Ken keeps his hand in

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Normally politicians rejected by the voters tend to accept the verdict, but as Andrew Gilligan discovers, Ken Livingstone bucks the trend

ALONG a grey main road in the north London suburb of Manor House is a nondescript three-storey office building: a pretty long way, geographically and metaphorically, from that iconic mayoral testicle by Tower Bridge. But it is here, at "Woodberry", the regional headquarters of the Unite union, that Ken Livingstone has set up his City Hall-in-exile.

Like the Dalai Lama, another celebrated refugee worshipped by millions, Ken's new HQ is simple. His nine floors of Norman Foster- designed concrete and angled glass have given way to a small second-floor office with room for one desk and a little table. His Thames vista has gone, but he does have a view, from certain angles, of the Stoke Newington West Reservoir.

His 750 GLA functionaries are all working for Boris now. Ken answers his own phone these days.

Officially, the Manor House office is the headquarters of Progressive London, Mr Livingstone's new project, revealed here for the first time, to unite metropolitan Greens, Liberal Democrats and Labour against the forces of Toryism.

"We're looking for funding but it's not a party," says the ex-Mayor, who has been pounding the Commons corridors to drum up support. "The aim is to assemble coalitions around particular issues."

The real aim, almost certainly, is to assemble a coalition around a particular person with time on his hands and a burning desire to correct the grave error made by the electorate on 1 May. Manor House is the HQ of a campaign, even at this stage, barely disguised: Ken for London, 2012. But if Mr Livingstone wants it to be his Camelot, others – quite a few of them in the Labour Party – are hoping it will be his St Helena.

Normally in Britain, politicians rejected by the voters tend to accept the verdict. The last four general election losers, Neil Kinnock, John Major, William Hague and Michael Howard, all announced their departures within 24 hours of the polls closing. Ken, however, has never been one for convention.

Just 16 days after the result, press releases from a "spokesman for Ken Livingstone" were flying out. "Only three weeks into his Mayoralty Boris Johnson's call for no Mayor to be allowed to serve more than two terms shows he believes his administration is going to fail... he is manoeuvring to try to undemocratically prevent Ken Livingstone running against him in 2012," stormed one. "After only three weeks it is already evident his administration is going to be a shambles."

Roughly twice a week since, new denunciations of Boris's "inability to run London", his "alienating (of] environmentalists", "abandonment of flagship pledges" and the "heartless brutality" of his advisers have boiled into journalists' inboxes.

Recently, the flow has abated, perhaps because Mr Livingstone has an alternative outlet, a show on LBC radio. His first programme, on Monday this week, was largely given over to attacking his enemies and fending off callers who accused him of being "bitter".

"There's no real precedent in British politics for a defeated candidate to return from the dead like this," says Tony Travers, the London government expert at the LSE. "It's a tribute to his singularity and tenacity, but also to his lack of wider interests. It risks being seen as undignified. At the moment, it's looking as if he cannot come to terms with the election result."

Mr Livingstone himself admits to "real grieving" after he lost. "Everybody who was around me was devoted to me and they all thought it was the greatest tragedy for 50 years," he says.

So how does an ex-mayor spend his day? "I get up between six and seven, depending on the kids," he says. "But instead of rushing off to work, I wander off, have a cup of coffee and read the Guardian. After that, I either prepare for media work or I go back home and start doing the correspondence."

Livingstone has "about 15" commercial speaking engagements booked between now and Christmas, including trips to Dubai, Hong Kong and Shanghai. "I'm a prophet without honour in my own land but they still like me there," he says. There will be no corporate directorships, at least for the moment – "I don't necessarily think my presence on their boards would improve their share price."

One thing that's not going completely to plan is the much-talked-about book. "What I wanted to do was 200,000 words, start with the mayoral election and then the defeat," he says. "All the publishers want is my life growing up on war-torn bomb-sites, losing my virginity and the mayoralty only the last quarter – and they want 100,000 words.

They don't want to know about the minutiae of the congestion charge contract, they want the laughs. So I'm going to write it, or half of it, and then auction it to get the best price."

The real task, however, is getting the mayoralty back. He starts with the same line he's used in his previous media appearances – it's the party's call, he won't consider it until 2010. But pressed if he wants to be the Labour candidate in 2012, he replies: "Yes," and launches into a pretty explicit pitch. "I ran ahead of the Labour Party in every one of London's 630 wards," Livingstone says. "My vote increased between 2004 and now. I'd start with a quarter-of-a-million personal vote which has been built up over 20 years."

But you'll be pushing 67 by 2012. "It depends on whether you hate senior citizens," says Ken. The candidacy will be a one-member, one-vote selection, and Ken is pretty popular with the activists.

"Ken's life always repeats itself," says Andrew Hosken, his biographer. "If you look back to 1978, he predicted then that Callaghan would lose nationally and the mid-term backlash against a Tory government would put Labour in a good position to win the GLC in 1981. He thinks he can do the same again."

"It's a disaster," says one London Labour MP. "The fact is, Ken lost in May because he lost touch with significant parts of the electorate, he ran a misguided campaign based on trying to paint Boris as a monster, and he refused to accept the party's advice. Everything he has said since May shows he is repeating the same mistakes and he would go down to the same fate."

"I could support Ken in 2012, but it would depend who the alternatives were," says Unite's Steve Hart, who lent Livingstone his new office and played a major part in his 2008 campaign. "I'm not going to make up my mind at this point in time. A week's a long time in politics, a couple of years is even longer."

And even if Ken could return in 2012, says Tony Travers, he's jeopardising his chances by his present behaviour. "It's just too unremitting at the moment," Travers says.

"Everybody who wins an election needs to be given a period of grace. At the moment, it looks as if he's attacking the electorate for the decision they made. Even if he does have a long-term strategy to come back, a bit of quiet and accepting the result would be the best thing in the short term."

Boris is showing the first signs of impatience with his stalker and spoke at a Gay Pride reception last night of his "unrequited generosity" towards his defeated rival.

Why does he follow Boris around at the Assembly? Doesn't it look a bit dog-in-the-manger?

"Not with my happy demeanour," he says, laughing. "Look, Boris would love me to announce I was standing down. He could twiddle his thumbs and say, that's a quarter of a million personal votes (for Labour] I don't have to worry about."

One of Livingstone's Labour colleagues on the London Assembly begs to differ. "Ken had a good run but he needs to let go," he said. "The fact is, there are worse things to lose than an election – such as your dignity – and Ken is losing his dignity."