Born in Lambeth and educated at Tulse Hill Comprehensive School where, according to this mother, he cared more about “his pet lizard and friends”, Livingstone nevertheless achieved 4 ‘O’-levels before leaving to work as a technician at the Chester Beatty cancer research laboratory in Fulham, looking after animals used in experimentation.
Having had his interest in politics piqued by a teacher who recalls him as “argumentative” and already with an alternative view to that of his “working class Tory parents”, it was indeed the Labour Party that Livingstone would choose to join in 1968, at the age of 23. He was elected to represent Norwood at the GLC within 5 years of his joining.
Learning that the council had pursued a racist policy of allocating the best housing to white working-class families, Livingstone went public with the evidence, which was published in the South London Press. He became Vice Chairman of the GLC’s Housing Management Committee, however was sacked in April 1975 for his vocal opposition to the Goodwin administration’s decision to cut £50m from the GLC’s house-building budget. In 1977 Livingstone was selected by local party members as the parliamentary candidate for the Hampstead constituency (beating Vince Cable), and gained notoriety for publicly reaffirming his support for the controversial issue of LGBT rights and aligning the age of consent with the law for different-sex activity.
Becoming active in the politics of the London Borough of Camden, Livingstone was elected Chair of Camden’s Housing Committee; democratizing council housing meetings by welcoming local people, and reforming the rate collection system. In 1981 he was internally elected to the leadership of the GLC. Attempting to reduce London Underground fares, his plans were challenged in court and found to be illegal. More successful were his schemes to benefit women and underprivileged minorities, despite facing stiff opposition. Viewing the GLC as a political threat and a waste of money, in 1986 Thatcher’s government abolished the Council, putting Livingstone out of work.
Turning to a parliamentary career, he represented Brent East as an MP from 1987, winning the re-election in 1992 with a 6% swing to Labour. Having been elected to the party’s National Executive Committee in 1989, Livingstone lost the position 2 years later, eventually regaining it in 1997 by beating Peter Mandelson.
Successfully contesting the London Mayor election in 2000 as an independent (leading to his expulsion from Labour), during his first term he organised a major upgrade of London’s transport system, introducing the congestion charge, the Oyster card and, later, mandatory bus and cycling lanes. Designed to reduce the volume of ticket office transactions and the number of paper tickets whilst offering passengers substantially cheaper fares than if paying with cash, 43 million Oyster cards have to date been issued with 80%+ of all journeys on public transport in London made using the card. His leadership during the 7 July 2005 London bombings was widely praised and brought him international attention.
Initiating and overseeing London’s winning bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics and ushering in a major redevelopment of the city’s east end, Livingstone initiated improvements in energy saving and recycling, and enacted environmental and civil rights policies. In recognition of his contribution, he was offered the chance to be appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire, however graciously declined due to his belief that politicians shouldn’t be honoured for simply carrying out their professional duties. “I was paid very good money to be the mayor of London and nothing beats the recognition you get when people of the city elect you in the first place … I bid for the Olympics because it’s the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the government to develop the east end,” he told the BBC in an interview in December last year.
Livingstone stood unsuccessfully as Labour candidate in London’s mayoral elections of 2008 and 2012, and after his second, narrow defeat by Boris Johnson, announced his intention to retire from the political frontline.