For anybody unaware, Ken Livingstone has been suspended from the Labour party. The Guardian timeline summarises the events leading up to this.
My Facebook feed has largely turned into Livingstone-bashing with some misunderstanding why mentioning a historically accurate fact is such a big deal. Like any good debater, I can split this into three main points, primarily using West Wing quotes.
- “I don’t care what it is, I care what it looks like.”
- The ‘technically not a racist’ defence
- “There are only a handful of anti-Semites”
OK. I used one West Wing quote.
1. “I don’t care what it is, I care what it looks like.”
It’s both apt and unsurprising that when I looked up the exact wording of this quote from The West Wing, it’s said by CJ Cregg, the White House press secretary.
On Thursday 28th at 0850 in an interview with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio London, Livingstone said:
“When Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism.”
“Feltz: What do you think over the top means? Over the top of what? [in reference to Naz Shah’s Facebook posts]
“Livingstone: Basically to think of anti-Semitism and racism as exactly the same thing.”
He then followed this up with an interview on The Daily Politics where he said:
“I’m being questioned in an interview I answer the question. You’ve never known me not answer a question you’ve put to me.”
We know there was an agreement between Nazi Germany and some Jewish groups called the Haavara agreement. Let’s assume Ken’s description is accurate.
Let’s also ignore the fact I had no idea that Vanessa Feltz was still a broadcaster or that she was married to the singer on the 1999 single Turn Around by Phats & Small.
This still begs the question, why mention Hitler? (Livingstone’s comments, not Phats & Small who to my knowledge have never mentioned Hitler in relation to anti-Semitism in the Labour party.)
His response – that he was asked that question. Except the question he was asked was
“Feltz: She [Shah] talked about relocating Israel to America. She talked about what Hitler did being legal. And she talked about the Jews rallying. And she used the words Jews, not Israelis or Israel. You didn’t find that to be anti-Semitic?”
There are a number of Naz Shah’s comments to which Feltz refers. Livingstone specifically picks out the Hitler comment and then goes on to talk about the Haavara agreement apropros of almost nothing.
Livingstone’s defence is that what he says was true. On mentioning Hitler supported Zionists, there are two possibilites:
- He did not realise it would have consequences.
- He realised it would have consequences.
Let’s examine scenario 1.
As Livingstone has said, he has spent 47 years in politics. If after 47 years you don’t know that defending the comment ‘what Hitler did was legal’ by arguing that it was technically true on the basis that ‘He [Hitler] was supporting Zionism’ is likely to get you in trouble with Jewish voters, you must be exceedingly stupid.
That it is historically accurate is neither here nor there.
It is accurate to say “there is a higher proportion of black men who commit crime than white men”.
Let’s say somebody asks: “what do you think the main causes of crime are?”
You respond: “there is a higher proportion of black men who commit crime than white men”
It’s likely you’ll get called a racist. It’s a non sequitur and in the context implies, though doesn’t technically state outright, that the problem is black men. The accusation of racism is not unjustified and we could all get round and through a liberal amount of metaphorical rocks at you. Liberal? Liberal? D’you get it? Eh? EH?
(On historical accuracy, I’m no historian. However, I understand arguing ‘Hitler supported Zionism’ is rather like arguing the National Front used the word ‘paki’ and argued for the forced deportation of South Asians in the 1970s because the NF were advocates for Pakistani sovereignty. Hitler would have happily seen Jews deported to Birmingham – he just wanted them out of the country and did not, to the best of my knowledge, support the creation of a Jewish state.)
2. The ‘technically not a racist’ defence
Let’s look at scenario 2. Indeed let’s look at worst-case scenario 2.
Ken Livingstone is an antisemite. He believes that Jews are genuinely ‘rallying’, should stop complaining about being racially abused and doesn’t think the Holocaust is relevant any more. Let’s assume he’s that bad a man. How would that look?
Now, he knows he can’t go on the radio and the TV and say ‘I hate Jews’. Not even the most ardent Livingstone supporter would advocate that unless they too were openly anti-Semitic.
What he can do however is go on the radio and say things that are arguably defensible. So he can say “well, I was just telling the truth”. And that the Labour party have suspended the handful of members who’ve made anti-Semitic comments.
The phrase ‘dog-whistle’ has come back into vogue and would be relevant here. Unwittingly or not, Livingstone’s comments are a dog-whistle to antisemites who believe that Jews simply don’t deserve to be in Israel at all. He’s Labour so the Labour party is for them.
On 24th February 2006, he was suspended from mayoral office for referring to journalist Oliver Finegold as ‘like a concentration camp guard’.
Whilst these aren’t recent instances, one would think a politician would be extra careful when talking about anti-Semitism. It suggests a general lack of sympathy and sensitivity for those who are victims of anti-Semitism.
So he’s a racist?
I suspect not. Though he doesn’t help his cause by claiming that anti-Semitism isn’t thing same as racism.
After some discussion with friends, the two possibilities I’ve come to are either that:
- He is surrounded by people where suggesting that Hitler supported Zionism would not be considered a controversial thing to say.
- Whilst he doesn’t actively hate Jews, he believes that the problems of anti-Semitism are overstated and given the relative affluence of the Jewish community, does not see it as a significant problem
Probably a little from column A, a little from column B.
3. “There are only a handful of anti-Semites”
Does the Labour party in general have a problem with anti-Semitism?
That’s really beyond me to say. Besides Livingstone, the 3.5/4 instances of anti-Semitism I’m aware of are:
- Naz Shah’s 2014 Facebook posts which begun this whole mess
- Rupa Huq’s subsequent defence of said posts
- Alex Chalmers who accused Oxford Union Labour Club of anti-Semitism and was its co-chair
- Vicky Kirby, a former parliamentary candidate, who said Jews had ‘big noses’ and Israel was behaving like Hitler
- She was expelled from the party in 2014
- She then rejoined but was expelled a second time after an outcry from MPs
- Gerry Downing, an ‘activist’ (whatever that means), who too was expelled, readmitted and expelled again
Some argue that 5 antisemites in a party of 388407 members does not a problem of anti-Semitism make. Ken Livingstone is an idiot and should be ignored. Wes Streeting, John Mann and other MPs are merely disgruntled Blairites using the row as a stick with which to beat Jeremy Corbyn.
This slightly misses the point. Individuals making anti-Semitic comments do not do so in a vacuum. To normalise these sentiments even if they are the most extreme exponents of them, it’s likely (but not certain) that others around them and within the party share similar views. Racists tend not to out themselves if their friends aren’t racist too.
In the New Statesman podcast, Helen Lewis points out that there’s a problem on the left of assuming that middle-class women can’t have problems because of their affluence. That attitude, she argues, is one that also pertains to anti-Semitism.
It’s not concrete evidence and Shami Chakrabati is a good person to lead Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism inquiry. To be honest, whether Labour had a problem with anti-Semitism is now moot; it does now.
“I don’t care what it is, I care what is looks like.”
For many Jewish voters, it will feel like Labour is a party with an anti-Semitism problem. Unless there are visible signs of change, many simply won’t vote for them.
PS: here’s a video of Diane Abbott not helping.