With most reviews focusing on his relationships and children, I got the wrong impression
of what Ken Livingstone’s autobiography might be like.
The book’s title, ‘You can’t say that’, seemed particularly apt this week when some rather
humourless Tories in Hammersmith got upset when he said they should all be put in prison for their housing policies, adding ‘And if there’s any justice you will burn in hell and your flesh will be flayed for demons for all eternity’. Not noted for Paisley-like fire and brimstone views, and having himself been called every name under the sun by
Tories over the years, you would think even they would be able to spot a little rhetorical flourish. Ken is, after all, ‘wickedly droll and gossipy’ according to publishers. And it wasn’t him that compared the Government’s housing benefit policies to ‘Kosovo-style cleansing’.
The book tells the story of four decades of politics in London and Ken’s dominant part in it. Probably best identified by his maverick role in the Labour Party, his elevation of transport policies to the top of political agendas, his key role in the winning of the Olympics and the memorable way he spoke on behalf of all Londoners after the 7/7 bombings, Ken’s 40 year record in promoting better housing is less well-known.
But it is hugely impressive nonetheless. In Lambeth, in Camden, at the GLC and as Mayor, Ken has consistently supported – and more important, delivered – the building of more genuinely affordable homes, more family homes, and more mixed communities. He has campaigned vigorously against bad landlords and fought to make public housing more responsive to tenants – long before it became the vogue. He believed in proper housing strategies based on evidence and he fought for the resources necessary to implement them.
He became full time Chair of Housing in Camden in the 1970s and says he found it ‘exhilarating to be running something again’. He gives credit to council leaders Frank Dobson and Roy Shaw for finding the resources to support council housebuilding, pointing out that ‘we were building 2,000 new homes a year, at which rate families on the waiting list would all have been rehoused within a decade.’ And his other policy priorities were all about people and not just about courting political popularity: ‘I humanised the way we treated homeless families, cut the number of those in bed and breakfast to under 20 and passed empty homes to a short life housing association.’
Fast forward to his Election as London Mayor in 2000. The most common statement made about housing at the time was that the Mayor had few if any housing powers. But
a combination of the imaginative use of planning powers through the London Plan and genuine leadership brought housing towards the centre of his mayoralty’s achievements. His policies in favour of affordable homes made a huge difference to what was happening on the ground in London, changed the mind set of developers and social housing providers alike, and his ambition for the east end opened up huge opportunities for new homes in new communities in what was virtually a new city – given huge impetus by the winning of the Olympics.
Towards the end of his administration, before the forces of darkness took control of London, he tells the story of being summoned to meet Gordon Brown – with whom he had a few rows over the years – shortly after Brown succeeded Tony Blair. The story reflects the ambition of both to invest in new homes, to create jobs and to get growth through construction. He says: ‘Brown planned to build 3m new homes by ending Blair’s ban on building council houses. Giving me £5bn to build 50,000 homes and the power to draw up London’s Housing Strategy and decide where to build meant that this would be London’s biggest housing programme since the 1970s. Now I could stop boroughs agreeing housing schemes which had no affordable housing in them and insist on an increase in three- four- and five bedroom homes to 40 per cent of the total.’
Ambitious yet practical. Principled yet pragmatic. Housing policies that worked for the poorest but also worked for ordinary Londoners in all tenures. Understanding London’s needs and making London’s case at every available opportunity. And the occasional colourful phrase (rather like his opponent). Ken deserves to run London again and to end the complacency about housing that symbolises the Johnson years. And for people wanting a better idea about what makes Ken tick, the book’s not a bad read.
Ken Livingstone, ‘You can’t say that’, published by Faber and Faber