‘Red Ken’ redux

Let’s face facts: Livingstone has a problem with Jews.

UK Labor politician Ken Livingstone 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico)
UK Labor politician Ken Livingstone 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico)
On 1 March last a remarkable meeting took place between the British Labor politician Kenneth Robert Livingstone (“Red Ken” to his friends) and what has been described as “a substantial number” of British Jews who are Labor Party members. The meeting was private and its proceedings were conducted under Chatham House rules – meaning that nothing that was said could be attributed, though Livingstone himself let it be known that he was happy for his remarks to be both reported and attributed. We know about the meeting because it was the subject of a scarcely less remarkable letter written on March 21 by some of those present to Labor leader Ed Miliband, and subsequently leaked to the Jewish Chronicle.
On May 3 Londoners will go to the polls to elect a new mayor. For all practical purposes the choice is between the incumbent Boris Johnson, the Conservative candidate, and the man from whom he snatched the mayoralty four years ago, Ken Livingstone. Red Ken is nominally running on a Labor ticket. But it’s worth bearing in mind that at the first London mayoral election, in 2000, Livingstone ran – successfully – as an independent against the official Labor candidate.
Tony Blair (the then Labor prime minister) wasted little time in having Livingstone expelled from the party, but of course he could not be dislodged from the office to which he had been elected at City Hall. The expulsion was subsequently rescinded and in 2004 Livingstone ran for mayor as the official Labor candidate, and won. But in 2008 he lost – narrowly – to Boris Johnson. Now, in the year of the summer 2012 London Olympics (in the ceremonial of which the mayor of London will play a prominent part), Livingstone is desperate to win back the mayoral trophy.
Livingstone’s 2008 defeat was by no means a foregone conclusion. Then aged 62, he had spent a lifetime immersed in the socialist politics of the metropolis, carefully building “rainbow” coalitions of the capital’s ethnic malcontents, prominent amongst whom were the Irish and the Muslims. To please the Irish he lavished praise on the Sinn Fein/IRA leadership, whom he went out of his way to meet, explaining that Britain’s treatment of the Irish had been worse than Hitler’s treatment of the Jews – a statement as obscene as it was untrue. To please the Muslims he invited to City Hall Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric best known for his support for suicide bombers, the execution of homosexuals, wife-beating and the destruction of the Jewish state.
But Livingstone has never courted the Jewish vote. As Labor leader of the now-defunct Greater London Council (1981-86) he pursued an unashamed anti-Israeli agenda. His Jewish apologists explained this as anti-Zionism but not anti- Semitism. But this alibi has become progressively harder to uphold. In 1984, in an interview with Davar, Livingstone accused Jews of “organizing here in London and throughout Britain into paramilitary groups which resemble fascist organizations.” As far as I’m aware he has never apologized for this outrageously false statement. More recently we must call to mind that in an infamous incident in 2005 he publicly insulted the newspaper reporter Oliver Finegold – who is Jewish – by likening him to “a concentration camp guard.”
Let’s face facts: Livingstone has a problem with Jews. Taken individually, each of his anti-Jewish indiscretions could perhaps be explained away as a slip of the tongue, a momentary lapse. Taken together they constitute a dossier. And in 2008 the Jews of London had their revenge. Even as the day of the poll approached, Livingstone could have taken a deep breath and issued an effusive apology for the hurt he had caused the Jewish citizens of London. He did not do so. He relied instead on the alliance of malcontents that had served him well in the past. His vote actually increased compared with 2004. But Boris Johnson’s vote increased by an even greater percentage (the details are in an analysis I published in the Jewish Journal of Sociology in 2010). There is little doubt that much if not most of this increase came from Jewish voters who would otherwise have simply abstained.
Such is the grim background to the meeting of March 1, 2012, and to the letter subsequently sent to Ed Miliband – the first professing Jew to lead the Labor Party. What were the motives of those who attended the meeting? They claimed that they wished “to explore ways in which Ken could re-connect with Jewish voters in advance of the May 3rd mayoral election.” Did they hope that he would oblige them with an attractive sound-bite? Or that he would give an assurance that during the mayoral campaign he would refrain from saying anything about Jews or Israel?
If so they were bitterly disappointed. Livingstone (they reported to Miliband) sees Jews exclusively as a religious group, lacking any ethnic or national dimension. “At various points in the discussion,” they continued, Livingstone “used the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli, interchangeably, as if they meant the same.” What is more, he “did so in a pejorative manner.” Incredibly, however, they still managed to end their letter on a note of optimism: “We firmly believe that Ken can turn this situation around, and can count on Jewish voters to help him be elected Mayor of London. But he does however desperately need to face up to the issues we raise.”
In my view this forced optimism is totally without foundation. Livingstone has pitched his tent. Everyone on the right side of half-witted knows that it contains nothing that could possibly be attractive to any self-respecting Jew. Reading the letter (not to mention Livingstone’s completely unapologetic reaction to it) I am left wondering whether any other ethnic group in the great multi-ethnic city of London would have dared demean itself as did those Jews who secretly met Livingstone on March 1. I have to ask what it would really take to make them – those Jews – do the only honorable thing that is left to them to do (and as one of those who met him – the celebrated Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland – has now to his credit done) and break with him. And having broken with him those Jews must surely reassess their membership of the party that supports him, affords him its membership and extends to him its sycophantic protection.
The writer is a professor at the University of Buckingham, England.