Red Ken is among friends at Swindon Festival of Literature

10 May
DSC_2783  Ken Livinsgtone at Swindon festival of Literature

©Calyx Ken Livingstone at the Swindon Festival of Literature

“The reason I keep getting into trouble is that I’m always saying what I believe.”

At the height of KenGate (are we calling it KenGate?) I saw a funny tweet, retweeted by Swindon Festival of Literature author and comedian Dom Joly. It imagines Ken Livingstone on Mastermind:

“Your name?”
“Ken Livingstone.”
“Your specialist subject?”
“Not bringing up Hitler.”
“Your time starts n––“

There was a time (last week) when it seemed that Ken couldn’t stop talking about Hitler. So how long would it be before he brought up Adolf again? Within the first minute? Not at all? Read on to find out!

Before the Greater London Council leader, unsuccessful candidate for the Labour Party leadership, and twice mayor of London (once as an indie, once for Labour) had even made it to the stage, festival director Matt Holland was reminding the audience how lucky they were to be there.

“You’re so sensible; you know a good thing when you see it,” he told a capacity audience at Swindon Arts Centre (the event was a sell-out even before KenGate) going on to tell the crowd how members of the public, and of the national press, had been begging or demanding to be let in.

“The national press rang. I told them tickets were for festival followers first,” relayed Matt, to a cheer from the crowd.

There was more cheering when Ken took to the stage (I’ve not been at another festival event this year where the speaker was cheered. Certainly Vince Cable wasn’t cheered).

DSC_2791  Ken Livinsgtone at Swindon festival of Literature

©Calyx Ken Livingstone at the Swindon Festival of Literature

Being Red

Ken was in Swindon to talk about his new book, Being Red.

He told the audience that when he left the office of Mayor of London in 2008 (it was not the last time the crowd would hear the phrase “when I lost to Boris…”) publishers were queuing up to print his autobiography. Until, that is, they read it. Then all but one backed out, and libel lawyers for the eventual publisher, Faber, sent a 26-page letter asking him to back up his wildest claims.

The resulting memoirs were called You Can’t Say That. All but one of his claims made it into print.

In 30 minutes, Ken rattled through his own manifesto, not holding back on people he doesn’t like: Rupert Murdoch, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Boris Johnson.

Some of the things he said will be reported later. Others will stay in my notebook, and in the memories of the audience. Unlike Faber, I do not have easy access to a libel lawyer.

And not once did he offer an opinion on Hitler, although he did talk about ‘media distortions’ and ‘smear campaigns’.

DSC_2880  Ken Livinsgtone at Swindon festival of Literature

©Calyx Ken Livingstone at the Swindon Festival of Literature

Red Ken’s manifesto

That manifesto comes from a realisation that his generation was the luckiest to be born when they were: jobs for life (despite growing up in a poor part of London he didn’t meet an unemployed person until he was 28), and guaranteed housing (even if there was a bit of a wait). “I predicted by now we’d be living in a Swedish social democratic heaven,” he said.

Instead, he’s building an extension to his house so his kids have somewhere to live. He calls this “a damning indictment of politics.”

The politicians while he was growing up were investing in infrastructure and a massive house-building programme, he said. “They got people into work and those people were paying taxes. How dim must George Osborne and David Cameron be? Investment is at its lowest level since the Second World War.”

He rattled through some statistics, showing how inward investment of GDP was in direct proportion to a nation’s economic success: Germany, the USA, Japan, China… all spending to create jobs and wealth. There were plenty of nods and mutterings of agreement from the audience sitting around me: Keynesian economists to a man and woman.

Conservative economic policy has “failed to produce a solution,” he said. “People are saying Jeremy Corbyn can’t win in 2020. But by 2020 people will have no illusions that the current strategy is failing.”

So, investment is key. He said that during his time as Mayor, London saw its biggest ever investment in public transport. He also agreed, with Gordon Brown, a £5 billion affordable house-building programme for the capital. But he lost the election to Boris, who did nothing about it.

“After the election, Boris took me out to dinner. He was looking for some tips. I told him about building homes to rent. He looked at me with shock, like I’d asked to sleep with his wife. For the Bullingdon Club clique, a home is something your parents give you.”

DSC_2865  Ken Livinsgtone at Swindon festival of Literature

©Calyx Ken Livingstone at the Swindon Festival of Literature

Being Ken

Manifesto laid out, Ken gave his audience an insight into being Ken. “What I put up with at the GLC dwarfs even what Jeremy Corbyn has had to put up with. All my life I’ve had to put up with distortions,” he said.

“My political rivals were spreading a rumour that I’d been sodomised by six men in succession at a gay orgy. That was a lie. It was only five,” he grinned.

“But 35 years ago journalists checked their stories and it wasn’t printed. Today they print the smears.

“The number of journalists in the UK has halved since Murdoch. The Times used to be the paper of record. Now I wouldn’t believe a word in it. It’s depressing.”

With the national press and half the Labour Party stacked against Corbyn and his allies, it is up to those of a Leftist persuasion to spread their ideas: via the internet, or campaign groups attached to specific issues, he said.

“We have a duty to leave our children with a better world.”

DSC_2769  Ken Livinsgtone at Swindon festival of Literature

©Calyx Ken Livingstone at the Swindon Festival of Literature

‘Kenundrums’ – the audience ask questions about Hitler (naturally) and other hot topics.

On Brexit

Ken voted to leave in 1975, which he said he now regrets. He supports the move to remain, but believes we should do away with “those ghastly commissioners.”

“If someone can prove to me that our economy would be better if we voted to leave I would vote to leave.”

On suspension from the Labour Party

“Well I have form. I was expelled by Blair then three years later the bugger came back and asked me to be Labour candidate (for London Mayor).”

Ken went on to address the question that had sparked controversy last week. To avoid misrepresenting him, I’ll quote him in full:

“In 1933 the Zionist movement, which represented about 10 percent of Jews in Germany,  signed a deal with Hitler, which meant that Germany’s Jewish population would be moved to what is now Israel. Hitler was very keen on that.

“The Zionists asked Hitler to pass a law requiring rabbis to give lessons in Hebrew, rather than German, and to pass a law that permitted the flying of only two flags: the Swastika and the blue and white Star of David.

“Hitler hated the Jews, the Zionists hated him, but they had a working relationship,” he said.

He went on to say that the wave of hysteria could have been avoided if journalists had checked their facts (the Haavara Agreement certainly existed, although whether it meant Hitler ‘supported Zionism’ is obviously open to interpretation), and if the controversy had not been stirred further by “embittered Blair MPs who want to get rid of Jeremy.”

And he said his party is not a home for antisemites. “If you’re a bigot you don’t join the Labour Party,” he scoffed.

On the State of Israel

“If I denounce the South African regime for being corrupt, no-one would call me a racist.

“The tragedy is that until the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, after decades of war, there was a chance of a peace deal. We’ve not had an Israeli Prime Minister that’s had the courage to seek such a deal since.

“What I want to see is Israeli children and Palestinian children going to school together; growing up together.”

Was Tony Blair the worst thing to happen to Labour?

Ken started with an anecdote about a dinner party, and Tony Blair’s political convictions, which I won’t repeat here (see: libel, lawyers, aversion to…).

“When he was applying to become party leader, he said he wanted to continue John Smith’s work. When Margaret Thatcher died, he said he wanted to continue her work. I wish he’d told us that when he was applying to be party leader.”

He conceded that Blair genuinely believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. “He was too keen to suck up to Bush. It was a mistake, but not a lie.”

Ken was, though, critical of the ‘approved lists’ of parliamentary candidates which closed the chance of being selected as a prospective MP to campaigners from the left, and on Blair’s reliance on focus groups.

“A leader has to lead, and Tony Blair did not lead, so I’m not sure you could call him Labour’s most damaging leader.”

On Donald Trump

“There is anger in the Western world as good jobs have been wiped out. This has led to the rise of parties like (left-wing) Syriza in Greece, the (far-right) National Front in France, and Trump in America.

“I was hoping Bernie Sanders would beat Hilary Clinton. But now you’ll have an election with two candidates that people don’t like.”

On the challenges facing Sadiq Khan as London Mayor

“Boris inherited schemes that I had initiated” (depending on who you believe, Boris bikes may have been Ken’s idea; while getting the Olympics was definitely a Labour victory from which the Conservatives benefited) “but Boris hasn’t initiated any schemes, so Sadiq won’t be inheriting anything. He has a lot of work to do.”

On moving up to the House of Lords

“I don’t think I’ve done anything to annoy Jeremy sufficiently for him to ask me to go there.”


Ken Livingstone was among friends at Swindon Festival of Literature, but even the patience of friends can be tested. Had the mayoral elections in London (or Bristol, Liverpool, Salford, or in council elections across the country) gone differently, there would have been those quick to pin the blame on the outspoken politician.

His reception might not have been as warm, nor the queue to have a book signed as long, as a result.

As it was, the speaker left the stage to loud applause, cheering, and at least one call of ‘We love you Ken’. 

Words: Peter Davison

2 Responses to “Red Ken is among friends at Swindon Festival of Literature”

  1. Tony Hillier 11th May 2016 at 9:09 am #

    Thanks for this excellent write up Chronicler.

    My ears were waterlogged-deaf last night so I could not catch all Ken’s words.

    Once again, Swindon Festival of Literature fills the gaps and brings us amazing events in the flesh.

    • Festival Chronicler 11th May 2016 at 10:00 am #

      Thanks, Tony.

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