27 March 2006 – Peter Oborne – Evening Standard
Although I have never shared Ken Livingstone’s politics, I have reluctantly admired the Mayor of London for the way he has stood up to the New Labour establishment.
I can’t feel that way any more. In fact, over the past few months I have started to feel ashamed that Livingston is in charge of our great city. And not just ashamed. I am afraid. There is a danger that Ken may become the model for a new and ugly generation of politcian: the populist agitator who risks playing up ethnic resentments to win votes.
The Mayor’s relationship with the Jewish community in London has become very disturbing. His comparison of Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold to a concentration-camp guard was bad enough. But it was possible to feel some sympathy with him on the grounds that his remarks were made after a party, so open to the construction that they were fuelled by drink rather than malice.
But his latest comments about David and Simon Reuben – that they should “go back to Iran the try their luck with the ayatollahs” – were made in cold blood at a press conference. One anti-Jewish remark might be an accident. Two suggests the Livingstone is pursuing a calculated course.
It is telling that the reaction has not been greater. Imagine if he had told a West Indian to “go back to Africa”. He would have been drummed out of office. The muted response suggests that attacks on the Jewish community are somehow starting to become acceptable, and Livingstone is, perhaps unconciously, exploiting this.
As it happens, I do not believe that he is an anti-Semite. But he may be guilty of something that is almost as disturbing: trying to win Muslim votes on the back of a cheap public attack on Jewish businessmen. And that is an obscene form of politics. The introduction of directly elected mayors in British cities brought with it the potential for the emergence of populist politicans ready to play on ethnic resentments. It looks like Livingstone is doing precisely that.
The 20th century provides a ghastly lesson in the consequences of this behaviour. That is why it is so important for responsible figures around Livingstone to rein him in. I cannot understand why the Prim e Minister – leader of the political party which Livingstone represents – has not made known his revulsion at the Mayor’s comments.
The conduct of Nicky Gavron, the deputy mayor, is stranger still. She ought to be aware of the distress and alarm that Livingtone’s loose talk causes in the Jewish community.
Yet she seems much more interested in keeping her job that doing the right thing. Ths stood loyally by her boss in the Finehold case, wrongly stating that the affair had been “blown out of all proportion”.
Gavron has been perplexingly silent over the Reuben incident. This is not good enough. If she had an ounce of guts or integrity she would resign.