Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

London Jews’ Labour Problem

Ken Livingstone, the once and perhaps future London mayor, has made a string of anti-Semitic remarks. Why do his party’s leaders indulge him?

Print Email
Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London, during annual Labour party conference on Sept. 25, 2011, in Liverpool, England. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

London mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone—whose political future will be determined in today’s election against Conservative incumbent Boris Johnson—has a Jewish problem. He’s called a Jewish reporter a “concentration camp guard,” likened Israeli leaders to Nazis, and accused Jews of being too rich and selfish to vote for the Labour Party. And yet, despite the dubious record of “Red Ken,” as detractors have long called London’s former mayor, the Labour leadership has indulged him. Regardless of whether Livingstone wins the office again, his very presence as Labour’s candidate for mayor of the country’s capital is a bad sign of the party’s unwillingness to stand up for Jews.

The latest controversy began on March 1, when Livingstone held a disastrous meeting with some of his party’s most important Jewish members. “I am not against Israel, I am against Zionists,” Livingstone claimed—a definitional impossibility, but a revealing statement about how “Zionist” has essentially become a curse word in many leftish political circles. At the same meeting, he told his interlocutors that “as the Jewish community is rich, [it] simply wouldn’t vote for him.” (Never mind that a 2010 survey found British Jews divided evenly in their support for the Conservatives and Labour.)

Soon thereafter, some of the activists who attended the meeting wrote to Labour leader Ed Miliband, himself a Jew. “The strong perception,” they said, is that “Ken is seeking to align himself with the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime, whilst at the same time turning a blind eye to Islamist antisemitism, misogynism and homophobia.” Three weeks later, the letter was leaked to the Jewish Chronicle.

Initially, the Labour leadership defended the former mayor. “I know Ken Livingstone well,” Miliband said at the time. “He doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body. He is attracting people from all faiths, all backgrounds, all religions to his campaign. He’s somebody who’s fought prejudice all his life and I know that is what he’s going to continue to do.” Livingstone dug in his heels, stating that the letter from Jewish Labourites was “a bit of electioneering from people who aren’t terribly keen to see a Labour mayor,” a strange allegation to make considering that the letter’s signatories were all stalwart members of the Labour party.

But the controversy didn’t go away. The first sign of serious trouble came when reliable Labour supporter and Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, one of the most prominent Jews in the British media, announced that he could no longer vote for Livingstone. “He doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews,” Freedland concluded. Seeing that the row was only bound to get worse, the party leadership and a small group of Jewish Labour supporters ultimately prevailed upon the Livingstone campaign that something needed to be done. And so on March 29, in an article for the Jewish Chronicle titled “Please, let’s move on from the ‘Ken and Jews’ dramas,” Livingstone offered what he surely believed was an apology. “If I believed that Jewish people won’t vote Labour in this election, and I did not value the opinions and concerns of Jewish Londoners, I would not have spent my evening at that meeting,” he wrote. But some Jewish leaders, quietly, weren’t having it. “I think it’s sincere in the context of a politician with an important election coming up who’s realized he’s alienated an important constituency,” one figure at a leading Jewish organization told me. In other words, not sincere at all.

Two years into Britain’s coalition government, with Labour polling 10 points ahead of the Conservatives nationally, the mayoral race has implications far beyond London municipal politics. A victory for Livingstone would deal a strong blow to Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt to chart his way forward through what has been an already difficult course of major budget cuts. Defeating Livingstone again, on the other hand, would signal a resounding success for the Conservatives in Britain’s capital city and propel the party forward to winning an outright majority in parliament. But none of this should obscure the persistence of Ken Livingstone, and how the British left, that supposed fount of anti-racism and human solidarity, could tolerate and promote such a man.


Livingstone, who served as London’s first elected mayor from 2000 until 2008, is a throwback to an older style of British left-wing politics, the sort of firebrand who can claim, with a straight face, that “capitalism has killed more people than Hitler.” It might seem strange that a London mayoral candidate would even find himself embroiled in a controversy about Israel, but then, Livingstone has always seen a role for himself beyond the hustle and bustle of mere urban politics. The Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan, Livingstone’s most fervent antagonist in the British media, tallied up three times as many references to “Zionism” and “Israel” in his autobiography than to London’s public transportation system.

A virulent opponent of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Iraq War (in 2003, he referred to George W. Bush as “the greatest threat to life on this planet”), Livingstone crafted an independent foreign policy for London. In 2007, for instance, he signed a deal with Hugo Chávez for the provision of cheap Venezuelan oil to power London’s world-famous, red double-decker buses. (And after losing in 2008 to Johnson, Livingstone signed on as a private consultant for the Venezuelan government on urban planning.) Four years ago, when I visited London to cover the first Boris-Ken match-up, Steve Norris, a former Tory Cabinet minister who ran for mayor against Livingstone in 2000 and 2004, told me “Ken has always believed his true place is 10 Downing St.”

For the past three decades, Livingstone has been one of the most visible left-wingers in British politics, a relic from the era before Blair and his team of “New Labour” centrists detached the party from its union roots. Two decades before assuming the job of mayor, Livingstone was giving Margaret Thatcher headaches as head of the Greater London Council. He earned infamy for meeting with Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams in 1983, at a time when the Irish Republican leader was banned from entering the British mainland due to his alleged ties to the IRA (“What Britain did in Ireland was worse than what Hitler did to the Jews,” Livingstone once claimed. Indeed, comparing his opponents to Nazis has become a hobby for Livingstone; in August he likened the mayor’s race to the “great struggle between Churchill and Hitler.”) In 1986, Thatcher’s government abolished the council for its spendthrift ways. But the Iron Lady’s attempt to quash Livingstone had the opposite effect, turning him “from municipal hate figure into popular folk hero,” according to British writer Leo McKinstry. “He was no longer the town hall Trot, the moustachioed Marxist, but the people’s champion battling against the wicked Tories bent on the destruction of local democracy.”

In 1981, Livingstone became the founding editor of a far-left newspaper, the Labour Herald, which was printed on presses owned by the Workers Revolutionary Party, a 500-member political cult funded by then-Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein and run by Livingstone’s now-deceased friend Gerry Healy, a Trotskyite with an extremely checkered past. When the BBC accused Healey of taking money from Qaddafi, Livingstone published an article in News Line, the official outlet of the Workers Revolutionary Party, blaming the attacks on “agents of the Begin government [who] are active in the British Labor movement and press at present.” Meanwhile, Livingstone’s Herald published a cartoon of Menachem Begin giving a Sieg Heil below the words “The Final Solution.”

Livingstone won himself a seat in parliament in 1987 and that same year published an autobiography with a title befitting his revolutionary sympathies: If Voting Changed Anything, They’d Abolish It. He languished in relative obscurity for a decade, until Labour rose to power in 1997. The party manifesto that year included a proposal for a directly elected mayor of London and the reinstitution of a city council, to be renamed the Greater London Authority. In a candidate-selection process heavily tilted toward Blairite forces, Livingstone lost to another London MP. Though he had promised not to run as an independent if he did not gain the party nomination, Livingstone recanted and announced he would go for it anyway. That same day, the Labour Party expelled him. Yet Livingstone defied the odds and won, becoming the first mayor of London in the city’s 2,000-year history. Blair was humiliated but, recognizing that Livingstone wasn’t going anywhere, officially welcomed him back into the party in 2004.


Livingstone’s views about Jews combine those of an unreconstructed Marxist with the pub-hall pugilist. “He sees Jews who are not socialists as reactionary, bourgeois anti-revolutionary,” said the anonymous Jewish organization official, noting Livingstone’s remarks about Jews being “rich.” Livingstone’s stereotypes about Jews are an element of his timeworn electoral strategy of identity politics and part of his appeal to the Islamist far right. Perhaps the most controversial move Livingstone made as mayor was his 2004 City Hall invitation to, and public embrace of, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a “moderate” (to use Livingstone’s description) Egyptian cleric whose alleged moderation has not prevented him from endorsing wife beating, the murder of homosexuals, and Palestinian suicide bombing.

In February 2005, Livingstone called a Jewish journalist from the Evening Standard a “German war criminal” and a “concentration camp guard.” (The following year, a governmental adjudicatory board found Livingstone guilty of bringing the mayoralty into disrepute and issued a month-long suspension from his job for the remarks.) In 2006, he said of two Indian-born Jewish property developers, apparently unaware of their origins, that “if they’re not happy they can always go back to Iran and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs.” And in 2009, fresh out of office and in need of work, he began to appear regularly on PressTV, the English-language news channel owned by the Iranian government, hosting a book-review program called Epilogue (titles reviewed include The Invention of the Jewish People and Zionist Israel and Apartheid South Africa). Livingstone has earned the support of George Galloway, the newly re-elected MP for the extremist “RESPECT Party” and vocal supporter of Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad, the closest thing the U.K. has to an elected Islamist.

Labour currently polls some 20 points above the Tories in London, and so the fact that Livingstone is not favored to win the race is testament to his divisiveness. While his attitudes toward Jews are not a significant reason for his unpopularity, they point to a stubbornness that many voters, particularly white, working-class ones who traditionally vote Labour, find insufferable. There are many reasons why Livingstone lost four years ago—from an increase in crime to the baggage of being a Labour incumbent at a time when the national party was so unpopular. Hovering over everything, however, was Livingstone’s temperament.

But having outlasted foes like Thatcher and Blair, Livingstone is nothing if not a political survivor, and it would be wrong to underestimate him. Indeed, over the past two months, he has already gone some way in managing to patch up his relations with London Jews. Last week, Livingstone was forced to confront the array of concerns that many Jewish Londoners have with him at a meeting hosted by the London Jewish Forum. Asked about his views on Qaradawi, he said that since the sheik is 89 years old and banned from visiting Britain anyway, another visit is “unlikely.” He added “I am against Muslims attacking their wives, Jews, homosexuals,” a positive assertion, to be sure, but one that it took him until now to go on record stating. As for Oliver Finegold, the Jewish journalist he likened to a concentration camp guard, Livingstone was unrepentant. “I wasn’t rude to Oliver Finegold because he was Jewish,” he asserted. “I was rude to him because he was a reporter.”

Livingstone’s performance was enough to persuade some of the Jewish Labour activists he initially upset; that, or the tribal loyalties of party politics outweighed those of religious affiliation. Last week, they published an open letter endorsing him. “Under Ken as mayor, we will get irritated, upset and annoyed,” they wrote, “but we will get lots of services and lots of engagement and an improved London.” Most of Britain’s left, politicians and journalists alike, have also fallen into line. “Those Labour voters thinking of going to vote for Boris, hold your nose, vote for Ken,” the party’s deputy chairman Tom Watson said last Thursday.

In the Independent, columnist Owen Jones defended Livingstone, prefacing his argument with the smarmy detail, “For most of the time I’ve been a Londoner, I’ve lived with two close friends who are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.” The former mayor, Jones wrote, was guilty only of “suggest[ing] that Jewish voters would divide in allegiance much as the rest of the electorate, with those who were wealthier opting for Boris” and framed the attacks on Livingstone as a desperate attempt by “the 1 percent” to demonize a hero of the working classes. Jones went onto blame Livingstone’s critics, who “cynically misconstrued this as Ken reviving that old anti-Semitic caricature of the ‘wealthy Jew,’” even though it was a group of diehard Labour supporters who anxiously publicized Livingstone’s remarks. Not all of Labour is standing foursquare behind Livingstone: The Telegraph’s Gilligan has compiled a list of Labour figures opposed to or highly critical of his candidacy. “Off the record, indeed, it is hard to find a single thinking person in the London Labour Party who can muster genuine enthusiasm for Ken,” Gilligan wrote.


It wasn’t so long ago that British anti-Semitism was the province of the country’s establishment conservatives—the sort of thing one would encounter at country clubs. More recently it has been the British National Party, the far-right faction whose leadership once denied the Holocaust, that gave political expression to such views. But, even the BNP has ostensibly forsaken anti-Semitism and, like many far-right parties in Western Europe, taken up anti-Muslim rhetoric instead. Today, when one encounters anti-Semitism in Britain, it is usually found in the pages of the Guardian or its online comments section, the cover of the once-venerable leftist New Statesman, in the works of British playwrights and screeds by British academics, or the attempts by British trade unions to boycott Israel. Meanwhile, were any British politician—whether Conservative, Liberal Democrat, or Labour—to utter about Muslims the things Ken Livingstone has said about Jews, he would be universally condemned by his party’s leadership, if not forced to resign.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

julis123 says:

The Jews who support him remind me of the Jews who support Obama in the USA. They put political correctness over their own self-interests.

    Patriot493 says:

    Yet more right-wing bullshit.

      Patriot493 says:

      PS – What I mean by right-wing bullshit: The idea that disagreement with the Likud line makes one anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. 

    Marty Susman says:

    Obama is as pro Israel as every other US Pres. has been & that includes Carter… Yes the teapublicans are loud about Israel BUT that’s because they are witing to blow it to hell so their bible is proved correct…. The right hates Jews for not being like them you idiot…

      AlvinKrinst says:

       Agreed. Israel’s most strident “supporters” in U.S. politics are intolerant of Jews in their own midst. So what does that tell you?

guvno0or says:

I am one of those who is a strong advocate of Israel but also a supporter of Ken. I have been deeply disappointed by many of the events detailed in this piece, and it has certainly tested my loyalty to the Labour party and support for Ken. However, the London mayoral elections is about how our city is run and the vision for the future- foreign policy simply isn’t a prominent issue. 

Ken campaigned on a strong social justice angle, and will bring down public transports which save Londoner’s a significant amount of money. In comparison, the conservative Mayor Boris Johnson has no qualms about squeezing every last penny out of the pockets of hard working Londoner’s whilst supporting a drop in the upper income tax bracket.

    Henry Hollander says:

     Jewish Londoners like yourself certainly have my sympathy.  However, his stand on social justice is, for me, impeached by his clear Jew-Hatred. Paraphrasing the old Wobbly motto, “A harm to one is a harm to all.” There are many lousy choices to be made in electoral politics. However, there has to be some line drawn where a Jew in Galut says, this time I cannot vote as an Englishman or an American or an Australian or a Frenchmen. This candidate has forced to vote as a Jew and a Jew only and as such I cannot give them my vote.
    In your shoes I would, as a Jew, not vote for Livingston and, as an Englishman, not vote for Johnson.

      Seek Her says:

      you advocate this and yet would doubtless meet the characterization of Jews as a fifth column with cries of Anti-Semitism! fascinating

        Saint_Etienne says:

         Whats has this got to do with fifth column? He is not seeking to undermine London or England, he just wants a candidate who is *both* committed to social justice and not a bigoted die-hard Antisemite. What’s fifth column about that?

    herbcaen says:

    I am one of those who is a strong advocate of Israel but also a supporter of Ken…eventually, you will have to choose between the 2 possibilities

Ethan_S says:

Livingstone wasn’t chosen by the party leadership, he won in a vote by party members and affiliated trade unions two years ago between him and Oona King, the mixed-race (Jewish) former MP who lost to George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and ran a lacklustre race for the nomination. He had by far the higher profile among Labour members and trade unionists across London, but was hardly the choice of the party leadership (who have to support him now as he is their candidate).

It’s nothing to do with “the party’s [alleged] unwillingness to stand up for Jews”, but, rather, an older party membership who have kept paying their dues all through the last 20 years of declining membership, and supported the person they have fond memories of from the 1980s.

I’m no apologist for Livingstone (I’m a Labour party member who today voted against both him and Boris Johnson), but he’s an outlier in a very unique situation, and is hardly representative of the party as a whole. To suggest otherwise would be disingenuous at best. 

emunadate says:

He is outright anti-semetic. It is a bit like the blind liberal jews of america that will vote democratic regardless of what the democratic candidate will do.

    Patriot493 says:

    Right-wing bullshit about the Dems, although the writer did depart from the GOP playbook by using the adjective “democratic” rather than “democrat” — Congrats!

6224163015 says:

I suspect the lack of comment about Livingstones’ anti-semitism is that most Laborites, and Britons for that matter, share his anti-semitism but are too polite to say so.

BBC covered the election last night, not a word about Islam or anti-Jewish remarks. an uninformed listener would have no idea…

12eljefe29 says:

The reason labor doesn’t speak out against Red Ken, is that they are also antisemitic but not so loud.

PhillipNagle says:

Remember, in the period between WW II and the victory of Israel in its war of indepedence, the British, ruled by a Labour government, did everything in its power to destroy Israel.  That the Labour party is anti-Semitic is nothing new.  Unfortunately, neither is having left wing Jews around who support these anti-Semites. 

CygnusA81 says:

It’s okay everyone. Some of Red Ken’s best friends are self-hating Jews.

Let’s all pretend that all anti-Semitism comes from the Right instead of the Left these days.

herbcaen says:

I hope Herr Livingswine becomes Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s love slave. Qaradawi will make Ms Ken wear a burqa

They used to say “Antisemitism is the socialism of fools”, but now it appeals to both socialists and fools, allowing for considerable overlap…

Royq says:

All politicians are robots, but David Miliband is operating on vacuum tube technology.  Someone with stronger principles might at least have withheld praise of Livingstone.

Hershl says:

Curious that Livingstone would never be tolerated if he attacked any other group.

Jew bashing is no problem, apparently.

Zionism is our national liberation movement. An attack on Zionism is an attack against all proud Jews.

British Anti-semitism does not surprise me.  It seems to be particularly virulent on the left as most of the anti-semitic voices on the right are marginalized.  

I am not against Britain,  just bloody-handed colonialist oppressors.  See, I am not prejudiced either!

It’s time to strip Livingstone naked and kick the living daylights out of him.  A few dozen broken bones will remind him whose the chosen and whose the British fool.  Brits are disgustingly anti Jewish at any time. 
Now they will face a time when the one in line to the throne has Jewish blood through and through in the mother’s line.

Zionist” has essentially become a curse word in many leftish political circles.

Zionist” has essentially become a curse word in many leftish political circles.

Well, of course. That’s what happens when you create a violent, racist state that treats Palestinians like the American settlers treated the Cherokee et al.

Allen Hertz says:

Whether in the UK or the USA, left-wingers regularly twist and spin during election campaigns trying to deny the persistent and chronic anti-Semitism of the left. However, shocking left-wing anti-Semitism is certainly as old as Karl Marx himself who (as is very well known) was Jewish. Think that I am exaggerating about left-wing anti-Semitism? Then take a moment or two to read and consider the following damning quote from Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question” or “Zur Judenfrage” which Marx wrote in the autumn of 1843 and was first published in 1844: “What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time. An organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, would make the Jew impossible. His religious consciousness would be dissipated like a thin haze in the real, vital air of society. On the other hand, if the Jew recognizes that this practical nature of his is futile and works to abolish it, he extricates himself from his previous development and works for human emancipation as such and turns against the supreme practical expression of human self-estrangement. We recognize in Judaism, therefore, a general anti-social element of the present time, an element which through historical development – to which in this harmful respect the Jews have zealously contributed – has been brought to its present high level, at which it must necessarily begin to disintegrate. In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” For some of my own reflections on Jews, Judaism, the Jewish People and Israel, please go to my “audi alteram partem” website at

Jews need to grow a pair and stop throwing bitch-fits over anti-semetic remarks.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

London Jews’ Labour Problem

Ken Livingstone, the once and perhaps future London mayor, has made a string of anti-Semitic remarks. Why do his party’s leaders indulge him?