Through a slightly unexpected turn of events I found myself last week, in quick succession, swilling cocktails with new MPs at a Tory-leaning reception, followed the next morning by a Blueprint breakfast discussion with Ken Livingstone, aka Red Ken, former Mayor of London. Speaking apolitically, and in spite of the Tory reputation for throwing good parties, Ken was beyond doubt the more engaging conversationalist, and as a London -dweller, I don’t know how collectively as a city we were stupid enough to unseat him as Mayor in favour of Boris Johnson (even though I would recognise Johnson is clearly capable, highly intelligent and ferociously ambitious).
Livingstone speaks with a slight weariness that I suspect comes from spending a lot of time talking, and mostly with people he has never met before, but he is generously frank with his opinions. Although seemingly more at ease behind the microphone addressing the room than one-on-one over breakfast, he was funny and insightful and pithy in both contexts.
With a wealth of experience and knowledge regarding the running of London, he has in tandem with this a highly developed global perspective, with thoughts about where London is now and should be positioning itself, that seems a great deal more strategic than Boris’s approach. He is of course running to oust Boris at the next possible opportunity (2013), and is already dedicated to his campaign preparations. He’d had an early start – a Today Programme appearance (‘media, media, media’) to discuss his candidacy.
Conversation ranged from his opinion on the Labour leadership contest (‘Ed Balls is the only one ready to be Prime Minister – and people complain he’s a bully and a thug like that’s a bad thing in a PM’) to the budget (‘screamingly unfair’) to the decline of ‘accidental’ groping of young ladies by old men on the tube during rush hour (a real problem in the 70s, apparently).
Asked to speak about his city and a torrent of thoughts, judgments, opinions, predictions stream out. His speech, although not directly discussing architecture in the way architects like to do, revealed that as Mayor, and still now, the majority of his mental energy is naturally devoted to thinking about how to make London function well as a place to live and work: crucial to maintaining its global status. Hence the plans for high-rise clusters and high-speed cross-city transport links. He also said, if he could, he would declare independence for London. The capital on its own would rank at G18 out of G20. The divergence in politics between the capital (more radical) and provinces – the result of devolved administration in his view – might not make this such a strange idea.
He is an old hand who claims to enjoy going up against Humphries and Paxman (‘if you answer the question they let you speak, and if you aren’t prepared to answer the question you shouldn’t be doing the interview’), and in these times when the fashion seems to be for 40-year-old prime ministers, it makes a sobering change to hear from someone older and significantly wiser.
He is also one of the few politicians who seems to have made it through his career ideology intact, although admittedly his sharp tongue wasn’t very palatable to the Westminster machine. But surely this kind of safe pair of hands is what politics, London – with its potentially precarious future – and the country by association needs. Statesmen with practical experience of governing, commitment to what they believe, and a firm grasp on what is important to the people and place they represent.