Interview: Ken Livingstone

It's St George's Day and London looks horrible. The day started sunny, but by the time I arrive at Kensington West station the blue skies have given way to grey clouds and rain. Ken Livingstone emerges from the Tube to find myself and an Italian photographer waiting in the station. He does not seem impressed.

"Where are the massed ranks of the press?" he asks.

"You'll have to make do with us, I'm afraid," I say.

He peers out of the station exit. The streets are deserted. It's wet and cold. The walk down the North End Road isn't an attractive prospect.

Ken looks tired. He says he's enthused by the campaign, but I don't sense much energy in him. On the street, though, there is plenty of warmth and goodwill towards him.

"Every day 20 to 30 people say to me: 'you've got to win'," he says. "There's a real sense of desperation. A year ago they said 'good luck, get rid of the idiot'. No-one says 'idiot' now. Now they say: 'you've got to win'.

"It's been a very dirty and unremittingly negative campaign from the Tory side and I think we've been seriously talking about policy. It's interesting that after four years as mayor the Tory strategy has to be to attack the Labour candidate instead of saying, 'this is what we've achieved'. It's pretty thin: the most expensive cable care in human history, the most expensive bus, the most expensive bikes."

Ken's nasal drone is part of his brand, and not always in a good way, but he is one of the very few politicians who speaks like a human being, whether he's in campaign mode or not.

I ask him if the hostility towards him from the Boris camp and most sections of the press is the result of the personality politics he himself helped create during his battles with Margaret Thatcher in the 80s and during his time as mayor.

"I never created a cult of personality. The media did," he says.

"This is the weakness of the directly elected politician rather than the party.

"We're broadly following America down the path towards the dumbing down of politics. You look at the Republican primary down there. It's been unremitting negative attacks between one Republican and another. No serious issue about policy."

The atmosphere in west London is as glum as anywhere on earth. Ken's two handlers – young sunny blondes with the disciplined streak of professional political people – encourage us down to the market where it's a bit busier.

A woman is smoking a cigarette outside a betting shop, staring down at her feet. "Hello," Ken says. She doesn't seem to have any idea who he is. "Hello, how are you?" she asks. "Fine. Horrible weather."

She nods. "You've got to remember it's April," she says, as if imparting a pivotal piece of advice. "April showers."

An old woman walks by wagging her finger at Ken. "Never, never, never," she mutters menacingly. Moments later, a man pushes past us. "Disappear will you Ken, for f**k's sake," he says.

This is the exception. For the most part, the reception is extremely warm. It should be. This is his core constituency. Inner London on the deprived fringe of Fulham and Kensington, where upmarket bars turn into fruit and veg stalls and the old west end communities rub up against the Asian and Caribbean immigrant families who frequent the street markets and halal butchers.

Ken smiles nostalgically at the fruit in the market. "When did they first decide to start putting vegetables in little silver trays?" he says. "They all used to be in boxes."

Do you feel areas like this have changed all that much, I ask?

"Oh that's the thing about London. Almost every area is under constant change. Some areas have been going upmarket, others are declining. When I was a kid Croydon was seen as one of the most salubrious places in the world – solidly Tory, no unemployment, everything looking well kept. Now you go down there – Croydon east and west station – it's like inner city. There's a clear pattern, it's the suburbs that are declining and the inner city that's getting much better off."

But it was precisely those outer boroughs which Ken lost in 2008, when the divisions of the capital were focused into sharp relief. Inner city London was solid red with Labour votes, surrounded by a thick ring of blue. That ring of blue won Boris the election. It was a particularly cruel fate for a man who did much to improve transport links between inner and outer London in his first term.

"When I rebuilt the bus service it was in outer London where they saw the biggest increase," he says. "There were always buses in Oxford Street. You could die of old age waiting for a bus in Havering."

What has he done this time to turn the tide in the outer boroughs? I ask.

"We started in May 2010 because we knew the Labour party was so demoralised at the end of the Brown government," he says. "The party machine had withered away in great sways of London. So we spent almost all of last year out there re-establishing links. Places like Bromley we've got more Labour contacts than we've ever had before. Kingston's the same. We've gone back into those areas where Labour had just withered away."

The sky is still grey and lifeless but the rain has eased up. I notice Ken's phone screen is old and cracked down the middle. "I haven't had time to fix it," he says, uninterested. "I've had it about five years. I haven't transferred my personal stuff onto it."

Wherever he walks, people tell him to come back. It's quite remarkable, but he is part of the architecture of the city. For whatever reason, people seem relaxed around him and talk as if they know him. We walk past a cash machine where two young black women are talking animatedly, one of them covered in piercings, the other rocking as pram with a young baby in it. "Hi Ken," one of them says, like she's greeting a local café owner. Ken smiles at her. "Anything you want to ask me?" They shake their head. "I'm cutting the fares," he says, going a bit robotic again. The ensuing conversation – about Tube fares and energy prices – leaves them visibly bored. "I'll do all that, you've just got to vote for me," Ken says. "Oh don't worry, you got my vote anyway," the mother says. "And you got MY vote anyway too," the girl with the piercing says.

A man in his 20s walks past, his hood up and the gold chains around his neck chinking with his excess swagger. When he spots Ken, he breaks out in a smile. "Ken, I'm with you all the way," he shouts.

A woman stands outside a café with a beautiful dog on a leash. Ken's eyes light up and he gets down and plays with it. "Will the doggy vote for me?" he says, his voice going up an octave. "You are wonderful. Oh yes yes yes!"

A man in an undersized sweater stands expectantly waiting for Ken. When the Labour candidate turns around the man tells him simply: "I need garlic." Ken is nonplussed. Then the man looks down at his leaflets. "Are you Labour?" he asks. "I love Labour."

"I am," Ken says. "If you vote for me, I'll win." The man nods. He then adds, as an afterthought, in a somewhat conspiratorial tone: "I need garlic."

Ken's relationship with Labour is more complicated than that of the man who needs garlic. As things stand, the party is considerably more popular than him, while Boris is much more popular than the Conservatives. If this was a straight Tory vs Labour race, Boris would lose. But it isn't. It's a Ken vs Boris race and that's a different matter altogether. Ken needs to convince voters that supporting Boris isn't a laugh, it's a mandate for austerity. In a speech just before we met, that was the message he was trying to bang home. It's an almost Shakespearean turn of events for a man who first entered City Hall by trouncing his own party as an independent.

"I was only independent because they expelled me," he says. "It wasn't a matter of choice. I was there fighting for Labour values. The Labour party had lost the plot a bit at that stage. My working relationship with Ed Miliband is the best I've ever had with a Labour leader. I do genuinely believe the reason Ed and I get such a horrendous press from the owners of the newspapers is because they realise we will really change Britain and build a fairer society.

"The press are happier with a mayor who just spent two years campaigning to cut the top rate of tax. If you're a big earner in the City or the media you're going to do better under Boris. If you're an ordinary Londoner you'll do better under me."

The image of friendly Ken walking amiably down London's streets with his cracked mobile phone screen and army of well wishers is a seductive one. He has many, many enemies but I have never heard anyone suggest he does not care passionately about the city. It's this fact which makes his interactions with Londoners so natural.

For all the Conservative party rhetoric about Ken being a lying reptile who'll say anything to get into power, it's actually the criticism from fellow Labour people which I find more convincing. He seems tired. There's seems to be little energy in him. It's a strange thing to notice in a man who spent the last four years – since the moment he was thrown out of office – trying to get back to City Hall.

As I walk away I ask the Italian reporter what he made of him. "He looks like a man who doesn't really care if he wins or loses," he replies.