Ken Livingstone on overthrowing Boris
Time Out joins Ken Livingstone at Boris's first major public debate
He’s greeted like a homecoming hero. The moment I step out of Café Nero in Westminster with former mayor Ken Livingstone, the mob descends, slapping him on the back and high-fiving him. ‘Hi, Ken! When are you coming back?’, ‘Can I have your autograph?’
‘It’s not so bad in the morning on the tube, but if we’re out on a Saturday night, it doesn’t stop,’ says Livingstone, part sheepish, part smug kid, as he charges towards Westminster Central Hall, where tonight’s annual mayoral debate, ‘The State of London’, is about to kick off.
Livingstone’s far more relaxed than the last time I interviewed him in the run-up to May’s election – the result of which, he declares, felt like a ‘bereavement’. But he denies that life is more leisurely now. There’s the radio show (he begins a stint on LBC in July), the book (he’s writing his autobiography) and the kids, ‘adorable at the moment. I’m also putting things in place for 2012.’ Ah, the comeback. But there is talk that some in the Labour Party favour a new face for the 2012 election, such as Alan Sugar.
‘The last thing Labour needs is a candidate who doesn’t have that groundswell of approval. I’ve been active in London politics for years.’ He has pledged to attend all of Johnson’s monthly Question Time sessions, so it’s only natural he’s at tonight’s public debate.
The hall is packed with around 2,000 – mostly – young people (the theme is ‘Opportunities for young people’). ‘It’s Ken,’ a group of kids giggle as we sit down behind them.
But this is not Livingstone ’s show. Boris Johnson enters to a swell of applause. A similar welcome greets the panel: Ray Lewis, deputy mayor for young people, Munira Mirza, director of culture, and, ahem, former ‘EastEnders’ actor Ross Kemp. It all feels rather Hollywood.
Johnson kicks off by namedropping Plato before telling us, ‘No matter how funky we were – you can imagine how funky I was – we can’t help finding the behaviour of young people strange.’
The chair, Jeanette Arnold, from the London Assembly, takes questions, which roughly fall into two camps. The first is: ‘How can you make the streets safer?’ The second: ‘I work with deprived youths. Why has funding been cut?’
Johnson says: ‘People must feel it is absurd to carry knives.’ Lewis attributes the problem to ‘families that have failed to function as God intended,’ Mirza says it’s ‘up to community projects.’ Kemp thinks we need soldiers as role models.
What’s Livingstone ’s opinion of the Mayor? ‘Boris sees this as a stepping stone to getting back into parliament and succeeding David Cameron. But the Mayor must do what’s best for London.’
He rates Lewis as ‘imaginative’, and says he wishes he’d got him on board. Mirza, ‘is a complete catastrophe,’ he claims, pointing to the Rise festival, which was stripped of its ‘anti-racism’ message recently. ‘The Olympic memorandum was bizarre. [Boris insisted on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme that a key Olympic document relating to funding didn’t exist]. He’s been at two Olympic board meetings. I’d be surprised if he has any idea about who’s paying for what. City Hall must be chaotic.’
‘You’re creating criminals to provide employment! It’s a fucking hoax!’ screams a man, suddenly, from the gallery. He’s quickly hustled away by security. But a whiff of anarchy pervades the hall. Youngsters call questions out of turn, or heckle. ‘Wait your turn,’ scolds Arnold, who is fast resembling a riled headmistress. It’s beginning to feel like an unruly school assembly. As Johnson rants on about bringing back discipline in schools, you half expect him to pull out a whip and start cracking it at these badly behaved oiks over whom he’s now presiding. Our new Mayor looks as if he’d rather be anywhere else.
Livingstone, by comparison, is riveted. When I suggest we continue the interview somewhere quieter, he demurs, saying we might miss the ‘best bits’. But isn’t it a bit sad, this lingering around Johnson like a bad smell, plotting his progress? ‘I’m plotting his overthrow, not his progress,’ retorts Ken tartly. And with that he stalks off into the night – to take over ‘babysitting duties’.
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