Unlike Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, I shall be voting for Ken Livingstone to be London’s Mayor, I shall be out campaigning for him and I shall be arguing against those in Labour’s ranks who, from the outset, have sought to undermine and damage his campaign. He offers the best policies for London and his leadership, so often denigrated by hostile media and political enemies, has always changed London for the better. But his approach to the Jewish community in London is foolish and wrong, will damage him further and I am sorry that he shows no sign of listening to friendly advice.
My criticism of Ken is not about Israel or Zionism. Although my (secular) Jewish identity has always been important to my political development, like almost one in four British Jews, I am not a Zionist. I oppose Israel’s occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, and the abuse of Palestinian human rights under occupation, and I favour immediate UN recognition of a Palestinian state. Ken’s views on these subjects may not play well in London’s Jewish community, but that’s not my gripe, and for the vast majority of British Jews, Israel isn’t a central issue when they vote even if it is important to most of them.
Nor am I opposed to Ken’s meetings with controversial radical Islamists either, though I wish he had clarified with Yusuf al-Qaradawi his opposition to suicide bombings targeted at civilians as clearly as his younger moustachioed self opposed IRA bombs in London when he bravely met with Sinn Fein representatives back in 1982. Based on his record, I don’t think Ken’s opposition to al-Qaradawi’s homophobia is in any doubt, nor do I think Ken has, as Ed Miliband put it, a single antisemitic bone in his body.
My complaint is that Ken appears to have written off the votes of the Jewish community. And though he must be aware of how much he has alienated many otherwise Labour-supporting Jews, he appears uninterested in developing a strategy for countering that hostility.
The row started with the leaking of a letter from six Labour members, active in the party but also prominent in London’s Jewish community. It was leaked not by them, according to a party source, but by someone within party headquarters with a grudge against Ken. There are indeed people who answer to that description, some of them responsible for other recent leaks, or with a track record of undermining Ken’s campaign. Although it has been accompanied by negative and distorted hype in the Jewish Chronicle, the so-called “devastating letter” was intended to promote private discussion about strategy not public criticism. The signatories have tried to avoid public comment since but the letter’s positive objectives are revealed in its conclusion:
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.
But it did contain criticism. For me, the most important were, firstly:
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.
If you are going to raise issues way outside the brief of the position you’re standing for in the most important election in Britain this year, attention to detail and precision of language is important. Ken’s failure to achieve that is sloppy and offensive, and he should know better. Worse still, however, were his remarks about the relationship between a community’s income or wealth and their propensity to vote Labour. The letter said:
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.
Although Ken is reported as denying those precise words, he said pretty much the same thing only yesterday as recorded on the Camden New Journal website:
Every sephological study I’ve seen in the 40 years I’ve been following politics shows that the main factor that determines how people vote is their income level – it varies, a lot of people vote against their economic interest, very often, but that is the main factor and it is not anti-semitic to say that.
It isn’t anti-semitic to say that. But it is a shoddy basis for an election strategy, and it is not surprising that even Jewish friends see it as an indication of a lack of interest in their community, compounding the errors of the past. For the record, British Jews are evenly split between Labour and the Conservatives, and their views fall consistently to the left of those in equivalent occupations. Within the community, religious views seem to be a more important determinant of politics than wealth with Labour’s strongest support tending to come from secular, Reform and Liberal Jews – although ultra-orthodox Jews tend to be significantly poorer and are an exception.
So Jews in Redbridge, Harrow and Barnet may be a bit less likely to vote Labour than Jews in Hackney, but more likely to vote Labour than their non-Jewish neighbours, and more likely to turn out than their more working class near-neighbours. They are a smaller community than many others, but in this election we can’t afford to ignore anyone.
None of this is news to the people running Ken’s campaign. They do understand what is at stake, as indicated by what they told Liberal Conspiracy:
It is absolutely not the case that Ken believes Jewish people will not vote Labour – on the contrary, Jewish Londoners are an important part of the Labour vote in London and constitute many of our most important and effective campaigners. Ken’s campaign will reflect the importance of Jewish London, as will his policies and team if elected.
Though there are bound to be different interpretations of what was discussed we view the letter in the spirit in which it was written, of wishing to continue dialogue, and making sure issues of concern to Jewish London are part of Ken’s administration if elected. Ken will maintain a discussion and not allow sensationalist coverage to prevent that.
Jewish Londoners are an important part of the fabric of London and Ken’s campaign will be seeking the votes of all Jewish voters from all backgrounds, incomes and parts of London.
Quite right. Ken needs to listen more closely to his own advisers as well as his supporters in the Jewish community. And stay on message.
The statistical references to British Jews are drawn from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research reports ‘The attitudes of Jews in Britain towards Israel’ and ‘The political leanings of Britain’s Jews‘ and ‘Social and political attitudes of British Jews‘.