You Can’t Say That: Memoirs

You Can't Say That: Memoirs
Ken Livingstone
Faber & Faber, 678pp, £25

Ken Livingstone, in the words of the Telegraph's Charles Moore, is "the only truly successful left-wing British politician of modern times". There will be those, even on the left, who find it painful to admit this, but it is self-evidently true. Unlike those of us who have merely paid the occasional visit to government, Livingstone held high office in one of the world's most important cities for 13 years in total - five as leader of the Greater London Council and eight as mayor (by contrast, he describes his 14 years in parliament as "the least productive of my life").

Courageous to the point of recklessness, he has never hesitated to go where lesser politicians fear to tread. His potentially suicidal introduction of the congestion charge paid off, reducing car usage and funding improvements in public transport. He recruited a former CIA man, Bob Kiley, who had transformed the New York subway, to modernise the Underground. His opposition to Gordon Brown's part-privatisation of the Underground was vindicated when the new Tube companies imploded. Even "Boris Bikes" were dreamt up on his watch.

Livingstone has already been the subject of two highly regarded biographies, but this is his own, unexpurgated account of his colourful life. Names are named, enemies excoriated, friends praised. For the most part it is highly readable, told with the author's wit and honesty. There are moments when those who do not share our hero's interest in the minutiae of London politics may wish to skip pages but, by and large, this is a story that ought to be of interest to friend and foe alike.

Born in south London, the son of a window cleaner and a former music-hall dancer, Livingstone failed the eleven-plus, left school with a handful of O-levels, hitchhiked across the Sahara and got elected to Lambeth Council, along with the young John Major (of whom he speaks highly). He then turned his attention to the Greater London Council, where, after Labour's victory in the 1981 GLC election, he seized power in a palace coup against the hapless party group leader, Andrew McIntosh, and was propelled on to the national stage.

London has changed so much in the past 30 years that one forgets the bigotry that once permeated so many institutions. "When are we going to stop housing niggers?" inquired a Tory member of the GLC. The new regime breathed fresh air through the musty, murky corridors of the monstrous GLC building but, unfortunately, it also invested a good deal of time (and public money) in gesture politics.

For all Livingstone's undoubted charm and political skills, one reason for his popularity is the virulence of his political enemies. Margaret Thatcher's decision to abolish the GLC won him friends, as did the disgraceful lengths to which New Labour went to prevent him becoming the party's mayoral candidate in 2000. In the end, he defied the Labour Party and was elected as an independent. So successful did his first term as mayor prove that he received a call from No 10 inviting him to rejoin the party so that he could stand as its official candidate in 2004.

Tony Blair came to repent unleashing his attack dogs on Livingstone - "stupid" and "disastrous" were the words he used to describe it in his memoirs. When he retired, he wrote Livingstone a note: "You have been an absolute pleasure to work with and . . . entirely vindicated the decision

Ironically, Livingstone's selection as Labour's candidate at a time when, under Gordon Brown, the party's fortunes were in decline, may have contributed to his defeat by Boris Johnson in 2008. But who can say he will not return next year, in time to preside over the Olympics? Red Ken is not a man easily kept down.

“A Walk-On Part", the final volume of Chris Mullin's diaries, is published by Profile Books (£25)

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?