Ken Livingstone: I don’t believe we should have a mayor of London
As Ken Livingstone sat down to chat about his new book with fellow left wingers in Hackney this week, the first thing to clear up was the small matter of a rather scathing review by The Times journalist Oliver Kamm.
Livingstone’s co-author Anna Minton dismissed Kamm as "quite a well-known neo-Con commentator" before turning to the former mayor of London.
"For him to be lacerating you is actually praise for us," she suggested.
Livingstone opted not to tackle his reviewer head on, but had plenty to say about the state of the British media more generally.
He said that he first drafted Being Red back in 2014 because he wanted to anticipate “the media bias, the lies and the smears” that would be a central feature of the 2015 general election.
"But no publisher wanted to publish it. Then, of course, a couple of years later along came the Left Book Club, thank God. It’s been upgraded to lessons for the 2020 election. But it will still be the same smears, lies and distortions."
Being Red is the second publication from the new Left Book Club, a successor to the interwar enterprise that published titles including George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier. It is comprised of two Q&As with Livingstone and two essays by the man himself.
In Hackney for the latest meeting of the Left Book Club, an energetic Livingstone covered plenty of ground, but not before he had sat down with TP and discussed his good relations with shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry, who is overseeing Labour’s review of the UK’s Trident nuclear system.
“When Emily got the defence job, we went out for a meal in her local pub, for about an hour and a half. There wasn’t a single sentence that either of us uttered that the other disagreed with,” he said.
He also said that Thornberry’s new special adviser, the notorious spin doctor Damian McBride, would be “brutal” and that this was a good thing. “Because the media are lying bastards.”
Warming to his theme of giving the media a kicking, Livingstone also proposed a radical rule on media ownership: "This is my personal belief. I think we should have a rule that no-one can own a newspaper. Each of the newspapers should be collectively owned by the workforce. So Murdoch and Rothermere and the Barclay brothers can all bugger off."
A few minutes later, the veteran Labour politician was telling the home crowd how Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had made him famous.
"If Thatcher had just decided to ignore me I wouldn’t be here now, no-one would ever have heard of me. I have been created by Mrs Thatcher and revived by Tony Blair. How many lefties like me ever get any bloody prominence?"
He said Boris Johnson had taken all of the credit for his ideas and was leaving nothing for the next London mayor to be getting on with.
"London’s boom was fuelled by that wave of investment I got out of Blair and Brown to modernise our transport system. But Boris has dragged his feet. I mean Boris, the bastard, got in and got to open all the things I started.
"When Sadiq Khan wins he’s got nothing for next year. Nothing’s underway. Nothing’s being started except the cable car to nowhere."
He said he did not believe that there should be a London mayor - and predicted that the capital would end up with a corrupt mayor in the future.
“I don’t believe we should have a mayor of London. Blair was in love with everything American, he created the mayoral system… and at any one time in America there’s at least 50 mayors in prison.
“Concentrating power in one individual is a disaster. It’s alright because I’m an honest, trustworthy guy. It’s alright because Boris wasn’t going to be corrupt because he wants to be prime minister - and that would bugger up his chances. But you’re going to get a mayor who is really bent one day.”
Moving on to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Livingstone argued that the New Labour leaders never understood the point of leadership.
“If you plough through the great welter of books on the Blair and Brown era, corporate bosses would come in, sit down with Blair and Brown if they were worried about pension changes or anything like that. And they would always back down. They were hopeless.
“I don’t think Blair and Brown every really realised that leadership is about leading, and actually changing opinion.
“Look at Thatcher and Attlee, the only two prime ministers in my lifetime who set an agenda and won the debate. And so when the Tories got back in 51 they broadly carried on with what Labour had done, and when we got back in 97 we carried on. And as Blair said, he thought it was his job to build on what Thatcher had achieved not to knock it down.
“I wish the bugger had told us that when he was running for Labour leader."
Can Jeremy Corbyn really win in 2020 with British media pitted against him, Livingstone was asked. He explained why he believed it could happen.
“There is no future for an advanced capitalist state by going downmarket and that’s why I do believe that Labour can win the next election. Because even if we avoid another big recession and a banking crisis, nothing is going to really improve at all. Cameron and Osborne aren’t doing anything to lead to a really big boom. Realistically, people are going to be really struggling right the way through to 2020.
“Jeremy’s got the chance to get that point across. I remember my first election in 1964, Harold Wilson, the white heat of technology. Putting Labour there at the advance of change. That’s what we’ve got to do.
“Now it’s the white heat of the internet, I suppose. But that’s what we’ve got to do.”
And he revealed who would be quids in should Corbyn enter Downing Street.
“The bosses of the big construction firms aren’t very bright. They all voted for Thatcher. What’s the first thing she did? She stopped building 200,000 council homes a year. Most of them went out of business.
“In the 1970s we used to build 400,000 homes a year, half for rent and half for sale. They stopped building them for rent and the private sector never stepped in and filled that gap. Now since the banking crisis the private sector builds about 150,000.
“No-one’s going to be better off out of a good left wing Corbyn government than the bloody construction firms.”