents and his younger sister, Linda, as well as his uncle and his uncle’s bulldog. Radio comedies of that era took off on much less promising situations and characters.

The family were what contemporary political demographers call ‘strivers’ and they certainly strove. Bob cleaned windows during the day and shifted scenery at the Streatham Hill Theatre by night. Eth combined day shifts in a local bakery with evenings as a cinema usherette, and spent Saturday mornings helping out at the headquarters of Freeman’s, the shopping catalogue company. Young Ken had a paper round, but one winter spectacularly increased his earnings when, thanks to his father’s theatrical connections, he played the stooge to Hughie Green’s Ali Baba in the local pantomime. By 1957, they had made enough money to put down a deposit on a house in West Norwood. No more council flats. Livingstone remembers that at their last flat, which was big enough for brother and sister to have separate bedrooms, all the neighbours seemed to be called Henry, George, Albert, Agnes, Gladys or Bessie and that ‘mothers obeyed the weekly rota which demanded that they scrubbed the stairways on their hands and knees.’ His was a respectable working-class family that had its values reinforced by the Daily Express. ‘My parents did not swear and there was little bad language outside the home. Conversation was polite to the point of being stilted … There was no discussion of politics or religion outside of the immediate family, and no discussion of sex anywhere. What was discussed was the war, which had changed the lives of a generation.’

Livingstone says he was taught that he lived in the largest city on earth, at the heart of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, though by then New York was larger than London and the empire had been shorn of India. You might wonder about this. Can it really be that in the early 1950s British children were taught that they lived in ‘the greatest empire the world has ever seen’? (I don’t remember that I was: it was something our parents told us that they had been taught.) But what is certainly true is that Livingstone grew up in a city vastly different from the one that later elected him as its political leader. Even when Livingstone left school, in 1962, its population was still overwhelmingly white and monoglot. Cargo ships unloaded at wharves that were only a few hundred yards from the Bank of England, while incoming tides of men crossed London Bridge every morning in bowler hats.

Livingstone at first struggled to find a niche for himself in this pre-swinging capital. An 11-plus failure, he’d spent his years at the brand-new Tulse Hill Comprehensive avoiding mental or physical exercise of almost any kind. Two inspirational teachers gave him a love of reading and, more excessively, of animal life. Philip Hobsbaum, who in his later academic career encouraged many writers, including Seamus Heaney and Alasdair Gray, got him to read Nineteen Eighty-Four, which Livingstone reckons influenced his political beliefs more than any other book. Raymond Rivers, his biology teacher, stimulated his lifelong enthusiasm for reptiles and amphibians, which reached alarming levels when his bedroom turned into a fetid warehouse of ‘tropical bullfrogs, newts, salamanders, snakes, lizards … and an alligator which Mum worried would escape and eat our dogs’. ‘He didn’t like school,’ his mother told an interviewer. ‘He wasn’t interested in going out with girls, or going to football. He wasn’t interested in anything except his pet lizards … No, you couldn’t say he was all that popular when young.’ It took him three sittings to get four O-levels. London Zoo had no vacancies. He helped his father clean windows, and then found a job as an ‘apprentice animal technician’ at the Chester Beatty Research Institute at the Royal Marsden Hospital, where for eight years he worked with the laboratory’s rats and mice and for the first time mixed with people – the institute’s technicians – who openly supported Labour.

This was the era in which nuclear testing, the Cuban Missile Crisis and then the Vietnam War were the global worries that pushed a generation into political activism. What stands out from Livingstone’s account is how his politics were formed as much by the struggle against social convention at home as by oppression abroad; the local park-keeper, vigilant for any sign of al fresco sex, was a much closer enemy than the American bomber or the Soviet tank. He spoils his case slightly by kitting out the first years of the 1960s in Victorian fancy dress (‘We heard lurid tales of brides who had hysterics on their wedding night after seeing a penis for the first time’), but he is right to characterise relations between men and women as routinely marked by ignorance and fear. He says he ‘hated the way men talked about women and began to prefer female company’, while his unmarried sister’s pregnancy was ‘the death knell’ of his priggishness. Personal encounters and testimony affected his beliefs more than protest marches or polemic. Some Ghanaians he worked beside in the labs at Chester Beatty became his first black friends after they heard him attack the Wilson government’s nervous dealings with Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. Openly gay men and women were less easily happened on – Livingstone reckons he had met no more than four or five by his late twenties – but he was untroubled when the Gay Liberation Front encouraged many more to declare themselves and gave them a political voice. ‘I had picked up a more tolerant approach on gay issues,’ he writes, ‘because Mum had worked with gay people throughout her dancing career and she always made clear to me and Linda how nice she had found them.’

An older London – Uncle Ken’s London – was disappearing, and Livingstone wasn’t alone in his understanding that immigration, feminism and sexual liberation were creating new group identities, or that these identities might find a political expression. Even so he was a relatively unusual phenomenon inside the Labour Party, which he joined in 1969. White, male trade unionists still dominated constituency meetings, but he managed them nimbly and at the age of 25 won election to Lambeth council. Two years later, the electors of Norwood voted him onto the Greater London Council. This gave him an income of £2000 a year, which meant that he needed no other job; newly qualified as a primary school teacher, he never had to teach. Aged 27, he had found his career as a professional politician, which he has followed now in various guises for forty years: as a local councillor in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Camden; as a GLC councillor for a succession of seats (Norwood, Hackney North, Paddington); as the leader of the GLC from 1981 to 1986; as the MP for Brent East from 1987 to 2001; and as the mayor of London for two terms between 2000 and 2008. Livingstone writes that he first became a councillor because ‘I knew I had to join the system’ to ‘change it from within’. But ‘the system’ in the smaller sense of London’s democratic structures suited him well enough. He discovered that he liked agendas, secret conclaves, horse-trading and all the other practices that go with the description ‘machine politician’: he learned how to use the machine and deployed it to defeat his rivals and push the policies he believed in (an early example was his struggle to give non-white residents a fairer share of Lambeth’s better housing stock). When Londoners wonder, as they do, why he wants a third term as mayor – ‘Hasn’t he had enough?’ – the answer may lie in his inability to believe that the electorate would, for a second time, ignore all his accumulated wisdom and skill in favour of a candidate whose chief asset is that he makes people smile.

In retrospect, his success came partly from the fact that, unusually for a British politician, he was never seduced by the stardust of Westminster and hated his time there as an MP. Too tiny a newt, possibly, in too big a tank. By contrast, local government, when local meant London, offered a civic leader control over important areas such as transport and housing that affected several million people. Livingstone found that through prodigious amounts of work and scheming he could outwit his officials as well as the political opposition both inside and outside his own party. He describes these years at the GLC amusingly and, so far as one can tell, frankly. County Hall, the council’s South Bank headquarters, had luxuries that surpassed the palace just over the river. When Livingstone arrived there in 1973, chairs of committees had ‘personal assistants, typists, chauffeur-driven cars, constantly restocked drinks cupboards and access to the royal box at the Royal Festival Hall’. In mimicry of Parliament, councillors were addressed as ‘honourable members’ and the building’s bars and restaurants stayed open late into the night to cater for ‘late-night sittings’ in the debating chamber, as though councillors were addressing the invasion of Poland rather than street-cleaning in Chelsea. Under Livingstone’s safari-suited leadership, much of this flummery disappeared. He brought early closing to the bars and made the GLC’s meeting rooms available for rent to outsiders, so that ‘the gentlemen’s club atmosphere evaporated as the building filled up with people discussing job losses, nuclear weapons, racism, sexism and the environment.’ Add to that dungaree-wearing list the Troops Out movement and Livingstone’s invitation to Gerry Adams to come to County Hall ‘to discuss how the war might be ended’, and who can wonder that he got up so many noses in the 1980s: so far up, in Mrs Thatcher’s case, that in one of her most dictatorial moments she abolished the GLC and sold off its building to a Japanese corporation. Though this is not to deny that in many respects – from talking to Sinn Féin to the congestion charge – Livingstone’s politics were prescient.

Sooner or later, Livingstone being what’s known as a ‘polarising’ figure, you have to decide if you like him. Is he likeable in these memoirs? The answer must be, not very. Beyond the events involving his parents and his childhood, there is only the smallest sense of imperfection, remorse or regret. He tries to establish some critical distance on his behaviour by quoting a few unflattering remarks from two of his biographies, but he gives no clue as to whether he finds the charges fair. In this book, his slithery ambition runs too close to the surface. A tiny example. Livingstone was separating from his first wife, Christine Chapman, at the same time as he was quietly planning to depose Andrew McIntosh as Labour leader in the GLC. McIntosh and Livingstone liked each other about as much as Brown and Blair, but McIntosh knew of Livingstone’s problems and one day, in Livingstone’s words, he ‘kindly asked how I was coping, but as politics has to be a ruthless business and I was planning to replace him I didn’t want to get any closer to him and just mumbled that I could manage.’ This kind of gracelessness isn’t endearing (and it has sometimes gone further than gracelessness, as in his recent alleged remark – which he contests – that Jews were too rich to vote for him). But set his faults against those of his persecutors in the media and they begin to look quite trivial.

The animosity expressed towards him, particularly though not exclusively by the Evening Standard and the Mail, has lasted more than thirty years, since the days when Thatcher’s government and most Tory newspapers saw the GLC leader as ‘Red Ken’, whose aim in the Daily Telegraph’s word was to ‘Marxify’ London. It represents one of the most sustained hate campaigns in the history of the British press. A ‘nondescript, instantly forgettable little fellow with a nasal voice’ was how Frederick Forsyth described him in his 1984 novel The Fourth Protocol, in which Livingstone’s move against McIntosh at County Hall became a coup ‘of which Lenin himself would have been proud’. Private Eye claimed, falsely, that Colonel Gaddafi had put $200,000 into a Swiss bank account, to be divided between Livingstone and his Lambeth colleague ‘Red’ Ted Knight. The Mail wanted to know if he was queer. The Sun called him the most odious man in Britain. The GLC’s abolition and the ending of the Cold War brought a lull, but hostilities were renewed during his two terms as mayor and reached a peak in 2005 when Livingstone told an Evening Standard reporter, who was Jewish, that he was behaving like ‘a concentration camp guard … doing it because you are paid to, aren’t you?’ The Standard interpreted his remarks as anti-semitic and redoubled what Livingstone calls, with some justice, their ‘demented’ campaign against him. He writes of the 2008 mayoral election that ‘even after all these years I was still shocked by the nastiness I evoked.’ The Mail’s Peter Oborne called him ‘an almost habitual, pathological liar’. During the campaign it was revealed that he had three older children from previous relationships as well as the two born to his second wife (and office manager), Emma Beal. A News of the World columnist was surprised that there were three women in the world willing to have sex with him.

The extent to which this abomination of Livingstone damaged his electability is difficult to know; his share of first preference votes in 2008 was, at 36 per cent, roughly what it had been four years earlier. Johnson’s victory was secured by a far higher turnout, with 42 per cent of first preferences. But in 2012 the situation looks rather different. While his alleged anti-semitism and pathological lying are still debatable, there can be no doubt about his financial arrangements. They were first disclosed in the Telegraph by an old adversary, the reporter Andrew Gilligan, who showed that he channelled his income through a small company, Silveta Ltd, to minimise his tax. As Livingstone has attacked ‘rich bastards’ for similar tax avoidance, his hypocrisy is hard to deny.

As I write, he has for the first time established parity with Johnson in the polls, but I live in what would once have been prime Livingstone territory, among the Labour-voting middle class of North London, and I know few people who will put his name first on their ballot paper on 3 May, and none who will do so with enthusiasm. The boy born on Shrubbery Road nearly 67 years ago faces a second rejection by a city whose modern incarnation he helped to create.

27 April