The Leaving Of Livingstone
Ken Livingstone resigned from the Labour Party on 21 May after 50 years membership. At the time of his resignation he was suspended and under investigation by the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) for remarks he made about Hitler and Zionism (see LA editorial May 2018). His resignation was welcomed by Labour’s Ruth Smeeth who tweeted “good riddance” and suggested he should have been expelled years ago for what she called “his despicable and hurtful attitude.” The fact that Livingstone had been a leading opponent of racism in all of its forms for his entire political life cut no ice with her or any of her political friends in the party.
Livingstone was defiant to the end. In his short resignation statement he said, “I do not accept the allegation that I have brought the Labour Party into disrepute-nor that I am in any way guilty of antisemitism. I abhor antisemitism, I have fought it all my life and will continue to do so.” On his remarks on Hitler and Zionism he said, “I also recognise that the way I made a historical argument has caused offence and upset in the Jewish community. I am truly sorry for that. Under Labour’s new General Secretary I am sure there will be rapid action to expel anyone who genuinely has antisemitic views.”
Pressure on Livingstone had been building up in the weeks before his resignation. Shadow Attorney General Sami Chakrabarti was reported as saying (Guardian 14 May) that she would consider leaving Labour’s frontbench if Livingstone was not expelled from the party. This followed similar comments from other leading Labour critics in the parliamentary party. Had he not resigned it would have been difficult for the NEC to come to any other decision but expulsion. A fair hearing for Livingstone was sabotaged by a torrent of vitriol from his opponents. Rather than debate the issues raised by his comments they preferred to indulge in what can only be described as a witch hunt.
Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) played their part in demonising Livingstone as an antisemite. Labour MP Rupa Huq, a supporter of LFI, appeared on the BBC’s Daily Politics on 22 May to comment on the resignation. Her support for LFI was not stated before she said that Livingstone “blotted his copy book with his bizarre obsession with Hitler.” This was allowed to stand, leaving viewers no wiser about her opinion of the historical accuracy or otherwise of his remarks on Hitler and Zionism. It was a bizarre obsession with Hitler and that was that. There was nothing more to be said. But the LFI’s Huq and Smeeth were not alone in calling for Livingstone’s expulsion. Many of his critics and those of Corbyn are listed as supporters of LFI.
Jewish leaders weighed in to the controversy claiming that Livingstone’s resignation left the door open for his return to the party in the future. But Labour’s NEC said the case for his suspension and possible expulsion would be reopened if he were to reapply for membership. No doubt satisfied that the pressure they had applied on Jeremy Corbyn to expel Livingstone had borne fruit, albeit through resignation, they nevertheless criticised Corbyn for his response that he was “sad to see him go.” We get the feeling that Corbyn’s critics within and without the party do not see Livingstone’s resignation as the end of the matter.
While individual parliamentary supporters of LFI attacked Livingstone for his alleged antisemitic remarks and called for his expulsion from the party, the LFI’s website adopted a less condemnatory attitude to Israel’s military. In a tweet of 14 May, commenting on the killing by Israeli snipers of dozens of Palestinians and more than 1,000 injured, LFI heaped the blame entirely on Hamas. The tweet, which was removed the next day following widespread criticism and replaced by a more circumspect version, read: “Tragic events on the Gazan border; all civilian lives regrettable. Hamas must accept responsibility for these events. Their successful attempt to hijack peaceful protest as cover to attack Israeli border communities must be condemned by all who seek peace in the Middle East.” Just two parliamentary supporters, Catherine West and Tulip Siddiq, resigned from LFI on reading the tweet.
For all their high-mindedness, claiming the moral high ground, none of Livingstone’s Labour critics can match his record as a politician. Over more than 35 years he was largely successful in changing the political climate within Labour and improving the lives of millions of Londoners. From his leadership of the Greater London Council (GLC) from 1981 to 1986, his tenure as Member of Parliament for Brent East from 1987 to 2001, to his two four-year terms as London Mayor from 2000 to 2008, his achievements were largely unparalleled in local and national politics.
Although it was ultimately unsuccessful, as GLC leader he introduced the popular Fares Fair Policy intended to cut transport costs for travellers within London and encourage greater use of public transport, which would hopefully relieve road congestion in the capital. It was challenged by the Tory-run Bromley Borough Council, on the south east fringe of London. With the support of the Court of Appeal the policy was reversed. Livingstone was also a vocal critic of Prime Minister Thatcher’s deeply unpopular Poll Tax, which he personally refused to pay, and her government’s indifference to increasing unemployment. Constantly irritated by his criticism she abolished London’s top tier of government in 1986.
The attempt to improve London transport as GLC leader was the prelude to Livingstone’s work as Mayor of London. Among his achievements in his first four-year term were the congestion charge, initially unpopular but now regarded as a great success, the Oyster card, making travel easier and quicker, and free fares for under 11-year-olds. His ultimate ambition was to provide free travel for residents of London. He appointed the American Bob Kiley as Transport Commissioner to work out an alternative to the Labour government’s introduction of the public-private partnership (PPP) to upgrade the London underground. Livingstone and Kiley argued that the upgrade should be done by public hands through a public bond issue. With the odds stacked heavily against them the PPP went ahead, but it collapsed as a practical solution within a few years of its introduction in 2003. A vindication of Livingstone’s opposition.
The late Tessa Jowell is credited with the successful bid to stage the Olympic Games in London in 2012. But it was Livingstone in 2002 who first came out in support, suggesting that they be located in the East End of London as a means of regenerating the run-down area. In his second four-year term as Mayor, working with Jowell, he continued to support London’s bid to host the Olympics.
As London Mayor following Livingstone, Boris Johnson claimed the credit for the introduction of Boris Bikes, but it was Livingstone who first created the concept of cycle hire in the capital. The now successful congestion charge was extended westward to Kensington & Chelsea, against opposition from residents. Livingstone was not afraid to criticise foreign embassies who refused to pay the congestion charge, increasing his unpopularity with his Labour government critics.
As London Mayor Livingstone was also successful in establishing and supporting cultural festivals, involving black and ethnic minorities, Irish, Gays, Lesbians and Transgenders. These celebrations by disparate groups helped to put London on the global map as a tolerant, vibrant city. He was initially mocked in some quarters for his support for these events but they are now widely seen as an important part of London life.
It is self-evident that Ken Livingstone made a massive contribution to the development of socialist policies within the Labour Party. In his resignation statement he said, “We desperately need an end to Tory rule, and a Corbyn-led government to transform Britain and end austerity.” A view not shared by his Parliamentary Labour critics who are using antisemitism as a weapon to replace Corbyn with a leader more in tune with their support for the failed policies of the past. They must not be allowed to succeed.