Ken Livingstone has been very stupid. In a tight election that he was managing to make about fares and living standards, he’s managed to once again become the story. It was the very opposite of what his campaign needs, and what Londoners expect and deserve from their mayoral candidates.
The tax issue should have been cleared up ages ago by releasing his tax returns. While allowing it to fester, he’s also allowing public imaginations to run wild, and the numbers being guessed at by disreputable sources like Andrew Gilligan remain in the vacuum.
The Jewish question is much more complex. I don’t – for one moment – believe that Ken is an anti-Semite. But I do think he sails too close to the wind in too ill-informed a manner too often. Equally, it isn’t important what I think. I’m not Jewish and I don’t feel personally attacked when Ken talks about Zionism. But Ken does have a long history of interest in the middle east issues and he can hardly disavow that now. When he is being questioned not just by those who have always loathed him at Labour Uncut and Gilligan, but by committed Labour activists and supporters who are also Jewish and find Ken’s behavior alarmingly off-putting, Ken cannot simply write this off as a media conspiracy or the right out to get him.
Yes, of course this is being whipped up by the right. Of course Ken’s enemies in the Labour Party and outside of it are continually fanning the flames. But Ken, you’ve been a divisive figure in politics for forty years now, so the question is “what did you expect?”. Of course they were always going to leap on any frailty and leverage any advantage. But why do you keep letting them? Why present them with open goals?
Ken needs to apologise to the Jewish Community and he needs to do so today. Were I him, I would offer the following letter to the Jewish Chronicle immediately*:
As someone who has spent my life fighting prejudice, I am horrified that I have been the cause of such consternation in the Jewish Community. I deeply apologise for any and all upset I have caused. I, like many of you, have strong feelings about the politics of the Middle East. It’s a topic that all too often fosters false divisions between communities in our country and our city.
I don’t apologise for the views I hold about the rights of the Palestinian people, nor do I recant my belief that that Israel is not always a benign actor. I respect you too much to recant my firmly held beliefs for the sake of my own political advantage.
But I sincerely apologise for the way that I have clumsily expressed those views at times. I guess even when you’ve been in politics as long as I have, there is a great deal to learn. Perhaps especially when you have been in politics as long as I have.
If Ken were to do that, he could put the issue behind him and start again to campaign on the issues that matter to all Londoners – Jews and Gentiles, Muslims, Sikhs, Rastafarians and everyone else in our wonderfully diverse city. If Ken were to do that he would be going a lot more than half way (and rightly so) to meet his left-leaning critics.
But here’s the thing. Whether or not Ken does anything like what I’ve suggested, the choice for London in May is still clear cut. The playground politics of division aside, Londoners are going to wake up on 4th May with either Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson as Mayor. This is not a choice between Ken and a fantasy Labour candidate of your choice.
While I cannot dispute the offence that has been caused to writers like Jonathan Freedland, I found his column a bit disturbing. Not because it questioned Ken – I’ve read columns doing that from writers I respect across the spectrum – but because it seemed to openly acknowledge a hierarchy of offence where Ken’s offence to the Jewish community ranked higher than Boris’ offensive remarks to the black and Muslim communities mentioned in the article. That can’t be right. I am assuming the hurt that Freedland is feeling has blinded him to the way that could be read, but it should not blind more dispassionate readers.
I predicted some time ago that it was a problem for Labour if we continued to frame our campaign as Ken Vs Boris. Not we are faced with two candidates with remarkable similar personal flaws. Both have made remarkable insensitive remarks about minority communities. Ken with the Jewish community, Boris with the black community, the Muslim community and more recently the Irish community. Both have brought people to City Hall with them who are less than reputable. Both have questions about their financial arrangements (Ken on his tax arrangements, and Boris on his Part-time mayoralty). Both are funny, silly, exasperating, daft and a nightmare for their respective Party managers.
So in the end, the choice facing London isn’t about which candidate is flawed and which isn’t. It can’t be, as they both are. So it must be about which mayoral philosophy you believe will be the best for London. For me, I want an activist Mayor who is in touch with the concerns of ordinary Londoners and will spend the next four years – in-between embarrassing gaffes (because we’ll get more of those whoever is elected) – working every day to make the lives of Londoners better. For me, that has to be Ken.
I hope that when it comes to it, others who have rightly expressed their anguish at the worst aspects of Ken’s behaviour, will also see that in the end, that is the choice that needs to be made. It may not be the choice you want, but life doesn’t always give you the choice you want. As grown ups, we have to accept that and do what is best for our city.
Update: Jonathan Freedland has responded to me on twitter to say “Just seen your very thoughtful blog on Ken, Jews etc. To clarify: I was not arguing for any hierarchy of offence. Key point is that [Boris Johnson's] key offences predate his becoming Mayor. [Ken Livingstone] has just kept on making them.
*Update 2: I am pleased to say that Ken has today (29/03/2012) done just this and written a long and effusive apology to the JC.