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December 5, 2011 / ultrafox1963

The memoir of a lifetime

Ken Livingstone

In modern times, we have become depressingly accustomed to seeing politicians, particularly those from modest backgrounds, becoming enriched and/or ennobled during the course of their career. They often become irretrievably detached from the people who elected them to office.

This provides all the more reason to honour and celebrate a figure who sought (and still seeks) elected office in order to make a difference for his community, rather than a fortune for himself.

During the course of his lifetime of service to his home city, Ken Livingstone has remained almost entirely unspoilt by the trappings of state which have ensnared so many of his contemporaries. This may well explain why he remains both an enduring and an endearing figure in public life.

First elected to Lambeth Council in 1971, while still in his mid-twenties, Ken could never possibly have foreseen the many twists and turns that his personal, political and professional life would take during the following four decades. All the highs and lows that he experienced are carefully and faithfully chronicled in You Can’t Say That, a tome whose size fully befits the author’s status as a political heavyweight.

Even if his political career had ended in 1986 with the abolition of the Greater London Council, Ken would still have a record of achievement to boast about today. The trails he and his colleagues blazed during the preceding five years, especially in relation to social inclusion, though often vilified at the time, later became commonplace throughout the public sector and often in society at large.

Although Ken was elected to the House of Commons in 1987, and served for three terms, his time there was largely undistinguished and unfulfilling. He found himself out of touch with prevailing moods within the Parliamentary Labour Party, which scuppered any plans he had for a position of national leadership.

Nevertheless, he remained a standard-bearer for the left-wing of the labour movement, and when the party, once restored to national office in 1997, announced plans to restore self-government for London (albeit in a heavily-modified format), Ken expressed an interest in the newly-created post of mayor.

The subsequent machinations by Tony Blair and the rest of the party hierarchy to deny him the Labour nomination for that office did them little credit at the time, and even less so now. Indeed, the book’s revelations reinforce still further previous impressions of Blair as a duplicitous, self-seeking, manipulative careerist, whose politics, general outlook and philosophy owe far more to the traditions of Richard Nixon or even Al Capone than those of previous post-war Labour prime ministers.

Undaunted, Ken stood for election in 2000 as an independent and received the overwhelming endorsement of the London electorate in doing so. It is impossible to imagine any other political figure during the last 50 years with sufficient charisma or resilience to pull off such a remarkable and momentous victory.

But an even more monumental triumph lay ahead. Despite further clashes with Blair, most notably over the 2003 Iraq war (which saw one of London’s largest-ever demonstrations – endorsed and addressed by its mayor), Ken gained readmission to the party. More implausibly still, following his re-election in 2004, he worked successfully with Blair and others to secure the 2012 Olympics for the city. Did the existence of such an unlikely alliance breed complacency among rival bidders? Only the delegates of the International Olympic Committee can provide a definitive answer.

However the elation which greeted the announcement of London’s success on 6 July 2005 was ruthlessly dispelled the following day, by a series of rush-hour bombings which claimed 56 lives and disrupted millions of others. Ken was faced with his greatest challenge, and rose to it magnificently, with a determined, defiant statement before the world’s media which confirmed his right to be regarded as a genuine global statesman.

Ironically, though, the preparations necessary for the Olympics played a significant part in undermining Ken’s attempt to secure a third mayoral term in 2008. During visits to London in the months preceding that election, this writer was regularly exasperated at the disruption caused by the much-delayed modernisation of the capital’s transport infrastructure. It is easy to imagine how some of those who were dealt such inconveniences on a daily basis may have reacted towards the individual responsible, at least nominally, for ensuring an effective and efficient traffic network.

Extra pressures ensued with the banking crisis engulfing Britain (and London in particular) at that time, Labour’s consequently-dismal poll ratings, and a particularly-vitriolic smear campaign by sections of the London media. In the circumstances Ken and his campaign team did well to limit the eventual margin of defeat.

But if the tides of political fortune left Ken beached at that time, they are unlikely to do so in May 2012. Demographic changes during the past four years have increased London’s diversity still further, while a crescendo of discontent is still rising towards both the coalition government and the incumbent mayor. In addition, the malevolent influence of Associated Newspapers (owners of the Daily Mail) within the capital has been sharply curtailed following its sale of the London Standard.

With a strong sense of unfinished business to motivate his campaign. Ken is therefore exceedingly well-placed to stage a dramatic return to City Hall and take pride of place at next July’s Olympics opening ceremony. It will be no more than he deserves.

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone genuinely committed to the cause of social justice, which Ken has always consistently espoused throughout his time in politics, even when it was deeply unfashionable to do so.  Students of modern social and political history will also be fascinated by the perspectives offered by the author.

Those of us who remain thoroughly unconvinced by the concept of an elected mayor, for London or any other area, should still pay tribute to the substantial effort he made, during his time in the post, to improve the life and well-being of his city.

Ken remains the most inspirational political figure of his generation, and his work is far from done.

You Can’t Say That by Ken Livingstone is available at all good book stores, as well as via Amazon Kindle.

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