Graham Bash

Ken Livingstone assessed

Graham Bash
Ken Livingstone assessed

I AM DEVASTATED that Ken Livingstone has resigned from the Labour Party. It is a victory for our enemies inside and outside the party. These enemies are a combination of the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party who never give up in their attempts to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader and the pro-Israel lobby intent on silencing support for the Palestinian struggle. The right and the media have always hated Ken - the Sun described him as “the most odious man in Britain” long before he was accused of antisemitism.

I would support Ken's decision if there was any chance this would protect Jeremy and the party - but it won't. After Ken, they will try to come for Jackie Walker, then Chris Williamson. They will not stop unless and until they get Jeremy. We must not appease the bullies. However difficult, we must take them on.

Yes, Ken’s formulations on Hitler's relationship with German Zionists were shorthand, abbreviated and clumsy. They were, however, essentially correct. See for example, the seminal work by Francis Nicosia and another by the Zionist Edwin Black.

I have known Ken for 45 years. He was the best anti-racist leader our party has ever produced. The Greater London Council (GLC) under his leadership was groundbreaking and his struggle for the rights of all minorities - Jewish, black, Irish, lesbians, gays - was years ahead of his time.


Ken’s GLC broke the mould of British politics, gave hope and inspiration to millions of Londoners and many more further afield, and showed that a determined socialist administration could take on the Tories and win genuine mass popular support - as with his Fares Fair policy to reduce London bus and underground fares by a third, later overturned by the courts.

His successes, and heroic failures, were achieved against a vicious Tory government and with a GLC Labour group that had nowhere near a left wing majority. The parallels with today’s situation are only too obvious.

As leader of the GLC, and later as an MP, he courageously challenged and exposed Britain’s war in Ireland. The historic collusion between British intelligence, the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, as well as the RUC’s shoot-to-kill policy and the repression of the Irish nationalist community in Britain, were all dealt with as part of Livingstone’s maiden speech to Parliament in 1987. His determination to speak truth to power and his consistent support for an independent united Ireland made him a thorn in the side of British imperialism.

This is not a eulogy to Ken, but an attempt at a balanced assessment. Like any front-line politician, who has to operate and compromise within the limits of his conditions, his record is flawed.

As GLC leader, he was on the wrong side of the ratecapping fight, leaving Liverpool and Lambeth councils isolated, and getting into conflict with the left of the GLC under John McDonnell. He voted to break the solidarity of the Labour boroughs and scuppered any possibility of a united fightback against the government.

To retreat under enormous pressure was one thing. To turn the retreat into a systematic defection was infinitely worse. It was a bitter experience for Ken’s friends and comrades to witness his ideological defence of his actions as he publicly attacked the Labour left as “tankies” and joined forces with those who were hostile to everything he had stood for. He promoted the realignment of the left and joined up with a rightward moving Tribune and the Labour Co-ordinating Committee which was an enemy of the left and a cover for the Kinnock leadership.

Yet within two years he had broken with his new allies and begun to find his way back. Writing in Briefing in October 1987, I prophesied, “it would be foolish to write him off. He will no doubt continue his zig-zags…. Come the day of reckoning - especially if we appear to be winning - Ken may yet find his way to our side of the barricades.”

And so it proved, at least partially. Not always reliable, Ken did return to the left. He became mayor of London after the selection of Labour’s candidate was rigged by the Blairites and he had to stand (and win) as an expelled member against the party's candidate, Frank Dobson, with the support of thousands of Labour members and supporters who voted for Ken rather than their own party. I plead guilty to that one.

In this period his record was mixed. On the one hand, he defended Metropolitan Police commissioner Ian Blair and future commissioner Cressida Dick over the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes, and advocated the crossing of RMT picket lines at the time of a bitter dispute.


On the other hand, he brought in the congestion charge which was his signature achievement as London mayor. And he continued to be a pioneer in advancing equality, introducing a groundbreaking partnership register for lesbian and gay people in London and standing united with the Muslim community against a potential Islamophobic backlash after the 7/7 attacks. He also declared London an anti-war city and facilitated and spoke at the massive demonstrations against the Iraq war.

And he showed himself very much on “our side of the barricades” when he threw himself into backing Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign, speaking at rallies and enthusing volunteers at the London phonebanks.

I have had a number of disagreements with Ken over the years but the allegations of antisemitism against him, a lifelong fighter against racism, are obscene. We must recognise his legacy and fight for a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn that will be a fitting testimony to Ken’s vision.

I look forward to the day he resumes his rightful place in the Labour Party.

  • Read The Third Reich and the Palestine Question by Francis Nicosia, published by Transaction Publishers, and The Transfer Agreement by Edwin Black, published by Dialog Press.

South Thanet CLP, political officer of Jewish Voice for Labour and member of the Editorial Board of Labour Briefing