Why Livingstone gets my vote

We should vote for the man who is best for London, not who is best for the Jews

I wouldn’t vote for Ken Livingstone to be the next head of the United Synagogue. If he was running for the chairmanship of the Jewish National Fund, he wouldn’t have my backing. And if he wanted to lead the Zionist Federation, he could count me out.

We all know why Livingstone has disqualified himself from those posts. He’s the man who hugged Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim cleric who justifies attacks on Israeli civilians; who told the Reuben brothers to go back where they came from; who heard a Jewish reporter say he was offended to be compared to a concentration camp guard and didn’t care; and who, most recently, wrongly claimed that former Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits had declared the creation of the state of Israel a mistake.

So Ken can rule himself out as a future president of the Board of Deputies. Luckily for him — and us — that’s not the job he’s seeking. He wants instead to carry on serving as the mayor of London. And the basis on which Jewish Londoners make that decision should be entirely different.

For if we are full participants in the life of this city — and I believe we are — then we should elect a mayor not because of how he appeals, or doesn’t appeal, to our own particular, sectional interests, but what he does for London as a whole.

We would take a dim view of an American Jewish voter who chose between Obama, Clinton and McCain solely on the basis of how closely each candidate cuddled up to Israel rather than on what they would do for America.

The same applies in London.

Sure, we may not like the way Ken Livingstone speaks about the Middle East — thought the mayor has taken an admirable stance against the academic boycott of Israel — preferring the emollient words of Boris Johnson. But this is not about choosing a speaker for the annual Jewish Care dinner. Rather, we need to weigh up a record that has seen a congestion charge implemented and now copied around the world, put thousands more police on the streets and which has seen racist crime fall in the capital — even as it has been rising in the rest of the country — and ask whether that record would be continued or jeopardised by electing a man who, yes, pens a lively column and does a funny turn on TV but has done nothing to suggest he could run a major world city.

This is not to say we should put our Jewish sensibilities to one side. I can think of at least two ways in which a Jewish outlook might influence our vote.

The first is highlighted by the laudable Board of Deputies campaign, alongside other organisations, to block the British National Party. If turnout is low on May 1, the BNP could easily clear the 5 per cent threshold and win one, two or even three seats in the London Assembly. That would give them the most prestigious platform they have ever won in Britain. The only way to stop them is to ensure a high turnout, which means every one of us using our vote — no matter who we vote for.

This is the rousing appeal Ken Livingstone makes when winding up his campaign speeches. Whether he loses his job or not is secondary, he says, to the larger cause of stopping the fascists of the BNP.

I saw an audience otherwise hostile to Ken cheer him as he made this point: they know that, whatever else you may think about the mayor, his record in fighting the far right is long and sincere.

As for Boris Johnson, suffice it to say that the BNP is so comfortable with his politics — his leisurely branding, in writing and in documented conversation, of black people as “piccaninnies”, his claim that Africa’s problem is that it’s no longer ruled by the British Empire — that they are urging their supporters to use their second preference votes for Johnson.

That’s right: the BNP is backing Boris.

Second, we can use a bit of Jewish empathy. In the week after the July 7 bombings, Johnson wrote a piece which described the Koran and Islam itself, not merely Islamic radicalism, as “viciously sectarian” and “medieval”, accusing it of “disgusting arrogance”, and adding that Islamophobia was a “natural reaction” to Muslim holy texts.

Now ask yourself, as a Jew, how you would feel if someone who wrote that way about Jews and Judaism was leading in the polls for the London mayoralty. Then ask yourself, as a Londoner, whether that was the message we needed to hear in the immediate aftermath of 7/7 when every other public figure, including our own Chief Rabbi, was urging people to come together and not to turn on a religious minority because of the wicked actions of four murderous individuals. Do all that — and then vote.

    Last updated: 5:07pm, May 13 2008