Some might write an autobiography for money. Others for fame or a desire for popularity, to be better "understood." But there must also be a lot for whom writing a biography is a form of therapy. Ken Livingstone's autobiography You Can't Say That (Faber and Faber £25) comes under the latter category. I'm sure he felt much better for having written it. The result is a real doorstopper. The tome comes in at 710 pages.
The content includes some touching personal anecdotes. For instance he tells us how his defeat as Mayor of London four years ago made possible the addition of a family pet:
"My being around during the day meant Tom and Mia could finally have the puppy they wanted. Looking after Emma's sister's puppy for a week reminded me how much I'd enjoyed walking Mum's dogs as a teenager and so we got the children a seven-week-old yellow Labrador, which arrived just before Christmas. I lost the vote on what to call her, so she is Coco and not Cuba. Walking the dog once or twice a day meant I lost half a stone and Coco rapidly became a loved and loving member of the family rather than just a pet."
Yet the ratio of material is such that the book overwhelmingly alienates all but the most dedicated political obsessive from ploughing on. We keep going off at a tangent for a page or two to denounce someone or other – perhaps a figure from the 1980s who served on a GLC committee and who is long forgotten. Sometimes Livingstone conducts this score settling persuasively – although we have learnt to treat allegations from him with a certain scepticism. Yet in lashing out on such a scale the one thing the author establishes is his own bitterness and negativism.
It is probably the most self indulgent book I have ever read. The level of tedium is such that it is unlikely to make him much money or win him many votes. Rather than offer an outline to a publisher, Livingstone explains how he just wrote the thing. "That this was the right thing to do was clear when one publisher who had offered me an advance immediately withdrew the offer once they saw the manuscript," he says.
This book may actually lose Livingstone support. The very fact it is published adds to his feel as yesterday's man. His refusal to acknowledge mistakes – for instance over the cronyism of his administration at City Hall – does little to reassure. But there is also the extent he uses the book to attac his own comrades. In the past his independence from the Labour Party has been an electoral asset for him. But this year the polling suggests he is less popular than the Labour Party generally. If he could woo those who would be Labour supporters in a General Election to vote for him he would win.
So does he reinvent himself as a Party loyalist? No. I wonder, for instance, if Ken Livingstone will be spending much time campaigning alongside Labour MP Margaret Hodge in Barking. He records that during her time as Islington Council leader when he was GLC leader she proposed illegally refusing to set a budget. This was an idea Livingstone felt a bit extreme. In the end Islington Council didn't proceed with the wheeze although Lambeth Council did. She later opposed him becoming Mayor of London:
"Margaret Hodge wrote an article deploring my 'incompetence' which was rich given her record
of mismanagement in Islington and her decision to ignore allegations of child abuse in Islington children's homes which were later proved to be true."
Or if he goes out on the stump with Tessa Jowell in Dulwich and West Norwood he can remind her of the "widespread dissatisfaction at the slow and bureaucratic nature of the housing department" at Camden Council when she was running it. Or how he refused to follow her advice to apologise for anti semitism.
In Vauxhall will he be out campaigning with Kate Hoey? (Whom he reminds us is sports adviser to Boris Johnson.) Or Frank Dobson in Holborn and St Pancras. Livingstone records briefing journalists that Dobson was suffering from depression and Dobson's response that Livingstone was "lower than a snake's belly." There's Harriet Harman in Camberwell and Peckham ("went through the humiliation of being unable to answer repeated challenges by John Humphrys on the Today programme…") Stephen Pound in Ealing North is only mentioned for tripping over while carrying a tray of champagne. Teresa Pearce, Erith and Thamesmead, is mentioned only for being rejected as a London Assembly candidate on the grounds she "lacked life experience."
Even on the Left there are those like John McDonnell in Hayes and Harlington who complained of Livingstone as the GLC leader "clinging to power no matter what."
Then there is Diane Abbott in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, that one thins would be a natural ally. But what's this? After some deselection row we discover:
At the next Brent East social in the local pub, my supporters and Diane's sat on opposite sides of the room; as I walked over to where my opponents were seated they jumped up and started dancing to avoid talking to me.
Livingstone needs the London Labour Party to deliver the Labour vote for him. But why should the Party help him when he produces a book denouncing them? His best hope is that they won't get round to reading it.