A mayor suspended: so much for democracy
An obscure panel of unelected functionaries has ‘sentenced’ London’s elected Labour Mayor, the controversial but affectionately regarded Ken Livingstone, to a 4-week suspension from office for being rude to an insistent reporter (from a newspaper which has long given Livingstone a hard time), and in particular for his refusal to apologise. As Mark Lawson neatly puts it in Saturday’s Guardian, —
…the clearly stated wish of voters to have Ken Livingstone running London during March 2006 has been reversed by an unelected panel comprising a pensions guru, a statistics expert and a retired Northern bureaucrat. Messrs Laverick, Stephenson and Norris should pray that the leader-free period they have created does not bring a transport, terrorist or bird-flu crisis to the capital. A political mandate is all or nothing: leaders should be backed until the ballot box gets them or, in extreme cases of constitutional violation, sacked.
Lawson’s reference to ‘Norris’ as one of the hanging judges doesn’t refer to Steve Norris, former MP and unsuccessful Conservative candidate for London mayor, who indeed appeared on the BBC television programme Newsnight the same evening to express outrage at the denial of democracy implicit in the affair, despite his political differences with Livingstone.
The complaint against Livingstone was not brought by the allegedly insulted reporter, who might be thought the only conceivable person with any locus standi for doing so, but by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, of all the unlikely bodies. The reporter harassing the mayor after an office party was compared by Red Ken to a concentration camp guard — i.e. acting in an unprincipled manner, not out of personal lack of principle but because paid to do so by his employer. The comparison was certainly over the top, but it made a palpable point. However, the reporter turned out to be Jewish (and indeed so informed the mayor with some asperity). Livingstone’s enemies, who are many and from all points of the political compass, seized on this laughably trivial episode and represented it as evidence of the mayor’s anti-semitism, about as improbable a charge as can be imagined, Livingstone having been an enthusiastic foe of all kinds of racism throughout his career. But the Board of Deputies of British Jews, characteristically taking on itself the self-imposed duty to spring uninvited to the defence of British Jewry (which coincidentally includes the present blogger), went into battle with the accusation that Ken’s remarks had brought the office of mayor into disrepute and that the matter should accordingly be taken up by the gloriously named ‘Adjudication Panel for England‘, an ‘independent judicial tribunal’ established in 2000 "to hear and adjudicate on matters concerning the conduct of local authority members". The Panel "considers references made to it by an Ethical Standards Officer of the Standards Board for England", another body of unparalleled and well deserved obscurity.
To add yet more piquancy to this solemn farce, the Board of Deputies of British Jews has issued the following statement, remarkable for its sententiousness even by the standards of this self-regarding and paranoid institution:
The Board of Deputies of British Jews regrets that the Mayor’s intransigence over his hurtful comments last February outside City Hall and his subsequent failure to apologise has led to a finding that the Office of the Mayor has been brought into disrepute. Had the Mayor simply recognised the upset his comments had caused, this sorry episode could have been avoided. He has been the architect of his own misfortune. The Board of Deputies has at no stage passed judgement on the motivation for the Mayor’s comments, nor have we sought anything other than an expression of regret and an acknowledgement that the words used were wholly inappropriate for the elected representative of Londoners of all faiths and beliefs. We hope that all those involved can now move on from this episode.
Those who have been licking their lips at the chance of humiliating the twice elected mayor of our capital city already seem to be having second thoughts. The Board of Deputies hastens in its statement to deny ever having accused the mayor of anti-semitism (in which case what on earth did the dispute have to do with them?), and shrinks even from condemning Livingstone’s remarks to the reporter, merely noting that they were ‘inappropriate’ and ‘hurtful’. The mayor’s offence is now re-defined, with unseemly haste, as his refusal to apologise — with the implication that having given offence to someone, legally and intentionally, and even though he continues to regard his words as fully justified in the circumstances, he has some kind of obligation nonetheless to apologise for them. Well, the Church of England has recently apologised for slavery, the New Zealand government has apologised to the country’s Chinese population for charging an expensive entry tax, begun in the 19th century and lasting until 1930, which imposed hardship on Chinese immigrants, and a certain Warren Perrin is campaigning for an apology by the Queen for the expulsion of Acadians from Nova Scotia in 1755. So by these lofty standards Our Ken could afford to issue an apology to the hurt reporter without the slightest implication of any personal guilt or remorse. To such meaningless nonsense has the concept of apology been reduced.
We need to bear in mind a few relevant truths in all this. London’s mayor has committed no criminal offence, broken no conceivable law. He has not been corrupt. There is no law against offending someone with whom one gets into a dispute. No-one has any legal or moral right to be protected from being offended. Making a statement that some regard as being in poor taste is not defined by any law or regulation as a bar to holding public office (we would be chronically short of public servants if it was). There is no evidence that Ken was the worse for wear for liquor at the time, and even if he had been, it is no bar to holding public office to have a few drinks at an office party: this too is not exactly unknown among the political or chattering classes. By no stretch of the most fevered imagination can Livingstone’s remarks to the reporter be construed as racist. He exchanged some angry words with a reporter who was harassing him but there was no physical violence and the whole things was over in seconds.
Above all, Mr Livingstone has twice been elected mayor of London with decisive majorities of the votes cast, making him the most senior politician in the land to have been directly elected to his position by popular vote. Until last Friday, no-one had ever heard of Messrs Laverick, Stephenson and Norris, still less voted for them. Their folly in seeking to rob London of its elected leader for a month will be greeted with derision for themselves, and a wave of support for the embattled mayor. If he decides to appeal to a recognisable court against this buffoonery, let’s hope that his appeal will succeed, if only to spare us the embarrassing mockery that this whole affair will otherwise bring down on the heads of Londoners. It’s the last thing we need.