Party members assumed they were the good guys, incapable of prejudice. But now Ken Livingstone and Naz Shah have laid bare the left’s capacity for racism
Thursday 28 April 2016
Actually, you’re just like a concentration camp guard. You’re just doing it because you’re paid to, aren’t you?” If you’re Jewish, and live in London, you might dimly recall those words. But if not, here’s a clue. They were spoken to a Jewish reporter a decade ago by the man who today indignantly described himself as having fought a lifelong battle against discrimination – shortly before being suspended from the Labour party for potentially bringing it into disrepute with clumsy references to Hitler.
Rereading the transcript of that 2005 exchange between Ken Livingstone and a hapless Evening Standard reporter today, what takes the breath away isn’t the rather tasteless suggestion from London’s then mayor that anyone working for a paper whose owners he disliked was probably “a German war criminal” in a previous life. It’s that when the reporter explained he was Jewish and was offended by the Nazi reference, Livingstone didn’t stop. He doubled down on the concentration camp stuff, took his spade and kept digging. And he got away with it. There were calls for his resignation, of course, but he got away with it.
He carried on being mayor for another two years, and has carried on ever since being feted by people who would have bayed for the blood of any Tory making racially insensitive remarks to a black reporter. He went on blithely to suggest that Jews have stopped voting Labour because they’re rich, and still didn’t really seem to see what the problem was; but then, he was surrounded by people who didn’t seem to want to see the problem either.
And that’s one explanation for how a politician as naturally gifted as Livingstone could ever think it a good idea to summon Hitler as a witness for the defence, when defending his party against allegations of antisemitism.
Perhaps he has simply lost sight of how it looks, outside the circles – once fringe, now mainstream in the Labour party – in which he moves. You could see today’s extraordinary day of bloodletting – which saw first the suspension of the Labour MP Naz Shah for pre-election Facebook posts suggesting Israel be forcibly transported to the US, and then that of Livingstone for only making matters worse – simply as payback for all the times someone got away with it. Fail to challenge dubious attitudes and they quickly seep into the mainstream.
But there is another possible explanation, and that’s the belief found close to many left wing hearts that they, and they alone, are the good guys – the champions of equality and fairness – and therefore incapable of prejudice. They don’t need to question their assumptions, or take a long hard look in the mirror, because the racists are the other guys.
As Ken explained in injured tones to the BBC’s Martha Kearney today, real racism is when you’re rude to your neighbour’s face in Stoke Newington, which he’d never do. And anyway, racists would hardly be attracted to Labour, would they? To which one could almost hear his colleagues screaming at the radio; well if they weren’t before, mate, they might now.