During a walkabout in Ridley Road market in Dalston, London, on Friday, it took less than a minute before Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate for mayor of London, felt the full impact of the antisemitism row engulfing his party.
As he bounded, all smiles, towards a fruit and vegetable stall, a middle-aged woman, Nooraini Mydin, jabbed a finger at him and launched into a protest. It was not what he expected. Khan had been quick off the blocks, the day before, to condemn Ken Livingstone, the former Labour mayor, for comments about Hitler and Zionism which had elevated the explosive dispute to new heights.
But had his swift action backfired? “I was going to vote for you until I heard what you said about Ken Livingstone. Now I won’t,” said Mydin, who is Malaysian but has lived in the UK for 30 years.
“Ken is not a Nazi,” she explained after Khan had moved swiftly on. “Ken is smart. We have to distinguish between the Israel government, the Zionist government and Jewish people. I am not racist. I am a foreigner myself. I need to say that because I am really that angry. The only person that is making any sense is Ken Livingstone.”
After this hiccup, Khan was broadly well received as he weaved his way past fish stalls, wig stalls and carpet stalls. Shoppers shook his hand and some hugged him along the way. But then another woman, equally angry but apparently this time furious at Livingstone and Labour, barked aggressively at him as if he was also to blame for the antisemitism storm: “What have you got to say about Livingstone then, eh?” There was nothing for it but to pass her quickly by as well.
At the start of what turned out to be, in the words of shadow chancellor John McDonnell, “a dreadful week”, Khan had been quietly confident, the clear favourite to succeed Boris Johnson in the mayoral race, which concludes on Thursday. One poll put him 11 points ahead of his Tory rival Zac Goldsmith.
Voters go the polls in elections not just in London, but across England, Wales and Scotland. Labour is expected to struggle in English councils and to take a drubbing in Scotland and Wales. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hopes he will be able to hail a Khan triumph in London as great news to offset the less good tidings expected.
The wind was in Khan’s sails and he seemed set fair. He had fought energetically on issues such as housing and transport, and felt, with good reason, that he had outsmarted Goldsmith by depicting the Conservative campaign as racially divisive and unpleasantly negative. On matters of race and faith, Labour’s team thought they had won the argument and seized the moral high ground.
This weekend, however, Goldsmith and the Conservatives in London have renewed hope, while Khan, Corbyn and the entire Labour party have reason to worry. In an interview with the Observer, a defiant Khan insisted there was no way he would be “knocked off course” by the antisemitism arguments raging within Labour. But he accepted that the events of the past week – first the suspension of the Labour MP for Bradford, Naz Shah, over antisemitic posts on Facebook, followed by Livingstone’s extraordinary defence of her in which he linked Hitler to Zionism – had not exactly helped.
“I accept that the comments that Ken Livingstone has made makes it more difficult for Londoners of Jewish faith to feel that the Labour party is a place for them, and so I will carry on doing what I have always been doing, which is to speak for everyone,” Khan said.
He would also, he made abundantly clear, carry on distancing himself from a Labour leadership that he believes has handled allegations of antisemitism appallingly badly. Corbyn, Khan said, had been too slow to act over Livingstone’s remarks and those of Shah, and over previous instances of antisemitism among Labour activists.
“I think that the Labour leadership, and that includes the NEC [the ruling national executive committee on which Livingstone sat before he too was suspended from the party on Friday] needs to act much quicker when allegations of these sorts are made.”
He went further, saying that the entire national leadership needed lessons on racism and antisemitism. “I am an advocate of the Labour leadership, including the NEC, actually receiving some training on this stuff, as clearly they don’t understand what racism is and that there is no hierarchy when it comes to racism. There are too many examples in our party of people having these views and action does not appear to have been taken quickly enough.”
Khan was speaking on Friday before Corbyn set up an independent inquiry into antisemitism in the party to be headed by Shami Chakrabarti, the former head of Liberty. But that move has done little to calm a storm which has not only exposed Labour to attack from its opponents, but exacerbated internal divisions at the worst possible moment for the party.
On Saturday Goldsmith, sensing he might still have a chance, sought to take advantage. He conceded under pressure from John Humphrys on Radio 4 that he had no reason to think Khan was antisemitic. But he also sought to bind his opponent into the whole murky business by association. Khan and Livingstone, Goldsmith insisted, were “certainly part of the same movement within the Labour party”, and had defended each other in the past.
As the Tories gleefully exploit Labour’s descent into chaos, the acrimony in Corbyn’s party continues. The internal ructions – Livingstone suggested on Saturday that the argument was not of his making, but had been cooked up by “embittered Blairites” who wanted Corbyn out – have set simmering tensions between rival factions ablaze.
Donors are running a mile from a party that cannot afford to lose a penny. David Abrahams, who has donated around £650,000 to Labour since the turn of the century but has withdrawn support because of recent events, believes Livingstone’s wing of the party has betrayed Labour’s liberal, progressive values. “This week we have seen the hard left’s perversion of those principles,” he said, before likening Livingstone to Oswald Mosley.
The repercussions are spreading abroad. In a devastating intervention, Isaac Herzog, leader of the Israeli Labour party, has written to Corbyn saying he is “appalled and outraged” by the recent examples of antisemitism by senior Labour officials in the United Kingdom. He invited Corbyn to bring a Labour delegation to visit Israel’s national Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, “to witness that the last time the Jews were forcibly ‘transported’ it was not to Israel but to their deaths”.
On Saturday, just when it seemed it could not get any worse, Livingstone poured fuel on the fire by refusing to offer an unequivocal apology in an interview on LBC radio. His friend on the left of the party, shadow chancellor McDonnell – tipped by some (including Livingstone) as a potential successor to Corbyn – felt there was nothing for it but to redouble the leadership’s attack on Livingstone. “I just wish Ken would’ve apologised today for some of the offence that he’s caused. I know he says that he regrets what he’s said, but I think he should now apologise,” McDonnell told Sky News.
“We’re not sure where this is coming from but let me make it absolutely clear that it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from. If there’s any evidence at all of antisemitism in our party, that’s unacceptable and we’re going to root it out. We’re the party that has always fought and led the charges against anti-racism. We are going to restore our reputation, to put ourselves on a sound footing so everyone knows they are welcome in our party, and root out any form of racism.”
Whatever the attempts at damage limitation, Khan’s walkabout in north London on Friday showed that the allegations of antisemitism have registered with the public and that the party and its candidates in elections can only lose from it.
Last week, before the whole issue began to dominate the news, a member of the shadow cabinet said that he believed Khan would win and that the party would do well enough in local councils in England to ensure it could move forward – disunited perhaps – under Corbyn’s leadership.
That may still be the case – but as the recriminations grow inside Labour and the domestic and international implications become clearer, it is an assessment that looks a lot more optimistic than it did just a few days ago.
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