One of the first great controversies of the London Mayoral election campaign was the revelation, originally published in the Jewish Chronicle, that at a private meeting back in March with an invited group of Jewish Labour party members, Ken Livingstone made remarks to the effect that Jews wouldn't vote for him because they were part of an economic group that votes primarily according to their economic interests.
Almost all of the attendees at that meeting understood those comments to be the equivalent of saying "Jews won't vote for me because they're rich". Whilst both Livingstone and Ed Miliband subsequently denied he had said any such thing, the following week, in response to questioning from a Camden News reporter, he made the same statement about voting being determined by economic status and commented "And it's not anti-semitic to say that."
One aspect of the report into our North London meeting particularly affected me. It was that Rabbi Avraham Pinter – and others – felt that I did not answer his question. He was reported in this paper as saying: "I said 'let's forget the past and talk about the future', and gave him the opportunity to respond, and he didn't take it." I agree, I want to talk about the future.
I regret that I did not give Rabbi Pinter the answer he needed. I have known and worked with him for many years and he is a man I like and respect in equal measure. I am sorry he did not hear from me what he wanted and needed to hear.
Although Martin Bright's article was headlined "Contrite Ken Says I Got It Wrong", there was no contrition in the tone or the specific words of the article, merely an attempt to put a positive spin on his words, an admission that he had overlooked psephological evidence that Jews in London are not all economically prosperous and do not vote according to their economic status and regrets that he hadn't accepted his supporter Rabbi Pinter's advice to ignore the past and just talk about the future.
While key Jewish Labour Party supporters continued to press the leadership for action, Simon Fletcher decided to act. Using contacts he had developed while Labour was in power in City Hall, Mr Livingstone's chief aide took advice from senior figures in the London Jewish Forum about how to take the heat out of the row. As a result of these discussions, on Monday the decision was made to approach the JC with a conciliatory piece by Mr Livingstone paying tribute to London's Jewish community and suggesting a strategy for a new start. No one person can take responsibility for making Ken Livingstone do the right thing and sign off an article that must have been one of the most painful to which he has ever put his name. Individual members of the London Jewish Forum and the Jewish Leadership Council and those who wrote the letter to Ed Miliband must all take some credit, as must the Labour leader himself. Rabbi Pinter's words to the JC clearly also had a big impact. And on the Livingstone side, Simon Fletcher has also been working hard to mend fences. But ultimately the decision to eat humble pie lay with Ken Livingstone himself, and though the Jewish community will never take him to their heart, some may at least give him credit for admitting he was wrong. And as the paper went to press this week, the Jewish Leadership Council was meeting Ed Miliband for dinner and the Livingstone issue was the main item on the menu. With a month to go to election day, this is a story that will just not go away.
Why did the Jewish Leadership Council feel that it was its role to improve the standing and part write a statement of the Labour Party’s mayoral candidate after he repeatedly used anti-semitic tropes that have scandalized almost the entire Jewish community?
Here’s some very clear evidence that it was the Jewish Leadership Council together with Miliband’s advisers and some of Livingstone’s team who put “Livingstone’s” apology together:
Labour stalwart Andrew Gilbert said that “it is certainly a very important letter and it is so hard for a candidate to so change his words.” Another Jewish official, who was involved in the wording of the letter, said “this is the bare minimum we could live with. Who knows if and when Ken will again say something outrageous that will offend everyone.”
Clearly the anonymous Jewish official hardly takes the “apology” seriously, since he says there’s no telling what Livingstone is likely to say at any time. Like after he’s elected, for example, or the next time Israel takes action to defend itself which is strongly supported by British Jews, or anti-semitic material is found at one of the extremist Islamist-supporting mosques Livingstone’s so keen to express solidarity with.
The chances are, given the high level nature of this piece of political manoeuvring, that the “Jewish official” involved in the wording was Jeremy Newmark, the Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council.
Andrew Gilbert is a Labour stalwart. And even he gives away something of the struggle that must have gone on to provide spin for Livingstone rather than any genuine change of political outlook when he says “it’s so hard for a candidate to change his words”. Not change his sentiments, just change his words. Well, the evidence we have had from Ken Livingstone over the years that he has only changed his sentiments about the Jewish community from bad (Holocaust victims & antizionists=good; mainstream religious, non Labour voting zionists=bad) to worse, namely towards the hard line Islamist view (Jews=Israelis=zionists=bad.)
And he hasn’t said a word about changing that last formulation.
So now Livingstone says Jews are “a people” but not a religion or an ethnicity. What on earth does he mean by that?
How does that fit with the responsibilities of the Mayor of London towards ethnic minorities, including representation and funding? How does that fit with religious provision obligations? If he gets elected, he gets almost unlimited power within his remit to appoint like minded people and fund cultural organizations that chime with his views.
Every religious body in the UK has at least one representative group that regularly holds lobbying discussions with both local and national government, from the Church of England, to the Roman Catholics, the various Christian non-conformist groups, a range of Muslim representative bodies and others. So it's entirely acceptable and understandable that the Jewish Leadership Council and the London Jewish Forum should have got engaged in talks with Labour's hierarchy and Livingstone's team. Both are in fact unelected groups set up with the help of Jewish billionaire and millionaire charity donors, and with links to the Board of Deputies, which does have a degree of genuinely elective representation, since the Deputies are elected by the synagogues and community and charitable organizations they represent. However, moving from lobbying to actively co-drafting a statement designed to brighten up and sanitize a candidate for public electoral office from one particular political party, and moreover a candidate with a track record of serially insulting and offending the Board of Deputies and repeating antisemitic tropes about the Jewish community and its relationship with Israel is quite a different matter. The Jewish Leadership Council and the Jewish Leadership forum through their involvement in drafting Livingstone's statement have grossly subverted legitimate representation of the Jewish community, by supporting advocacy politics for a candidate widely felt by that community to be hostile, and should be roundly condemned by the Board of Deputies and the Jewish community at large for having done so, and their part in helping draft the piece repudiated as not having had the support and the imprimatur of the Jewish community.