London Jews’ Labour Problem
Ken Livingstone, the once and perhaps future London mayor, has made a string of anti-Semitic remarks. Why do his party’s leaders indulge him?
Livingstone won himself a seat in parliament in 1987 and that same year published an autobiography with a title befitting his revolutionary sympathies: If Voting Changed Anything, They’d Abolish It. He languished in relative obscurity for a decade, until Labour rose to power in 1997. The party manifesto that year included a proposal for a directly elected mayor of London and the reinstitution of a city council, to be renamed the Greater London Authority. In a candidate-selection process heavily tilted toward Blairite forces, Livingstone lost to another London MP. Though he had promised not to run as an independent if he did not gain the party nomination, Livingstone recanted and announced he would go for it anyway. That same day, the Labour Party expelled him. Yet Livingstone defied the odds and won, becoming the first mayor of London in the city’s 2,000-year history. Blair was humiliated but, recognizing that Livingstone wasn’t going anywhere, officially welcomed him back into the party in 2004.
Livingstone’s views about Jews combine those of an unreconstructed Marxist with the pub-hall pugilist. “He sees Jews who are not socialists as reactionary, bourgeois anti-revolutionary,” said the anonymous Jewish organization official, noting Livingstone’s remarks about Jews being “rich.” Livingstone’s stereotypes about Jews are an element of his timeworn electoral strategy of identity politics and part of his appeal to the Islamist far right. Perhaps the most controversial move Livingstone made as mayor was his 2004 City Hall invitation to, and public embrace of, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a “moderate” (to use Livingstone’s description) Egyptian cleric whose alleged moderation has not prevented him from endorsing wife beating, the murder of homosexuals, and Palestinian suicide bombing.
In February 2005, Livingstone called a Jewish journalist from the Evening Standard a “German war criminal” and a “concentration camp guard.” (The following year, a governmental adjudicatory board found Livingstone guilty of bringing the mayoralty into disrepute and issued a month-long suspension from his job for the remarks.) In 2006, he said of two Indian-born Jewish property developers, apparently unaware of their origins, that “if they’re not happy they can always go back to Iran and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs.” And in 2009, fresh out of office and in need of work, he began to appear regularly on PressTV, the English-language news channel owned by the Iranian government, hosting a book-review program called Epilogue (titles reviewed include The Invention of the Jewish People and Zionist Israel and Apartheid South Africa). Livingstone has earned the support of George Galloway, the newly re-elected MP for the extremist “RESPECT Party” and vocal supporter of Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad, the closest thing the U.K. has to an elected Islamist.
Labour currently polls some 20 points above the Tories in London, and so the fact that Livingstone is not favored to win the race is testament to his divisiveness. While his attitudes toward Jews are not a significant reason for his unpopularity, they point to a stubbornness that many voters, particularly white, working-class ones who traditionally vote Labour, find insufferable. There are many reasons why Livingstone lost four years ago—from an increase in crime to the baggage of being a Labour incumbent at a time when the national party was so unpopular. Hovering over everything, however, was Livingstone’s temperament.
But having outlasted foes like Thatcher and Blair, Livingstone is nothing if not a political survivor, and it would be wrong to underestimate him. Indeed, over the past two months, he has already gone some way in managing to patch up his relations with London Jews. Last week, Livingstone was forced to confront the array of concerns that many Jewish Londoners have with him at a meeting hosted by the London Jewish Forum. Asked about his views on Qaradawi, he said that since the sheik is 89 years old and banned from visiting Britain anyway, another visit is “unlikely.” He added “I am against Muslims attacking their wives, Jews, homosexuals,” a positive assertion, to be sure, but one that it took him until now to go on record stating. As for Oliver Finegold, the Jewish journalist he likened to a concentration camp guard, Livingstone was unrepentant. “I wasn’t rude to Oliver Finegold because he was Jewish,” he asserted. “I was rude to him because he was a reporter.”
Livingstone’s performance was enough to persuade some of the Jewish Labour activists he initially upset; that, or the tribal loyalties of party politics outweighed those of religious affiliation. Last week, they published an open letter endorsing him. “Under Ken as mayor, we will get irritated, upset and annoyed,” they wrote, “but we will get lots of services and lots of engagement and an improved London.” Most of Britain’s left, politicians and journalists alike, have also fallen into line. “Those Labour voters thinking of going to vote for Boris, hold your nose, vote for Ken,” the party’s deputy chairman Tom Watson said last Thursday.
In the Independent, columnist Owen Jones defended Livingstone, prefacing his argument with the smarmy detail, “For most of the time I’ve been a Londoner, I’ve lived with two close friends who are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.” The former mayor, Jones wrote, was guilty only of “suggest[ing] that Jewish voters would divide in allegiance much as the rest of the electorate, with those who were wealthier opting for Boris” and framed the attacks on Livingstone as a desperate attempt by “the 1 percent” to demonize a hero of the working classes. Jones went onto blame Livingstone’s critics, who “cynically misconstrued this as Ken reviving that old anti-Semitic caricature of the ‘wealthy Jew,’” even though it was a group of diehard Labour supporters who anxiously publicized Livingstone’s remarks. Not all of Labour is standing foursquare behind Livingstone: The Telegraph’s Gilligan has compiled a list of Labour figures opposed to or highly critical of his candidacy. “Off the record, indeed, it is hard to find a single thinking person in the London Labour Party who can muster genuine enthusiasm for Ken,” Gilligan wrote.
It wasn’t so long ago that British anti-Semitism was the province of the country’s establishment conservatives—the sort of thing one would encounter at country clubs. More recently it has been the British National Party, the far-right faction whose leadership once denied the Holocaust, that gave political expression to such views. But, even the BNP has ostensibly forsaken anti-Semitism and, like many far-right parties in Western Europe, taken up anti-Muslim rhetoric instead. Today, when one encounters anti-Semitism in Britain, it is usually found in the pages of the Guardian or its online comments section, the cover of the once-venerable leftist New Statesman, in the works of British playwrights and screeds by British academics, or the attempts by British trade unions to boycott Israel. Meanwhile, were any British politician—whether Conservative, Liberal Democrat, or Labour—to utter about Muslims the things Ken Livingstone has said about Jews, he would be universally condemned by his party’s leadership, if not forced to resign.
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