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Ken Livingstone’s Defeat and the Jews

Politically, Boris Johnson’s victory over his challenger and former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, in last week’s London mayoral election means two things. First, it is a repudiation of Livingstone, to the point that his mercilessly long career has (if we can rely on his announcement) met its long overdue expiration. To add insult to this injury, embarrassingly, he will now not preside as mayor over the city’s Olympic Games this summer that he championed during his two terms in office. Second, it is an important endorsement of Boris Johnson, who secured a critical victory in the capital despite a tide of Tory defeats nationwide. The talk of Boris eventually leading the Conservative Party itself will now only get louder.

But Boris’ victory was closer than predicted. This was likely because Red Ken was better at getting his supporters to the voting booths. But does the closeness of the call make it possible that London’s Jewish community played a pivotal part in the election, and in Ken’s defeat?

The present paucity of polling data precludes analysis. This has not stopped the speculation, however, and some outlets have showered the Jewish community with blame or praise for the result: the leftist, Livingstone-supporting Guardian put his defeat down to the ‘‘Jewish political establishment,’’ a regrettable choice of phrasing which the newspaper surreptitiously scrubbed. And conservative pundits – as well as journalists in the Jewish community – are apparently happy to give credit to Jewish voters.

Such speculation only goes so far, though, and there are two other noteworthy and more interesting observations to be made.

First, Livingstone’s anti-Semitic comments before the election (for a recap, see here and here) – not to mention throughout his sorry career – courted not only controversy, but by design, the Muslim community. Of course, whether that community (a far larger demographic than London’s Jews) ultimately came to Ken’s support at the ballot box or not, and whether the Jewish community which Boris wooed came to his, is unclear, but the very obviously divergent electoral strategies are a lamentable reflection of London politics, ethnic relations, and the reality and expression of antipathy toward Jews and Israel in areas (and elections) where they should have no place. Moreover, these dynamics are not limited to London (as evidenced by George Galloway’s recent by-election victory), or merely to the UK.

Second, it was interesting to follow the Jewish reaction to events during the campaign. On the one hand — and encouragingly – some Jews apparently did, if not shift support from Labour, at least stay home. For example, take D.D. Guttenplan, the Nation’s London correspondent and a longtime Livingstone supporter, who withheld his support this time around, proclaiming that the Labour candidate’s defeat was the price of Jewish self-respect.

On the other hand, it also turns out that many Jews simply do not care enough about Ken’s attitude toward Israel and his comfort with anti-Semitic tropes to oppose him — and several of the high-profile community leaders involved in the original controversy still decided to support him. In part, this is down to a pathology of Anglo-Jewry, which, in its effort to be more British than the British, forgets it has other concerns as well. But it is also in part a worrying worldview particular to the Jewish Left, and unfortunately extends beyond the Anglo-Jewish community. If Ken Livingstone does not alienate such Jews, one wonders what it would take.


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