The Left

Why is Ken Livingstone so Weird and Nasty?

Martin Bright, the political editor of the New Statesman, has made a programme on Ken Livingstone for Dispatches this Monday (21 January 8pm, Channel 4):

Since May 2000, Livingstone has been a charismatic holder of the job who has pushed through bold schemes such as the congestion charge with a great passion. He has been re-elected once and is still the favourite to win when mayoral elections are held on 1 May.

But in the course of my research I came across a blizzard of stories that do not show the mayor in an entirely good light. These include some already in the public domain, such as the cost of foreign trips and the “embassies” set up by the mayor abroad, details of the oil deal with Venezuela’s leader, Hugo Chávez, and questions over spending by the London Development Agency. Other stories, including one concerning a campaign against Trevor Phillips, now chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, organised from within City Hall, raise concerns. There are also the curious actions of Livingstone’s inner circle of advisers and their idiosyncratic politics. And, inevitably, we looked at the congestion charge.

Perhaps most importantly we examined the office of mayor itself: whether it is institutionally robust and whether any incumbent in the post would be held fully accountable.

This will be an interesting programme, and one which seasoned Ken-watchers are bound to enjoy.

Prepare to be completely unshocked by Ken Livingstone’s reaction to the programme:

The mayor has now sent a letter to the chief executive of Channel 4, Andy Duncan, claiming that the programme is, in effect, a party political broadcast on behalf of Boris Johnson. I reject that vehemently. Holding powerful politicians to account is a crucial part of the job of the media. In September, the New Statesman ran a highly critical cover article about Johnson with the cover line “The Joke”. I have no personal animus against Livingstone – and I could think of nothing worse than to support Johnson. I just believe Livingstone is worthy of journalistic investigation, like any other senior politician.

I was also surprised at the general response given by the mayor’s office to the Observer, suggesting that Channel 4 was guilty of “unlawful interference” in the electoral process. Can the mayor’s office seriously believe that Livingstone is immune to investigation in the four months leading up to the election? Surely this is the time journalists should be looking hardest at the mayor’s record in office. I have no doubt that the media will subject Johnson, and the Liberal Democrat candidate, Brian Paddick, to full scrutiny in the run-up to the mayoral elections. But the idea that Channel 4 should not have made a documentary about the incumbent of the past eight years is ridiculous.

This, I think, is Ken Livingstone’s most serious flaw as a politician. He is a mainstream politician who occupies a senior political office. Yet he conducts his politics with an air of hysterical buffoonery, as if he were involved in some life-or-death faction fight within a tiny Trotskyite groupuscle. He has mistaken the office of the Mayor of London for a students’ union.

Ken Livingstone gets attacked politically, as all politicians do. Most manage to join battle some degree of elegance. They tease, they cajole, they grandstand. But Ken Livingstone, under fire, responds with all the grace a Chieftan tank, with the accelerator jammed to the floor.

He has always been like this.

Back in the 1980s, the BBC’s Money Programme exposed the funding of the rape-cult, the Workers Revolutionary Party – and through it, the newspapers which it ran – by Libya. Ken Livingstone was the named editor of one of those papers, the Labour Herald. His response to the programme was as follows:

The paper included the craziest of all the things they published at that time, an editorial asserting that there was a Zionist conspiracy stretching from Socialist Organiser, through Thatcher’s Cabinet, all the way to Reagan’s White House.

Across the page from that editorial, Ken Livingstone gave his tribute to his benefactor the WRP. He was then leader of the Greater London Councl and joint nominal editor of Labour Herald (the WRP provided the real editor, WRP Central Committee member Steven Miller, and printed the paper).

This was the once-Red Ken in crank mode. “The Money Programme attack on Newsline, Labour Herald, and [George Galloway’s] Dundee Standard was gutter journalism… smear techniques used… against the labour movement press”.

Livingstone “value[d] support to the struggles of the GLC by the Newsline…” “There is certainly a case for suspecting the hand of the forces opposed to the Palestinians. The Zionists were particularly upset by the role the Labour Herald played in winning the Labour Party to an official policy of support for the recognition of the PLO. The fact that smears about me appear on a fairly regular basis suggests this. Agents of the Begin [Israeli] government are active in the British labour movement and press at present…

Sounds familiar?

Twenty years later, and Ken’s record is still stuck in the same groove. Most disgraceful was his attempt to whitewash the character of the clerical fascist, Sheikh Qaradawi, by attempting to paint Peter Tatchell as a dupe of Mossad, while his minions conducted a whispering campaign which lyingly attacked him as a racist.

And on, to the Evening Standard/Feingold affair, where he attempted to turn around the outrage over a rather unpleasant, but minor drunken slur, by claiming that the whole affair was really about his ‘support for the Palestinians’, and that he was the victim of a conspiracy between the Evening Standard and the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Ken Livingstone is capable of conducting himself like a grown-up politician. At his best, he’s perfectly able to explain his point of view, articulately and sympathetically, and rise above criticism with charisma and intelligence.

But when his back is against the wall, and particularly when he’s trying to defend the indefensible, he comes out punching, with all the charm of a bar room brawler.

There are some people out there who enjoy that sort spectacle. Others just find it weird and nasty.


Commentator Rob says:

Ken was on LBC this morning. When asked about the forthcoming Despatches program, his response was that the makers real motivation was that they had a problem with muslims, and were punishing Ken for not being anti muslim.

It struck me as really distasteful and his usual trick of reaching for the race card.

Well, what a surprise. Who could have predicted that Ken would have resorted to that gambit.

See what I mean?

Yeah, I know, he made the buses run on time.