Ken Livingstone has long enlivened our national life, with his engaging television manner and his love of newts. He has run rings around successive leaders of the Labour Party. It is arguable that for a time he was the most effective adversary of Margaret Thatcher’s regime. He has shrugged off concerted efforts to smear him, demonise him or otherwise damage his reputation as the voice of the non-aligned English left. Unfortunately, after 35 years in the public eye, he has unequivocally lost his touch and needs to stop.
There was the episode back in November when a Labour MP, Kevan Jones, criticised Livingstone’s involvement in the Labour Party’s review of their defence policy. Ken Livingstone’s riposte was “I think he might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed … He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.” He resisted apologising for some time, and when he did, it was for being rude. He appeared to be oblivious to the appalling stigmatising nature of what he had said.
This week he has provoked a completely unnecessary and much larger stir. Ken felt the need to throw paraffin on the dying embers of a controversy over ill-judged Facebook comments that Naz Shah MP made in 2014. There was no need for him to comment at all, but having decided to do so, it was truly stupid to invoke the Nazis in a discussion about the differences between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and criticism of the Israeli Government.
Ken’s intervention has given the Labour Party’s enemies the opportunity to smear their candidates with anti-Semitism and seriously embarrass Corbyn in the run up to next week’s elections. It will only take a small shift of voting intentions to give Wales the world’s first UKIP-Conservative coalition government. Health is a fully devolved responsibility in Wales. In England, it will be helpful to the junior doctors if the Conservatives to do badly in next week’s elections. Electoral failure would weaken the Government’s determination to crush resistance. Left wing activists have long complained that Livingstone only believes in solidarity so long as it does not prevent him from doing whatever he wants, and I think that we now know what they mean. Fortunately, one of the few positive aspects of the junior doctors’ dispute has been the unprecedented level of support and solidarity it has attracted, both within the NHS and amongst the general public. It is the greatest asset that the junior doctors have, and Ken’s antics will not dent it.
Livingstone’s offending remarks were that Hitler supported Zionism when he was elected in 1932. What has attracted little attention is the second part: “before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews”. In other words, the Holocaust was not due to an identifiable and catastrophic combination of socio-political factors, facilitated by adept manipulation of the social psychology of xenophobia. It was a consequence of Hitler developing some sort of mental illness. Livingstone seems to habitually use suggestions of mental illness (or synonyms for it) to dismiss people and actions that he does not like. The best you can say about this is that it is rhetorically bankrupt. More importantly, it contributes to a social mind-set of stigma. It encourages the taunting, shunning and marginalisation of people diagnosed with mental illness. Many of them say that the effects of stigma are worse than the effects of the illness itself.
I lived in London when Livingstone led the GLC. It was an exciting time, especially for anyone who opposed Thatcherism. I voted for him. You would see him in the street sometimes, walking to work unaccompanied. He would meet your eye and wish you a cheery good morning. The warm glow around him obscured (or perhaps contributed to) his status as a sound bite demagogue, a man of great charm tainted by consistently poor judgement. It was easy to dismiss allegations against him as the distortions of the right wing media at the time, but some of them turned out to be true.
My feelings towards Livingstone started to change when I realised that he really was a close associate of the repulsive Gerry Healy, who died in 1989. Through a combination of chance and youthful naivety, I had some interesting but uncomfortable contact with Healy’s inner circle in the 1970s. He was a fantasist who led a cult called the Worker’s Revolutionary Party. They were regarded as extreme by other Trotskyist groups of the period. The WRP fell apart in 1985 when female party members raised allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation against Healy. Livingstone wrote an apologist introduction to Healy’s official biography in 1994. You can read it here. Having had close proximity to Healy and his organisation, I really hope that it is a fabrication and not Livingstone’s work at all, but I do not think it is.
Recent events have put a lid on it. Electoral own goals, a persistently bad attitude over mental illness, obscuring serious debate over Israel through spurious references to Nazi policy; Livingstone is becoming a left-wing Bernard Manning, mumbling that he is not being offensive, he is just saying it straight. Meanwhile, his support melts away. He has become a liability to those of us who believe in equality and social justice, not to mention a decent NHS and a better deal for people with mental illness. Time to spend more time with his amphibians. The left needs more articulate polemicists who understand that public mental health is closely related to social conditions. People like Owen Jones.
This week saw the first all-out junior doctors strike in the history of the NHS. I had treatment in an English hospital during the action. There were no junior doctors, but there was no panic, no mayhem and the service was not on the point of collapse. I was proud that health professionals, on strike or not, angry and battered though they are, conducted themselves well. Earlier in the week, I was pleased to speak at an excellent anti-stigma meeting organised by doctoral psychology students at the University of Sheffield. Luckily, the world is changed by grass roots activism, not celebrity figureheads. Activists carry hope, whilst celebrities are bound to prove to be flawed.