Interview (full version) by Graham Chalmers
Mrs Livingstone drives a Toyota Prius. Ken, on the other hand, doesn’t drive at all.
At least that’s what the man dubbed ‘Red Ken’ by The Sun tells me as I offer to be his ‘chauffeur’ following a headlining appearance at Harrogate Business Luncheon.
I lead the former mayor of London to my modest Fiat Punto just in time to see Harrogate’s mayor being whisked away in a large, slick, black executive motor.
There are no tantrums or tiaras from Ken. He’s simply happy to get a lift from Pavilions of Harrogate to Leeds railway station where he’s due to catch the train home after speaking to an audience of around 300 besuited local business people who’d paid £35 each for the privilege.
Interviewing the most significant left-wing political figure of the last 30 years between changing gears and switching lanes isn’t the easiest job of manouevring.
I’d been advised in advance by a colleague to break the ice by mentioning that Harrogate was one of the country’s most important centres for newts.
This one-time leftwing dragon has a keen interest in amphibians and reptiles.
In the event, it turns out a connection exists already. He’s been to Harrogate before in the days when Thatcher regarded him as public enemy number one.
“I came to the Liberal Party’s spring conference in the early 80s when I was leader of the GLC .
“I was mainly drunk. Going around lobbying to keep the GLC. I went to a Tory conference, too. I went to all of them.”
For a man who’s been the bête noire of the Tory press for much of his political career, the smartly-dressed grey-haired veteran of three decades of political controversy sitting next to me certainly seems more mellow, a little tired even, though that could be down to his age - or the red wine earlier at his table.
Certainly, his firebrand reputation of old cooled when he became the first elected mayor of London from 2000 to 2008, a period which saw him oversee the city’s bid to host last year’s Olympics.
I suggest it still must have hurt to watch Boris Johnson taking the plaudits in public for the success of the Games?
“It was really funny. Boris said to me it was pretty bad that I hadn’t got the credit and I said that’s because you didn’t give me any.
“Eventually he said half a sentence about me in public.
“The last thing Cameron wanted was an international event at which some of my peers presided.
“They tried to replace Danny Boyle but he had a contract. So they tried to persuade him to change some of his ideas but he said ‘bugger off’.
“Danny Boyle and I first met about 1982 when he was arrested at a protest against the judge overturning our Fares Fair policy at the GLC.”
I tell him he’s the second “proper leftwinger” I’ve driven around in my car in the last nine months.
Who was the other, he asks. Cultural critic Owen Hatherley, I reply, who’d come up from London to judge a Best Modern Building in Harrogate competition I’d organised for Harrogate International Festival Fringe.
He mentions he’d been in The Shard the night before at its official opening.
Ken seemed a bit subdued at times. He’d heard his friend Ed Koch, former mayor of New York had died.
I wondered what he thought of George Osborne’s announcement of plans to invest £33 billion in a high-speed rail link from London. It might have made his journey here quicker for a start.
It’s a good idea, the Lambeth born and bred man agrees, before announcing that he also approves of setting up a “Parliament of the North”.
A self-confessed economcis nut (he can reel off annual growth figures for the US and the UK for the past three decades), he believes there’s too much power in the hands of central government.
“What size is Yorkshire? It should be driving forward the Yorkshire economy and creating jobs in Yorkshire, rather than London.”
As we approach the outskirts of Leeds, it’s clear Boris Johnson is the elephant in the room – or car.
At one point he jokes that Anish Kapoor’s garish giant sculpture in the Olympic Park (full name, the Arcelor Mittal Orbit) should be renamed the “Boris Memorial”.
There’s clearly no love lost between himself and the man who pipped him to the post at the last two mayoral elections, though decorum prevents from repeating a story he shared about a certain part of the current mayor’s anatomy.
Such was the popularity of Livingstone’s transport policies in the capital such as the congestion zone, I suggest, he might have won in both 2008 and 2012 had it not been for Johnson’s notoriously hardnosed spin doctor Lynton Crosby and the London Evening Standard.
“That’s why there was such an effort to make sure I didn’t get elected. They don’t mind incompetence but if you can do a decent job, you’re labelled a disaster. The whole mythology is that the Left can’t run anything.”
““Under Max Hastings the Evening Standard was very right wing but at least he wanted to produce a good newspaper.”
Not that this was the first time Ken had been on the receiving end of smears.
“Back in 1981-82 Tory Central Office was trying to sell the Daily Mail this line that I’d been having sex with six men in succession in the East End.
“When they discovered I wasn’t gay they then went round saying MI5 had a list of all the schoolgirls I’d supposedly had sex with. It’s always been pretty poisonous out there.”
Hadn’t he ever been tempted to take the Clare Short approach and try to work within the system by joining a Labour government or shadow cabinet?
After all, Tony Benn had worked under Harold Wilson.
“Basically just at the point I was placed to run for leader in the early 90s the party moved to the right. The party membership kicked me off the NEC.
“If I hadn’t give up my seat in Parliament to be Mayor of London I would have run against Gordon Brown in 2007.”
Today Livingstone is a close advisor for current Labour leader Ed Miliband.
It was partly his vast experience of politics from the 1970s onwards which helped him snatch a surprise victory from his brother David, and he rates Ed highly.
“’I’m incredibly impressed with Ed. I’ve work very closely with him. He’s focused on the future. He doesn’t care about short-term popularity,” he said.
“He’s our last hope for a decent government in our lifetime.”
If Miliband was to win the next general election, would he welcome a position in Government? It would be an amazing transformation from his bitter relationship with Blair when the PM engineered for Livingstone to be expelled from the Labour Party altogether for a time.
“It’s hard for you to understand but when you get to 67, I’m nearly 68, you don’t sit about making detailed plans. When I started work, the average man lived to be 68. It’s amazing I’ve got here.
“At the general election in 2015 I’ll be 70. People ask me if I’ll run for mayor again but I’ll be 71 at the next mayoral election. You don’t have plans at this age. I’ll see how I feel.”
I tell him that he was the first politician I ever saw speak in public when he gave a talk at the library at Edinburgh University when I was studying politics and modern history in the early 1980s.
Oddly, he remembers exactly where it took place downstairs in the low, long café of the university, where myself and fellow students were having a nibble and a chat and a coffee.
“I was there to defend my Fares Fair policy at the GLC. I got a laugh when I said it was the first time I’d made a speech when the audience was masticating.”
As I steer the car towards the back entrance of Leeds railway station, Ken is talking about how he looked in the radical days of the 1970s - the obligatory Lefty look of the time: beard and long hair. Dare I say it, he looks pretty dapper these days in what appear to be handmade shoes, a bespoke suit with braces (which he says he has to wear because he has lost so much weight from gardening) and a Burberry raincoat.
You’re lucky I’ve managed to chat so much, I tell him. I’m notoriously bad at driving and talking at the same time.
“So I should be glad to be alive?”
Yes. As a chauffeur I’m cheap but slightly dangerous, I reply.
Ken Livingstone on Tony Blair:
“People in the bottom half of society were starting to feel real pain by the middle of Blair’s second term. Blair had no background in politics. He was never involved in politics at Oxford, which is odd. And no one knows exactly when he joined the Labour Party.
“But there’s a theory that he only joined when he was in his chambers as a lawyer and met Cherie. If he wanted Cherie, he had to get involved in politics. I don’t know if that’s true.”
“Thatcher’s thing was that her greatest legacy was New Labour.Even so, the Tory press were worried about Blair because they thought Blair was going to be there forever.”
Ken Livingstone on neo-liberal economics:
“Now you’ve got the IMF coming out and and saying inequality of wealth hampers the economy. It’s not about left or right anymore, it’s about what works and what doesn’t work.”
Ken Livingstone on the press:
“I wrote my autobiography for the first three years after I lost and I put in all the worst things people had said about me and it was so shocking. And such lies.”
“For all that’s happened to me I still tend to believe what I read about other people in the paper!”