Ken Livingstone on books, budgets and big tents

To mark the release of his memoir, You Can’t Say That, Ken Livingstone spoke to MayorWatch editor Martin Hoscik about the book, public perception of him and some of the things Londoners can expect if he returns to City Hall next May.

The book is quite detailed, Is it meant as the definitive word on the Livingstone political career?
So long as I die tomorrow but if I get another term as Mayor there might be a sequel….

I started out as just going to write about just the eight years of the Mayoralty but all the publishers said ‘what’s the GLC thing’ because some of them hadn’t been born so I said I’d write something more like an autobiography.

I assumed it’d be about half this length and there’s quite a lot I’ve had to leave out.

I was tempted not to have an index to force all the people who use it look for themselves to have to read the whole book!

Who is the book aimed at?
It is written with my kids in mind because, as I found when I was writing it, I knew so little about my parents other than my relationship with them and I don’t want my kids in twenty five years time to think ‘oh, why did dad do that?’

I might be around to tell them or I might be too senile to remember!

So there’s that, but then another thing, there’s huge influx of young people into the party and I’m looking at the meetings I’m doing and thinking ‘this generation is going to be the next councillors, the MPs, the Ministers.’

Some of them have got forty years ahead of them in the party and why should they repeat all the mistakes I made? So I thought I’ll write a book which tries to get in everything I’ve learnt as I’ve gone through – why I’ve changed my mind on things.

So is it a manual for the Labour tribe rather than a casual read for Londoners?
It tries to be all these things. For people to be able to have some idea why I did what I did but also for people who actually think they want to be active in politics there’s a lot you can learn. You don’t have to make all my mistakes.

What are your thoughts about the reaction to the book?
The number of times I’ve read ‘he doesn’t admit to any mistakes’ – I mean, the first half of the book is me saying ‘I was wrong about this, I was wrong about that.’

The chapters covering your time at County Hall cover some territory which City Hall followers would find familiar – an Olympic bid by your predecessor, democratic control over the Met…
Tony Benn’s grandfather was leader of the London County Council, demanding cheaper fares for working men and democratic control over the Police. All this stuff goes round and round again and doesn’t get resolved.

We’re still arguing about the Government’s elected [Police] Commissioners, my god, they were discussing this 120 years ago!

Earlier today i was at Crossrail, it’s all going ahead but it was first proposed in 68, 69, and it’ll finally open in 2018. I started trying to persuade the Labour Government in 2000, it took until 2007.

You look at where we are now, the public transport system is completely full. There has to be a big increase in capacity, Crossrail will help but you need Crossrail 2, Crossrail 3, DLR extensions, trams.

You need a tram from Camden down to Brixton and Peckham because even once they’ve finally upgraded the Northern Line it still will be completely heaving with people.

So how do we speed up the decision making process in London?
I’m exploring with Ed Miliband and Ed Balls what you do. To build 50,000 homes a year for ten years you need something like £50bn.

Clearly you’ve got to find a way of getting that and one of the things I’m looking at is could you establish a London investment agency which would borrow money from the bond markets to build these things so that you have a revenue stream of fares and rents.

You’ve also got the value of the assets you’ve constructed, would this be attractive for pension funds? I mean, if I was managing my own pension funds I’d much rather invest in investment than the stock market.

If you had the misfortune to become of pensionable age as the stock market suddenly crashed recently you lost out for the rest of your life. So I think we need to look at ways of gearing our policies towards longterm investment and less about short term speculation.

in 2000 you offered Trevor Phillips the chance to serve as your deputy and said you’d only serve a single term.

People who see you running for a third time may find it hard to see you voluntarily leaving the building. Would you really have stood down?
Initially I intended to keep my seat in Parliament, do one term as Mayor to set it up and then I’d expect to be in Blair’s Government. This was before I realised how awful it was going to be! So it was a genuine offer.

What differences could Londoner’s expect to see from a third term Ken Livingstone?
My first eight years as Mayor was about getting money out of Government, in my next term it’s going to have to be about prioritising the things that matter most which is actually keeping money in people’s pockets, keeping the police numbers up, the fares down, the council tax down.

I was persuaded in 1976 about monetarism and that you can’t borrow your way to a boom. I’m in favour of balanced budgets.

There’s two things you’ve got – one is to try and get the debts cleared that Boris has built up, the other is to keep the spending power in people’s pockets.

Whether it’s the council tax or the fares, if you’re taking money out of people’s pockets that’s money they’re not circulating in the economy.

The difference between four years of Johnson and four years of me is that Londoners will save £800 in fares. That’s money they will spend and recycle in the economy.

Some people would be surprised to hear you talk about keeping money in people’s pockets. If flies in the face of what is a popular perception of you.
There’s a lot in the popular perception about me that’s wrong.

What determined my approach to this was that first GLC administration I was in in 1973, totally derailed as interest rates went up just as they were having to borrow to recycle the housing debt they’d built up.

It sunk everything and it demonstrated to me that you can borrow for capital investment so long as you’re borrowing long term but you’ve got to be very careful about that. It’s got to be investment that generates growth otherwise you shouldn’t be doing it.

That money you’re proposing saving Londoners is, put another way, money you’re taking away from Transport for London. Do you have a strategy for driving down more costs?
Each year I set a target for savings in TfL and the Police and each year they achieved it.

There’s not the slightest doubt that we could save a lot of money by stopping all these secret agents sleeping with members of the Green Party and getting them back on the beat!

In any bureaucracy of that size there’s always drift. Things are efficient when they start and become inefficient with the passage of time.

When Londoners see TfL officials welcoming the money from Boris’s fare rises, is that a sign of them having the pressure lifted?
Every year I was Mayor TfL asked me to raise fares above inflation. It’s the standard initial response.

If you’re a bureaucrat running a big bureaucracy you want to have a cashflow that you don’t worry about. In these times you’ve got to make them sweat, you’ve got to make sure every penny is well spent.

TfL will be making spending assumptions on the basis that they’re going to get the extra money, aren’t you going to have to come in and scrap plans?
I’m sure TfL is making plans for what they’re going to do when I take over. They’re not stupid and the difference and the difference in minuscule in terms of the scale of that budget.

A five percent reduction in fares is hardly revolutionary and I’ve been cautious.

It’s very tempting to say ‘Boris has put fares up by 7%, I’ll cut them 7% in October’ but we’re saying 5% because when we plough through the budget and we’d gone for 7% we might have found in that final year there would be a deficit and I’m not prepared to take that risk.

And we haven’t allowed for any extra ridership to reduce fares, so if anything they’ll still be more of a surplus than we require.

So have you gone through one of your periodic reinventions? Are you now Cautious Ken the Elder Statesman?
I was always cautious!

In terms of running a machine, whether it was Lambeth’s housing department or the Mayoralty, you are dealing with other people’s lives and life chances and you just have to be responsible.

And so I’ve only taken risks over which I’ve been fairly confident like the Congestion Charge.

Does some of your challenge of getting back into City Hall rely on convincing people that what they think about you isn’t true?
Well if people believe what they’ve read about me in the papers then they’d never have voted for me for anything would they?

If you return to City Hall, how do you envisage your relationship with the other parties?
My intention is to include the Greens and the LibDems. I think you’d be mad not to have Caroline Pidgeon involved in helping run City Hall, and Jenny Jones.

And any Conservative appointments?
Hard to see that…they don’t share my agenda about increasing services.

If you do win you’ll inherit major changes to the way Police scrutiny works since you last sat in the Mayor’s chair. What are your thoughts on the changes?
I’ve argued all the way through that you shouldn’t have the Metropolitan Police Authority, the London Assembly should be the people who hold the Met to account.

The new system allows for the appointment of a Deputy Mayor for Policing who doesn’t have to be an elected Assembly Member. Have you had any thoughts about who you’d appoint?
My instinct is always to have the elected Assembly Members do those roles. I would be very surprised indeed if that person wasn’t an Assembly Member.

In actual fact it’s almost inconceivable.

Ken Livingstone: You Can’t Say That is published by Faber and can be ordered from