As an American I cannot vote in British elections, but I joined the Labour Party here in 1999 so I could support Ken Livingstone. When Labour expelled him in 2000 I rang doorbells and handed out leaflets for his campaign; in 2004 I did the same, and in 2008 I even made a donation. Today, while the rest of London goes to the polls, I’m staying home, checkbook firmly shut, and I’m not happy about it.
Because Ken Livingstone was a truly great mayor. It wasn’t just getting through the congestion charge (a toll for cars to enter central London)—something Mike Bloomberg and all his billions couldn’t manage in Manhattan. Or the successful introduction of the Oyster travelcards. Or his opposition to Gordon Brown’s idiotic (and ruinously expensive) devotion to Public - Private Partnerships to finance capital projects. Or the brilliant re-design of Trafalgar Square from death spiral traffic island to one of the world’s great public stages. Or even the truly statesmanlike way he kept the city together in the wake of the July 7, 2005 bomb attacks.
Livingstone understood, more than any other British politician, the way cities worked, what they needed to grow and prosper, and why people came to live in them—sometimes at great cost and across enormous distances. Livingstone often reminded me of New York’s Ed Koch, whose arrogance he also shared, though of course their politics were very different, with Koch’s fanatical Zionism and increasing neo-conservatism much less congenial to me than Livingstone’s frankly pro-Palestinian leftism.
Even now Ken’s proposals to cut bus and tube fares, buy energy in bulk (and pass the savings on to Londoners) and build affordable housing are all far superior to Boris Johnson’s platform of trickle-down economics in which a supposedly resurgent financial sector serves as the engine of prosperity for the whole country.
Livingstone is a genius at leveraging the minimal powers granted the office—chiefly over public transport, urban planning, and police numbers. He pushed through the congestion charge, he once told me, because it was his only chance for revenue that didn’t depend on Whitehall’s largess.
But his Conservative successor Boris Johnson, for all his buffoonish antics, has not been a terrible mayor either. His self-appointed role as tribune of the plutocrats can be galling, and Londoners who depend on public transport have had to pay more than they might under Livingstone, but Johnson has also proved willing to defy his party on immigration and housing policies that would force the poor to leave London.
Elections are about more than policy choices, though—particularly mayoral elections. When Livingstone compared a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard I wasn’t that bothered. He’d been provoked, and although his refusal to apologize seemed boorish, and his sudden discovery that the reporter's employer, the Evening Standard, was “a load of scumbags” was laughable, given that he’d been perfectly happy to serve as the paper’s restaurant reviewer in the 1980s.
Some British Jews have been after Livingstone for years—including the Jewish Chronicle. But what made the latest row so painful is that this time Livingstone’s bile was aimed at Jews who were trying hard to support him. In March a group of longtime Labour backers requested a private meeting to clear the air on a number of issues—and to seek reassurance. They came away feeling disregarded and distressed—and said so in a confidential letter to Labour leader Ed Miiband.
The meeting itself may have been a set-up; certainly someone leaked the letter to the Jewish Chronicle, which gleefully reported Livingstone’s remark that Jews wouldn’t vote for him because they are “rich.” But Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, who was at the meeting, and who took a lot of heat for endorsing Livingstone in 2008, says the report was accurate. When it comes to Jews, Freedland wrote, Livingstone “simply doesn’t care.”
Whether Livingstone has truly made the transit from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism, or has simply calculated that any perceived deference to Jewish opinion would count against him among London’s far more numerous Muslim voters, I can’t say. But neither can I ignore my own sense that he seems seem willing to dismiss and diminish Jewish concerns in a way that doesn’t seem true for other minority groups. Anshel Pfeffer’s tragicomic portrayal of Livingstone and Labour Jews talking past each other was completely convincing; his conclusion that Livingstone’s abrasiveness actually makes him “the most Israeli” of British politicians may also be right.
But Britain isn’t Israel, and London isn’t New York. Public life here is more decorous, and Jews less assertive. British Jews of all political persuasions have a long, dishonorable history of swallowing slights and excusing unsavory alliances.
Last week Livingstone again maintained his comments had been misrepresented—a non-apology sufficient for five of the letter’s six signatories to endorse his candidacy.
I wish I could agree with them. But the argument that a progressive stand on social issues excuses callousness toward Jewish pain is no better than the claim, frequently heard among American and British conservatives, that support for Israel trumps any concern for social justice at home.
Jews in Britain have turned the other cheek far too long. If Livingstone’s defeat is the price to be paid for self-respect, so be it.
D.D. Guttenplan is London correspondent for The Nation. His latest book, American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, has just been published in paperback by Northwestern University Press.
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