The Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland – a brilliant and thoughtful writer – has written a piece setting out why he will not be voting for Ken Livingstone in May’s London mayoral election (“I’ve backed Ken Livingstone for mayor before, but this time I just can’t do it”).
Although recognising that Livingstone has “superior” ideas for London alongside Boris’s “policy black hole” he won’t be voting for the newt fancier this time around. Freedland, a Jew himself, says this is because Ken shows the Jewish community in London a “hard heart”.
He recites a charge sheet which is, I have to say, rather familiar: the seven-year old incident where Livingstone casually referred to Evening Standard journalist Oliver Feingold as a “concentration camp guard” (he’s Jewish). Also, Ken apparently told two Jewish property developers he fell out with to “go back to Iran” and see if they could “do better under the ayatollahs” (they were, in fact, from an Iraqi-Jewish background). And, of course, he invited the controversial Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi to talks in London, despite his less than moderate utterances on, well, just about everything.
So far, so familiar. What seems to have provoked Freedland’s piece is a meeting Ken had with a group of Jewish Labour supporters recently (at which Jonathan was present) where Ken used the terms ‘Jewish’ ‘Zionist’ and ‘Israeli’ interchangeably. He is said to have gone on to make the argument that because elements of the Jewish community in London are fairly well-off they would not be inclined to vote for him. This, argues Freedland, shows Ken “doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews”.
I know exactly what Jonathan means. As a Catholic I routinely have the same experience. The casual insults and snide digs are hurtful when they come from your own side. But I am still a Labour party member, even when I was asked in a selection process “I suppose you’ll be taking your orders from the Pope will you?”
I find it’s no different over at Jonathan’s paper, The Guardian. As a loyal reader from the age of fifteen, I have lost count of the anti-Catholic insults, sometimes juvenile, often snide, that routinely pop up in the paper. (There’s usually something every other day I reckon). But I am still reader. I get past the sneering of Jonathan’s colleagues (never him, I might add) by making the calculation that the paper’s commitment to social justice, internationalism and free speech is worth it.
The point is we can all get upset with our politicians and our newspapers. Back in 2008 the London Labour MEP Mary Honeyball launched an astonishing attack on British Catholics – and Labour’s Catholic cabinet ministers in particular – when she asked, in all seriousness, whether a Catholic should be allowed to serve in government:
“Should devout Catholics such as [Ruth] Kelly, [Des] Browne and [Paul] Murphy be allowed on the government front bench in the light of their predilection to favour the Pope’s word above the government’s?”
Incidentally, she wrote this bile in, where else, The Guardian.
I knew Catholics in London who were white with rage and desperately wanted to exact electoral revenge at the next European elections. “Every party has its berks” I advised, “look at the big picture and try to get past the occasional lapse.”
Under the regional list system there was little way to register a protest without depriving London’s other Labour candidates of support. Mary was bang out of order. Her insult then makes Ken’s lack of tact towards the Jewish community now pale into insignificance.
Politics requires an acceptance that there is a bigger picture – and it’s a landscape, not a portrait. The panorama is more important that the close-up.
If I look closely enough, I’m sure there will be things Ken has said or done recently that will wind me up too. Ken Livingstone is a big mouth, granted. He often turns-up the dial too far on his gesture politics. Yet I would rather have a mayor who speaks their mind, even when I disagree with them, than a bleached and packaged mannequin, designed to appeal equally to all groups in society. That way lies Mitt Romney.
Perhaps it is something to do with our political culture becoming too respectable? If you think Ken, or any other politician is talking rubbish, tell them so. Jonathan should have upbraided Ken to his face when he had the chance.
Let’s always be prepared to debate, discuss and disagree where we have to – but remember to see the big picture. Boycotts are childish. Had I been a London voter in 2009’s European elections, I would have ripped a strip off Mary Honeyball – and then held my nose and voted for her as part of the London list.
Jonathan – and any other person nursing a personal grievance against Ken – should do likewise. Why? Because when all is said and done I know Ken is as concerned about homelessness as I am. I know he is burning with rage at low pay, poverty, bad housing, crowded trains and unsafe streets. I know he will bust a gut to do something about them while Boris swans around biding time before he can return to the Commons and challenge for the Tory party leadership (yeah, right).
I hope Jonathan will reconsider his decision. His eloquence and manifest decency would be powerful attributes in mending fences where they need to be mended with London’s Jewish community.
I will make him a deal. If he does so, overlooking Ken’s foibles, I will try not to get too offended by the Guardian’s poseur sneering next time.