LONDON — For more than three decades the long shadow of Ken Livingstone has cast a pall over the relationship between the Jewish community and Britain’s Labour party.
The former London mayor’s resignation from the party on Monday comes two years after his claim that Hitler initially supported Zionism kicked off a still-incomplete disciplinary process. The resignation closes a chapter in Labour’s ongoing row over alleged anti-Semitism within its ranks.
But few Jews, or their allies on the party’s moderate wing, will feel any sense of satisfaction or justice done. Instead, many will wonder how it is that Labour has tolerated Livingstone’s presence for quite so long. And they will doubt that his departure will significantly change Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the party’s anti-Semitism problems.
Controversial and outspoken, Livingstone’s appeal to many Londoners rested on his colorful asides, left-wing populism and willingness to flout authority.
Decades of controversy
Livingstone led the Greater London Council (GLC) in the early 1980s, served as the member of parliament for the northwest London constituency of Brent East for 13 years, and was then elected to the newly created post of London mayor in 2000.
He challenged both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair at the height of their powers, and lived to tell the tale. The former abolished the GLC in 1985 in part because of her distaste for Livingstone’s hard-left antics and fear of his popularity; the latter attempted to block him from winning the Labour nomination to run for City Hall in 2000.
Livingstone bolted the party and, running as an independent, was comfortably elected that year. Four years later, with Livingstone planning to run for reelection, Labour was forced to readmit him to the party to avoid another humiliation in the left-leaning capital.
Some of Livingstone’s causes – on his watch, the GLC embodied a “rainbow coalition” politic, championing the rights of minorities such as the LGBT community at a time when there were few votes to be won in doing so – have stood the test of time.
But his seeming addiction to controversy, coupled with an apparent unwillingness ever to admit fault, led Livingstone into perilous waters with London’s 170,000 Jews, many of whom had once been loyal supporters of the Labour party.
This is not a recent development. Almost from the moment he took charge of the GLC after Labour came to power in 1981 – dispatching the party’s moderate leader in the capital in an internal coup in the process – Livingstone showed an, at times, gleeful indifference to Jewish sensibilities.
In 1982, for instance, the Labour Herald, a newspaper of which Livingstone was an editor, published a cartoon of then-Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin dressed in a Gestapo uniform amid the skulls and corpses of Palestinians with the caption “The Final Solution.” The Board of Deputies of British Jews unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the attorney general to prosecute under the Race Relations Act.
Livingstone would later suggest to the Israeli magazine Davar that the Board of Deputies had been “taken over by Jews who hold extreme right-wing views” and offered the bizarre pronouncement that Jews “have been organizing here in London, and throughout Britain, into paramilitary groups which resemble fascist organizations.”
Livingstone’s appalled Labour colleagues on the GLC openly revolted, passing a resolution calling on him to withdraw these “outrageous accusations.” The Jewish Chronicle condemned Livingstone’s “sweeping vilification of the community,” warning that it threatened to make “Labour-supporting movements ‘Judenrein.’”
It was not only Livingstone’s words, however, which angered much of the community. In 1984, the GLC’s “Anti-Racist Year” swiftly descended into a platform for the hard left to attack Israel.
Grants were provided to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (a far-left organization which worked to replace Israel with a “democratic secular state”) to hold a conference on “Anti-Arab Racism.” The chairman of one council committee explained that “since the philosophy of Zionism has been condemned along with apartheid by the United Nations as racist, it is perfectly in order to place Palestinian solidarity on this anti-racist platform.”
As the historian Geoffrey Alderman has argued, the events of 1984 “marked a watershed of devastating dimensions” in the relationship between London’s Labour party and the capital’s Jewish citizens. Shortly afterwards, the Jewish Labour assistant chief whip on the GLC resigned in protest at the “long line of attacks made against the Jewish people” by Livingstone.
By October 1985 relations between the community and Livingstone were so bad that an attempt to organize a lunch to celebrate the Jewish contribution to London was abandoned when both the chief rabbi — the planned guest of honor — and the Board Of Deputies indicated that they would not attend if Livingstone were also present.
Livingstone MP and mayor
That Livingstone’s entry into parliament in 1987 was facilitated by the ousting of Reg Freeson, a Jewish Labour MP and leading figure in Poale Zion — the Jewish socialist society affiliated to the party — did little to assist any form of rapprochement between the community and Livingstone.
As the centrist SDP–Liberal Alliance’s Jewish candidate in the seat, Daniel Finkelstein, suggested, Livingstone had a polarizing effect.
“There’s a genuine aversion to him among Jewish people,” Finkelstein argued, “even among those of quite solidly Labour persuasion, because of his record and reputation on Israel and the community.”
While Livingstone remained one of Britain’s most high-profile politicians, his years in parliament saw a largely successful effort by the Labour leadership to keep him away from any real power. That changed, however, when Livingstone became London’s mayor in 2000 and won re-election in 2004.
Age did not appear to bring wisdom. Instead, Livingstone’s second time in charge of London’s government proved as contentious as his first. In 2004, he invited the militant Islamic cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to City Hall, publicly embracing a man who – besides condoning wife-beating and the murder of homosexuals – had justified suicide bombings in Israel.
Amidst a storm of criticism, Livingstone was utterly unrepentant. Instead, he apologized to al-Qaradawi for “the outburst of xenophobia in sections of the media” and invited him to visit London again.
The following year, Livingstone was similarly unapologetic after likening Oliver Finegold, a Jewish newspaper reporter, to a concentration camp guard. Despite appeals from the chief rabbi and prime minister to apologize to the journalist, the mayor stubbornly refused to do so.
This row was still rumbling on when the mayor again caused offense by suggesting that the Reuben brothers, two prominent property developers who had incurred his displeasure, should “go back to Iran and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs.”
David and Simon Reuben were, in fact, born in India and hail from an Iraqi-Jewish family, but none of this seemed to bother Livingstone who again refused to say he was sorry.
“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,” he said in response to such calls. “I wasn’t meaning to be offensive to the people of Iran.”
Livingstone’s attempt to patch things up with London’s increasingly angry and frustrated Jewish community – “If I’ve caused any offense to anyone in the past, I apologize, it was never my intention. It was never a calculated intention to cause offense,” he told a 2006 meeting of the London Jewish Forum – did little to heal a breach that now appeared irreparable.
Out of office
Determined to avenge his defeat in 2008, when Boris Johnson (now the UK’s Foreign Secretary) snatched the mayoralty from him, Livingstone geared up for another run at City Hall four years later.
His paid work for Press TV, a mouthpiece for the Iranian regime; accusations that his critics were being “obsessive” over his relationship with al-Qaradawi; and suggestion that the row over his comments to Finegold was a “huge fuss about nothing” indicated that Livingstone was not unduly concerned about winning the votes of London’s Jews.
This suspicion was seemingly confirmed when Livingstone told a private meeting of Jewish Labour supporters that Jews were rich and thus unlikely to vote for him anyway.
In a subsequent letter to then-Labour leader Ed Miliband, a number of attendees at the meeting also charged that Livingstone “determines Jews as a religious group but does not accept Jews as an ethnicity and a people.”
It also stated that he had “used the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli interchangeably, as if they meant the same, and did so in a pejorative manner.”
“Many of us who would otherwise normally vote Labour are finding it harder and harder to consider voting for Ken,” they warned.
Livingstone’s attitude would cost him dearly. In a tighter than expected race, he only narrowly failed to unseat Johnson. The fact that Labour candidates standing for the London Assembly in areas with large numbers of Jewish voters ran significantly ahead of Livingstone gave a strong clue as to the distaste with which many in the community viewed the former mayor.
Livingstone’s outlandish and offensive suggestion last year that Hitler had initially supported Zionism and his subsequent refusal to back down – he suggested there has been “real collaboration” between the Nazis and Jews – was thus not an aberration, but part of a pattern of behavior stretching back more than 30 years.
Stripped of power – when he was suspended from the party in 2016, the former mayor lost his seat on its governing body, the National Executive Committee – and his political career at an end, Livingstone has become something of a joke figure. On social media, his frequent television appearances are accompanied by tongue-in-cheek speculation as to how long it will be before he mentions Hitler.
But with his old comrade Corbyn firmly entrenched as Labour leader, and his hard left allies setting the party’s agenda, it is difficult not to conclude that, despite his resignation, it is Livingstone who has had the last laugh.
The writer is the former editor of Progress magazine and is now a contributing editor to it. He previously served as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office.
Is the fast, fair and free journalism of The Times of Israel important to you?
If so, today - Giving Tuesday - is the right time to join The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6/month, you will support our independent journalism - and enjoy an AD-FREE experience, and unlock exclusive content available only for members of The Times of Israel Community.
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.