Ken Livingstone:“The world is run by monsters”

In our exclusive interview, Jemima Khan finds the Labour challenger spoiling for a fight, with opinions on everything from “clinically insane” Margaret Thatcher to the “moral imbecile” running the BBC.

"I've got so many schemes ready for them," Ken Livingstone says with some glee. By "them" he means the Tories, with whom he will have to work if he wins the London mayoral election in May. "If I am re-elected it will be a devastating blow for them. They are halfway through their term. They want to get re-elected. Are they going to plough on with a strategy that clearly doesn't work?"

For Ken, the office of mayor is not just about London: it's about changing the system. "They will either go mad," he continues conspiratorially, "in which case it may shorten the life of the government, or they will recognise the strategy isn't working."

By nature, Ken is a troublemaker. He thrives on political tussles and is frustrated that no date has yet been set for a televised debate with his rival Boris Johnson. His press officer, Veronica, a young woman in sparkly red high-heeled Dorothy shoes, looks on edge. She sits between us and winces each time her charge says something off-message. At times, according to Ken, she kicks him under the table.

The three of us are sitting at a table at the back of Costa Coffee on Hampstead High Street. Ken, in a grey mac and tie, has made himself at home. Surrounded by newspapers, he is sipping a cappuccino as his blonde Labrador, Coco, slumps at his feet.

Despite Veronica's imploring looks, he insists that, unlike Boris, he will never be gagged. "I can't understand why anyone would want to live the life of a politician if you can't say pretty much what you think. You are not in it for the money: there's unremitting pressure on your life, you give up so much of your privacy. It can only be because of the things you want to do and the things you want to say."

Ironically, his memoir is entitled You Can't Say That. This is the man who asked an Evening Standard journalist, who happened to be Jewish, if he was a "German war criminal" and compared him to a "concentration camp guard". He then refused to apologise ("Why should I say words that I do not believe in my heart?") and was given a one-month suspension for bringing the office of mayor into disrepute.

He remains unrepentant. "Well, I did get a court ruling that I wasn't anti-Semitic and that shut them up for a bit. Nobody wanted an apology; the Board of Deputies [of British Jews] immediately referred it to the Standards Board, which had me removed from office."

He continues defiantly. "Most people are not shocked that I am occasionally rude to journalists. They are probably amazed I don't punch one in the face." Veronica rolls her eyes.

Ken is a verbal pugilist. The BBC director general, Mark Thompson, is "a moral imbecile" for vetoing the word "Palestine" in a protest song. Bankers' bonuses are "like penis extensions, among a small league of men - mine is bigger than yours". Margaret Thatcher was "clinically insane" while in power. The Daily Mail "has done an awful lot for making us a more embittered people". Henry Kissinger "wasn't going to get laid until he was powerful, you know". And so he goes on.

Unsurprisingly it is on the subject of Boris Johnson, who defeated Livingstone in the 2008 election for London mayor, that he becomes most exercised. Ken talks more about Boris than Boris talks about Ken. In fact, he talks more about Boris than Boris talks about Boris. His main theme is the mayor's lack of core beliefs and policy. "As long as he can be prime minister it doesn't matter terribly much what he does with it - it's about being there," he says. He is in no doubt that his rival would like to lead Britain, something Boris denies.

Ken, on the other hand, has no qualms conceding that his greatest political regret is that he never became prime minister. "We'd be living in a better world," he says, smiling that crooked smile with sad eyes. I've no doubt he means it.

Is there anything that he admires about Boris? "No. I think he has real ability, real intelligence, and he just never achieves his potential with it. It is why I think in the end he won't be prime minister . . . I don't think he has really got a solid ideological brain, like [George] Osborne or [William] Hague. It is very hard to find anything in Boris's career that he's serious about. He just loves life too much to really succeed as a politician."

Maybe that's why the public likes him, I suggest. In a superficial age, he seems fun. He enjoys life - he's an anti-politician.

“Yes, but that is changing because people are really hurting. At a time when people are comfortably off, they are not too threatened, and the question of how you perform on TV is [important]. Now people focus on: 'How am I going to keep my family together?'"

After losing to Boris, the difference this time round, he believes, is that the candidates have records to compare. "Before, Boris was in the happy position; he could match every promise I made," he says. Ken's fear is that if his opponent gets a second term, "he will be pandering to the Tory electorate, so it will be much more hardline. It could be a lot grimmer."

Boris's box-office appeal appears to bother Ken - perhaps because it was once Ken and his outrageous remarks that made the headlines. Ken was the outsider, the eccentric, the lovable Londoner. Then Boris emerged and he seemed even bigger and funnier. Ken started to look a little like yesterday's man.

In many ways, he and Boris have a similar appeal. Both are known by their first name, are instantly recognisable, outspoken, funny and original. Both are mavericks incapable of toeing the party line for long; both have clashed with their own national leadership - Livingstone was first elected London mayor as an independent in 2000 after resigning from the Labour Party. And both have complicated private lives, but this has not affected either man's political career.

Cloak of mystery

Ken is reticent about his home life. He believes that the public "should be allowed to know everything, except the nature of private relationships - unless there is hypocrisy, like some Tory MP denouncing homosexuality while they are indulging in it". I note that he says "Tory MP". "Well, the Labour ones have all come out," he counters. "As soon as Blair got in, if you came out as lesbian or gay you immediately got a job. It was wonderful . . . you just knew the Tory party was riddled with it like everywhere else is."

Ken has always been a gay rights advocate and few would challenge his PC credentials, which makes his choice of the word "riddled" when talking about homosexuality and the Conservative Party all the more surprising. He has a rule that he doesn't talk about family, but when I ask how many children he has he says: "We both have five [children]. I can admit to all mine." He is referring again to Boris, and to the mayor's rumoured illegitimate two-year-old daughter.

Ken has long managed to maintain one of the most mysterious private lives of anyone in the public eye. Even his entry in Who's Who contains no personal information. Then a few years ago it was revealed that not only did he have two small children with his current wife, Emma Beal, but he also had two older children, born to two different women, while he was in a long-term relationship with his former partner Kate Allen, now director of Amnesty International UK.

He explains the secrecy. "When I was writing my [auto]biography, I really would have liked to go into much more detail about my private life, but my kids said: 'I have got to go to college, Dad, and I don't want to know what you did in the Seventies.' It has primarily been the people around me - they just say, 'We don't want to be a media circus.'"

He does inadvertently refer to his children at unguarded moments. He tells me that he never smacks them and he disagrees with the Labour MP David Lammy about corporal punishment. He also says he would have been "over the moon" if David Miliband had married his eldest daughter (to be clear, it was never on the cards). "But do I want him as Labour leader? No, I don't. I think his politics are wrong."

Ken is a fan and defender of Ed Miliband. He puts the leader's mistakes down to an "initial vulnerability" and to finding that, at "an incredibly young age, he is leader of a political party where the majority of Labour MPs sitting behind him in the House of Commons didn't vote for him". He admires how, unusually for a politician, Miliband looks to the long term. I suspect he sees a bit of his younger self in Ed - an ideologically driven, unpopular left-winger with a problematically nasal voice.

“In all my dealings with Blair or Brown there was an incredible focus on next week," he says. "I don't ever recall being able to get Blair or Brown into a debate on where we should be in 20 years, whereas with Ed, he is thinking about where Britain should be in 15 or 20 years."

On the sibling rivalry between the two Milibands, he says: "The trouble is that David is not going to crawl away under a stone and die, and everything he says gets pored over [by journalists]."

Perhaps Ken's most surprising revelation is his admiration for some of the more doctrinaire conviction politicians on the right. "I always got on well with [Norman] Tebbit," he tells me with a smile, aware of how unlikely that sounds. He speaks highly, too, of his former mayoral rival Steven Norris. "He is a joy. He is absolutely brutal, much more hard-working than Boris." He recalls how Norris once stood up at a gay and lesbian event and called the Daily Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, a "fuckwit".

I wonder if he has seen the portrayal of his old nemesis Thatcher in The Iron Lady? "No, I am not going to watch it. I do not want to feel sympathy for her. I feel sympathy for the people whose lives she destroyed."

He scoffs at the "ridiculous idea" that her funeral should be a national event. "We had a state funeral for Churchill, who [brought us to] the decisive turning point in the greatest struggle against evil in the last thousand years; she is not in that league." However, he says he finds it hard to still feel angry about the Thatcher era. "I mean, you bump into her and she's shuffling around. You can't feel angry against her, a vulnerable old person."

Has the intransigent Ken learned to compromise as he has aged? "The world is run by monsters and you have to deal with them. Some of them run countries, some of them run banks, some of them run news corporations," he says. He admits that, along with Ed Miliband and just about every politician in the cabinet and shadow cabinet, he attended some of Rupert Murdoch's summer parties, though he praises Ed for "going out on a limb to attack Murdoch". I point out that Ed still met with News International 11 times as Labour leader. He argues that there is a need for pragmatism. "When Murdoch smashed the [print] union I refused to be interviewed by any Murdoch [paper] out there for - let me think, for five years," he says, "and then when I realised his empire didn't collapse with my boycott, I recognised I had to give in and go and be interviewed by them."

“Look," he says, "Blair had to go and hug Gaddafi, for God's sake. I think he overdid that. He could have just shaken his hand. But you have to. If you only want to deal with nice people, I was about to say 'get thee to a nunnery', but you do hear bad things about some nunneries." He laughs. His laugh is sad, slightly sardonic, rather than infectious.

There are many who say that he moved to the centre politically as mayor. For those who were familiar with his reputation from his time at the Greater London Council, which he led from 1981 until its abolition in 1986, his mayoralty showed a notable and unexpected enthusiasm for the City of London and the financial services. It led one commentator to describe Ken as a "curious mix of Trotsky and Thatcher". Even now, he defends the existing 50 per cent tax rate for high earners but says that "the Chancellor has to make a decision about what's the most you can squeeze out of these people before they bugger off". Does he regret being so soft on bankers during the boom years?

“In the time I was mayor, I used to do meetings with City bankers and I'd often open by saying, 'This isn't the world I would have created.' But within the context of bankers deciding whether to go New York or London the mayor's job is to make them come to London." So he stands by his record, though at one point he even advocated less regulation? "Well, I didn't have any power to be tougher on bankers - I was the mayor of London."

It's a fine line to tread. In any case, Ken doesn't do regret, at least not if it's political. He has said in the past: "Over 30 years, it's hard to think of a politician who has called it right as often as I did." I comment on his apparent lack of self-doubt and he pauses for a moment. He agrees that he has no doubts about "where we should be going politically and economically", but then surprises me by confiding that he suffers from doubt "an awful lot in terms of your personal relationships and whether you feel you have achieved in the way you should". He concedes he's had "a lot of fails on that score".

“This life is messy," he muses out loud. "Part of the problem is that my generation was postwar, born into great upheaval, and 50 years down the road people will be much better off. I've watched my oldest kids - they're 21 and 19 - make in their teens the sort of mistakes and learning in relationships that my generation made when we were married. This is a very difficult transition. We all went mad in the Seventies and it was excessive."

As he finishes talking, his eyes light up for the first time. "Hello, lovely," he says with striking tenderness and I turn to find his wife, dressed in black jeans and a woolly hat. She has come to pick up the dog on her way to Brent Cross. I get a fleeting glimpse of Ken's domestic life. "Poo bag and treats," he says, handing her both. "I'll be back with the shopping later."

For a moment, I see what this self-confessed workaholic, now without a proper job, who still wants to change the world but worries that "politics takes over your life", might feel he missed out on. "Most people wouldn't want to marry a politician," he says. I know, I say. And I do.

Ken clearly loves his family, and even though he has spent the past four years writing his memoirs and stalking Boris at City Hall he has had much more time than before to spend with his wife and children. "It was nothing like the pressure I had the previous 40 [years] and it is very attractive."

Yet it's hard to imagine him ever switching off from politics. Even while gardening, as he tells me: "When I'm sifting the compost seed or pruning, I argue over issues in my head, I talk to myself." There's a telling moment on You­Tube when a child interviews him for television and Ken talks at this blinking seven-year-old in incomprehensible political jargon.

So, what is his plan if he doesn't win? "If I don't win, it will just be Londoners' way of saying they want me to develop my radio career." He smiles. I'm not convinced. He is adamant that he would not be tempted to go back into the House of Commons. "They were the least productive years of my life."

And if he wins? "We will restore the 1,700 police jobs that have been lost. We spent all day yesterday locked in a room going through the police budget . . . " And he's off again. "We have only made two specific pledges - to cut fares, we know we can do it; and to restore police cuts, we know we can do it. The other thing will be cutting top salaries and using the money to give above-inflation pay increases to the lowest-paid."

Ken is most alive when talking figures, policies, plans. And although he once said that a mayor should serve only two terms, his plans seem to extend well beyond the next four years. "You see," he says, brightening, "I have got to make certain that when I disappear off the scene, there is a whole range of people who are embedded within London government and know what to do." He smiles. "And I have only got about 30 years to do that."

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman