CST Blog

Antisemitism controversy and the London mayoral election

18 December 2013

This article is taken from pages 15-16 of CST's latest publication, Antisemitic Discourse in Britain in 2012. (36 page pdf here, executive summary here.)


An antisemitism controversy between Labour mayoral candidate for London, Ken Livingstone, and a group of Jewish Labour supporters, was held by many commentators to have been the decisive factor in his narrow defeat by Boris Johnson in the London mayoral election of 3 May .

There is no doubt that the controversy encouraged many Jews, who may otherwise have voted Labour, to refuse to vote for Livingstone. It was the first time in memory that public debate about antisemitism appeared to have been a significant factor in a major British election.

The controversy arose at a private meeting on 1 March between Livingstone and London Jewish Labour supporters, organised by the London Jewish Forum. Ironically, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss how Livingstone could reconnect with Jewish voters after other damaging controversies between him and the community, during his previous tenure as Mayor (from 2000 to 2008).

At the meeting, Livingstone was interpreted by some of those present as having said that Jews are too rich to vote for him. Furthermore, it was claimed that he had used the words ‘Jews’, ‘Zionist’ and ‘Israeli’ interchangeably and pejoratively. Subsequently, six of the attendees wrote a “private note” of concern, which was sent to Livingstone, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, and other senior Labour figures.

The attendees’ note appeared in the Jewish Chronicle, whereupon the controversy became fully public. The next week, Livingstone wrote an article for the Chronicle that was contrite, and sought to make a fresh start, saying that he had been misunderstood. The article made little discernible impact.

Livingstone repeated his claim to have been misunderstood at a London Jewish Forum meeting on 24 April, adding that he had thought the note was “a tissue of lies” . One week before the mayoral election, Livingstone’s candidacy was endorsed by five of those who had signed the note .

Much of the note is reproduced below. Its arguments, made by committed Labour supporters, are a powerful example of concerns regarding the language and behaviour of left-wing critics of Israel. Excerpts include :

RE: Meeting between Ken Livingstone and Labour supporting Jewish Londoners

...a substantial number of Labour-supporting members of the Jewish community met Ken Livingstone at a private meeting in order to explore ways in which Ken could re-connect with Jewish voters...

...discussion centred on Ken’s discourse when discussing Zionism. It is not an uncontroversial thing to say that for the vast majority of British Jews, Israel plays an important part in their core identity, in the same way that family, language and cultural ties continue to bind BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) communities with India, Pakistan etc.

...Ken determines Jews as a religious group but does not accept Jews as an ethnicity and a people...In the same way that Black, Irish, Women and LGBT groups are afforded the right to determine their own identity, many of us feel that Ken doesn't afford Jews that right.

...At various points in the discussion Ken used the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli, interchangeably, as if they meant the same, and did so in a pejorative manner. These words are not interchangeable and to do so is highly offensive, particularly when repeated over and again as was done...using the word ‘Zionist’ as an adjectival negative to criticise much more widely than what can be attributed to the ideology of Zionism. He also stated ‘I am not against Israel, I am against Zionists’, which we also find impossible.

...Ken, towards the end of the meeting, stated that he did not expect the Jewish community to vote Labour as votes for the left are inversely proportional to wealth levels, and suggested that as the Jewish community is rich, we simply wouldn’t vote for him. When we pointed...[out that] the Jewish community in the UK has a propensity to vote much more radically than its wealth...attributed to Jewish values and sociology and history...Ken begrudgingly accepted this.

...the strong perception 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, even when overt and demonisation of Zionism and the derogatory use of the word Zionist and use of antisemitic memes.

...it’s hard to interpret this in any other way than Ken basically having no sympathy for those that he perceives as bourgeois, which is why he isn’t really attempting to appeal to, and perhaps why he is losing progressive as well as Jewish votes.

...We firmly believe that Ken can turn this situation around, and can count on Jewish voters to help him be elected Mayor of London. But he does however desperately need to face up to the issues we raise...”.

The following week, Livingstone replied in the Jewish Chronicle, stating:

…I agree with those including in my own party who want to break out of the ‘drama’ of ‘Ken and the Jewish community’– it’s time to move on from that, onto something less headline-grabbing but more dynamic.

I understand the dismay caused when these kinds of controversies hit the headlines. Politicians ought to have humility when things like that happen. I am no exception.

Let me start with the report that I said at a meeting of mainly pro-Labour Jewish Londoners that Jews will not vote for me because they are rich. I didn’t actually say this. However, I can see that the way the conversation unfolded meant this interpretation was placed on it.

…Jewish people have shaped London. I could not cherish London and not value Jewish London. The contribution of Jews to London is immense – politically, economically, culturally, intellectually, philanthropically, artistically. I may shoot my mouth off and I may not always appear to be listening, but I am.

...Working with the Jewish community is essential to me and what I stand for…I do explicitly see Jewish people as a people – not either a religion or an ethnicity but a people…".

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