Ken Livingston reached the pinnacle of his career in the years 2000-2008, when he served as mayor of London. Before that he served for many years as a member of Parliament and, later, as head of the Greater London Council. Now 71 years old, he’s one of the veteran figures in the Labour Party – he’s been an active member for 47 years – and has enjoyed wide respect and affection within its ranks, despite his tendency to defend radical Islam and insult Jews and Israel (a country he considers anathema). Thanks to his far-left views, he has long been known by the nickname “Red Ken.”
But Red Ken is no longer every Labourite’s favorite socialist crank. In an interview with the BBC in April of last year, Livingstone stood up for Labour MP Naz Shah, who’d been suspended from the party for having written or reposted anti-Semitic material in Facebook. For example, she’d compared Israel to Nazi Germany and reposted a meme calling for Israel to be moved to the U.S. In her defense, Livingstone said: “Let’s remember, when Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel.” In other words, Hitler “was supporting Zionism.” Only later, according to Livingstone, did the Führer go “mad” and decide to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
Seen from one perspective, the former mayor’s remarks were nothing new: as Richard Ferrer put it in the New Statesman, Red Ken has “made gratuitously antagonising Jews into an art form.” While serving as mayor, for example, Livingstone played host to Islamic religious scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for whom rabid Jew-hatred is an inextricable part of his theology.
Qaradawi, by the way, is also big on hating homosexuals, and when British gay-rights advocates protested Livingstone’s extremely gracious – in fact, downright friendly – treatment of Qaradawi, Livingstone shot back by calling them dirty Islamophobes. Yet even though Jews and gays tend to form an important part of the Labour Party base, especially in London, Livingstone somehow got away with all of this.
He didn’t get away with his comments in defense of Naz Shah, however. Shortly after airing his curious rewrite of modern German history, Livingstone was fired from LBC (formerly the London Broadcasting Company), for which he had co-hosted a TV program for eight years. Not until this April did the Labour Party take up his case. After three days of deliberations, the party’s National Constitutional Committee declared his words about Jews “grossly detrimental,” but decided to suspend him from the party instead of expelling him outright. In the meantime, speaking to reporters, Livingstone made things even worse for himself, claiming that the Nazis had sold guns to Zionists before the war and that this amounted to a “real collaboration” between the two. When asked to apologize, he refused.
After his suspension, Livingstone was photographed wearing a t-shirt bearing an imagine that combined features of Che Guevara and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn – who, like Red Ken, is a radical socialist. It was unclear whether Livingstone, a fan of Che’s and a longtime ally of Corbyn, was trying to make a statement about Corbyn, who had criticized him for his remarks about Jews, or whether the shirt was just part of his ordinary casual wardrobe. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May, a member of the Conservative Party, said that Labour’s failure to dump Livingstone entirely amounted to a “betrayal” of Britain’s Jews. One hundred and seven of Labour’s own MPs, along with 47 Labourites in the House of Lords, agreed, signing on to a statement by the Jewish Labour Movement that criticized the committee’s decision to suspend rather than expel. And the Independent called his suspension “the mildest of rebukes for a 71-year-old who has no intention of running for office and describes himself as a ‘house husband.’”
These developments came at a bad time for Labour. Local elections will be held on May 4, and Labour’s prospects were already looking poor.