Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, recently suspended from the Labour Party following controversial remarks in an interview in April, visited the Oxford Union on Wednesday evening. A full house in the Union library greeted Livingstone, who gave a short address followed by a Q&A session began with the President of the Union, Rob Harris.
Livingstone stated that there had been two pivotal elections in his lifetime, the first being Clement Atlee’s victory in 1945, which led to a post-war consensus around Keynesian social democracy, and the second being Thatcher’s win in 1979, which shifted the consensus towards neo-liberalism. Livingstone declared that neo-liberalism had “failed to provide the necessary growth and investment in economies across the world”, and that a return to social democracy as proposed by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was the correct route to go down following the 2020 election. The former Mayor found no problems with Mr Corbyn’s electability going into the next few years, stating that his popular appeal outweighed the media’s negative view of him.
Predictably, the session quickly turned towards the elephant in the room, namely anti-Semitism. Livingstone was suspended from the Party for asserting that “Hitler had supported Zionism before he went mad and killed 6 million Jews”, a comment which earned him the epithet of ‘Nazi apologist’ from John Mann MP. Livingstone defended such comments as historical fact; indeed, the Nazis did encourage German Jews to make Aliyah – a policy which the British refused to implement in Mandatory Palestine – although Livingstone did mostly come under fire for the tone of the comments, and their lack of distinction between Jewish and Nazi support for Zionism.
Livingstone also dismissed the accusation that anti-Semitism was endemic in the Labour Party as ‘nonsense’, and implied that the instances of anti-Semitic comments reported by Alex Chalmers last term had not happened in the wider Labour Party, repeatedly asserting that Labour, with its high proportion of Jewish MPs, were the most inclusive party towards all ethnic minorities. He also suggested that the accusations of anti-Semitism had been manufactured by Blairites and the Conservative Party to discredit the Party, as a diversion from discussions about the economy which might become uncomfortable for the Conservatives. After Livingstone declared that newly-elected NUS President Malia Bouattia has been “smeared as an anti-Semite”, one audience member stood up to ask Livingstone if he would recognise the anger of the Jewish community with regard to the revelations in the Labour Party. Once again, Livingstone defended his own and his Party’s record, and made it clear that all those found to have made explicitly anti-Semitic comments would be expelled.
Livingstone’s judgement was questioned on a number of other occasions, particularly with regard to the issue of Israel and his associations with Irish Republican terrorists such as Gerry Adams. After saying that Israel treated the Palestinians very poorly, and should attempt to open up and become part of a wider Middle East economy, he was asked about comments which appeared to stigmatise a fellow politician who suffers from depression, describing him as needing ‘psychiatric help’. Livingstone defended this by suggesting that during his upbringing in Brixton, “if someone was rude to you, you were rude back”, bemoaning the ‘apology industry’ which had arisen since Blair’s election. Finally, he stated his position on the European Union referendum as being in line with Corbyn’s, still admitting that the EU desperately required reform.
One member present described Livingstone as “wilfully oblivious to the concerns of Jewish students and Party members”, whilst another member was more positive, declaring “Ken is sensible, tough and honest – his comments on Hitler may have been ill-timed but they were not offensive, and he has proven his record on campaigning for justice and equality.”
Livingstone’s recent conduct and remarks relating to anti-Semitism will be reviewed at a party hearing soon; Livingstone was bullish about his prospects for reinstatement.