LONDON — Is London about to elect a mayor who has been accused of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?
Until last week, former mayor Ken Livingstone was trailing the incumbent Boris Johnson in opinion polls by as much as six points. But now, only days before the election on Thursday, May 3, the two are neck-and-neck, separated by just two percentage points, according to pollster YouGov.
If Livingstone, who was mayor between 2000-2008, is returned to office, it will be greeted with concern by much of the Jewish community, which makes up around 200,000 of Greater London’s population of 8.2 million. Livingstone, who belongs to the left-wing Labour party, has clashed with them repeatedly. Even some of the most avid Jewish Labourites have come out publicly this time to explain why they cannot vote for him.
Livingstone’s attitude to Jews and other minorities has been a factor for the wider electorate as well. On March 1, Jewish Labour supporters attended a private meeting with Livingstone in order to explore ways in which he could reconnect with his alienated Jewish voters. Livingstone responded that they would not vote for him anyway, as the Jewish community is “rich.” Six of the attendees wrote a letter expressing concern to British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (who is himself halachically Jewish), which was later leaked, garnering national attention.
“Whereas before, Ken’s views tended to be dealt with in the Jewish press, with limited circulation, this time the [general] media picked it up,” says Mike Freer, the Member of Parliament for Finchley and Golders Green, heavily Jewish areas. “He has been trying to set off one community against another. Even the Islamic community has noticed that he is revelling in being rude and divisive. If you pick on one community one week, it’s only a matter of time until you pick on another.”
By contrast, says Freer, Boris Johnson is a mayor “for all London.” (Both Freer and Johnson are members of the right-wing Conservative party, which is currently in government.)
If most elections are referendums on the incumbent, this election is rapidly turning into a referendum on the challenger, particularly amongst Jews. Livingstone, with his radical politics and often abrasive personality, tends to stir up strong emotions.
Born into a working-class family in London in 1945, he dropped out of school at 16 and found work as a technician in a cancer research laboratory. There, his colleagues introduced him to socialism, and he soon became active politically, earning himself the nickname “Red Ken.” Initially he was active in local London politics, eventually becoming leader of the Greater London Council – the forerunner of the mayor’s position. In 1987 he was elected to parliament, but he returned to the London stage in 2000 when the post of London mayor was created. (Unlike North America, the capital is still the only British city with a directly elected mayor.)
After controversially meeting Adams in 1983, Livingstone said that Britain’s treatment of the Irish over the last 800 years had been worse than Adolf Hitler’s treatment of the Jews
Throughout his career, Livingstone has been known for his love of newts, his hatred of the establishment and his association with far-left figures such as Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Irish Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. After controversially meeting Adams in 1983, Livingstone said that Britain’s treatment of the Irish over the last 800 years had been worse than Adolf Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.
Livingstone built his career upon identity politics, strongly promoting minorities such as the gay and Muslim communities. In this election campaign, for example, he has promised to make London a “beacon” for the words of the prophet Muhammed (though he ignited a political storm this February when he remarked that the Conservative party was “riddled” with homosexuals).
Speaking last month at the North London Central Mosque, which was formerly the base of the radical Muslim preacher and terrorist recruiter Abu Hamza, Livingstone vowed to “educate the mass of Londoners” in Islam. “That will help to cement our city as a beacon that demonstrates the meaning of the words of the Prophet… I want to spend the next four years making sure that every non-Muslim in London knows and understands [the prophet's] words and message.”
But he seemed willing to sacrifice his relationship with the Jewish community. In 2005, he came under fire for calling Oliver Finegold, a Jewish reporter for the Evening Standard newspaper, a concentration camp guard, and comparing him to a German war criminal. The next year, he told two Indian-born Jewish businessmen who were involved in a dispute over a facility for the 2012 London Olympics to “go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs.” When asked to apologise, he said, “I would offer a complete apology to the people of Iran to the suggestion that they may be linked in any way to the Reuben brothers. I wasn’t meaning to be offensive to the people of Iran.”
And there have been persistent concerns over his association with radical Islamists, in particular his decision as mayor to host Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, a radical Egyptian cleric who has supported suicide bombings in Israel, and his decision to present shows on Press TV, the global English-language television channel controlled by the Iranian government. He is an impassioned supporter of the Palestinians, excusing Palestinian suicide attacks, accusing Israel of ethnically cleansing the Palestinians and, during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, of the “slaughter and systematic murder of innocent Arabs.” He has said more than once that he considered former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon a war criminal who belonged in jail.
Until recently, Livingstone was considered to have little chance of being returned to the mayoralty. Although he had some successes as mayor, in particular the introduction of the congestion charge — a fee on cars entering central London, intended to reduce traffic — he lost to Johnson in 2008 as the Labour government lurched towards the end of its final term in a series of scandals. Many Labourites opposed him becoming their candidate for mayor this year, considering him a relic of the “loony left” and unappealing to voters.
The change in his fortunes seems to be related to a slump in support for the Conservative government, which has adversely affected Johnson. The suddenly very real prospect of Livingstone’s election, inconceivable just a couple of weeks ago, is alarming for many Jews, who consider it inevitable that he will clash with them again. Several media personalities, such as Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland and The Apprentice host Lord Sugar, both associated with Labour, have openly said they are not voting for him.
The recent “rich Jews” debacle was taken as evidence that Livingstone simply does not understand the community. Livingstone’s assumption was that Jews who were relatively wealthy would automatically cast their votes on the right.
‘The Jewish community is different, they have a social conscience and often vote Labour against their wealth interest’
“He really thinks we are like everybody else,” says Rabbi Avraham Pinter, principal of Yesodey Hatorah Senior School for Girls in the Charedi neighbourhood of Stamford Hill, and a friend of Livingstone’s for 35 years. “When you are on the shop floor you vote Labour, but when you become a manager you start voting Conservative – it comes with the promotion. That’s how the general community is, they vote where they see themselves financially. But the Jewish community is different, they have a social conscience and often vote Labour against their wealth interest. I’m not sure he sees that.”
Pinter, who was instrumental in getting Livingstone to apologize for the incident, says that while he disagrees with him completely over Israel, he has never “personally found him to be anti-Semitic.” In fact, he says, Livingstone has been helpful on issues concerning the Jewish community, such as affordable housing, and that when it comes to policy, he has never seen “any evidence of him showing less favour to the Jewish community than to anybody else.”
He believes that Livingstone’s antagonism toward the Board of Deputies, Anglo-Jewry’s main representative organization, comes from his “dislike of the establishment. He disliked the establishment in the Labour party too – that’s what characterizes him.” And he says that too often, Livingstone has made matters worse for himself by refusing to apologize or back down when it becomes clear he is wrong.
But if Livingstone is elected, Pinter sees some hope.
“He is maturing, he seems to be improving on that, though he still has some way to go… The thing about Ken is that he is approachable; you can have a dialogue with him. In his last term, the community left that until very late in the day. The London Jewish Forum [an organization set up in 2006, specifically in order to dialogue with the mayor] was very helpful. We are now in a different stage. The Board of Deputies will also learn from experience, and we will be able to communicate in a more constructive way.”
And the Jewish vote goes to…
On the face of things, Livingstone’s main opponent, Boris Johnson, seems like a shoo-in for the Jewish vote. With a shock of blonde hair, flamboyant manner and formidable intellect, he is considered one of the most likeable of the current crop of politicians – despite, not because of, his privileged background, which is considered a disadvantage in today’s equality-obsessed Britain.
Regularly touted as a future prime minister, Johnson has a good rapport with the Jewish community, appearing often at community events and staunchly supporting Israel’s right to defend itself.
According to Stuart Polak, director of the Conservative Friends of Israel, “Boris has also worked hard on the specific issues important to the Jewish community, such as tackling extremism; ensuring excellent cooperation with the Community Security Trust in providing the safest environment for Jewish schools and institutions; and improving transport links” between two Orthodox neighbourhoods through a review of bus routes.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson even has a Jewish great-grandfather, the Moscow-born son of a schmatter dealer (another great-grandfather was a Muslim Turkish government minister).
‘I feel Jewish when I feel the Jewish people are threatened or under attack’
“I feel Jewish when I feel the Jewish people are threatened or under attack,” he told The Jewish Chronicle newspaper in 2007.
And yet it is unclear whether he will pick up votes from Labour-supporting Jews who cannot bring themselves to vote for Livingstone, or whether they will prefer to abstain or transfer their vote to one of the five other candidates standing. While no statistics exist regarding the voting patterns of London’s Jews in mayoral elections, a 2010 survey of Jewish political attitudes, published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, shows that Jews across the country are evenly split between the Conservatives and Labour. But in North and East London, where the majority of the Jewish population lives, Labour is the preferred party.
As in previous years, many may ultimately choose to turn a blind eye to Livingstone’s sentiments on Jews and make their decision based on party lines, or issues affecting London as a whole, such as transport costs and police numbers following the London riots last summer, and controversy surrounding the candidates’ own tax returns. It recently emerged that Livingstone, who in the past has blasted rich tax dodgers, exploited legal loopholes to drastically reduce his own tax liability.
“As a result of the leaked letter, Ken has made more effort to woo the Jewish community than he has in previous elections,” says former chair of Limmud International Andrew Gilbert, one of the signatories on the letter. “There’s no question that, ignoring Jewish issues, Ken would be the better choice for London.”
Five out of the six signatories on the letter, including Gilbert, have now issued a statement endorsing Livingstone after all — with “eyes open and breathing deeply, maybe with a sigh or two.”
“So much about Ken is good for London and even for the Jewish community,” they wrote. “ Ken’s policies on housing, transport, regeneration, business, young people, crime and so much more is streets ahead of Boris.”
They praised him for investing in an annual celebration of Jewish culture in Trafalgar Square, Simcha in the Square, which was cancelled in 2009 for lack of funding.
Livingstone, they added, “cared about our social issues, our demographic issues and engaged with us. We credit Ken for his refusal to sit on a platform with the British National Party candidate. Ken also opposed the academic boycott of Israeli academics.”
The signatories acknowledge that as mayor, Mr. Livingstone would “irritate, upset and annoy.” But according to Gilbert, ultimately London’s Jews “have to consider whether it is possible for the community to manage the relationship with Ken and if we believe that’s possible, it would not be a stupid decision to vote for him as London mayor.
“Having said that,” he adds, “the idea that Ken should ever be foreign secretary is one we would never wish to contemplate.”