Last Tuesday, Ken Livingstone was, essentially, let off. A man who for years has ridden perilously close to anti-Semitism in his behaviour – we shouldn’t forget the “concentration camp guard” incident with a Jewish journalist in 2005 – finally crossed the line a year ago when he decided to argue that Hitler was a Zionist.
It is difficult to overstate how offensive both remarks were to Jews.
First, the obvious: mentioning Hitler in this context immediately spells “Holocaust” in the minds of most Jews.
Second, because the term “Zionist” has lately become a term of abuse on the left and code for “Jew”, rather than its literal meaning of someone who believes in Israel’s right to exist (hardly a high bar for most people – if you don’t believe it has a right to exist, you must believe it should be destroyed and, presumably, all its inhabitants either killed or deported).
Third, because it is grossly insulting to pretend that Israel, for all its many faults, is directly comparable to a regime which systematically massacred a whole people – themselves – on grounds of their race.
And fourth, because it is simply factually incorrect anyway. Hitler was no Zionist and no reputable historian would suggest otherwise.
And so Livingstone was suspended. The hearing has taken almost a year and the original three complaints upheld. Never one for knowing when to stop, outside last Thursday’s hearing he doubled down and claimed that Zionists “collaborated” with the Nazis.
But instead of expelling him the party has decided – unbelievably for a mainstream party – that expulsion in this case is just on the too-difficult path, and opted for the wrist-slap of one further year’s suspension.
A small child could understand the logic: “let’s kick this into the long grass and hope it’s gone away in a year.” But with things that are this damaging, you just can’t get away with it. It’s not good politics, let alone the moral case for action.
Yes, it would have been a pretty big admission that such a major party figure (let’s not forget he held the most powerful directly-elected role in the country for eight years) were to be expelled for anti-Semitism. But it would also have lanced the boil. And now the boil will fester longer and with greater malignancy, a bad smell hanging around a party already on its knees.
To recap: since the 2000s at least, parts of the left – and especially the far left, currently holding the Labour leadership – have taken a turn towards a way of thinking which we thought we would never see again in this party. That although we may be perfectly colour-blind when it comes to Asian or black minorities, some people are prepared to make an exception for Jews. And we dress it up as “anti-Zionism.”
There are various factors which have nurtured this unpleasant situation: hard-to-defend actions by Israel; what can only be termed prejudice among some party figures (Lord Ahmed, Livingstone, Naz Shah); the rise of the far left, the main promoters of this view, in mainstream politics; and the corresponding rise of the populist and far right, helping legitimise discrimination in general and make it fashionable once again.
The frustrating thing is that Labour is genuinely chock-full of decent people without a racist bone in their bodies. We are talking about a handful of cranks. But its leadership cannot continue let such people act with impunity. The message sent is just terrible, whatever your politics.
As my good colleague Damian Counsell tweeted: “French National Front took 3 hours to expel *its own founder* over historical revisionism.”
What does that say about Labour? A party which has spent two years with its head up its backside on this issue and has relations with the Jewish community at an all-time low as a result.
A party which doesn’t even know which way is up any more, let alone one that is serious about getting elected (which the Front National, for all its abhorrent politics, clearly is).
It’s bad enough we have zero credibility in such touchstone areas for voters as defence or the economy. Or that we are failing to provide any kind of effective opposition to the present government. One truly wonders whether the party can ever recover from its current polling.
But, for the vast majority of voters, this kind of thing is in a different league. Start having any kind of appeasement towards racism in your behaviour, and you can wash your hands all you like. You can’t get the stink off.
This post first published at Labour Uncut