What makes 'Red Ken' tick?

By COLIN SHINDLER
October 19, 2005 00:21

A man of the Left who has been accused of surrounding himself with advisers from the far Left.




livingstone ken talking 88

livingstone ken 88 298. (photo credit: Associated Press)



The recent British Labour Party conference was seen as the first stage in the transfer from a Blair government to a Gordon Brown administration. Many comparisons were once again drawn between these two long-time rivals, but one commentator interestingly pointed out that their hostility toward Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, is a rare issue where they see eye-to-eye. Brown still finds it near on nigh impossible to mention Livingstone's name without spitting bile, whereas Blair will only praise his policies when deemed politically necessary.

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Livingstone is uniquely unloved by large numbers of people on the Left of British politics, both by those within the Labour Party and those inhabiting the far reaches of the far Left. Many comrades from his "Red Ken" days of the 1980s now keep him at arm's length. Add to this, gays and greens - and Livingstone's hostility to the majority of Jews who identify with Israel pales into insignificance. Yet this also testifies to Livingstone's agility in the politics of survival - keeping ahead of an ever-expanding mass who would dearly wish to pull him off his populist pedestal.

Livingstone's strength is his working-class bonhomie - the "cheeky chappy" made good. Londoners can relate to a man who doesn't wear a tie, likes a beer and takes the Underground to work. In the early 1990s when he realized that he would be unable to garner sufficient support to lead the Labour Party, he transformed himself into a media celebrity with appearances on quiz shows and talk-ins, expressing man-in-the-pub comments about non-political questions. When it came to standing for the mayor of London, all this bore political fruit. When the Labour Party refused to consider him as a candidate, Londoners voted for him in droves as an independent. Even Blair had to acknowledge Livingstone's success and welcomed him back to stand as the official Labour candidate in the second election for mayor.



LIVINGSTONE'S desire to succeed transcends many conventional boundaries. Yet such opportunism can be depicted to the Left - and perhaps to himself - as Leninist expediency. The end justifies the means. He once wrote a weekly column for Britain's best-selling daily newspaper, the Sun, a right-wing tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch. Despite his grandstanding as the true standard bearer of socialist Old Labour, he attempted to cultivate Blair's predecessor, the late John Smith, who is often depicted as the originator of New Labour.

Livingstone was elected as a local councillor in Lambeth in south London in 1971. Ten years later, he ousted the leader of the Greater London Council to head an administration of young Turks, many of whom emanated from the far Left.

Within a few months, Livingstone launched Labour Herald, which began to publish adulatory material about reactionary Arab regimes and crude criticism of Israel. Labour Herald was printed on the presses of Newsline, the daily newspaper of the Workers' Revolutionary Party, a closed sectarian Trotskyist group, disliked even by many on the far Left. The Herald's editor was a full-time worker for the WRP. Shortly after his takeover of the GLC, Livingstone was befriended by Gerry Healy, the head of the WRP who had paid several visits to Libya in the 1970s.

When the WRP imploded in 1985 into even smaller sects, the Labour Herald suddenly stopped publishing. The International Committee of the Fourth International (the Trotskyist International) investigated allegations of corruption and declared that Libya had funded the WRP to the tune of 542,267. Saddam's Iraq had given almost 20,000, as had the PLO. The report of the International Commission furthered stated that an agreement between the WRP and Libya in April 1976 provided for the passing of information on the "activities, names and positions held in finance, politics and business, the communications media and elsewhere" by "Zionists." The commission commented that the agreement had "strongly anti-Semitic undertones."

The demonization of Israel was reflected in Newsline and in the Labour Herald. Livingstone was obviously influenced by Healy, speaking at his memorial meeting, writing the foreword to a biography by his followers and claiming that the collapse of the WRP into warring factions had been the work of British intelligence.



LIVINGSTONE certainly came of age when the British Left was conditioned by anti-colonialism, yet few on the Left have displayed his gross insensitivity to Jews - and especially to Jews who have a national consciousness.

Instead of promoting communal harmony between Jews and Muslims despite their differences over the Israel-Palestine conflict, he seems determined to polarize an often tense relationship through provocative and often inaccurate comments.

In particular, gays and parts of the Left have been astounded at his attempt to embrace the Islamists such as the Muslim Association of Britain. His attempts to "understand" the nationalist terrorism of Palestinian suicide bombers directed at Israeli civilians contrasts with his passionate condemnation of the British jihadists who killed over 50 people on the London Underground.

The killing of innocents per se becomes secondary, the rationale for it primary. Perhaps such an association goes back to the days when Gerry Healy was a strong supporter of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Livingstone has also been accused of surrounding himself with advisers from the WRP days as well as far leftists of more recent vintage.

While Livingstone has condemned anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, he seems to be more than reticent in accepting that the Jews have a right to national self-determination. While he says that his concern for the Palestinians stems from the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, there is no record anywhere of his support for the efforts of Peace Now, which does not disavow Zionism. Livingstone prefers Israelis and Jews on the far Left who are ambivalent about Zionism as well as traditionally acquiescent Diaspora Jews.

Coming from south London where there are few Jews, his acquaintance with Jews is probably limited. Indeed, it is hard to remember when he last visited areas of large Jewish concentration in London.

Logic dictates that no serious Labour politician would offer him a position in government today. Tomorrow, however, may be different - especially if beleaguered politicians believe that Livingstone's populism can bring back defecting Labour voters to the fold.



The writer lectures in Israeli Studies at the University of London.


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