Award-winning investigative journalist Andrew Hosken is no stranger to political intrigue. His expose of former Westminster Council leader Shirley Porter's missing millions first broke on Radio 4's "Today" programme and then became his strongly reviewed first book Nothing Like a Dame (Granta).
Now Hosken is turning his attentions to a bigger political figure: London mayor Ken Livingstone. Taking a year off "Today" and interviewing more than 200 of Livingstone's allies and enemies, Hosken has made a number of newsworthy discoveries. With publication due just before London's mayoral election in May, Ken: The Ups and Downs of Ken Livingstone (Arcadia, 22nd April) is sure to make an impact, with the Daily Mail snapping up serial rights.
Yet, while some of the book's revelations will be seized on by Livingstone's foes such as the Evening Standard, the book is not a tract or sustained attack. Rather it's a meticulously researched and balanced political biography aimed squarely at the general market.
As Hosken says: "A lot of political biographies I find quite inaccessible—there's a lot of assumed knowledge there. I really wanted to write a book that people who don't know anything about politics or local government can pick up and read."
His subject has gone through many political incarnations, from MP for Brent East to leader of the GLC and now mayor, and in public perception from "Red Ken" to "the people's Ken". Hosken says: "Ken is fascinating, because not only does he polarise opinion—people either love him or hate him—but there are hidden sides to him nobody sees, almost like an iceberg. There's the chap with the very private personal life, the chap with the strange associates. That's what I find interesting."
It is an unofficial biography, but Livingstone was generous with his time, giving more than 25 hours of interviews. Hosken was careful not to get too close: "I didn't make a habit of going out for a drink with him or cosying up to him." He did, however, experience the legendary charm: "As Ken always says: 'If you get to know me you'll like me.' He is very likeable in many ways."
Hosken was also motivated to tell the story of the hard left. "I was fascinated by the rise and fall of the urban left and how close they came to destroying the Labour Party," he says. "Ken was surfing that wave in the 1970s and early '80s, and his influence fell with the fall of Labour as it became New Labour. By the mid-1990s Ken was washed up on his little left-wing beach with just Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill for company." The story of his comeback, vanquishing Blair to double mayoral triumph, is remarkable.
Hosken explores Livingstone's relationships with various secretive left-wing groups, finding he is not quite the lone guy against the establishment he might first appear. These have included the Revolutionary Communist League ("they had about 12 members and yet they organised for him to become the leader of the biggest local authority in the world, and they got him a seat in parliament") and Socialist Action ("most of his senior advisors belong to this tiny little party of revolutionary Marxists . . . they organise his mayoral campaigns").
More difficult to pin down were facts about Livingstone's personal life. "He's very open about his mum and dad and his house and his newts, but on certain aspects he's incredibly private to the point of secrecy," Hosken says. The book does contain significant revelations, handled matter-of-factly. Neck on the line Hosken lauds Livingstone's influence on attitudes towards gender, race and homosexuality, most notably as the pioneer of civil partnerships. He also praises the congestion charge and low-emission zone initiatives, delivered against almost blanket internal and external opposition: "he's put his neck on the line to do something positive about climate change".
A frequently voiced criticism of Livingstone is cronyism, something Hosken concurs with: "There's a sense of 'this all belongs to us' about Ken's administration and a reluctance to accept criticism of any kind." However, he points out that Livingstone's critics often display snobbery: "there's a sense that he's not really the sort of chap who should be in this position".
On the recent Lee Jasper affair (where Jasper, his race advisor and long-standing political ally, faced allegations of corruption and fraud), Hosken is convinced Livingstone himself is not corrupt. But he adds: 'Ken is fiercely loyal and that could lead to his downfall. He's not a guy who brooks much opposition, but in return he's passionately loyal to those around him." And the upcoming fight against Boris Johnson? 'Ken loves wielding power and he's obsessed with politics— it's his only hobby apart from newts," Hosken laughs. "I think he'd be bereft without it. My instinct is you'd have to get up very early in the morning to beat Ken Livingstone."