POLITICS
21/05/2018 17:56 BST | Updated 22/05/2018 09:44 BST

Ken Livingstone Resigns From Labour Party, Claiming Anti Semitism Row Had Become 'A Distraction'

Corbyn says London Mayor decision 'sad' but 'right'

Ken Livingstone has quit the Labour party, claiming the row over his alleged anti-semitism had become too much of a ‘distraction’.

The former Mayor of London’s surprise announcement brings to an end a two-year saga during which he linked Jews to Hitler and Nazism.

Jeremy Corbyn reacted to the news by saying: “Ken Livingstone’s resignation is sad after such a long and vital contribution to London and progressive politics, but was the right thing to do.”

In 2016, Livingstone was suspended for bringing the party into disrepute after declaring that Adolf Hitler had a policy in the early 1930s of wanting to move German Jews to Israel.

“He [Hitler] was supporting Zionism - before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews,” he told BBC Radio London at the time.

Despite an outcry, he refused to back down and a year later said there had been “real collaboration” between the Nazis and some Jews. However, the former GLC leader has always said it was a ‘lie’ to claim he had said Hitler was a Zionist.

He had been due to face a fresh hearing of the disputes panel of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) in July. 

Following angry protests from Jewish groups, the Labour leader last month ordered his new general secretary Jennie Formby to make tackling anti-semitism her ‘number one priority’.

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Labour MP Luciana Berger joins a Jewish protest in Parliament Square

Livingstone’s resignation is the second time he has been forced out of the party in his long political career.

He was deemed to have ‘auto-excluded’ himself in 2000, when he stood against Labour’s Frank Dobson to run as an independent in the first race for the capital’s City Hall.

Tony Blair later readmitted him to the party and he won a second term as a Labour candidate.

The former Mayor told HuffPost on Monday evening: “My lawyer says if I take it to court it will be two to three years, it would be just dragging it all out and it undermines Jeremy’s campaign against the government.”

When asked by HuffPost UK if he felt there was any chance of a return to Labour in a few years’ time, Livingstone, 72, replied: “If I’m alive, talk to me then.”

In a statement to BBC London, he said he “abhorred” anti-Semitism and was “truly sorry” that his historical arguments had “caused offence and upset in the Jewish community”.

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Jeremy Corbyn

“I am loyal to the Labour Party and to Jeremy Corbyn. However any further disciplinary action against me may drag on for months or even years, distracting attention from Jeremy’s policies.

“I am therefore, with great sadness, leaving the Labour Party.”

Under party rules, anyone expelled has to wait five years before they can reapply for membership. Those who resign can reapply at any time.

One senior party source told HuffPost that the decision was just a ruse to allow him to return to the party at a later date.

“They didn’t have the balls to expel him and this gives him a route back,” one insider said.

Labour MP Wes Streeting said: “Ken Livingstone’s exit from the Labour party is welcome, but he should have been expelled. We must now make it clear that he will never be welcome to return.

“His vocal cheerleaders and supporters should follow him out of the door.”

Another party source said: “It’s the easy way out, and lets him go with dignity rather than showing we found him guilty.”

The former Mayor has always maintained that remarks he made about Hitler supporting a Jewish homeland in the early 1930s were historically accurate.

Labour MP Chris Williamson praised Livingstone in a tweet following his decision to quit.

But many Labour MPs, activists and others felt his comments were both wrong and offensive.

Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabarti last week called for Livingstone’s expulsion, a clear sign that the mood had turned against him among Corbyn’s most trusted allies.

If Livingstone does want to rejoin the party at some point in the future, under Labour rules he would have to return as a ‘suspended’ member and the disciplinary case would still stand unless Formby dropped it.

Earlier on Monday, it emerged that the leftwing group Campaign for Labour Party Democracy had voted this weekend to fight any attempt to expel Livingstone from the party.

The resignation decision follows original three-member National Constitutional Committee (NCC) panel that decided in March 2017 not to expel Livingstone.

It instead suspended him for his remarks suggesting Hitler had supported Zionism. But on the orders of Jeremy Corbyn, he was swiftly re-suspended when he repeated his remarks and failed to apologise.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell last week agreed with councillors and MPs who said the whole row over anti-semitic abuse within the party had been responsible for Labour failing to clinch the key Tory borough of Barnet in the May local elections.

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Jeremy Corbyn and Shami Chakrabarti at the launch of her report into anti-semitism

Karen Pollock MBE, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust said:  “I’m glad Ken Livingstone has quit - it’s just a great shame the Labour Party did not expel him a long time ago for his repeatedly offensive remarks.

“While Mr Livingstone may have left the Labour Party, the problem of antisemitism has not. Let’s hope it’s actually dealt with. Urgently.”

The former Mayor was heavily criticised in 2006 when he accused a Jewish journalist of acting ‘like a concentration camp guard’ for asking him questions after a City Hall reception.

NEC member Claudia Webbe, who was an adviser to Livingstone during his Mayoralty, told HuffPost that his legacy should have been one of investment in public transport, neighbourhood policing and bidding for the 2012 Olympics.

But she said: “His legacy of the past will not now be his legacy of the future, as those whom he had previously fought so hard to protect are left traumatised by his argument, which caused deep offence and upset to the Jewish community.

“Ken has been a life long labour party member even in the wilderness years, this resignation will hurt him deeply and he knows there won’t be a way back to his beloved Labour Party.”

Here is Livingstone’s full resignation statement:

“After much consideration, I have decided to resign from the Labour Party.

The ongoing issues around my suspension from the Labour Party have become a distraction from the key political issue of our time – which is to replace a Tory government overseeing falling living standards and spiralling poverty, while starving our schools and the NHS of the vital resources they need.

We live in dangerous times and there are many issues I wish to speak up on and contribute my experience from running London to, from the need for real action to tackle climate change, to opposing Trump’s war-mongering, to the need to end austerity and invest in our future here in Britain.

I do not accept the allegation that I have brought the Labour Party into disrepute - nor that I am in any way guilty of anti-Semitism. I abhor antisemitism, I have fought it all my life and will continue to do so.

I also recognise that the way I made a historical argument has caused offence and upset in the Jewish community. I am truly sorry for that.

Under Labour’s new General Secretary I am sure there will be rapid action to expel anyone who genuinely has antisemitic views.

I am loyal to the Labour party and to Jeremy Corbyn. However any further disciplinary action against me may drag on for months or even years, distracting attention from Jeremy’s policies.

I am therefore, with great sadness, leaving the Labour Party.

We desperately need an end to Tory rule, and a Corbyn-led government to transform Britain and end austerity. I will continue to work to this end, and I thank all those who share this aim and who have supported me in my own political career.”