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.”
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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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.