Judging by his memoirs alone, Ken Livingstone should be thrown out of the Labour Party

In his book, You Can't Say That, the suspended Labour MP seems to imply that Israel's birth was not legitimate – and if its birth was not legitimate, how can it be legitimate now?

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 18 April 2018 16:42 BST
Jeremy Corbyn: Ken Livingstone needs to apologise for anti-Semitic remarks

Should Ken Livingstone be thrown out of the Labour Party as soon as possible? Should he have been thrown out already? Is he an antisemite?

Whatever else, some of his own colleagues within the Parliamentary Labour Party plainly think he should go. During the Commons debate on antisemitism, Luciana Berger, who has suffered terrible abuse and pain, openly called for his expulsion. The Labour MP for Dudley North, Ian Austin, put it bluntly: “Ken Livingstone claimed that Hitler was a Zionist. That is antisemitism, pure and simple. It happened more than two years ago, and there has been ample time to deal with it, so it is a disgrace that it has not been dealt with. Kick him out immediately… It is a disgrace…Boot him out!” Lisa Nandy also wants Ken gone.

This, of Red Ken, the man who delivered Labour’s only significant electoral success between 1979 and 1997; who kept Labour in power in London in the 1980s and again in the 2000s, who once held huge sway and power, and who inspired so many in the Labour movement?

I have sometimes wondered where those strange remarks Livingstone made about Hitler came from (though Austin’s version is a crude version of them). Livingstone himself has cited a book, published in 1983, by the left-wing American historian Lenni Brenner.

I had not realised, however, precisely how Livingstone had been affected. Until, that is, I recently happened to pick up, out of sheer curiosity, a copy of Livingstone’s memoirs, You Can’t Say That, a substantial volume published in 2011, which I confess I haven’t previously paid sufficient attention to. Jam packed with anecdotage about his scraps with Thatcher, Blair and Brown, and the byzantine intrigues of London Labour politics, there is an abstruse chunk, slightly jarring, devoted to Lenni’s book, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators.

According to Livingstone, this book “helped form my view of Zionism and its history and so I was not going to be silenced by smears of anti-Semitism whenever I criticised Israeli government policies”.

In his memoirs Livingstone devotes a surprising amount of space to the minutiae of Zionist politics in the 1930s, including the claim that “some German Zionists sent a memo to Hitler on 21 June 1933 saying that ‘we too, are against mixed marriage and are for maintaining the purity of the Jewish group’ and that race separation was ‘wholly to the good’”. He then details the activities of a “Labour Zionist” Chaim Arlosoroff, through a trading company, Ha’avara, to sell Nazi goods, “thus undermining the boycott organised by trade unionists and communists”.

Livingstone also adds that the World Jewish Congress rejected that boycott, and that Ha’avara’s profits: “Apparently provided 60 per cent of all investment in Palestine between 1933 and 1939. This fitted Hitler’s 1932 policy of ‘Jews to Palestine’ and his deputy Heydrich wrote in 1935, ‘We must separate Jews in two categories…Zionists and those who favour being assimilated. The Zionists adhere to a strict racial position…our good wishes…go with them.”

Labour betrayed Jews by not expelling Ken Livingstone, May says

Livingstone further claims that “to encourage Zionists” the 1935 Nuremberg laws allowed the flying of only two flags in Germany, the Nazi one and the blue and white Zionist banner, and, further, that: “Rabbis were ordered to conduct their sermons in Hebrew – the language Zionism had recreated for Israel – rather than Yiddish”.

I am not a historian, and can’t argue text vs text here (though I have seen rebuttals of the Brenner work), but it is startling to see just how reliant Livingstone appears to be on one text for his views on an important, and complex, issue. I am even more dismayed about what Livingstone’s actual point was in all of this is.

Moreover, appositely and practically, these pages in his memoirs ought to be part of the investigation into him currently being undertaken by the Labour Party – “due process” as they call it, though it is also slow process. The evidence is not helpful to Livingstone.

There are many definitions of antisemitism, and Livingstone's endorsement of what some regard as a rather non-mainstream work of history may or may not qualify as such, though politically it was undoubtedly unwise to put things in such bald and context-free terms as he did.

During the Parliamentary debate on the subject, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for Communities, Andrew Gwynne offered, in effect, a couple of definitions of antisemitism. First, he quoted the one stated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and which has been adopted by the Labour Party: “Making mendacious, dehumanising, demonising, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective – such ​as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”

But Gwynne went further: “We need to ensure that rightful critique of Israeli government policy, which is legitimate — as it is against the government of any nation state — is distinct from spreading the demonisation of Zionism and of the right of existence of the state of Israel itself — that is not legitimate.”

“Not legitimate”. Pretty strong. So I would suggest that Labour also needs to look carefully at the passages in Livingstone’s book dealing with the right to existence of the state of Israel, too.

While he never actually denies that right, his account of the birth of this nation in 1948 is hardly supportive. Over four whole pages (pp 510 to 514 – look ‘em up), Livingstone articulates his view at some length that: Israel was the product of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians; that its founders lied about it; that “Jews” who had suffered genocide embarked on the policy because “Zionism was conceived at a time when the concept of racial superiority was normal”; and, in Livingstone’s words again, “I told the Board of Deputies it would be easier to achieve peace if Israel comes to terms with the crimes committed at its birth”.

As with the Brenner book, Livingstone appears to base much of this opinion on the work of one historian, in this case Professor Benny Morris, interviewed in the New Left Review in 2004. Again, it seems a narrow education, though I’ve no doubt he has read much more and discussed these things with many other of every possible shade of opinion over a long career.

To be honest, much of what Livingstone says is just plain offensive and you could justify asking him to leave on the grounds that he has brought his party into disrepute. (Let’s not forget either that the Labour Party chucked him about before when he ran as an independent for Mayor of London against the official Labour candidate, the hapless Frank Dobson, in 2000. Surely that was a lesser crime).

If you take the Gwynne line that it is “not legitimate” to query the right of the state of Israel to exist, nor to “demonise” Zionism, then you’d certainly see the case for booting Livingstone out of the Labour Party – for he would be condemned not least by his own memoirs.

The balance of Livingstone’s views suggest that he certainly does not think Israel’s birth was legitimate – and if its birth was not legitimate, how can it be legitimate now? That is a fair question to ask.

He also, in my opinion, plainly demonises Zionism – which is not compatible with Labour membership, according to Gwynne. Indeed, on the Gwynne test, many more Labour activists would find their membership revoked, after due process. Whisper it, but you might also usefully subject Labour’s leader to these same tests.

These are questions that should have been put to Livingstone, researched on and adjudicated with utmost care at some point over the last two years, parsing every Livingstone statement and article, and inviting him to respond. There’s been ample time to do so.

The suspicion is that his old allies on the left of Labour politics, and especially London-based figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbot, if not John McDonnell, might feel uneasy about ejecting their old leader and tribune because a bunch of Tories are demanding it, and for views they have sympathy with.

Yet the Tories are irrelevant, and what really matters is whether or not Livingstone holds such views, how he has expressed them, and what he means by them.

I invite Corbyn, Shami Chakrabarti, Jon Lansman, the new Labour general secretary Jennie Formby, and indeed anyone else with an interest in justice to pick up a copy of You Can't Say That. Never was a title less ironically bestowed upon a memoir.

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