Livingstone ran London so well. Now he’s trashed his reputation | Jonn Elledge

Jonn Elledge
Former London mayor Ken Livingstone. Photograph: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

The night they declared that Ken Livingstone had lost the 2008 mayoral election, I decided to drown my sorrows. Then I went for dinner, where I got into a rather one-sided screaming match with a Tory who, infuriatingly, kept smiling at me throughout.

Partly my rage came from the unfamiliar shock of seeing Labour lose, of course (oh how times changed). But partly it was that I just couldn’t believe the result. How could the electorate have been so foolish, so shallow, as to vote out the guy who’d done such a good job of running the capital? And to pick that scruffy Tory clown from Have I Got News For You – how could London reject its mayor in favour of him?

That was nine years ago. Now Boris Johnson occupies one of the great offices of state, however half-heartedly, while Livingstone is a weird old man who won’t stop talking about Hitler. What’s worse, he does it while wearing pretty much the same smirk as the Tory in that Chinese restaurant all those years ago.

There were always some concerns about Livingstone in London’s Jewish community. On one occasion he compared a Jewish Evening Standard reporter of acting “just like a concentration camp guard” (oops). On another, he told a meeting of Jewish Labour supporters that the Jewish community wouldn’t vote for him because it was rich (ah). He shared a platform with Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

But I dismissed all this as paranoia. In my defence, this was partly because he did other stuff that clearly belonged on the other side of the ledger, like introducing the giant menorah that graces Trafalgar Square every December to celebrate Hanukah. And partly it was because so many of the charges against him, taken individually, seemed so small.

There was another reason so many of us were willing to overlook his dodgier statements, one that’s been forgotten over the last few years as he gradually seems to have lost the plot: he was really rather good at running London.

Consider a brief selection of some of the things Livingstone did as mayor. He introduced the congestion charge, massively reducing congestion and improving travel times in central London. He invested heavily in the bus network. He gave us the Oyster card, the cycle hire scheme and London Overground, in which battered old national rail lines were reborn as a sort of S-Bahn. It was during Livingstone’s time that London’s transport authorities stopped being a national joke, and started to become a system other cities would send delegations to study.

He thought big, too. He was a key figure in the capital’s bid for the 2012 Olympics, and at the time he left office he was still bothering national government for a host of new bridges, trams and railway lines. Most of these would never have happened: but by scrapping the lot the moment he took office, Boris Johnson ensured it, which he seemed, bafflingly, to count as an achievement.

Livingstone was never perfect: there was an uncomfortable atmosphere of croynism, and that deal where he accepted a chunk of cheap oil from Hugo Chávez, and he set us on the path of property boosterism which the capital is still lumbered with today.

But, broadly, Livingstone in power showed what a leftwing mayor could do: investing in services, public events and civil rights, and the embracing the idea of the city as a place of diversity and solidarity. I defy you to watch the speech he gave after the 7/7 bombings without welling up just a little.

I miss that Ken Livingstone. Now he’s been suspended for bringing the Labour party into disrepute, he’s permanently trashed his own reputation. Few Londoners will be getting drunk and angry about how he’s been treated tonight. And few, I fear, will now spare a thought for all that he did for the city.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes