Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Case of Ken Livingstone

Last February the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, was suspended from office by the Adjudication Panel for England. An independent tribunal, the Panel had been investigating complaints over Livingstone's comments to a journalist from the Evening Standard. His offence? Comparing the journalist - who happened to be Jewish - to a concentration camp guard, in reference to the Standard's historical support for Fascism and long campaign against him personally. It was argued that Livingstone had brought the Mayoral office into disrepute through his comments - a charge he denied. Since then, a judge has frozen the suspension, to give Livingstone time to appeal.

My first reaction to the issue was, I imagine, like many other people in Britain. Outrage. It doesn't matter who Livingstone is; all that matters is what we is - London's chosen Mayor. It wouldn't matter if he was a fully paid-up member of the British National Party, my outrage would have been the same. Here was a Mayor, supported by 55.4% of voters, being suspended by an unaccountable tribunal... who no one elected. Frankly, it doesn't matter to me whether Ken Livingstone's remarks offended anyone; I don't care if they were insensitive or brought his office into disrepute. Maybe they did. The point is, Livingstone had a mandate from the electorate, one that cannot be revoked without their consent.

It is interesting to consider that Oliver Finegold of the Evening Standard and the Adjudication Panel may have saved Ken Livingstone's political career. Before the Panel's ruling, the mass media had launched concerted attacks on the Mayor and branded him an anti-Semite. The irony being, of course, that Livingstone has campaigned against racism throughout his entire political life - and is the current chairman of United Against Fascism. Of course, in the eyes of the right-wing press this was quite irrelevant; as a leftish politician, attacking Ken Livingstone is simply the most important consideration.

Jon Benjamin, of the Board of Deputies, is reported to have said, "With freedom of expression comes responsibility to be sensitive to other people's feelings." He added, "There were a large number of people who were offended and they should be equally free to report their concerns." I cannot be the only one to be contemptuous of this laughable argument. No one is denying people's right to be offended, or to "report" their concerns. But if the Mayor's critics had any genuine commitment to freedom of expression, they would accept the only people who have a legitimate right to remove Livingstone from office are his constituents: no matter how offended one may be.

As Ken Livingstone said himself, his suspension was a fundamental attack on our democratic rights. That message needs to be shouted from the rooftops. This cannot be allowed to happen. A short while ago, Tony Blair effectively said his decision to launch the Iraq war had divine support. This offended me. All wars are tragic; appealing to a spiritual authority to justify them is intellectually brankrupt, cowardly, morally repugnant and generally idiotic. I felt Blair's remarks brought the office of the prime minister into disrepute. Yet Blair, despite having less of a popular mandate than the Mayor of London, will not be brought to account for those comments; indeed they have already fallen off the headlines.

And yet, despite my democratic ideals, there is very little I - or anyone else - can do. The only route by which Ken Livingstone can appeal, is to challenge the assertion that the remarks brought his office into disrepute. The wider implications of deposing a democratically elected politician for mere speech have not been addressed. This is the result of the United Kingdom's archaic constitutional framework. Under the various Parliamentary conventions and so-called constitutional Acts (a term invented entirely by the courts to integrate English law into the European Union) which govern this country, local government has no inalienable legal right to exist, despite often being more democratic than Westminster. Sovereignty belongs not to the people, but to the Crown in Parliament.

That is the legal basis for the Mayoral Office - as an institution of local government. Like Blair's unfortunate (if entirely accurate) comments towards the devolved Scottish Parliament, the Mayor of London has no more power than a parish council! In the eyes of the UK constitution, Ken Livingstone gets his authority from Parliament, rather then the people of London. As a delegated institution, the Mayor - and indeed all local government - can be manipulated and even abolished on the whim of 646 Members of Parliament, despite the wishes of the 828,380 Londoners who supported Livingstone's bid to server as their Mayor.

There is, of course, a worrying precedent here. Under the post-1979 Conservative Governments, as part of her campaign against working people, Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council (forerunner of the London Assembly) and the metropolitan county councils. Then too, as Leader of the GLC and thorn in the side of the Tories, Ken Livingstone stood on the side of democracy and the people. Without wishing to idealise the man, he is at least consistent in opposing the arbitrary disenfranchisement of the public. Despite all of the setbacks, I remain convinced that, eventually, democracy will prevail.

The GLC was abolished, and yet here we are, with devolution for London. Livingstone was expelled from New Labour and unjustly deprived of the Party's endorsement for his candidacy, yet he has been grudgingly allowed to return and has now been elected as Mayor of London twice, in the first instance as an independent. At the end of the day, even the most apolitical people don't like being ordered around by self-important little despots.

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