Friday, January 20, 2012

"Red" Ken Livingstone v. Boris Johnson - The 2012 Race for London Mayor and the Larger Implications for the Jewish Community

London Mayoralty

London, Europe's biggest city with 5.8 million eligible voters, goes to the polls on May 3rd to elect a mayor. The contest is primarily a rematch pitting the former Old Labor mayor "Red" Ken Livingstone against the quirky Conservative incumbent Boris Johnson.

Like any Big City mayoral campaign, the issues revolve mostly around crime rates, affordable housing, commuter fare increases and how best to help Londoners weather the economic downturn. London's mayor has limited authority with power dispersed among the municipality's 32 borough councils. Still, the job comes with plenty of responsibility and, moreover, offers a bully pulpit. A Livingstone victory would return City Hall to a vitriolic anti-Zionist whose relationship with the city's 195,000-stong Jewish community has long been fraught.

Until recently, polls had been showing Johnson with a slight advantage over Livingstone – no small achievement in a city that has a reputation for voting left even if Tory parliamentary candidates have actually done remarkably well. Now, however, Livingstone appears on the ascendant. To solidify his lead Livingstone will need to hold on to his natural base among Black and Muslim voters while appealing to other voters who abandoned him four years ago. Johnson's unenviable job is to convince an electorate battered by Conservative government service cuts and dreadful economic times – one in 10 Londoners is out of work – that he is actually their best advocate with No. 10 Downing Street and the business sector. Johnson has been pushing corporations to offer apprenticeships, paid internships and graduate training schemes as cost effective ways for businesses to tap into London's talent pool.

Livingstone has been reminding voters that under his stewardship the city became cleaner and safer; that he helped bring the Olympics to London; made major improvements in the Tube and implemented a traffic congestion scheme in central London that has unclogged streets and made the air cleaner. He charges Johnson with raising commuter fares well beyond what is reasonable (though fares went up dramatically in his administration too). Livingstone further promises to advocate for rent control and to be wiser than Johnson in implementing billions of pounds in budget cuts.

For his part, Johnson has frozen municipal taxes and argued that his 5.6 percent Tube fare increase is essential for infrastructure upkeep. After the Olympics, he acknowledges that he might have to cut the police budget (unless Prime Minister David Cameron's government steps in). Some categories of crime are up, Johnson admits, but serious youth violence and crime overall is down. And he takes pride in delivering the Olympic Games on time and on budget.

Of course, the Johnson-Livingstone race has wider implications. For one, Livingstone has a history of being a thorn in the side of his own Labor Party. He did not get on with prime ministers Tony Blair or Gordon Brown though insists that for the first time in a very long time "there's a Labour leader who actually likes me." Still, if elected the charismatic Livingstone may ram the untested Labor leader Ed Miliband further to the left simply by outshining him. Miliband's own comfort level with Israel is debatable but to his credit he's asserted that "It is not left-wing or progressive to ally oneself with those that seek Israel's destruction…"
Livingstone would beg to differ.

His "Red" moniker comes well earned. One close adviser is John Ross his Trotskyite ex-chief of staff whom he described in his memoirs as a "workaholic professional revolutionary." Nowadays, of course, being "red" is synonymous with campaigning for Palestinian Arab cause and aligning with its Islamist champions.

The ex-mayor's commitment to "Palestine" and to anti-Israel agitation is second to none. He believes the creation of the Jewish state was an Original Sin and that "it would be easier to achieve peace if Israel comes to terms with the crimes committed at its birth." He is close to the Egyptian Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi whom he defends this way: "The one thing he has always said is that Palestinians have the right to fight and to kill in the struggle round Israel. But he's always been absolutely clear that that was the only area in which violence could be justified." And Livingstone's idea of hurling an insult is, for instance, to call Education Secretary Michael Gove – one of Israel's very view friends in the Cameron cabinet -- a "fervent Zionist."

Journalist Andrew Gilligan who blogs on the mayoral race for London's Daily Telegraph read through an advance copy of Livingstone's autobiography and came up with some interesting statistics: There are 64 mentions of “Israel” or “Israelis;” 32 mentions of “Zionists” or “Zionism.” In contrast, there are only 30 references to public transportation. Gilligan writes: "Ken’s famous obsession with the Third Reich is on full display – there are 23 references to “Nazis” or “Nazism” and a further 16 mentions of Hitler!"

It comes as no surprise that Livingstone has taken thousands of pounds to anchor a program for Iran’s English-language Press TV. Say this about the man he has an arch sense of humor. He jokes that the choice between him and Johnson is one of "good and evil" adding, "I don't think it's been so clear since the great struggle between Churchill and Hitler."

Livingstone's Israel-phobia goes further. In February 2005 , annoyed by persistent questioning from Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold he instinctively reacted by telling the journalist that he was "behaving like a concentration camp guard." In his book, Livingstone disingenuously explains that no offense was intended. In fact, "the phrase 'behaving like a concentration camp guard'…is a common jibe in Britain."
Jewish voters are not without clout. Most of Britain's 260,000 plus Jews are concentrated in London. Obviously, not all vote in solidarity with Jewish interests and Israel. Many, however, will. That might explain why Valerie Shawcross, Livingstone's running mate, campaigned for him at last month's Limmud conference. Jewish voters helped push Johnson over the top in 2008 and in 2010 "punished" Labour for its perceived bias against Israel, according to Prof. Geoffrey Alderman.

While there would be cheers in Teheran and Gaza, a Livingstone victory would be a setback for London's anyway fraying image as a cosmopolitan, pluralist and tolerant city.

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