by Miriam Shaviv
Community fears Israel-bashing leftist’s bid to win Muslim votes by alienating Jews could be replicated more subtly by other British politicians
Finally, more than a full day after polls closed, the winner of London’s mayoral election was announced minutes before midnight on Friday night: Boris Johnson, the floppy-haired right-wing incumbent, was narrowly returned to office.
Johnson just staved off challenger Ken Livingstone, by a margin of barely 60,000 votes — 51.53 percent to 48.47%. London’s mayor from 2000 until Johnson defeated him in 2008, Livingstone was sent home by the voters a second time, and immediately declared that “this is my last election.” For most of the Jewish community, the announcement was a major relief.
Accused of both anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, Livingstone had been clashing with London’s Jews for the best part of three decades. In the run-up to the election it had looked at times as though he might overtake Johnson, and the prospect of a mayor who did not seem to care about the community’s sensibilities — to put it mildly — had alarmed many.
“I hope that Ken Livingstone is consigned to the dustbin of history,” said David Mencer, former director of Labour Friends of Israel, a lobby group affiliated to Livingstone’s own party. He says he did not vote for Livingstone: “Why would I vote for a Jew-hater?”
But while Livingstone may be finished politically, his campaign has left the Jewish community bruised and battered. And it may have long-term implications.
Anglo-Jews, and not only those in the capital, have been left with profound questions about their place in Britain’s political system.
Livingstone’s strategy during the campaign, many claim, was to win Muslim votes by alienating the Jews. There are an estimated million Muslims in the capital, compared to 200,000 Jews at most.
During a meeting with Jewish supporters of the Labour party — intended, ironically, to heal the rift with Livingstone ahead of the elections — the prospective mayor sparked a new crisis by alleging that Jews would not vote for him because they were too “rich.”
As mayor, he showed the same tin-ear for anti-Semitic tropes, calling a Jewish newspaper reporter a concentration camp guard, telling two Bombay-born Jewish businessmen of Iraqi heritage to “go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs,” and welcoming to City Hall an Islamic preacher, Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, who has supported suicide bombings in Israel. Livingstone himself is a passionate supporter of the Palestinians, who has excused suicide attacks and accused Israel of ethnic cleansing.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, it was still unclear whether Livingstone did indeed win the Muslim vote, and if so, how much Livingstone’s comments about “rich” Jews had to do with it.
Jonathan Arkush, senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies, the representative body of British Jews, says that voting patterns will have to be analyzed properly, but in the meanwhile he has seen “no evidence that Ken Livingstone had special support amongst Muslims.”
Other Jewish community sources say that younger, more outward-looking Muslims were under no illusions as to what Livingstone was trying to do, and resented being used.
It is similarly unclear how Livingstone’s attitude played out with the general population. Some maintain that it was not a factor at all, or only a very minor one. Others contend that it actively backfired, and that voters disliked what was seen as a return to the “identity politics” of Livingstone’s first two terms. His statements about Jews were blasted by several national newspaper columnists and Johnson, the Conservative incumbent who went on to win, positioned himself in opposition to Livingstone as a “mayor for all of London.”
“It sends quite a positive message that Livingstone lost,” says Harvey Rose, chairman of the Zionist Federation, an umbrella group for Zionist organizations in the UK. “I hope that one of the reasons is that people have seen through his cynical attempt to play Muslim against Jew.”
Nevertheless, there is concern that as the Muslim community grows, so will the temptation for other politicians to emulate Livingstone’s divisive strategy, particularly on the far left.
“The Jewish community in the UK is dwindling while the Muslim community in the UK is growing,” says Rose. “It is inevitable that their political say in British politics can only go up. This is democratic as well – the more there are those who believe in a certain way, the more their views should be taken into account.
“But it’s one of the reasons I’m concerned about the future of the Jews in the UK. [Politicians’ anti-Jewish agitation] won’t be anywhere near as blatant and unsubtle as Livingstone’s, but politics is a numbers game and this is not good news for the Jewish community.”
He points out that George Galloway, a left-wing politician known for his support of Saddam Hussein, the Palestinians, Hamas and Hezbollah, won a seat in Parliament in March by directly courting the Muslim vote.
Galloway told voters in the heavily Islamic constituency of Bradford West that he was “a better Pakistani” than his Labour Party opponent, while one of his campaign leaflets – which he claims he did not produce – quoted him as saying he did not drink. Although he has denied rumors that he has converted to Islam, Galloway, who was born and raised as a Roman Catholic in Scotland, has married three Muslim women (as well as one Christian).
For Mencer, who nowadays runs his own political consultancy, Raphael Consulting, the potential of an increasingly politically active Muslim community being seen in opposition to a shrinking Jewish community is a pan-European problem.
While he has no complaints about the way that Britain’s Jewish organizations handled this last Livingstone campaign, in general, he says, “the leadership is sleepwalking into oblivion, managing our decline without addressing the problems.”
Although the demographic tide cannot be reversed, he believes that the Jewish leadership could strengthen its position by “making our case more forcefully, constantly, not just in election times. We need to take more members of Parliament to Israel. We are losing the argument – I’ve seen it in my political lifetime and I’m a young man. But the Jewish community seems to be more concerned with in-fighting.”
A particular problem for the some segments of the Jewish community, in the aftermath of the mayoral election, is its relationship with the Labour party, which was the government in power between1997-2010 and is currently the main opposition party.
Livingstone was selected as its mayoral candidate in September 2010 in an electoral college vote comprised of London’s 35,000 party members, 38 London members of Parliament, and 400,000 voters belonging to the 14 unions and organizations affiliated to the London Labour party. He defeated Oona King, a half-black halachic Jew.
The party’s leadership was at best ambivalent about Livingstone, whose far-left politics were perceived as a throwback to a time in the 1980s and early 1990s when Labour was unelectable. He was essentially imposed on Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who was voted into that position in September 2010, just as the mayoral candidates were decided. However, Miliband has campaigned alongside Livingstone on several occasions and members of his team urged Londoners to vote for him.
Martin Bright, the political editor of the UK’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper, argues in this week’s edition that the “sight of the Shadow Cabinet lining up to support such a clearly divisive candidate has marked a new low-point in relations between the Labour Party and the Jews.”
In fact, there were some Jews who voted for Livingstone despite their misgivings. Five prominent Labour activists, who had previously written a letter to Miliband outlining their concerns about Livingstone, last week issued a public statement in which they explained that they were endorsing him after all, with “eyes open and breathing deeply, maybe with a sigh or two.”
But they seem to be a small minority. Several prominent Jewish Labour supporters publicly declared that they would not be voting for Livingstone, including Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland and host of television show The Apprentice, Lord Sugar. And there was a general feeling that Miliband, who is himself halachically Jewish, was insensitive to the community’s concerns about Livingstone, declaring that “he doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body.”
Whether the Labour-supporting Jews who declined to vote for Livingstone will sour on the entire party remains to be seen. Both Rose and Arkush say that Livingstone is a maverick, far to the left of his party, and that Jewish voters will differentiate between the two.
“The decision [to nominate] Ken had nothing to do with his views on the Jewish community or on Israel,” says Arkush. “He was selected because he made himself the most electable and they were stuck with him. I didn’t see it as an expression by Labour of moving towards extremism. They were holding their nose.”
In addition, Jewish community sources say that an apology issued by Ken Livingstone in the Jewish Chronicle for the “rich” Jews debacle was highly untypical, and would never have been issued without considerable pressure from the party leadership.
Mencer, though, argues that since Labour left office in 2010 there has been a marked lurch to the left. “This includes less of a willingness to address the legitimate concerns of the Jewish community.”
Ed Miliband became leader of the party largely thanks to the votes of union members, who are often perceived as hard-liners on Israel. Much of the money currently financing the party also comes from the unions, several of which have tried to organize boycotts of the Jewish state.
The Jewish community’s historic links to the Labour party, meanwhile, have generally been intellectual rather than grassroots. The combination of labor unions, with which the Jewish community has only weak links, and the growing number of Muslim voters, constitute powerful influences on the Labour party, neither of them friendly to the Jewish community.
In his column, Bright notes that there have been several other Labour representatives who have clashed with the Jewish community recently, such as MP Paul Flynn, who accused Britain’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, of “divided loyalties.” In this context, the support for Livingstone seems harder to dismiss.
“This toxin will take years to flush from the Labour Party, whatever the result on Thursday,” Bright concludes.
According to Mencer, though, Labour will have to deal with the problem if it ever hopes to return to power. Although the Jewish vote is negligible on the national scale – there are around 300,000 Jews out of a total UK population of 62 million – “in order to win power, parties need to win the middle ground, which is where the Jewish community is, by and large. It’s a great barometer – if they can win over the Jewish community, it’s a sign you’ve won over middle England.”
Does Labour care? Says Mencer, “If Labour continues to lurch to the left, it will lose the election. The might feel self-righteous, but they will lose. Labour has many shared values with the Jewish community. The right person is needed to appreciate that.”Miriam Shaviv
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