27 November 2015

‘Ken’ by Andrew Hosken: what Livingstone’s story tells us about Corbyn


Ken: The Ups and Downs of Ken Livingstone. Andrew Hosken, Arcadia Books, RPR £15.99

Jeremy Corbyn only appears once in the pages of ‘Ken’, and it is a bizarre cameo indeed. In 1994, Ken Livingstone announced that he was running against Tony Blair for Labour leader, with Corbyn as his deputy. The only problem was that he hadn’t actually told Corbyn about it.

Corbyn was not a vital player in Livingstone’s story. Yet Livingstone certainly has been in Corbyn’s. That’s not just because Ken’s mayoral victories are the Corbyn team’s proof that a genuine Left-winger can win power. It’s because that team is dominated by those who cut their teeth as Livingstone’s City Hall consiglieres – in particular Simon Fletcher, Corbyn’s chief of staff, and Neale Coleman, his director of “policy and rebuttal”. Even John McDonnell claims he is qualified to oversee the nation’s finances because of his experience running the Greater London Council’s under Ken.

So what can Livingstone’s story – set out in 2008 in this excellent investigative biography by the BBC’s Andrew Hosken – tell us about Corbyn’s?

The first, and overwhelming, impression is of history repeating. The Left of the Livingstone era share not just an ideology but a methodology with their heirs today: an obsession with winning battles inside the party rather than appealing to the electorate; a conviction that a hostile media are blinding voters to their true interest; a willingness to chum up to any unsavoury terrorists or dictators who share their rhetorical objections to the capitalist classes.

It is also easy to see why moderate Labourites today are so petrified. Livingstone was at the heart of an attempt by the Left to capture Labour, starting with the base and working up to the head: his famous decapitation of Andrew McIntosh, the GLC’s elected leader, on the day after the 1981 election was intended as a blueprint for a Tony Benn triumph.

Corbyn has now won the victory Benn and Livingstone never could – but his platform for greater party democracy (ie mandatory reselection of MPs and handing control of policy to the membership) are exactly those made by Livingstone and his cohorts. Then, as now, it wasn’t about democracy, but control. Any non-Corbynite MP will read the grim details of Livingstone’s four-year war against Reg Freeson, the kind and popular MP whose Brent East seat he coveted, with alarm.

Corbyn and Livingstone also emerge as similar figures. Both were self-made intellectuals from outside the party mainstream, with no university education. Both formed their beliefs early, and stuck to them. Both were easily demonised by the Right-wing press simultaneously as odd, obsessive little men – for Corbyn’s manhole covers, read Livingstone’s cherished newts – and as a clear and present danger to the nation. Horace Cutler, the Tories’ leader on the GLC, described Ken as “the worst thing to hit London since the plague, and in some ways akin to it”.

Even without drawing parallels to Corbyn, Hosken’s book is fascinating – and devastating. Gerry Healy, the head of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, who printed Livingstone’s newspapers, emerges as the most fascinating grotesque in British politics: a Koresh-style socialist cult leader who raped his female subordinates and beat up his male ones. (At his funeral, a loyal Ken claimed that the repulsive Healy had been the victim of an MI5 plot.)

Similarly, it turns out that Livingstone’s deeply insensitive recent comments about Kevan Jones, the Labour MP struggling with depression, fit a pattern. Ken’s instinct, over and over again, is to refer to his critics needing treatment or being under the weather or (as with Frank Dobson in the London mayoral race in 2000) suffering from, yes, depression.

The theme that runs throughout the book – and which has assumed fresh relevance today – is the factional in-fighting on the Left, and the way in which Ken harnessed the zealots to pursue his own ends. In particular, Hosken reveals the role played by Socialist Action – a small group of highly capable true believers, including Fletcher – who gravitated to Ken after Thatcher shut down the GLC and cast him into the backbench wilderness.

Socialist Action were, says Hosken, “Livingstone’s guiding light, his foot soldiers, his mentors, and his political family.” During his two terms as London’s first elected mayor, they formed a formidably effective praetorian guard around Ken. But they were also his closest friends: he served as best man at Fletcher’s wedding.

The longevity – and success – of this socialist splinter group is quite something. They are, as Labour moderates may soon find out, formidably effective operators. But their record at City Hall also shows that they are not mindless revolutionaries.

That, indeed, is the most fascinating point of difference between Livingstone and Corbyn. Ken denounced Fleet Street, but wrote columns for Murdoch and Rothermere. As mayor, he lauded Venezuela and consorted with Islamists, but also schmoozed City grandees and approved every skyscraper that crossed his desk: London’s glory was Ken’s glory.

This isn’t to say that Ken isn’t a man of principle: he clearly is, especially when it comes to his longstanding commitment to equality. It’s just that he always understood, when push came to shove, that power was more important.

The episode in which this was most on show was a row over “rate-capping” in 1985. The Tory government wanted to restrain runaway spending by Labour councils. The socialists (led by McDonnell, the GLC’s finance chair) hit on the wheeze of failing to submit a legal budget, in the sincere but deluded belief that the resulting collapse in public services would – coupled with the Miners’ Strike – drive Thatcher from power.

The only problem – apart from the threat of jail time – was that the GLC actually had plenty of money, so wouldn’t need to “go illegal” at all. When the officials brought McDonnell the documents showing that, instead of the £25 million cuts he was claiming, there would in fact be a £140 million surplus, he apparently said: “I hear what you say; shred the documents!”

In the end, Livingstone backed down, causing a schism in the Labour group and vitriolic accusations of betrayal from the zealots. Reaching for the worst epithet in his vocabulary, McDonnell labelled Livingstone “a Kinnock”.

Whether it be the Young Chartists (his initial Trotskyite henchmen) or Socialist Action, Livingstone’s relationship with the Left’s various factions was always based on mutual utility: they were helping him and he was helping them.

Corbyn, on the other hand, appears to be one of the true believers – a naive theorist in a world of serpentine schemers. Exactly the sort of person, judging from this fascinating book, whom Ken Livingstone and his team would have eaten for breakfast.

Robert Colvile was comment editor at the Telegraph and UK news director at BuzzFeed. He now writes on politics and technology.