Ken Livingstone Hitler Zionism row: Was Labour's non-expulsion the right decision?

Ken Livingstone Hitler Zionism row: Was the Labour Party's choice not to expel the former London Mayor the right decision?

The former London Mayor was suspended for another year from the party on Tuesday

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

At first glance it might seem an easy decision.

Old, out-of-touch party stalwart says something offensive, which risks alienating a huge group of supporters at a time when things are already bad. He has to be kicked out, right?

Well, judging by the reaction to Labour's decision not to banish Ken Livingstone, many people think so. Critics have swarmed all over Jeremy Corbyn following the decision by Labour's National Constitutional Committee (NCC), painting Labour's non-expulsion as a damning defence of the indefensible. For a huge number of people, Livingstone's suggestion that Adolf Hitler supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in the early 1930s was simply beyond the pale.

Yet the issue is, in reality, far more complex. For one thing Livingstone might have taken his expulsion to court - a point the former London Mayor has alluded to. For another, there's a certain opacity to what he said... more of which to follow.

So, now the dust has (slightly) settled and the initial anger has given way to sobre reason, was the decision to suspend, rather than expel, Livingstone in fact the right decision?

Well the Labour Party rule book clearly states that anyone who brings the party into disrepute can be expelled, so there was certainly scope to give him the boot. Livingstone's views on Hitler and zionism have brought the party a huge amount of negative publicity, denting the party's image and fuelling criticism of its leader.

Then there's the fact that Ken has previous for this kind of thing. He once lineked a Jewish journalist to a "concentration camp guard," and back in the 1980s, as editor of the Labour Herald, he published an article suggesting that Zionists had prevented the rescue of European Jewry from the Holocaust, along with a cartoon of then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in a Nazi uniform. (A full list of Livingstone's Nazi-zionist remarks can be seen here).

But the NCC panel who presided over Livingstone's hearing also had to consider the string of Jewish witnesses put forward by Livingstone and his expert defence counsel, Michael Mansfield. All five of these Jewish witnesses were long-standing Labour members [one even served on the National Executive Committew] during his hearing. All of them suggested the charges against him were baseless as his comments were not anti-semitic. To paraphrase one witness, Labour would have cheapened the significance of anti-semitism by tarring Livingstone with this brush.

Then there's the ambiguity around what Livingstone said. Yes, he said Hitler had supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland (a goal which undepins the zionist movement) in 1932, before he even came to power and a full 10 years before he embarked upon the final solution. Livingstone said Hitler held these views "before he went mad" - a caveat which affords a certain amount of wriggle room. Livingstone's supporters could claim he made a clear distinction between Hitler's views in the early part of his political life, and the views he held while perpetrating the holocaust.

Finally one can throw in Livingstone's claim to have helped a number of Jewish organisations while head of the Greater London Council (GLC) during the 1980s, and his actions in support of the Jewish community while Mayor of London - for example, hosting the Anne Frank exhibition at City Hall. Many will argue this is a flimsy defence, but the NCC had to consider it nonetheless.

Moral maze

Ok, so the legal argument is murky to say the least. What about the wider moral argument?

Plenty of people will say that Labour had to take a stand and make an example of Livingstone, no matter how long he's been in the party and how fiercely he'd have fought the decision in court.

Adam Bienkov, the political editor of Business Insider, spoke for many when he said: “There have been people in the party who have dismissed it too quickly, even it is a small minority.

“The correct response is to take it very seriously and [show] a zero tolerance approach to it, this was a good opportunity for Labour to show this. Had they expelled him, it would have sent a strong message to Jewish members and it would have been good for them to make a statement on this, even if it had been overturned in judicial review."

But then again, as Bienkov himself says, Livingstone has done some great things in his career. He was, as Bienkov says, "an excellent mayor of London" and would now be regarded as a "national treasure" had he just kept his mouth shut. As head of the GLC he reduced fares on public transport, fought for more public housing and established committees to represent women, gay people and ethnic minorities.

If we're going to condemn Livingstone for his litany of unfortunate comments about zionism, we must also remember his long commitment to improving the lives of ordinary people - a view apparently shared by the NCC.

Damaging

In the cold light of day, it seems the decision has damaged both Livingstone and the Labour party. MPs and party supporters have roundly condemned the decision, from Tom Watson downwards. Bienkov said “the scale of the reaction we'd seen shows the strength of the feeling within the party, it's remarkable how widespread that's been.

“Livingstone’s always had lots of critics, there are people who would take any opportunity to criticise him. But in this case, I think the people who've been on his side over the years have lost patience."

For millions of people around the country, this whole mess will only have cemented the view that Jeremy Corbyn is weak, biased, hypocritical and unfit to hold any major office (albeit most of his critics probably felt that anyway).

But whatever your view on the debacle, suggesting it was simply an open-and-shut case is simply unfair.

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