How Ken went from total denial to unheard-of regret


It was all supposed to be so convivial. On March 1 a peacemaking dinner was convened at the London Jewish Cultural Centre to bring Ken Livingstone together with concerned Labour supporters within the Jewish community.

At the former mayor's side was Simon Fletcher, Mr Livingstone's longstanding lieutenant, known to have been concerned at the deterioration of relations with London's Jews.

Because of the sensitivities involved, the meeting was due to be held under Chatham House rules, although in his opening remarks Mr Livingstone made it clear he was happy to consider the meeting as being "on-the-record".

We now know that those present from the Jewish side were a mixture of high-profile community figures and grassroots activists. The meeting was chaired by Adrian Cohen, the highly-respected and long-suffering chair of the London Jewish Forum. Abraham Pinter, the strictly Orthodox rabbi from Stamford Hill, was there, as was the chief executive of Liberal Judaism, Rabbi Danny Rich.

Andrew Gilbert, the founding chair of Limmud, attended, as, crucially, did Guardian and JC columnist, Jonathan Freedland.

Miliband felt the need to hug his toxic candidate ever closer

This was not the "Jewish leadership" as such, but genuine Labour supporters who wanted to be reassured about voting for Mr Livingstone.

The Labour candidate turned out to be characteristically uncompromising in his approach.

As the JC reported two weeks ago, far from seeking reconciliation, Mr Livingstone simply outlined his electoral programme and then proceeded to explain why he had been right to embrace the radical Islamist cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and take money from the Iranian state broadcaster Press TV.

Rabbi Pinter told the JC he was disappointed by Mr Livingstone's response, but worse was to come.

According to those present Mr Livingstone had not only been unapologetic but had suggested that Jews were too rich to vote for him. A group of participants, including Rabbi Rich and Mr Gilbert, decided to write to Labour leader Ed Miliband to express their concerns.

In the key passage they wrote: "Ken, towards the end of the meeting, stated that he did not expect the Jewish community to vote Labour as votes for the left are inversely proportional to wealth levels, and suggested that as the Jewish community is rich we simply wouldn't vote for him."

The letter, leaked to the JC, was dynamite.

In the days that followed the Labour high command was left in an impossible position. Ed Miliband felt obliged to hug his increasingly toxic candidate even closer, claiming there was not a prejudiced bone in Mr Livingstone's body and obliging the whole shadow cabinet to appear on the mayoral campaign trial.

Behind the scenes, the JC understands, the big beasts in the Jewish Leadership Council held private discussions with Mr Miliband at which he gave assurances that something would be done to rectify the situation.

Meanwhile a new development upped the stakes even further. Jonathan Freedland, who supported Mr Livingstone in 2008, wrote in the Guardian that he could no longer do so.

At this point, some within the Labour Party, including Mr Miliband himself, were still questioning whether Mr Livingstone had used the words attributed to him.

But the Labour candidate himself clarified matters when he told a local paper journalist on the Camden New Journal that he stuck by his view that voting patterns correlated with levels of wealth: "Every psephological study I've seen in the 40 years I've been following politics shows the main factor that determines how people how vote is their income level," he said. "And it's not antisemitic to say that."

While key Jewish Labour Party supporters continued to press the leadership for action, Simon Fletcher decided to act. Using contacts he had developed while Labour was in power in City Hall, Mr Livingstone's chief aide took advice from senior figures in the London Jewish Forum about how to take the heat out of the row.

As a result of these discussions, on Monday the decision was made to approach the JC with a conciliatory piece by Mr Livingstone paying tribute to London's Jewish community and suggesting a strategy for a new start.

No one person can take responsibility for making Ken Livingstone do the right thing and sign off an article that must have been one of the most painful to which he has ever put his name. Individual members of the London Jewish Forum and the Jewish Leadership Council and those who wrote the letter to Ed Miliband must all take some credit, as must the Labour leader himself.

Rabbi Pinter's words to the JC clearly also had a big impact. And on the Livingstone side, Simon Fletcher has also been working hard to mend fences.

But ultimately the decision to eat humble pie lay with Ken Livingstone himself, and though the Jewish community will never take him to their heart, some may at least give him credit for admitting he was wrong.

And as the paper went to press this week, the Jewish Leadership Council was meeting Ed Miliband for dinner and the Livingstone issue was the main item on the menu. With a month to go to election day, this is a story that will just not go away.

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