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Politics

Ken Livingstone: “My mum didn’t think anyone would marry me”

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone on being bullied at school, losing to Boris Johnson – and how his family was ahead of the times

When I was 16 my main interests were collecting newts and looking at the stars through a telescope. I grew up in the 1960s when there was a lot of focus on humans going to the moon. If you’d asked me what I wanted to do, I’d say be an astronaut or be David Attenborough.

I went to a huge school in Brixton, with over 2,000 boys. There was a lot of bullying. I was always bouncing around and putting my hand up in class but I was insecure in other ways – I was the smallest boy in my year because I almost died when I was three. I didn’t catch up until I started work, when I finally put on some muscles. I was a very scrawny boy, and I wasn’t any good at sport. Which made me the boy most likely to be bullied.

In those days university was seen as something for the elite. I didn’t do my homework, I spent my evenings watching TV. This was a time when only one person in 20 went to university. In a school like mine that must have been about one in 100. No one I knew, except some of the teachers, had ever been to university. Broadly speaking, every boy left my school with the skills to do an apprenticeship, then get a job. I didn’t meet an unemployed person until I was in my early 20s. I got my first job as an animal technician when I was 17, and I thought I’d do that until I was 65.

In terms of education and reading, I see myself as self-taught. There weren’t many books in my house but now I surround myself with books. I started off reading about science and astronomy. I didn’t start really reading about politics until President Kennedy was assassinated, then a few years later I got into British politics.

If I met the teenage me now, I think I’d see someone vulnerable and a bit nerdy. I’d advise him to try going out with girls sooner than he did. But if you’re a teenage boy who likes collecting snakes and frogs and newts, not many girls want to spend time with you. My mum taught me how to cook in my mid-teens because she didn’t think anyone would ever marry me. The first woman I asked to marry me was another research technician and she said no because she was older than I was and in those days women didn’t marry younger men.

I think if you’re a politician it’s your job to lead, not reflect or follow the opinion polls.

My mum had been a dancer on the stage. She started in musicals when she was 14. My dad had been a merchant sailor for 20 years. My mum had worked with lots of gay men and lesbians and my dad had been on boats with Africans, Asians, Chinese… So there was no homophobia or racism in our house. And that was unusual in the 1950s.

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Also, my mum and dad were equals, there was no thought that my mum was the wife who would do what she was told. And this was in a time when a woman couldn’t open a bank account without written permission from her husband. So my family were about 20 years ahead of society in some of these matters. Anyone advocating equal rights for gay people then was seen as a threat to society. But I think if you’re a politician it’s your job to lead, not reflect or follow the opinion polls.

If I went back in time I would advise myself not to do all those interviews with the media when I became leader of the GLC [Greater London Council]. I agreed to them all at first then saw how distorted they were, so I stopped. Before I became leader the GLC was never in the news, so it didn’t occur to us to have a strategy for dealing with it. I didn’t even have a press officer. Then suddenly there was this wall of journalists to fight through. The poor guy from the Daily Mail was told he had to file six stories a day. It was only years later we found out Tory central office had met with the Tory papers on the run-up to Thatcher’s re-election and said, we want to talk about the enemy within, the Labour lefties threatening the British way of life. Funnily enough, quite like Cameron talking about Jeremy Corbyn today.

The most depressing thing about being London Mayor was losing to Boris in 2008. I’d just persuaded the Labour government to give me lots of new powers regarding London policing and transport, and Gordon Brown was going to give us £5bn to build council houses. None of that happened. Boris just ignored it all. So that was a tragedy. We were getting somewhere with Gordon Brown, who had refused to have a meeting with me until he became Prime Minister. I think he thought all these loony lefties in London were a threat to the party. He was never terribly focused on issues around sexuality or race. He was a very old-fashioned member, it was all class-based.

If I could go back, I’d tell the younger me not to give up his seat when he becomes Mayor. That way I could have stood against Gordon Brown when Tony Blair stepped down. And I might have beaten him. And we’d have had a very different response to the banking crisis, a much more rigorous crackdown. I wouldn’t have gone for austerity – we would have reduced the debt substantially by handling it the way Roosevelt handled the Great Depression in America. He spent billions building dams, motorways… He got people back to work, paying tax instead of claiming benefits. The economy would have started to grow.

I wish I’d had my children when I was younger. When I first got married [to teacher Christine Chapman] we never had any plans to have children. It was only after the big swing to the right – when I got kicked off Labour’s NEC with Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner, and realised the left was never going to take over the party – that I turned my attention to my private life.

If I could go back and relive any time, it would be 1973 when I got elected to the GLC. I was the second-youngest member, just 28 years old. I remember sitting at the meeting next to the Labour group leader, who was about 65. He was saying, all these old members, they don’t realise they have to make way for the younger ones. Little did he or I know I was going to be the next leader after him. Neither of us would have believed it. I just fell in love with it. This nerdy little working-class boy who dropped out of school and never went to university was suddenly able to do things.

Being Red: A Politics for the Future, by Ken Livingstone, is out now (Pluto Press, £12.99)

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