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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.