Ken Livingstone: interview



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In the last of our series of interviews with the four main mayoral candidates, Time Out grills Ken Livingstone about affordable capital housing, those accusations of corruption and offering Boris Johnson a job at City Hall

  • Ken Livingstone: interview

    Ken Livingstone

  • There’s no kind way of putting it: Ken Livingstone looks shattered. His face is so creased with tiredness, I want to tell him to skip the interview and get 40 winks. When our photographer suggests that he pose for a portrait, he groans, puts his head in his hands and mutters, ‘I always look like a prat in portraits.’ But, as the interview progresses, his answers gather pace; explaining the cut and thrust of his policies seems to give him energy. When it’s time for the photo session, he’s game for anything. It’s a reminder that this man has breathed London politics for 30 years – it’s hard to imagine what he’ll do if he wakes up unemployed on May 2.

    It’s been a difficult campaign. Why do you think you’ve been doing badly?

    ‘When Boris announced he was standing, everyone said “This is a joke.” I said, “This is the most formidable opponent I’ve ever faced.” The key thing is, he has the recognition that usually only pop stars have. And he makes people laugh.’

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    Ken at Time Out's mayoral hustings (© Jonathan Perugia)

    Maybe people are ready for a laugh?

    ‘People think he’s a laugh, but now the debate has really got going, the real issues about running London are finally emerging. The Mayor has £13 billion to spend every year, employing 105,000 staff, plus a £39bn transport investment programme over the next ten years. The Mayor elected on May 1, before they go on summer holiday, has got to work out exactly the form in which we’ll re-draw the Metronet contracts [for tube maintenance] and decide the best mechanism to build Crossrail. Make the wrong decisions, and you could end up taking billions out of taxpayers’ pockets.’

    Why have your attempts to get that message across failed?

    ‘It’s the most nervous time in the global economy since the early ’90s, the Labour Government is going through a sticky patch and there’s been a vicious 17-week campaign by the Evening Standard, which has set out to say that I’m a crook, I’m tired, I’m old and I do dodgy deals. What’s remarkable is that Boris and I are still neck and neck.’

    But the Evening Standard’s campaigns have been enormously damaging.

    ‘Not a single member of my staff has been arrested or even been interviewed by police. We all know Andrew Gilligan: David Kelly would be alive today if Gilligan had not “sexed up”, to use his own words, the interview with David Kelly.’

    But the fact is, the last ICM poll showed that only 28 per cent of people thought you were honest.

    ‘This is very annoying. Our problem is that, in London, we have a monopoly: there’s only one for-sale evening paper.’

    But it has left a whiff of corruption around your administration.

    ‘It’s been the most honest and transparent administration I know. One of my staff has had to resign for not declaring a freebie trip to Nigeria and one has had to resign for salacious emails [Lee Jasper]. In the past three national governments, everyone was mired in scandal. Boris started employing Gilligan on The Spectator, he held a “Save Andrew Gilligan” dinner for him. Now Gilligan’s returning the favour. Also, whoever is elected on May 1 will have to award the new distribution contract for the Metro newspaper [owned by Associated Newspapers, which also owns the Evening Standard]. This is tens of thousands of pounds of pure profit.’

    Gordon Brown hasn’t spent much time on your campaign. Are you afraid dissatisfaction with Labour is tainting you?

    ‘Gordon came down at the early stage of the campaign and was embarrassingly glowing about me. We share a perception: I don’t think the Tories have changed at all. It’s just that Cameron and Osborne are better looking than Hague and Howard. The Labour Party has poured money into London. We’ve received £39bn over ten years for transport, £2bn coming in for a major new sewer system, £4bn that the Mayor has to spend to build 50,000 affordable new homes, £79m going towards youth provision – and that’s before the Olympic investment.’

    The City has done very well under you – but it has fuelled the housing boom that has left poorer Londoners much worse off. How can you assure the average Londoner you have their interests at heart?

    ‘This is not the world I would have created. I fought 25 years ago to save manufacturing jobs in this city, and we lost. The jobs we have got are in finance and business services. You can say “We don’t like this” or “As many Londoners as possible should be able to access the jobs that are here.” I’d love to be able to have a local income tax, but I don’t have that power. So we do other things, like abolish fares for kids, and extend the pensioners’ travel pass. The reason we have a housing crisis is because there’s been an end to council house building. We’ve persuaded the Government to give the Mayor’s office the power to devise a housing strategy and to increase funds to £4bn. We’ve got more money to spend on housing than at any time in the past 40 years.’

    You’ve made getting 50 per cent affordable homes in new developments a priority. Are there any developments that are 50 per cent?

    ‘You set the target at 50, but there will be sites that are expensive because they’ve got polluted soil or difficult access. Boroughs such as Wandsworth, Barnet and Westminster, at 10 or 11 per cent each, drag the figures down. On sites such as the Candy brothers’ development at Chelsea Barracks, you have to say, “You’re not getting away with this, it’s got to be 50 per cent”.’

    In the new development on Bethnal Green Road, there are just 34 three-bed flats for local families, out of 360 homes. The new Coin Street tower in Lambeth has no affordable housing.

    ‘My recollection is that the Bethnal Green site is 35 per cent affordable housing. That’s one of those sites where we’ve looked at the figures and you can’t get any more than that without the scheme not being viable.’

    But your policy is inconsistent. You’ve lambasted Tory boroughs for not hitting affordable homes targets, but given other developers the nod.

    ‘We have an independent financial toolkit applied to every scheme. Developers have to prove if the scheme isn’t viable for 50 per cent. At the Coin Street development, you’re getting a swimming pool for local people, so you are bringing a community facility in. That’s the trade-off you make.’

    Surely you can’t trade hundreds of new homes for a swimming pool?

    ‘You can’t have endless housing without green space, playing facilities and swimming pools. The pool is a huge benefit for one of the most deprived white working-class communities in London. There’s another big scheme out at the Royal Docks where we’ve gone for 25 per cent affordable housing but will have a world-class aquarium that will bring a million tourists a year to Newham. That borough has the highest level of unemployment in south-east England, but if you can bring in tourists, you’ll generate jobs there.’

    Why did you support the Met Commissioner Ian Blair over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes?

    ‘Because I don’t think he did anything wrong. From the moment Ian Blair was appointed, the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and parts of the Tory Party have had him in their sights. They don’t want a chief of police who’s pushing an agenda on lesbian and gay rights, or getting more black people in the force, they want a good old-fashioned copper who goes out there and beats everyone into their place.’

    But you are remarkably uncritical of him in what was an exceptionally badly handled operation.

    ‘It really isn’t the Mayor’s job to be critical of the commissioner. The only power I have is in setting his budget. The Mayor and the commissioner have to work together. If I start slagging him off, then that relationship is dead.’

    But don’t you also have to stand up for Londoners?

    ‘Londoners have never been more supported by the police. We’re starting to see a force that has more women and more ethnic minorities. I remember what the police were like 25 years ago. They were like an occupying army in places such as Brixton and Tottenham, and the attitude of the commissioner was “keep the lid on the ghetto”. Now you’ve got a commissioner who recognises you can only police by consent.’

    Procedures such as stop and search are still disproportionately aimed at the Muslim and black communities.

    ‘About 40 per cent of policemen have been in the force for less than five years. If you’ve got someone who is just out of Hendon [police training centre], they’ll stop and search wrongly the majority of the time. If you’ve got a guy on the beat for ten years he’ll get it right most of the time. We’re working on a hand-held detector which will show if a knife or gun is there.’

    You spend £100m a year on publicity. Why?

    ‘We have a budget of £11bn a year. How many firms with a budget of £11bn spend that little on advertising? We have 13 press officers at City Hall, that’s the number we need to deal with all the phone calls the press make. In February, when I put up my budget, the Tory group at City Hall put up a Tory alternative and they included getting rid of loads of press officers, stopping The Londoner [the Mayor’s newspaper], and all these bits and bobs that Boris goes on about. The difference was two per cent. If a Tory budget had been passed, council tax would be 11p a week less for an average council-tax payer.’

    If you are re-elected will you offer jobs to any of the other mayoral candidates?

    ‘Brian [Paddick] is struggling a bit with this transition from policeman to politician, but he’s visibly growing in that. I’d want Siân and Brian definitely, and Boris, if he’s interested, in jobs where they’d get a better understanding of city government and how it works.’

    What would Boris do?

    ‘For Boris, clearly not something where he disagrees with me. His weakness has been that he’s only run a small magazine. If you’re going to run London, you need to get a sense of the scale of bureaucracy and decision-making.’

    Seriously, what could Boris do?

    ‘He could have a place taking forward the skills and employment strategy. If I can do anything to generate more competent Tories, I will do.’

    That’s very generous of you.

    ‘I’m a generous and loving man.’
    Read our interviews with the other three main mayoral candidates

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