Ken Livingstone addresses the Labour conference in 2011 in Liverpool. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ken Livingstone interview: Boris hasn't set a right-wing agenda - he hasn't done anything

Former Mayor of London describes his old foe as "a fairly lazy tosser who just wants to be there".

Will he or won't he? For the past week, the media and the Tories have been transfixed by the question of whether Boris Johnson will stand for parliament at the next election. But one person who doesn't think it would make any difference is Ken Livingstone. He tells me in an interview in this week's NS: "It's no problem Boris being an MP and mayor because he doesn't do the mayor's job anyhow, so we won't notice the difference."

On Boris: "a fairly lazy tosser who just wants to be there"

Livingstone adds that the biggest mistake he made about his opponent was assuming that he had a grand plan to tilt London to the right. He says:

On the weekend he announced that he was going to run, myself and all my key advisers read 10 years of Telegraph and Spectator articles. The following Monday we just said ‘My god, this is the most hardline right-wing ideologue since Thatcher.’

My sense was that as soon as he’d won the election, he’d completely recast City Hall and set a whole new agenda. But he hasn’t really done anything. He’s stopped all projects that weren’t committed except the bike scheme. Except for the cable car to nowhere, he hasn’t initiated any new ones. He hasn’t set a right-wing agenda.

Those right-wing Tories who think he’s going to be the answer will be acutely disappointed. If he did ever become prime minister, the country would just drift. For Boris, it’s just about being there, not what you do with it.

His advice to Labour, which he believes will face Johnson as leader of the opposition, is "not to make the mistake of assuming they’re dealing with a hardline right-wing ideologue" but rather “to concentrate on the fact they’re dealing with a fairly lazy tosser who just wants to be there.”

Tory anger at Boris "working from home on Fridays"

He also reveals that disgruntled Tories on the London Assembly have told him of their anger at Boris's plan to start "working from home on Fridays" (a claim rejected by the Mayor's office). 

What I find interesting is that almost all the dirt I get on Boris comes from the Tory members on the Assembly. They’re really angry because he’s decided he’s going to start working from home on Fridays.

In a wonderful irony, it was Johnson who attacked ministers’ advice to Londoners to stay away from their workplaces during the Olympics (in order to reduce congestion) as a “skiver’s paradise”, declaring that “Some people will see the Games as an opportunity to work from home, in inverted commas. We all know that is basically sitting wondering whether to go down to the fridge to hack off that bit of cheese before checking your emails again. I don’t want to see too many of us doing that.”

Nor was this mere flippancy from the mayor. He added that working from home was "greatly overrated" and that "In my opinion people need to get in. They need to meet each other and they need to exchange ideas in an office environment."

Livingstone adds: "The Telegraph had a picture of him standing in front of his desk after his fifth anniversary of being mayor, my shock was that he hadn’t moved a single thing. The desk was exactly as I left it the day I walked out, he hadn’t even moved the pot I kept my pens and pencils in. Everything was the same. It just suggested to me that, while Boris blusters in, it’s the minions who are keeping things ticking over. The deputies won’t set a new agenda, that’s the mayor’s job. If the mayor won’t do it, nothing happens."

Labour has "lost the argument on debt" - and should use QE for infrastructure

Ken is effusive in his praise for Ed Miliband, telling me that he could be a transformative prime minister to rank alongside Attlee and Thatcher.

He says:

I’ve had to deal with every Labour leader since Wilson and there only two I would trust with my life in their hands, and that’s John Smith and Ed Miliband.

When you actually look at every other Labour leader, and even Alex Salmond, they spend all their time courting Murdoch, and for a politician to stand up to Murdoch is a clear indication of strength of character, given what he might incur. He overrode all the weak-hearted around him on the energy price freeze. And in saying no to the Syrian adventure...you’ve got to go back to 1956 for an opposition leader, or a Labour leader, to oppose that sort of foreign intervention. Those are all good signs.

I spent quite a lot of time with him in the first few years of his leadership, because I was the candidate for Mayor, and I was very impressed. He really didn’t give a sod about the personality side of politics, he was always just focused on where he wanted to take the country.

But he warns that Labour has “lost the argument about debt” and that “there’s no point in trying to win it now”. Instead, he urges Miliband to fund higher infrastructure spending through a new dose of quantitative easing.

"It’s quite easy for Labour to construct an entire five-year programme without an additional penny of borrowing. The Bank of England has created £375bn to prop up the financial system, and it was right to do so...So equally, you could create £375bn for infrastructure."

Livingstone suggests that QE could fund a mass housebuilding programme, HS2, Crossrail 2 and the expansion of broadband. “You’d create well over a million jobs, put people back to work, get the benefits bill down, and there wouldn’t be a penny of debt because all assets are held by the bank.” He warns, however, that “Labour would need to win the election with a clear commitment because my guess would be that the Bank of England, while quite happy to create billions to save the financial system, wouldn’t be so interested in building homes for rent.”

On Labour's next London mayoral candidate: "I know of 10 people thinking of running"

Livingstone wisely declined to endorse a candidate for the Labour London mayoral nomination but revealed that he knows of "10 people thinking of running". He added: "Some of them, like Tessa [Jowell], going back 40 years, so I’m going to keep completely out of it. There is no one seeking the Labour nomination who I think shouldn’t get it and if I endorse any one candidate and Labour selects somebody else, it’ll be 'oh, Ken didn’t support me.'"

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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