Book review: The mystery of Ken Livingstone

Andrew Hosken, Ken, the Ups and Downs of Ken Livingstone, Arcadia Books, £15 99, 435 pp.

In losing the recent mayoral election, Ken Livingstone has proved that the old adage about all political careers ending in failure even applies to those, like him, who have managed to reinvent themselves several times. Livingstone has, indeed, been through more transformations than any other recent political figure: from Red Ken, the über plotter who took over the GLC in a coup to defender of democracy in his fight against GLC abolition; from forgotten backbench MP, to cuddly Ken, everyone’s favourite Leftie; and from Independent candidate for Mayor for London opposed to Labour to, finally, the business-friendly Mayor who was happy to chat to Gordon Brown, his erstwhile foe, and wanted to transform the capital’s skyline with massive skyscrapers.

It’s been quite a journey. Hosken traces these changes with meticulous care and no shortage of entertaining anecdote and revealing insight. He covers everything from the days of the GLC when the banners on County Hall infuriated Thatcher so much she abolished the organisation to his recent time as London Mayor when he allowed civil partnerships between gay couples three years before that was enshrined in legislation: everything, in other words from gesture politics to real attempts at change.

The question of what is the true Ken hangs over the book. Is he a real revolutionary, using the sheep’s closing of democracy to further extreme Left wing aims, or he is merely a social democrat who enlisted the support of the hard – and, crucially, very well organised – Left in order to gain power? Hosken never quite answers that question and, indeed, it may be impossible to do so as perhaps Livingstone himself is unsure about the nature of his own politics.

Although Hosken is not entirely unsympathetic to Livingstone who cooperated by giving interviews for the book, Hosken is disdainful of the Left’s aspirations, even in areas such as women’s rights and Ireland, where they have become pretty mainstream. He pulls no punches about Livingstone’s flirtation – or, rather near love affair – with the monstrous Gerry Healy, the leader of the sect-like Workers Revolutionary Party who, had he ever achieved the power he desperately sought, would have made Stalin look like Pooh Bear. Hosken, too, provides great insight into Livingstone’s relationship with Socialist Action, an even more shadowy organisation to which many of his closest advisers at City Hall belonged.

This book is far more than a biography of Livingstone. It is a history of a fascinating time in the Labour party when there were real ideological battles which either side could win. Livingstone, as John Mortimer points out, was the first genuine Left winger in Britain to gain power and he did so twice. Hosken gives the impression that while Livingstone is of the Left and leans generally that way, he is so ruthless, like most successful politicians, that he is ultimately not that ideological and was prepared to ditch most of his basic beliefs if that were necessary. Actually, this is a bit unfair. Livingstone successes such as improving public transport, introducing the congestion charge and push for more social housing were real achievements.

This book was published just before the election, but reading it one suspects that Hosken knew his man was doomed. Irritatingly, the rush to get it published in time means there is no index which is a shame given the book is of far wider interest than a mere biography of an, admittedly fascinating, politician. It lacks the narrative flow of Hosken’s previous brilliant account of Shirley Porter (who, interestingly, like Livingstone also had a coterie of shadowy advisers around her) and her misdoings, but nevertheless is essential reading for all those interested in the recent history of either London or the Labour Party, or simply who want to try to understand Livingstone. Ultimately, though, he remains as mysterious as the look on his face on the cover of the book.

Christian Wolmar’s latest book, Fire & Steam, a new history of the railways in Britain, has just been published in paperback by Atlantic Books, £8 99.

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