Andrew Whitaker: Red Ken and how to be Labour leader

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone arrives at a Labour party leadership rally for Corbyn in August. Picture: GettyFormer London mayor Ken Livingstone arrives at a Labour party leadership rally for Corbyn in August. Picture: Getty
Former London mayor Ken Livingstone arrives at a Labour party leadership rally for Corbyn in August. Picture: Getty
Firefighting, infighting and a hostile media – Livingstone could teach Corbyn a thing or two, writes Andrew Whitaker

Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell have just had their most turbulent period since the election of the former as Labour leader in September.

After an impressive enough start with the politically astute tactic of using Prime Minister’s questions to direct questions from the public to David Cameron in the Commons and a solid speech at party conference, the leadership team lost a bit of ground due to confusion over its position on a Commons vote on government spending rules.

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McDonnell had the good grace to admit that Labour’s “U-turn” on the vote on the Conservative government’s fiscal compact, requiring governments “in normal times” to spend less than they get in tax, was “embarrassing” in what was a rare and creditable admission by a senior politician.

The shadow chancellor had a strong case when he said the charter was a “puerile political stunt” from George Osborne and “an instrument for imposing austerity on our community unnecessarily”.

But it was a problem given that McDonnell had made such a play at party conference of stating that Labour would back the charter, something that did seem to be at odds with the principled anti-austerity stance of Corbyn’s leadership.

So the episode was not a great one for Corbyn’s leadership and doubtless gave comfort to his enemies waiting for him to slip up, but nor was it a catastrophic one for him and McDonnell. The debacle could also serve as a useful lesson on how to sharpen up in key areas while there is still time to do so.

Taking a look at the political life of former London mayor and Greater London Council leader (GLC) Ken Livingstone offers a copybook example of how to cope with being under siege and constant firefighting - something that Corbyn and John McDonnell will have known would be their lot from day one.

Livingstone, who was once dubbed “Red Ken” by sections of the media, offers such a worthwhile case study for the Labour leadership partly because he’s the only living example of an overtly left-wing politician to win a major UK election - his two victories in the London mayoral elections in the years 2000 and 2004.

But it’s when one goes back to Livingstone first coming to prominence in the 1980s, when he led the GLC, that may offer the best lessons.

Ironically McDonnell was initially a key part of Livingstone’s set-up that ran the UK capital at the height of Thatcherism, when he served as the GLC deputy leader before the two men had a parting of the ways over a budget issue.

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Livingstone’s stint as GLC leader from 1981 to 1986 probably serves as one of the most definitive examples of a politician being under siege from hostile sections of the media and parts of his own party in the way that Corbyn is experiencing.

The Labour leadership of the GLC was accused by some opponents of being pro-IRA, something that’s already been directed at Corbyn simply for his past attempt to initiate peace talks with Sinn Féin and something that John Major’s government would do in a less public way some years later.

There were also attacks on Livingstone for his backing for lesbian and gay equality - a cause that in the 1980s was rare for any politician to publicly support - with accusations aplenty of him being a leader of the “loony left”.

Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper once called Livingstone the “most odious man in Britain” - perhaps a taster of what may be directed at Corbyn as election time draws nearer.

Probably only the late Tony Benn has had similar levels of vitriol directed at him, with the Sun on the day of the 1983 general election running a feature headlined “Benn on the couch: a top psychiatrist’s view of Britain’s leading leftie”. It claimed he was “a Messiah figure hiding behind the mask of the common man … greedy for power and willing to do anything to get it.”

In truth attempts to dig up any dirt on Livingstone never really got anywhere and he ended up being simply caricatured for his keen interest in amphibians, leading to many media references to “Ken and his love of newts”.

Yet by the mid 1980s Livingstone was to become one of the UK’s most popular politicians, with a media profile unlike any other council leader.

Margaret Thatcher’s government would eventually abolish the GLC at the height of its popularity against the backdrop of policies such as Fares Fair - that saw London Underground and bus fares in the capital reduced before the policy was declared illegal by the courts.

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Although ultimately unsuccessful, Livingstone mobilised opinion against abolition with the use of advertising in political communication, featuring a poster of the GLC leader Livingstone with the words: “If you want me out, you should have the right to vote me out.” It was an effective attempt to portray Thatcher’s decision as anti-democratic.

Livingstone, quite unusually for a politician, also managed a Lazarus-style comeback, after a lengthy wilderness period as a backbench Labour MP, when he was elected as the first mayor of London as an independent after Tony Blair moved to prevent him standing as the official Labour candidate. In 1990, some years after the demise of the GLC, Kate Bush even wrote a flattering song about Livingstone titled “Ken”.

The song was used as a theme tune for an episode of the comedy series The Comic Strip that made a humorous spoof in a Holywood style of the left-wing politician’s battle with the Tories, with Livingstone’s character played by Robbie Coltrane.

For the record the Kate Bush song stated “Ken is the man that we all need, Ken is the leader of the GLC.”

Joking apart though, the career of Livingstone could offer genuine guidance for Corbyn in overcoming difficult periods that all politicians face and building alliances to see off any internal challenges, which may yet come from Labour MPs.

In his book “If Voting Changed Anything They’d Abolish It”, written - again like the Kate Bush song - in the aftermath of the demise of the GLC, Livingstone writes about his almost daily battles to remain in power and to head off attempts to oust him both within and outwith his own party. This is something that may be highly relevant to Corbyn.

Livingstone’s folksy-style campaigning approach was one of never being afraid to miss a media opportunity - something Corbyn’s camp should take note of following a campaign visit to Scotland when his team appeared to be petrified of any contract with the press.