Livingstone’s insults belong in the Labour Party of another age

The sight of Mr Livingstone dominating the airwaves again is bound to make many hearts sink. It's a relatively minor incident, but Corbyn should be mindful of his colleagues' behaviour

Simon Kelner
Thursday 19 November 2015 18:23
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Ken Livingstone apologised for his comments only after Jeremy Corbyn intervened
Ken Livingstone apologised for his comments only after Jeremy Corbyn intervened

Never mind about how he upset people with mental illness, Ken Livingstone should apologise to the entire population of south London. In explaining away his lapse of judgement in saying that Labour’s defence spokesman, Kevan Jones, is “obviously very disturbed” and should seek psychiatric help, Mr Livingstone said that it was because he “grew up as a working-class boy in south London”. “If someone is rude to you,” he claimed, “then you were rude back to them. He [Mr Jones] needs to get used to it.”

If I were a resident of Streatham, Stockwell or Sydenham, I might feel extremely offended by Mr Livingstone’s suggestion that the streets of my neighbourhood are full of people trading insults, and, when provoked, the standard response of a south Londoner would be a personally hurtful epithet. (Mr Jones suffers from depression and mental illness, a fact not known by Mr Livingstone when he made his comment to the Daily Mirror.)

On the historic charge list of Livingstonian controversies – which include likening a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard – this latest row hardly registers on the scale. And there is little doubt that Mr Jones, who apparently resents the fact that Mr Livingstone has been given a role in formulating Labour’s defence policy, seems to be playing it for all it’s worth. Does Mr Livingstone’s ill-advised, but hardly premeditated, comment fatally undermine the work of those fighting the stigmatising of mental illness, as has been claimed by Mr Jones? Hardly, if we’re being honest.

The biggest damage of this unseemly contretemps is being done to the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has been relatively successful at introducing a more circumspect, sober tone to parliamentary discourse, and he will have been dismayed to have seen two of his senior figures on Channel 4 News behaving like cats in a sack. In one corner of the bag was a snarling Mr Livingstone, who bizarrely insisted on calling Mr Jones “Jeremy” throughout, and in the other was the shadow Defence minister who repeated ad nauseam his hyperbolic claim about the grievous nature of Mr Livingstone’s remarks, while beginning every sentence with “the fact of the matter is...”

I’m afraid, Mr Jones, that the fact of this particular matter is that it’s all very dispiriting for anyone who cares about the Labour Party. The sight of Mr Livingstone dominating the airwaves again is bound to make many hearts sink. And at a time when defence issues are central to the national debate, he will doubtless be coming to a screen near you very soon. Also, the section of Labour supporters to whom he appeals most is already being addressed by the party leader.

The language Mr Livingstone used to disparage a long-standing colleague, no matter what the provocation, belonged in another age. It left the impression that the modern world of propriety and political correctness (or, respect and courtesy) had passed him by. David Blunkett is right when he urges Mr Livingstone to stand down from a role he is yet to take up.

This is a relatively minor incident, the details of which will soon be forgotten – but it does go to prove that Mr Corbyn should not go back to the future.

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