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?
London mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone—whose political future will be determined in today’s election against Conservative incumbent Boris Johnson—has a Jewish problem. He’s called a Jewish reporter a “concentration camp guard,” likened Israeli leaders to Nazis, and accused Jews of being too rich and selfish to vote for the Labour Party. And yet, despite the dubious record of “Red Ken,” as detractors have long called London’s former mayor, the Labour leadership has indulged him. Regardless of whether Livingstone wins the office again, his very presence as Labour’s candidate for mayor of the country’s capital is a bad sign of the party’s unwillingness to stand up for Jews.
The latest controversy began on March 1, when Livingstone held a disastrous meeting with some of his party’s most important Jewish members. “I am not against Israel, I am against Zionists,” Livingstone claimed—a definitional impossibility, but a revealing statement about how “Zionist” has essentially become a curse word in many leftish political circles. At the same meeting, he told his interlocutors that “as the Jewish community is rich, [it] simply wouldn’t vote for him.” (Never mind that a 2010 survey found British Jews divided evenly in their support for the Conservatives and Labour.)
Soon thereafter, some of the activists who attended the meeting wrote to Labour leader Ed Miliband, himself a Jew. “The strong perception,” they said, is that “Ken is seeking to align himself with the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime, whilst at the same time turning a blind eye to Islamist antisemitism, misogynism and homophobia.” Three weeks later, the letter was leaked to the Jewish Chronicle.
Initially, the Labour leadership defended the former mayor. “I know Ken Livingstone well,” Miliband said at the time. “He doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body. He is attracting people from all faiths, all backgrounds, all religions to his campaign. He’s somebody who’s fought prejudice all his life and I know that is what he’s going to continue to do.” Livingstone dug in his heels, stating that the letter from Jewish Labourites was “a bit of electioneering from people who aren’t terribly keen to see a Labour mayor,” a strange allegation to make considering that the letter’s signatories were all stalwart members of the Labour party.
But the controversy didn’t go away. The first sign of serious trouble came when reliable Labour supporter and Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, one of the most prominent Jews in the British media, announced that he could no longer vote for Livingstone. “He doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews,” Freedland concluded. Seeing that the row was only bound to get worse, the party leadership and a small group of Jewish Labour supporters ultimately prevailed upon the Livingstone campaign that something needed to be done. And so on March 29, in an article for the Jewish Chronicle titled “Please, let’s move on from the ‘Ken and Jews’ dramas,” Livingstone offered what he surely believed was an apology. “If I believed that Jewish people won’t vote Labour in this election, and I did not value the opinions and concerns of Jewish Londoners, I would not have spent my evening at that meeting,” he wrote. But some Jewish leaders, quietly, weren’t having it. “I think it’s sincere in the context of a politician with an important election coming up who’s realized he’s alienated an important constituency,” one figure at a leading Jewish organization told me. In other words, not sincere at all.
Two years into Britain’s coalition government, with Labour polling 10 points ahead of the Conservatives nationally, the mayoral race has implications far beyond London municipal politics. A victory for Livingstone would deal a strong blow to Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt to chart his way forward through what has been an already difficult course of major budget cuts. Defeating Livingstone again, on the other hand, would signal a resounding success for the Conservatives in Britain’s capital city and propel the party forward to winning an outright majority in parliament. But none of this should obscure the persistence of Ken Livingstone, and how the British left, that supposed fount of anti-racism and human solidarity, could tolerate and promote such a man.
Livingstone, who served as London’s first elected mayor from 2000 until 2008, is a throwback to an older style of British left-wing politics, the sort of firebrand who can claim, with a straight face, that “capitalism has killed more people than Hitler.” It might seem strange that a London mayoral candidate would even find himself embroiled in a controversy about Israel, but then, Livingstone has always seen a role for himself beyond the hustle and bustle of mere urban politics. The Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan, Livingstone’s most fervent antagonist in the British media, tallied up three times as many references to “Zionism” and “Israel” in his autobiography than to London’s public transportation system.
A virulent opponent of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Iraq War (in 2003, he referred to George W. Bush as “the greatest threat to life on this planet”), Livingstone crafted an independent foreign policy for London. In 2007, for instance, he signed a deal with Hugo Chávez for the provision of cheap Venezuelan oil to power London’s world-famous, red double-decker buses. (And after losing in 2008 to Johnson, Livingstone signed on as a private consultant for the Venezuelan government on urban planning.) Four years ago, when I visited London to cover the first Boris-Ken match-up, Steve Norris, a former Tory Cabinet minister who ran for mayor against Livingstone in 2000 and 2004, told me “Ken has always believed his true place is 10 Downing St.”
For the past three decades, Livingstone has been one of the most visible left-wingers in British politics, a relic from the era before Blair and his team of “New Labour” centrists detached the party from its union roots. Two decades before assuming the job of mayor, Livingstone was giving Margaret Thatcher headaches as head of the Greater London Council. He earned infamy for meeting with Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams in 1983, at a time when the Irish Republican leader was banned from entering the British mainland due to his alleged ties to the IRA (“What Britain did in Ireland was worse than what Hitler did to the Jews,” Livingstone once claimed. Indeed, comparing his opponents to Nazis has become a hobby for Livingstone; in August he likened the mayor’s race to the “great struggle between Churchill and Hitler.”) In 1986, Thatcher’s government abolished the council for its spendthrift ways. But the Iron Lady’s attempt to quash Livingstone had the opposite effect, turning him “from municipal hate figure into popular folk hero,” according to British writer Leo McKinstry. “He was no longer the town hall Trot, the moustachioed Marxist, but the people’s champion battling against the wicked Tories bent on the destruction of local democracy.”
In 1981, Livingstone became the founding editor of a far-left newspaper, the Labour Herald, which was printed on presses owned by the Workers Revolutionary Party, a 500-member political cult funded by then-Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein and run by Livingstone’s now-deceased friend Gerry Healy, a Trotskyite with an extremely checkered past. When the BBC accused Healey of taking money from Qaddafi, Livingstone published an article in News Line, the official outlet of the Workers Revolutionary Party, blaming the attacks on “agents of the Begin government [who] are active in the British Labor movement and press at present.” Meanwhile, Livingstone’s Herald published a cartoon of Menachem Begin giving a Sieg Heil below the words “The Final Solution.”
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