Over the next two days, during the course of his long-awaited Labour Party hearing following his suspension for bringing the party into disrepute, Ken Livingstone will try to paint himself as a victim; a political veteran whose only offence has been standing up for the rights of Palestinians. An innocent lefty caught up in a valiant battle against an unholy alliance of Blairites and the mainstream media.
Don’t swallow a word of it. It seems the latter part of Livingstone’s political career has been characterised almost as much for serially offending the Jewish community as for any other achievement: from his concentration camp guard comment to a reporter to his comments ahead of the 2012 mayoral election that Jews were unlikely to support Labour in large numbers because of their wealth. When it comes to offending the Jewish community, Livingstone is about as innocent as, er, Ken Livingstone. And that’s the point. This latest case has solidified his place as the poster boy for provoking communal offence.
But that, you may rightly point out, is not the issue at this week’s crunch hearing of the National Constitutional Committee. The charge on which the NCC must rule is that he “engaged in conduct that in the opinion of the NEC was prejudicial and/or grossly detrimental to the Labour Party”. No more and no less. On that, this is surely an open and shut case.
The fact of the matter is that – at a time he was a member of the party’s influential governing body last summer – Livingstone went out of his way to defend MP Naz Shah who by that time had already apologised for sharing a social media post during the Gaza conflict describing the “solution” as transporting Israel to the US. While she accepted the post contained anti-Semitic sentiment, he has spent the past 11 months insisting otherwise.
He perpetuated the scandal by touring media studios to protest his innocence, in the process claiming that Hitler at one point “supported Zionism before going mad”. Despite being fully aware of the offence he had caused, the media rounds started again. He was given no less than 16 opportunities to apologise during an LBC interview. Instead he repeatedly said he wish he hadn’t said it before doubling down on the claim. What’s more, he continues to defend the remarks today, only rubbing salt into the wounds this week by claiming Nazi policy “had the effect of supporting Zionism”. Any comments that could somehow infer the Nazi dictator backed Jewish aspirations for a homeland are as misleading as they are perverse.
But again this case isn’t about history. It is, however, about the fact national journalists have spent the past 11 months joking about how long it’s been since a Labour heavyweight mentioned Hitler.
While Livingstone is not being accused in this case of being anti-Semitic, it’s not in doubt that allegations of anti-Semitism have cost his party support – and his name is never far from the tip of the tongue when the issue is discussed in the Jewish community and beyond. Despite many not having a view on whether he should be expelled, our exclusive poll with ComRes today shows that even among the dwindling numbers who still identify as Labour voters nearly a quarter think he should be expelled. That figure was nearly one in three among British voters overall. No amount of him calling left-wing Jews as witnesses or stressing the fall in anti-Semitism under his mayoralty is likely to change that.
A poll of Jewish voters, days after the suspension of Shah and Livingstone, showed a haemoragging of support for Labour but our poll suggests a significant impact of anti-Semitism allegations on the electorate as a whole. Thirty four percent agreed such claims made them think twice about voting Labour compared to 29 percent who disagreed – with 14 percent of Labour voters and a staggering 43 percent for Lib Dems agreeing.
The truth is that, far from being just an issue for the Jewish community, figures like Momentum chief Jo Lansman called for the former mayor to keep quiet about Zionism and Israel and suggested “it’s time he left politics altogether”.
Today the NCC has a chance to finally make that happen. This has long been seen a test case by many in the community.
If the party cares about the views of the vast majority of British Jews, there can only be one result. If it cares about perceptions of anti-Semitism in the party, there can only one result. If the party wants to uphold its own rules, the three-person panel can only rule one way.