Red Ken is battling Alzheimer’s: Former Labour London mayor Ken Livingstone, 78, is forced to retire from public life and is being cared for by family and friends while ‘living with’ the terminal illness, relatives reveal
Controversial former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, who earned the nickname ‘Red Ken’ for his left-wing politics, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease aged 78.
The one-time figurehead of the Labour left, who ran the capital from 2000 until 2008 when he was defeated by Boris Johnson, is being ‘well cared for by his family and friends’ as he retires from public life.
The news comes after other high-profile figures such as journalists Alastair Stewart and Fiona Phillips decided to share their own battles with the disease.
‘Red Ken’, as he is widely known, had fierce clashes with Margaret Thatcher’s government as head of the Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1980s, which eventually led to the authority’s abolition.
He then became Labour MP for Brent East in 1987 before being elected as the first modern-day Mayor of London, during which time he introduced the Congestion Charge, supported the capital’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics and led the response to the London bombings in 2005.
But latterly Mr Livingstone was at the centre of a number of scandals around antisemitism, most recently in 2016 when he was suspended from the Labour Party for suggesting that Adolf Hitler supported Zionism – the movement supporting the creation of a Jewish state in what is now modern-day Israel.
Ken Livingstone (pictured here in 2012) has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is now retiring from politics
‘Red Ken’, as he was often known, had a number of high-profile clashes with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government while head of the Greater London Council
Then London mayor Boris Johnson pictured with his predecessor Ken Livingstone at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympic Games
In a statement, Mr Livingstone’s family announced the news early this morning.
They said: ‘The Livingstone family today announce that Ken Livingstone, ex-MP for Brent and former mayor of London, has been diagnosed with and is living with Alzheimer’s disease.
‘Although a previously prominent public figure, Ken is now retired and lives a private life. He will no longer be available for any media interviews or requests and we will not be responding to any media questions or enquiries.
‘Ken is being well cared for by his family and friends and we ask you for your understanding and to respect his privacy and that of his family.’
Ken Livingstone during his time as leader of Greater London Council (left, and right: picking up the Gold Joker Award from the Cartoonist Pub)
Ken Livingstone pictured in 2019. His family says he is being ‘well cared for’ as he enters political retirement following his Alzhemier’s diagnosis
Kate Lee, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, said: ‘We are really sorry to hear that Ken Livingstone is living with Alzheimer’s disease. Our thoughts are with him and his family.
What is Alzheimer’s and how is it treated?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, in which build-up of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.
This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages, and causes the brain to shrink.
More than 5 million people suffer from the disease in the US, where it is the 6th leading cause of death, and more than 1 million Britons have it.
As brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost.
That includes memory, orientation and the ability to think and reason.
The progress of the disease is slow and gradual.
On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some may live for ten to 15 years.
- Loss of short-term memory
- Behavioral changes
- Mood swings
- Difficulties dealing with money or making a phone call
- Severe memory loss, forgetting close family members, familiar objects or places
- Becoming anxious and frustrated over inability to make sense of the world, leading to aggressive behavior
- Eventually lose ability to walk
- May have problems eating
- The majority will eventually need 24-hour care
HOW IT IS TREATED?
There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
However, some treatments are available that help alleviate some of the symptoms.
One of these is Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors which helps brain cells communicate to one another.
Another is menantine which works by blocking a chemical called glutamate that can build-up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease inhibiting mental function.
As the disease progresses Alzheimer’s patients can start displaying aggressive behaviour and/or may suffer from depression. Drugs can be provided to help mitigate these symptoms.
Other non-pharmaceutical treatments like mental training to improve memory helping combat the one aspect of Alzheimer’s disease is also recommended.
‘We can see from the high profile individuals who have recently spoken about their dementia diagnosis, including Alastair Stewart and Fiona Phillips amongst others, how prevalent dementia is. One in three people born in the UK today will go on to develop this devastating condition.
‘We’re grateful to Ken’s family for being open about his diagnosis which will really help increase public understanding. It’s crucial we get people talking because a problem of this scale won’t go away on its own.’
Alzheimer’s Research chief executive Hilary Evans said: ‘We hope this will put a further spotlight on the desperate need to find new treatments for all forms of dementia.
‘As it stands, there are no treatments available to slow or stop dementia. But in recent months, we have seen the tide beginning to turn on Alzheimer’s disease, with the first ever drugs that can slow its progression showing positive results in clinical trials.
‘However while we wait to hear from regulators on whether these drugs are safe and effective, we know more needs to be done, and we’ll work tirelessly to bring about a world free of the fear, harm and heartbreak of dementia.’
While having largely retreated from public life in recent years, Mr Livingstone was a prominent figure in London politics for more than four decades starting in the 1970s.
Born in south London, to a working-class family, Mr Livingstone, the son of an acrobatic dancer and a ship’s master in the Merchant Navy, he became a councillor in 1971.
As the head of the Greater London Council (GLC) he frequently went head-to-head with Margaret Thatcher when he became involved in national issues, supporting everyone from striking miners to Sinn Fein’s leaders at the height of the IRA’s bombing campaign.
He goaded Mrs Thatcher across the Thames in Parliament during the turbulent 1980s by displaying the unemployment figures on City Hall.
The Conservatives resorted to legislation to dissolve the GLC, distributing its powers among the London boroughs.
However, with the creation of the Greater London Authority under Tony Blair’s Labour government, Mr Livingstone saw a chance to return to his political spiritual home.
Attempts by Labour to see off Mr Livingstone by throwing its weight behind Frank Dobson – with the backing of trade unions – failed after the public overwhelmingly backed him as an independent candidate, for which he was expelled from the party.
Mr Livingstone ultimately had the last laugh, being welcomed back into the fold as the official Labour candidate for the 2004 election.
His time as London mayor led to sweeping changes across the capital, not all of which were popular – his decision to phase out the original Routemasters and replace them with ‘bendy buses’ was derided, while the Congestion Charge laid the groundwork for other charges such as the LEZ and ULEZ.
But during his second term, Mr Livingstone won widespread praise for the way he stood up for London after the July 2005 suicide bombings and he helped win the 2012 Olympic Games for the capital.
However, his his time in the party ended ignominiously, when he quit the Labour Party in 2018 amid furious demands for his removal over allegations of antisemitism.
In 2006 a High Court judge said he made ‘unnecessarily offensive’ and ‘indefensible’ remarks likening a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Ken Livingstone’s time as Mayor of London saw him oversee the city’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympics
Mr Livingstone was praised for his response to the terror attacks in the capital in 2005 (pictured here unveiling The Spirit of London, a bus that replaced the vehicle blown up in one of the attacks)
His time in office was ended in 2008 when he was defeated by an equally maverick and colourful opponent in Boris Johnson and a failed bid to return to City Hall in 2012 marked the end of his electoral ambitions.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 appeared to have given him a fresh lease of life politically, as he enthusiastically backed the policies of his old ally on the left.
However, he found himself at the centre of a new storm the following year when he came to the defence of MP Naz Shah who had been suspended over offensive social media posts.
Mr Livingstone insisted that, while her remarks were ‘over the top’, she was not antisemitic, and that he had never encountered antisemitism in 40 years in the Labour Party.
He then sparked fury by going on to claim in a radio interview that Hitler ‘was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews’.
Ken Livingstone standing in a traffic monitoring centre in 2003 on the first day of the congestion charge in London – a measure that laid the groundwork for other measures such as the low emission zone and ULEZ
Ken Livingstone outside his house in northwest London in 2018
Ken Livingstone with his dog Coco as he leaves his home in northwest London in 2016
Despite being suspended by the party, he insisted he stood by the comments which he said referred to an agreement in 1933 between the Nazis and some German Zionists to resettle Jews in Palestine.
He caused further anger by talking about ‘collaboration’ between the Nazis and Zionists.
After the protest against antisemitism outside Parliament in March, campaigners demanded his permanent expulsion as proof the Labour leadership was serious about dealing with the issue.
Mr Livingstone announced his resignation from Labour on May 21 2018, although he maintained his support for Mr Corbyn as leader of the party.
Nearly four years later, in January 2022, Mr Livingstone announced his intention to join the Green Party, although at the same time urging other socialists to remain with Labour, but his application was rejected.
Ken Livingstone: a timeline of a divisive career in politics
Ken Livingstone, a figurehead in the Labour Party for 40 years, is ‘living with Alzheimer’s Disease’ follows a highly successful but divisive career in politics.
Here is a timeline of the key moments of his life and career:
- 17 June 1945: Ken Livingstone born in south London
- 1969: Mr Livingstone joins the Labour Party
- 1971: He is elected to Lambeth Borough Council
- 1973: He gains a seat on the Greater London Council (GLC)
- 1981: Labour take control of the GLC and Mr Livingstone is elected leader
- 1986: After several high-profile clashes with Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, the GLC is abolished
- 1987: Mr Livingstone is elected MP for Brent East
- 2000: He stands against official Labour candidate Frank Dobson to become Mayor of London
- 2004: He wins the post again after being allowed back into the Labour fold
- 2006: A High Court judge finds Mr Livingstone had made ‘unnecessarily offensive’ and ‘indefensible’ remarks likening a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard. But he is cleared of bringing the office of mayor into disrepute
- 2008: Mr Livingstone loses City Hall to Tory Boris Johnson
- 2012: He is again beaten to the mayor’s job by Mr Johnson
- 2016: He is suspended from the Labour Party for claiming Hitler supported Zionism in the 1930s ‘before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews’
- 2017: The former mayor avoids expulsion from the Labour Party at a disciplinary hearing, but is suspended for another year
- March 2018: His suspension is extended again as new disciplinary probe launched
- May 2018: Mr Livingstone resigns from Labour
- January 2022: He applies to join the Green Party but his application is rejected
- 20 September 2023: Mr Livingstone’s family confirm that he is living with Alzheimer’s Disease