Ken Livingstone: the Snake in Labour’s Grass

The front cover of his 2011 memoirs shows Ken – who for years was paid handsomely by the Evening Standard to review some of London’s top restaurants – relaxing in a greasy spoon caff. He claims his childhood dream was to work in London Zoo, and in many ways he appears to have made it come true.


I first saw Ken in County Hall in 1974. I was having a cuppa with the veteran Housing Committee Chair Gladys Dimson, a mild yet effective Old Labour politician. Suddenly she whispered: “Don’t look now – but here comes the snake in the grass”. Ken had entered the room.

Nothing has happened since to make me think she had been wrong in her assessment.


Everything in his life and times has always been of Ken and for Ken. Now we finally have also have the ‘by Ken’. Reading “You Can’t Say That” is a weary trawl through over 670 pages of self-serving tedium. The author is clearly as media-obsessed as he is self-obsessed, appearing to have  read – and kept – every single newspaper reference to himself, for better or worse. He is also the kind of bully who accuses others of thuggery while always presents himself as the victim. The result is whinge rather than wit.

I chose two incidents of which I have considerable personal knowledge to give Ken’s account a reality check. The first was the infamous party attended by Ken, his then pregnant girlfriend Emma Beale and Emma’s best friend, my colleague Robin Hedges. It involved a violent row between Ken (who had been drinking) and Emma (who had been smoking). Robin came to her defence and ended up severely injured at the bottom of a stairwell. There followed an ambulance trip to A&E.


Ken claimed that Robin had “lost his balance”. Robin clearly remembers being helped to lose his balance by a shove from Ken. Ken then says Robin “asked us to issue a statement” insisting it was just an accident. Robin tells me he was put under enormous pressure, while in his hospital bed,  by Emma, first not to call the police and then to agree to a statement drafted by Ken and herself. Robin had – and has – no reason to lie, while for Ken it would have been a career killer. You do the maths.


The second incident involves another colleague, Oliver Finegold. I recommend anyone interested in a career in spinning, ducking and diving to read carefully pages 513 – 517.

What actually happened was that, after a City Hall reception to which the Standard had not been invited, Oliver asked Ken politely how the party had gone. Ken replied by asking if he was a “German war criminal”. After being told by Finegold that he was Jewish and offended by the remark, Ken said: “Oh, you’re like those concentration camp guards, then – only obeying orders”.

When the story broke Ken first tried to claim that Oliver had sworn at him. He had to abandon this vicious lie when a tape recording emerged.

In his book, he dismisses the entire exchange as light-hearted banter, and claims “I was exonerated” by the High Court. He got off on a technicality, but Mr Justice Collins emphasised:  “This decision is not an indication that, in my view, the appellant’s (Mr Livingstone’s) actions were appropriate. I’m quite clear they were not.”


Robin Hedges is now devoting himself to helping children in Cambodian orphanages. He tells me his biggest ever regret was to trust Emma, whom he considered a friend, and lie to save Ken Livingstone’s career. And when Ken states, as he did again today, that he has never met an anti-Semite in the Labour Party, I feel inclined to offer him a mirror.

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