You still can’t say it

Chris Gray reviews: Ken Livingstone, 'You can’t say that: memoirs', Faber, 2011,pp710, £9.99

Ken Livingstone: decent bloke

The ruling strata in our country have a time-honoured way of dealing with leftwing critics who speak unpalatable truths or make unconscionable proposals - they heap derision upon them. Nothing they can do is ever right. Vilification continues until the threat is extinguished. This treatment has been meted out, over the years, to Aneurin Bevan, Konni Zilliacus, Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn - and the two last-named continue to receive it.

It is thus neatly ironic that Ken Livingstone’s memoirs, which he brought out in 2011, are entitled You can’t say that. The title apparently arose out of an incident that occurred while Neil Kinnock was leading the Labour Party. Livingstone reports:

At my first meeting on the NEC we reviewed polling data about why we had done so badly at the polls, but unbeknown to committee members all the results relating to Kinnock’s poor polling figures were withheld. I worried that the sniffy attitude of the media towards Kinnock reflected a long-standing prejudice against the Welsh, but even in Wales I found many local members saw Kinnock as an embarrassment

Most Labour MPs feared we couldn’t win with Kinnock, but out of loyalty or ambition wouldn’t do anything about it. At a Tribune meeting I said we needed to talk about the standing of the leader, but they wouldn’t discuss the matter and, as we left the room, Clare Short said, “I agree with you, but you just can’t say things like that.”

The first time I raised it at an NEC meeting Kinnock wasn’t present and I was told there was no point in going down that road. The second time I raised it Kinnock was present, but this time I was shouted down by Blunkett, who blustered that what I was saying was outrageous. I found it bizarre that everybody knew Kinnock was a hindrance to winning the next election, but no-one was prepared to act, even though that meant another five years of Tory government (pp304-05).

Weekly Worker readers will be pleased to hear that the book is peppered with anecdotes of this kind. Another example:

… during the late 1950s and early 1960s all new Labour candidates were vetted by MI5, who then reported to Labour’s deputy leader, George Brown, and national agent Sarah Barker in a London restaurant whether the candidate might be a threat to national security … This secret vetting stopped after the 1966 election, but helps explain why most Labour MPs were so moderate (pp102-03).

And another example:

The home secretary was responsible for the Metropolitan Police, but this ‘oversight’ was carried out by just one civil servant, with the result that effectively the Met were a law unto themselves (p176).

Dear me, Knacker of the Yard will not have liked that one! There is more, but I won’t reveal all, as I don’t want to spoil things for those who haven’t read the book. However, I can’t resist this one:

I knew that if nuclear war was imminent the queen would sign an order suspending democracy and as leader of the GLC I could choose two other members and the three of us would be whisked to safety in a bunker in Essex along with the cabinet and royal family. There, I was to give ‘advice’ to the military commander administering London under martial law (p214. See also p215).

The book includes a section on the historical relations between the German Nazis and the Zionists, with references to Lenni Brenner’s volume Zionism in the age of the dictators. It is worth noting that Ken writes: “… the Labour Zionists cannot be blamed for not anticipating that Nazism would become the greatest evil in human history” (p222; for all the relevant text see pp219-23).

Another passage where Ken shows his objectivity is about the Falklands/Malvinas conflict in 1983:

Although the media claimed Thatcher’s re-election was a result of the Falklands war, the polls showed support for her government had started to increase before then, as Britain emerged from recession. I was appalled that so many young men lost their lives over the Falklands and believed the dispute should have been referred to the International Court. Thatcher knew she had no chance of winning such a case, given Britain’s illegal seizure of these islands, while people of Latin America were winning their independence from Spain, so she ordered the sinking of the Belgrano to sabotage the efforts of the US government to reach a diplomatic settlement (p231).

There is quite a lot of ‘inside dope’ on Tony Blair and the ‘Millbank Tendency’, as Livingstone christened them. There is also some amusing coverage of Ken’s election as mayor of London. His pugnacity is shown by the fact that he resigned his parliamentary seat at Brent East on becoming mayor, but warned the Labour Party that he would stand as an independent MP if they tried to impose a ‘Millbank’ candidate on the local party (pp426-27). He also records one success achieved by him as mayor - an increase in bus passenger numbers of 50% (with a parallel decline in car usage - p551). He also usefully quotes Albert Camus (via Bobby Kennedy) to the effect that “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice” (p591).

Tony Blair’s fabled capacity for winning elections takes a knocking on p665 - readers are referred to a book by Robert Worcester entitled Explaining Labour’s landslide.

Last, but not least, Livingstone records an encounter while canvassing, in which

One young man said he would only vote for me if I agreed to support Israel, right or wrong. As I wouldn’t ask anyone to support me, right or wrong, I declined (p134).

All of which goes to show that, from these memoirs at least, Ken appears a thoroughly decent man, despite not being a zealous Labour loyalist right or wrong - or, in other words, to use the phrase coined by the one-time political commentator, Alan Watkins, not being a “paid-up member of Thigmoo” (This Great Movement Of Ours).