The First Pint Exclusive: Ken Livingstone on International London

Former mayor Ken Livingstone talks about his views on immigration, racism and London as an international city. Photo courtesy of Emma Beal

Former mayor Ken Livingstone talks about his views on immigration, racism and London as an international city. Photo courtesy of Emma Beal

With Ken Livingstone you never know what to expect. When asking about the name of this website, he was exactly spot on. “The First Pint?” he said. “Is it like the first pint you have in a London pub?” From this he began explaining how big a part of English life surrounds the pub culture, adding that pub closing times were introduced in World War I to force people to sober up and work for the war effort. You just don’t know what to expect from Ken.

A notorious left-wing politician, Ken Livingstone was the first Mayor of London. He has seen the city go through most of its modern milestones, including its rise as an international financial centre, the July 7 2005 bombings, and winning the 2012 Olympic Games nomination. He is currently running against Oona King as the Labour party’s candidate for this year’s mayoral election where he’ll face the current mayor, Boris Johnson. Ken is confident that if he wins the candidacy, he will beat Boris.

Shortly before Conservative MP Damian Green’s declarations about international students, The First Pint spoke to Ken Livingstone about how London was moulded into an international city. He shares with us a bit of London’s past, the hardships he had to deal with when he was mayor and what he thinks of London today.

The First Pint: What are your views of London as a city for internationals?

Ken Livingstone: Both London and New York have over a third of their citizens born in a foreign country and these are the two international financial centres. If you want a generally international centre, you’ll have a lot of foreigners in it. That’s the core.

What we’ve specifically said in London and what has been part of our theme here for the past 30 years is that we don’t just want foreigners to come here and invest; we would like it if you bring your culture as well. The result is that you have this huge relaxed community that has come to terms with the fact that people are different. As long as everybody else lives their life the way they want, you can live your life as you want.

Race issues in London has come a long way since Ken Livingstone's youth. Photo credit: Clive Power / Flickr

Race issues in London have come a long way since Ken Livingstone's youth. Photo credit: Clive Power / Flickr

TFP: As mayor you promoted London as an international city. How did this come about?

KL: In the 1980s, it was more about challenging racism which was much stronger than now.

I remember that my mother worked in a bakery chain and a young black woman turned up for a job, this would be early to mid 1960s, and my mum said she was a really nice girl but they couldn’t take a black person handling food. We were much more backwards than America in race issues and it was something that we had to work on.

It was only when I became mayor that the social responsibility and a sort of economic strategy blended together. It wouldn’t be a world that I necessarily would have created but it was the world that I was stuck with.

TFP: You were mayor when the 7 July 2005 London bombings occurred. How did you deal with terrorism alongside the issue of racism?

KL: On the issue of terrorism, we just took the view that they were small groups of disaffected individuals in each community who were likely to try violence not just from Islamic fundamentalists but from angry young white men. Just before I became mayor we had the London Bomber, an angry young white man called David Copeland, who was a racist BNP supporter who let off bombs in Brixton and Brick Lane. The police services have always been aware of the danger of this. So there was the potential in any community where there are angry young men.

TFP: How do you think that you dealt with racism?

KL: In a sense all those campaigns going back to the early 1970s where individual politicians, faith leaders, community leaders, trade unionists, were all making the case for tolerance and equality and it developed into multiculturalism. This is just the work of a lot of people over nearly four decades and it just created this city where basically people aren’t terribly concerned about [racism]. One person in twenty in the city is now mixed race. Which is quite different say, from New York where I think it would be less.

Ken Livingstone has always promoted diversity in London. Photo credit: Stonewall UK / Flickr

Ken Livingstone has always promoted diversity in London. Photo credit: Stonewall UK / Flickr

TFP: I’m fairly new to the city, I’ve been here for maybe two years. And I’ve always had the feeling that London was an international city…

KL: But it wasn’t like that when I was growing up. There were small immigrant communities – the Irish in places like Kilburn, small Chinese communities in the East End, a very small Somali community around the Docks. I was born in 1945 and I remember parents talking about the fact that black people were first coming to Brixton. I didn’t talk to a black person until I started my secondary school and my chemistry teacher was from Nigeria. I remember the first time a black person in the street spoke to me on a bus. I sat next to him, nobody wanted to sit next to him, and he made a comment about prejudice. I must’ve been 13 or 14.

For most Londoners, it was really only in the 1960s and ’70s that they started developing a relationship with people of a different colour.

TFP: If you see the evolution of London as a multicultural city, do you think it has gotten better?

KL: I think it consistently gets better. Even the fact that you’ve got a very right wing Tory mayor in the form of Boris Johnson… the one thing he is not reactionary about is immigration. He has never made a speech criticising immigration and he doesn’t pander to anti-immigrant feelings. He has also adopted my policy that illegal immigrants should all have an amnesty and be able to become legitimate citizens and pay taxes.

We used to be a city in economic decline and we became the only city in Europe that matches American levels of competitiveness and productivity and that is largely because we are the most open city. People who get off their back sides and come half way around the world don’t come to stay in a bedsit: they’ve come to make their fortune. There is a reason that it is starting to change. Asian immigrants generate over twice the economic benefit of an indigenous citizen, on average.

TFP: How do you make the international community more comfortable in London?

KL: It’s just a question of keep bringing them here first. Then the key thing is celebrating the cultural differences. You have the Notting Hill Carnival here on a Sunday, we have St. Patrick’s, we celebrate Chinese and Russian New Years. I’ve done a lot of that as mayor so that Londoners can turn out on the day and get a taste of other people’s culture that they might not necessarily otherwise get.

TFP: Finally, what do you think of the immigration cap and the restrictions on foreign students coming to London?

KL: We’d be mad to cap or restrict the flow of foreign students. If someone is coming to study, they should be allowed to come. Nine out of ten go back to their country of origin anyway. If they have good links and have a favourable opinion of London, many of them will be in important positions and it will influence the decisions that they make. It will benefit us in the long run.

I’m all in favour of expanding the number of foreign students coming in. They’re the people that are going to determine the things that will happen in their own countries. If eventually they have to take a decision as to where to site their business operations in Europe, we would want them to think that London is the best place to do it in.