Ken campaigns hard to regain London mayoralty
LONDON DERIDED as “Red Ken” by his opponents on the right but loved by many Londoners after decades of activism in their city, Ken Livingstone may be fighting his last great political battle as he campaigns to regain control of the British capital in its Olympic year.
Livingstone, 66, is one of two British politicians known nationally by their first names. The other is Boris Johnson, 47, the Conservative who beat Livingstone in London’s 2008 mayoral election, ending the Labour veteran’s eight-year tenure.
Livingstone will try to take City Hall back from Johnson on Thursday in an electoral contest of big personalities.
“Boris is a very formidable campaigner,” Livingstone told Reuters after a speech at a campaign rally that ranged from granular detail on housing policy to a grandiose claim that this election was “about changing the direction of all humankind”.
Johnson could well return the compliment to Livingstone, a great political survivor who first rose to fame in the early 1980s when as leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) he did battle with then Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In one memorable tactic, he taunted Thatcher with a giant banner showing the rising number of unemployed people in London. The banner was stuck to the front of County Hall, then home to the GLC, which sits across the Thames from parliament.
Thatcher scrapped the GLC in 1986, but the conflict gave Livingstone lasting kudos with many Londoners.
He confounded his critics by winning office as a member of parliament (three terms from 1987 to 2001) and as London mayor (two terms from 2000 to 2008), despite their best efforts to write him off as a left-wing extremist from a bygone era.
Asked at his rally whether the “Red Ken” label irks him, Livingstone was indifferent.
“I really don’t care how my enemies define me. My concern is, can we get another thousand buses on the streets of London over the next four years? If that defines me as some Stalinist, that’s fine,” he told Reuters.
As well as his political longevity, Livingstone’s colourful personality has ensured that he has made a mark in public life.
He has been teased for a lifelong love of amphibians, especially newts, but far from letting this rile him he has written with pride and emotion of this hobby.
“I’ve never forgotten that day in 1958 as I watched my first newt gracefully swim around the tank, and so I’ve dug a large pond where hundreds of them congregate to breed every spring,” he wrote in a 2010 article in the Guardian newspaper.