Strangeness on a train: My chat with Ken Livingstone

Strangeness on a train: My chat with Ken Livingstone

After Labour suspended Ken Livingstone, News Editor Justin Cohen caught a train with the former mayor, and this is what he said....

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Ken on the Tube, being interviewed by Jewish News in 2017
Ken on the Tube, being interviewed by Jewish News in 2017

I didn’t need the former London mayor to accuse Jewish News of opposing his expulsion to know he is on another planet. A 13-minute journey alone (along with a carriage packed with commuters) with him on the northbound Jubilee Line was more than enough to do that.

That’s the decidedly bizarre position I found myself within minutes of the conclusion of his three-day disciplinary hearing into charges he brought the party into disrepute.

As he walked at pace away from the hearing towards St James’ Park station, the media pack in hot pursuit, I made it clear to the former mayor I was from a Jewish newspaper.

As the rest of the pack peeled away, I suggested he stop hurtling towards the underground for two minutes, only for him to invite me to join him on the journey home instead. He called his wife, casually telling her he hadn’t been expelled and would shortly be home for dinner.

What followed was an experience that will surely always rank as one of the most bizarre of my career. As we made our way down the escalators, he pointed out that he expected the Jewish Chronicle would be rather angry at the result. I felt obliged, if a little shocked, to have to point out that we would be, too, stressing again, when he sought my views, the hurt he had caused.

I started filming as we reached the platform at Westminster, but he insisted he couldn’t wait as the next train hurtled into the platform.

On to the train we went, the man who is currently the Jewish community enemy number one and the news editor of a paper that last week called for ‘Kenxit’.

It was a bizarre experience, not just because we were surrounded by bemused tourists and locals taking snaps, but perhaps all the more so because he remained doggedly attached to his version of events and strikingly unrepentant.

“I’ve had the children of Holocaust survivors come up to me and say ‘my dad would have agreed with what you say,’” he said.

How does he feel to have caused further damage to Labour relations with British Jews? “I’d simply say to the Jewish community: Look at my record; the eight years I was mayor anti-Semitic incidents were halved.  Boris Johnson came to office and in his first year they went up 60 percent.”

Not a hint of irony that his time as mayor will be remembered by Anglo-Jewry for many things, such as his concentration camp guard slur and his hosting of hate preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi (an invitation he also defended during our journey).

He offered perhaps his strangest defence yet when I suggested his pattern of behaviour suggested a Holocaust obsession. He said the terms ‘jumped up little Hitler’ and ‘isn’t that what concentration camp guards said?’ when responding to comments of ‘‘I’m just doing my job’ were “common bits of slang and abuse back in the 1950s”.

At one point he acknowledged he hadn’t provided a “detailed historical analysis” in his original comments about Hitler and Zionism. Ah, perhaps we’re getting somewhere. You acknowledge that Hitler didn’t support the creation of a Jewish state yet saying he supported Zionism means just that, I pointed out. “It’s not the same thing,” he said. I was clearly hitting my head against a brick wall.

He had always told the truth in politics, he insisted.

“I haven’t been to a New Labour training school for duplicity and evasion. It’s my fault.”

On at least three occasions I offered him the chance to apologise. “If anyone was upset I’m really sorry about that,” is the best he could muster. When I asked if he could say it without the word ‘if’, he pointedly refused.

It no longer particularly matters how much the former mayor digs himself in. What matters is that Labour’s disciplinary panel found against him and still didn’t expel him.

Unless it was a very different Livingstone to the one I encountered, the panel took its decision knowing he remained unrepentant and would likely continue the behaviour that brought the party into disrepute in the first place.

No wonder questions are being asked about the make-up of the panel and what Livingstone said when asked – as the rules dictate – whether there were mitigating circumstances.


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