Being Read at Headingley LitFest: Being Red: A Politics for the Future by Ken Livingstone
You usually introduce a famous national speaker with “Needs no introduction” ... but perhaps Ken Livingstone does, as in the flesh he is well-mannered, unflappable, polite and absolutely nothing like many in the (Tory) media would have you believe from their campaigns over the years of 'monstering' one of Britain's most successful and proudly left-wing pragmatic politicians. As he said, “Demonising people sells papers.” As it costs at least £100,000 to sue, the libel laws work only for the rich. He is not.
Coming up from London for the day, Ken treated a packed lunchtime audience in Leeds University Union to a tour de force, showing his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the Labour Party, his wide reading and his grasp of 'It's the economy, stupid' (Clinton campaign slogan, Bill not Hillary, in 1992). He has edited and produced the 'Socialist Economic Bulletin' since 1983. He really knows his stuff.
He answered questions on his early influences growing up in post-war London where going out to work after leaving school (to become a lab technician in a cancer hospital) was what you had to do to support the family. He became more and more involved in Labour politics just as many party members were leaving in disillusion with Harold Wilson. As he says, “Not many rats join a sinking ship.”
Promotion came rapidly and he ended up at the age of 35 in 1981 the youngest Leader of the Greater London Council, governing 8 million Londoners before also becoming the last Leader in 1986 as the democratic stratum of local government was ruthlessly abolished by Margaret Thatcher, principally to get rid of him!
He worked hard to become MP for Brent East and finally the first Mayor of London in 2000, famously only just beaten in 2008 by his nemesis Boris Johnson during the height of the unpopularity of the then Brown government that followed the Blair years and the Iraq war fallout.
|Ken Livingstone and Sally Bavage Photo by Richard Wilcocks|
He is modest about the extraordinary list of his achievements and much more keen to discuss with the audience his suggestions for how to rebuild the Labour party, based on his knowledge of history and theapplication of economics. He calls himself a 'numbers nerd' in his longer memoir 'You Can't Say That' but his sharp focus on using data not cant, economic theory not political sophistry, common senses not windbaggery are exactly what Jeremy Corbyn and the rejuvenated Labour Party need now.
Despite a sore throat, he cheerfully kept the audience gripped with his answers on issues such as Trident, housing, inward investment, terrorist threats, the need for more regulation of landlord sharks and rip-off privatising companies, transport, tax avoidance, attacks on trade unionists (“The right to strike pre-dated the right to vote”), the EU referendum …. Add in many short asides on Boris (Johnson), Yanis Varoufakis, John McDonnell (his budget leader for the GLA who always balanced the books), religious nutty wings, TTIP trade agreement, local council cuts…and it is obvious that Ken has a very clear analysis on what we can collectively do to counteract these massive and accelerating attacks on the standards of living of ordinary people. Several times he raised spontaneous applause, not least when he cited the evidence for his statement that “The Public Sector does things better” where his examples included the NHS and the BBC.
Two key suggestions we could all take away:
Work with and promote Momentum, the movement that supports Jeremy Corbyn in refuting some of the malicious nonsense thrown his way as well as spreading ideas and information;
engage with issues that are supported by the Labour Party
The queue for signing his very readable book was long; what we all took away was a conviction that someone is talking sense, speaks our language and will fight to get the truth across despite what will be redoubled efforts to smear him, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and anyone else who might claim to Being Red.
Thanks are due to Leeds University Union for our first partnership event with them as part of their Speak Up initiative, to Blackwell's bookshop for supporting our event, to the Left Book Club for publishing Ken's sensible words and not least to three lovely Leeds University volunteers who came along to help us manage such a large meeting: Antonia Panayotova, Helen Woodhouse and Megan di Luzio.
The Core of Politics
On March 8 people in Leeds had the chance to attend an event in which Ken Livingstone was to present his book ‘Being Red: A Politics for the Future’ which proved to be very engaging.
As Sally Bavage emphasised, it was especially suitable to have him on the International Women’s Day considering his stance, once almost revolutionary, on women’s rights.
While the talk was very much linked to the book – a must-read for everyone interested in politics and especially in an insight of Labour’s history and future – it was in this broader question of what the most crucial element of politics, its core, should be that the talk was to continue.
Ken went through his history from a working class man to politician mentioning the very idea that prompted his political involvement – that one should not wait around for things to change but rather go ahead and try to change them, i.e. as Gandhi said ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world’.
Then the public was carried through critique of past and present politics, the role of media, social environment changes and so on. However, I would like to point out here two things: his notion of the essence of politics and the audience engagement in the last 15 minutes which turned out to be about 40 because of the audience’s never ending interest.
For Mr. Livingstone the essence of politics was the economy and especially infrastructure. And in his being the ‘change you wish to see in the world’ he implemented this essence. In his years as a mayor, an economist was a central figure in his politics – visiting him two or three times a week until he had a sufficient understanding to develop on. And the examples of the Olympics, public transport development, better housing opportunities and the jobs they created, provided a good argument that infrastructure is the backbone of economy and therefore it should be a central issue in politics.
And with the first audience question of what should the foundation of an economic reform be, it was not surprising that the answer was infrastructure investment. Then, when he was asked about how to best oppose Nuclear weapons and the Trident programme, he again linked his answer to economy, pointing out that if people realize how many other things can be tackled with the money that Trident will swallow (i.e. around £100 billion) they might see it in a different light. With this money people can be better protected by investment in police services or live in a more stable economy with the money being invested in infrastructure… or both.
Then, next emerged the central present-day issue of the EU referendum. Again his focus was on economy. According to his knowledge, which was incredibly extensive and up-to-date, Brexit can prove a devastating change for the UK economy. Therefore his stance was on staying in until someone can prove him ‘we will be better off with leaving’. He did agree that there is need for democratization and organizational changes within the EU, but while in the EU since being part of itis of crucial importance for the UK economy.
As far as I am concerned, there are other factors at play for each of the issues, but I do agree that economy is extremely important and should be central in politics. But how would you comment? Do you think it should be as central as it is for Ken Livingstone? Or do you think there are other things more important in politics?
Clear, concise and honest. There's a simplicity in old Labour analysis that still holds true. Ken Livingstone is an honest politician in my view and gives us (particularly his own generation of which I am one) a rekindled enthusiasm that change can happen.
I travelled from Cornwall especially to attend this event. It was well worth the time and effort! A fascinating event that illuminated aspects of Ken's personality that were new to me. A well moderated and engaging event. Thank you and well done.
Great event, really interesting topics and great question and answer session that gave further insight.
Very enjoyable and insightful. Great Q&A session. Enjoyed and liked ...???... questioner format. Very motivational and hopeful.
Great speaker, well facilitated. As I work, early evening would be a better time and fixed time slot so can plan with certainty.
Good format - interview affective. Good range of questions. Chaired well. Ken v. clear, informative, open and hopeful.
Thank you. I have never been to anything remotely political. I really enjoyed the event. It was really well run, good questions and I learned a lot. Must attend something from 'the other side'
A very cordial welcome from Richard Wilcocks. Good work Headingley LitFest. Hope you are able to continue with your worthwhile projects. Very interesting, wonderful flow of thoughts by Ken Livingstone. Thank you. He should be a mentor for 'think-tanks'
Article didn't actually say where you could get tickets - had to google to find out! V. interesting talk.
Interesting talk, worth coming to. Would have liked to hear more about the present and future and less about the past. Fair price but event information on line was very poor - lack of times/format etc..
Excellent event - great to see a hero in real life!! Seriously, very well co-ordinated and organised so thank you very much
Really great to have a political speaker as part of the festival. More next time please, though larger venue next time please and advertise to 6th forms within Leeds/Headingley areas
A great opportunity to hear a great mind and dedicated lefty. Very well chaired.
Provocative, educational, thought provoking and inspiring. Thank you.
Great. Superb opportunity to hear Ken L
Very interesting, glad I came.
An excellent and straightforward speaker
Well organised and very interesting - more please!
Very interesting and worthwhile event.
Excellent, interesting, stimulating event.
Very interesting and down to earth. Glad I came
A great event. Thank you. Well chaired, Sally.
Very interesting and hope generating
Excellent event - very interesting and thought provoking
An interesting and thought provoking event. Excellent. Poor layout - would have been better if I could have seen the speaker.
Why were the mikes not used - both for speaker and chair and for questions? Good event though!
Very informative and inspiring. Thanks!
Terrific opportunity to hear from a passionate individual. Candid succinct and sincere.
Really good to hear Ken. Well done on getting such a high profile speaker.
Good well organised. The room could have been filled twice if there was more advertising about the event. But it was a great small venue, people were able to hear clearly and ask questions. Ken is very knowledgeable.
It's been worthy experience to listen to ex-politician 'live' lecture. Question time was more interesting ...?... his book was written?) Thank you.
Well worth coming enjoyable and interesting event. But the event is advertised at £8 but you can only book on line with a 50p surcharge - just charge £8.50
PA system a bit disappointing. I could hear Ken okay but there was a distracting background noise. Overall - fab! Great to see Ken.
Thank you for organising this.
Fascinating and refreshing.
Excellent, enlightening event. Thanks.
Really good event - thanks.
A very interesting conversation with Ken with Sally Bavage interviewing him about the current state of politics
A very interesting and lively thought-through presentation from the chair and the author. Rare to get such an opportunity here in Leeds.