It is now nearly two years since Ken Livingstone’s infamous remarks alleging that Hitler “was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing 6,000,000 Jews”, as a result of which, a full year later, on 4th April 2017, he was tapped only lightly on the wrist at a hearing before the Labour Party’s National Constitutional Committee (NCC), which merely suspended his right to hold office in the Party – but not his membership – for one further year, a decision that resulted in dismay and some disbelief in the UK and worldwide. The very next day, on 5th April 2017 Jeremy Corbyn announced a new inquiry into fresh “offensive remarks” Ken Livingstone made following the hearing. Mr Corbyn said: “Since initiating the disciplinary process, I have not interfered with it and respect the independence of the Party’s disciplinary bodies. But Ken’s subsequent comments and actions will now be considered by the National Executive Committee [NEC]”. On the same day, 107 Labour MPs signed a statement deploring the Party’s failure to expel him, deeming Mr Livingstone’s statements to be “Holocaust revisionism”, “insidious racism” and pledging that “we will not allow it to go unchecked”.
However, events in recent weeks suggest that both Mr Corbyn and those MPs have backed down, further betraying the UK’s Jewish Community.
During early 2017, the Labour party informed at least two senior journalists that Ken Livingstone was to be readmitted to the Labour party once his suspension ended on April 27th 2018.
One of those journalists was Toby Helm, The Observer’s political editor. As a result, Mr Helm published an article in The Guardian on 24th February 2017, headlined: “Ken Livingstone: Ex-London mayor to rejoin Labour as suspension over Hitler remarks ends”. However, later that day he tweeted: “Five hours after I reported that no further action was planned against him, there is such a row that party about turns and says hey ho….new investigation. Shambles.” A few shocked minutes later he tweeted: “Astonishing is the word. they now say the NEC is opening an inquiry into what Livingstone said ten months ago, after his hearing, JC [Jeremy Corbyn] having said they would at the time and then done nothing since!”
Possibly in order to save the Labour Party’s and its journalists’ blushes, The Guardian removed the story and, unusually, substituted a new piece on the same link, with only this surviving tweet remaining to bear witness to the volte face.
Further, The Guardian’s re-written piece reported that ten months after Mr Corbyn’s explicit promise of an inquiry, that inquiry had not even begun, with their journalists being told “in repeated exchanges that no further action was in the pipeline and that the former London mayor was likely be allowed back in as a full member”.
Two days later, a second senior journalist, Jack Blanchard of Politico, who was the Daily Mirror’s former political editor, was part of a discussion about Ken Livingstone on BBC2’s Daily Politics. 42 minutes into the programme he revealed: “I was told by…Labour HQ some weeks ago they had no doubt that Ken Livingstone was coming back into the Party”. A day later, on February 27th 2017, a Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting witnessed a backlash from some MPs, with the PLP Chair Jon Cryer reportedly saying “There’s a real risk of resignations.”
While we do not know if that threat had any effect on the leadership’s position, on 1st March 2018, the outgoing General Secretary of the Party, Iain McNicol, used his remaining powers to impose a surprise “indefinite” ‘administrative suspension’ on Ken Livingstone’s membership of the Party. The move was tactical and reversible, but the timing of it rendered it politically difficult for the NEC to immediately countermand.
Paul Waugh, the Executive Editor of the Huffington Post, was next to brave the murky waters of the Labour Party’s position. In an article he confirmed that “no formal investigation has taken place in the 10 months since the incident.” As part of their furious back-tracking to find excuses for the Party’s lies about a further inquiry, they told him: “work on a formal inquiry was delayed by the avalanche of separate sexual harassment claims last autumn” while Labour employees maintained “the preliminary work had not been acted on by the NEC and staff were baffled by the delay.”
The various excuses from the Labour Party for not executing the enquiry damn them further, as though ten months were not enough, or as though racist antisemitism and misogyny are in a hierarchy of hate, in which Jews or any other group must come second to discrimination against others.
The key facts that apparently emerge are: that the leadership of the Party wishes to protect and return Ken Livingstone to full Party membership; that Jeremy Corbyn personally lied when he said a new enquiry was underway; and that in those ten months after his statement there was no serious proactive attempt, no checks nor prompting by moderate MPs to keep their vow to not let the issue “go unchecked”. For how could they be so shocked and surprised by the decision, if they had in any way kept their promise?
Ken Livingstone has shamelessly revived and disseminated a particular form of Holocaust narrative first used by Soviet propagandists against Jews during the cold war, a tale which was then taken up by the extreme far-right. His tales of collaboration between Zionists and Hitler are a disgusting distortion that attempt to make Jews complicit in their own annihilation: and yet the leadership of the Party, NEC officers and thousands of Labour members support him and those ideas. Keeping the proponent of such a distortion inside the Party for years has enabled antisemites, publicised Labour’s institutionalised antisemitism on the world stage, and brought condemnation from around the world. The now-institutionalised antisemitism of the Labour Party will continue to expose ever more cases and negative reports, but the story of Ken Livingstone’s unashamed twisting of history is the the most telling, and the Party’s largest test: one that it terminally failed long ago, and is further away than ever from resolving.
Iain McNicol’s parting shot in using his powers to indefinitely suspend Mr Livingstone is the final action of the departing ancien regime, one that merely makes it more awkward for the Party to readmit him ‘without fuss’, but which disguises nothing. It is merely a farewell two-fingered salute by the defeated outgoing leadership to those who now run the Party and who clearly wish to protect Mr Livingstone.
To pile insult onto injury, those senior members of the Labour Party briefing journalists that Mr Livingstone would return to the Labour fold did so in the immediate aftermath of Mr Livingstone’s appearance on Iranian state television, where he used the propaganda arm of an Holocaust-denying regime to retell his narrative in a special show for Holocaust Memorial Day itself, an event that resulted in fresh calls for his expulsion.
Campaign Against Antisemitism acknowledges the handful of Labour MPs who have worked heroically to free Labour of antisemitism, but the time has now come for the Jewish community to face the fact that the 107 ‘moderate’ MPs who swore to act are culpable alongside Jeremy Corbyn and his so-called ‘hard-left’ colleagues. Words ceased to be enough two years ago: the entire Party has failed us.
Whatever happens now, when the history of the Labour Party is written, there will be a chapter dedicated to the determined protection of Ken Livingstone, whose Jew-baiting has spanned three decades, but it only became an existential crisis for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which, by hiding behind protocol, remaining silent and then brazenly lying, has been guilty of defending the indefensible. It will be an unprecedented chapter in the history of the Party, for as one of its own MPs mooted, it could morally condemn it to oblivion. It damns the Labour Party, and corrupts the notion of ‘progressive’ politics associated with it.
Joseph D. Glasman is Head of Political and Government Investigations at Campaign Against Antisemitism