The Left’s Big Problem: Ken Livingstone and talking about Hitler and the Jews

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 12th 2017

These are dark days for British Labour. Much worse than 1983 – or the 1950s. Only the shock of 1931 comes anywhere near to the present malaise when the party was betrayed by former Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald going off with the Tories.

Labour is heading for the rocks, irrelevance and ridicule. The only things holding it up are the even more self-destructive behaviour of UKIP, and the workings of the First Past the Post electoral system which gives the party ballast against a complete meltdown by providing it with 150 or so banker seats.

Corbyn has terrible ratings, the party has no coherent economic or any other kind of positive message, is at an all-time low for an opposition in the polls, and is facing terrible local elections across the country, with the prospect of a rout in Scotland. If that weren’t enough 34% of voters say they are less likely to vote Labour because of concerns over anti-semitism.

One major contribution in this last point has been the tragedy and comedy provided by former London Mayor and leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) Ken Livingstone. He has, over the course of the last year since his first remarks on Hitler and Zionism, never seemed to stop raising the subject.

Livingstone in his own words is a committed anti-racist, but has a long, shady record on the subject of Jewish people and anti-semitism. In 1982, a paper he edited – the Labour Herald – at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, printed a cartoon of Israeli PM Menachem Begin dressed as a Nazi officer standing over a pile of corpses. The Board of Deputies of British Jews complained, but no apology was forthcoming.

Then there was Livingstone’s behaviour while London Mayor in 2005 against the Evening Standard journalist Oliver Finegold who he called ‘a German war criminal’ for the reason that his paper was owned by the Daily Mail group who supported Hitler in the 1930s. Learning Finegold was Jewish, Livingstone compared him to a ‘concentration camp guard’ and when subsequently challenged by the Board of Deputies responded that they were taking this up because they didn’t approve of his views on Israel.

Livingstone was finally suspended from Labour in April 2016 for his ‘He [Hitler] was supporting Zionism’ remarks. He then proceeded to spend the next year saying he never said what he had said exactly, namely, that Hitler supported Zionism. Last week in the latest twist in a story with several turns to go, the party’s National Constitutional Committee suspended him for a further year, when everyone, Livingstone included, had expected him to be expelled.

This sad episode tells us many things. For starters, Corbyn’s Labour Party has a problem making any real decisions with chaos and lack of clarity in every forum at the top of the party. The leader’s office, now under the control of Karie Murphy, is a total shambles, with several senior staff recently sacked. By February this year, the Shadow Cabinet in seventeen months of Corbyn’s leadership had seen 63 personnel take up shadow positions: more than either Ed Miliband or David Cameron each used in five years of opposition.

It is a much deeper rooted problem than what is and isn’t going on in Corbyn’s Labour. A significant section of the left have a whole set of problems with modern identity politics. Once upon a time, in the 1970s and 1980s, identity politics was meant to provide the missing ingredient in left politics which had been left by class not living up to its billing as the emancipatory force. A pivotal force during this time was Ken Livingstone’s GLC and the notion of a ‘rainbow coalition’: partly imported from the experience of the US Democrats, civil rights and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Yet, identity politics has proven a minefield for the left across every area you could take to mention from misogyny and sexism, to racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia and the challenge from extreme Islamism. In response to the most recent Livingstone saga some left-wingers responded in complete denial and dismissal. Here are just a random few comments I encountered: ‘There isn’t a racist bone in Ken Livingstone’s body’; ‘where is the anti-semitism on the left?’; or from Momentum Eastern ‘The whole operation was conceived and manufactured by the Israeli state … to stifle criticism of an Israeli state lurching headlong towards a new Apartheid.’

In a series of reflective commentaries the writer David Baddiel said that the Livingstone episode revealed something about how parts of the left saw Jewish people in Britain. Despite the mass murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis, Baddiel writes that for some ‘the Jews don’t quite fit into the category of The Oppressed, and so therefore don’t deserve the same protections and sympathy as other minorities in the face of racism.’

This disqualifies Jews in Britain, Baddiel observed, from being seen by parts of the left as the primary voice of their own experience. This is something which with other minorities would be called the equivalent of ‘mansplaining’: presuming to talk for and know the interests of one group better than they do. Fundamental to all this, isn’t really the question of whether Livingstone’s views are anti-semitic, said Baddiel, but that ‘there is no sympathy at all for the plight of Jewish refugees’, empathy or understanding. In not one iota of what Livingstone has said is there a slither of humanity or attempting to understand what Jewish people have gone through historically or in the here and now.

What is less commented on is the missing moral dimension to part of the left’s thinking in which Livingstone is but a sad case study. Gaby Hinsliff writing about this last year in The Guardian hit the nail on the head when she said the problem was:

… the belief found close to many left-wing hearts that they, and they alone, are the good guys – and therefore incapable of prejudice. They don’t need to question their assumptions, or rake a long hard look in the mirror, because the racists are the other guys.

If anyone thinks Livingstone is a one-off, think of the numerous odious comments from George Galloway, or the current Labour candidate in the forthcoming Manchester Gorton by-election comparing the actions of the Israeli state to the Nazis. Jackie Walker, who was vice-chair of the Corbyn pressure group Momentum said last year: ‘What debt do we owe the Jews?’ to which someone responded ‘The Holocaust’. Walker then replied: ‘I hope you feel the same towards the African holocaust?’ and then went on to claim Jews were ‘the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade’. She was suspended from her role in Momentum and the Labour Party; such are the pitfalls of inaccurate history and awful politics.

There is a culture of, at best, lacking any empathy, proportion and appropriate language, of believing that Israel is a special case and that any kind of florid language can be used; and at its worst, which can collude with enemies of free speech, democracy and Western values.

Nuanced definitions of Zionism and anti-semitism, and legitimate criticism of Israel, matters. Sadly, these debates can be smokescreens for those who think incendiary language is fine when it comes from them. Of course Zionism and anti-semitism are completely different, and the state of Israel has some serious explaining to do – central of which is the fifty-year occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and the grotesque and illegal settlement building programme on stolen Palestinian land.

Fundamental to this is the problem of seeing oneself as ‘the good guys’. Such a self-validating and self-congratulatory view of the world offers its carriers a sense that they are part of an elect who know and hold the truth. But this has become part of the problem, at best making the left a discredited force, and at worst, a powerful barrier to a politics of liberation, emancipation and reason. This at a time when a credible, radical left has never been more needed to stand up to nasty, xenophobic, scapegoating politics and an out of control irresponsible capitalism.

Who would have thought in the early 21st century large sections of the left, in Britain and elsewhere, would take such a disreputable road? Ultimately, it is not only the road to being discredited, but to oblivion and even self-destruction. And that affects all of us because Jeremy Corbyn is leader of Labour and as for now there is no real opposition to the Tory Government at this time of huge uncertainty and instability.

Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Books, £9.99..