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Livingstone: symptom of a deeper problem

April 30th, 2016

Confronting the ex-mayor means confronting what it means to be Labour

You know you have a PR problem when your party’s second most successful politician this century* is publicly debating at what point in the 1930s Hitler lost the plot.

Labour’s problem runs a great deal deeper than bad publicity though. To be clear, Labour is unlikely to be the only party with members, activists or elected representatives who’ve said or written something stupid or worse but it is likely to have by far the biggest problem.

There are two interrelated reasons for that. Firstly, Labour has been much more successful in courting the ethnic minority vote than other parties but sometimes, with those voters have come imported intolerant attitudes. Electoral motivations act as at best a disincentive to confront those attitudes and at worst, reason to dog whistle to them.

And secondly, Labour has long promoted itself as inclusive, multicultural and tolerant. Indeed, in his interviews yesterday, Corbyn seemed to take Labour’s tolerance as an article of faith; true simply by assertion. That culture makes it harder to criticise ethnic minority members indulging in bigoted or discriminatory behaviour, in part because it undermines Labour’s self-image but more because those attitudes are misguidedly seen as cultural – just an alternative way of doing things – and as such, beyond criticism. Indeed, criticism of attitudes held disproportionately by one group of another are themselves labelled racist.

    In fact, despite Livingstone’s suspension and the Labour’s setting up of the inquiry into anti-Semitism, there are clear signs that Corbyn still doesn’t get it.

His comment that critics were only saying that Labour was in crisis because they’re worried about Labour’s strength implies that he thinks that their charges are illegitimate and politically motivated. But of course, if you start from the position that Labour has exceptional moral virtue then it follows by definition that it cannot have problem with anti-Semitism, therefore it doesn’t. (Of course it doesn’t, its last leader was Jewish, sort of).

Reversing the truck back down the road however won’t be easy. It will mean both confronting that mind-set and probably confronting no small number of members, both those at fault and those willing to defend them. That a change.org petition calling for John Mann to be disciplined has attracted over 12,000 signatures in little more than a day is itself revealing. It’s possible that those signatories simply regard Mann’s public rant as excessive and unbecoming but going by the comments, I suspect it’s more tribal solidarity among the Labour left.

If so, we could be about to see civil war within Labour: a disproportionate number who’d be in the firing line would be either muslims or on the left. Is Corbyn the man to take on such opponents? Of course not. Ken might be let back, he might be persuaded out, he might even be kicked out – but it’d be him and few others.

David Herdson

* Definitional, of course, but no Labour leader other than Blair has won a general election so we have to look at the next level down. Rhodri Morgan might stake a claim too with two Welsh Assembly wins to Ken’s one in London (plus one as an independent) but Wales is much more a Labour heartland and London is much bigger. That said, Ken’s two losses have to be factored in too. In fact, his defeat in 2012 might be Labour’s only silver lining to the row – at least Ken’s not the candidate or mayor right now.