Labour’s candidate for mayor of London accepts that the antisemitism row engulfing his party could harm his chance of pulling off a historic victory by becoming the first Muslim to occupy the post.
With only days to go before voters go to the polls across Britain, Sadiq Khanadmits that tens of thousands of Jewish voters in the capital may feel unable to back him following incendiary comments about Zionism and Hitler made by the last Labour occupant of the job, Ken Livingstone.
In an interview with the Observer, Khan, the son of a Muslim bus driver, who was one of the first to condemn Livingstone last week, said he would not be thrown off course by the controversy. But he conceded there could be electoral fallout that would damage him and his party.
Khan, who is favourite to win, said: “I accept that the comments that Ken Livingstone has made make 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. If I should have the privilege to be the mayor I will show Londoners the sort of mayor I can be.”
The dispute continued to rage on Saturday as Livingstone refused to make a full apology and Khan’s Tory opponent Zac Goldsmith tried to link the Labour candidate with Livingstone. Asked if the controversy would affect his chances, Khan said: “Of course it does.”
A Khan victory is seen as vital for Jeremy Corbyn in his biggest electoral test since becoming leader in September last year. The party is unlikely to make substantial gains in council elections in England and is braced for heavy losses in the Scottish parliament. There are also fears that it could see its vote share dip below 2011 levels in Wales, leaving London as a lone success to trumpet on what could otherwise be a difficult election night.
Khan said he did not believe polls that put him comfortably ahead, and that the result could come down to turnout. “It is neck and neck. I don’t believe the polls. If last year [the 2015 general election] taught us anything it is that you must not believe the polls. My message is clear. This is a neck-and-neck race. It is all about turnout.”
As he sought to distance himself from the Labour leadership and its handling of the antisemitism crisis, Khan suggested Corbyn had been too slow to act in suspending Livingstone.
He added: “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 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.”
On Saturday it became clear that the crisis could even have serious international repercussions, when the leader of Israel’s opposition Labour party, Isaac Herzog, wrote to Corbyn saying he was “appalled and outraged” by “recent examples of antisemitism by senior Labour party officials in the United Kingdom”.
He invited Corbyn and a delegation of Labour officials to visits his country’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, in order to learn about the fate of six million Jews at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. Of Livingstone’s comments, Herzog said: “[Writing] as someone whose father served in the British army and risked his life fighting against Hitler and the Nazis, the views expressed by Ken Livingstone, in which he claimed that Hitler ‘was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews’, were particularly horrific.”
On Friday Corbyn suspended Livingstone from the party and announced an independent inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour party, to be led by Shami Chakrabarti, the former head of Liberty.
But the row continued on Saturday as Livingstone went on LBC radio and refused to issue a clear apology, saying merely that he regretted causing offence while insisting that his comments about Hitler and Zionism had been factually accurate. He also claimed that the row had been deliberately stoked by “embittered Blairites”, who he said wanted to topple his long-term friend Corbyn from the Labour leadership.
“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 political party that has always fought and led the charges against anti-racism. We are going to restore reputation, to put ourselves on a sound footing so everyone knows they are welcome in our party and root out any form of racism.”Livingstone’s refusal to draw a line under the row provoked a furious response from the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. “I just wish Ken would’ve apologised today for some of the offence that he’s caused,” he said. “I know he says that he regrets what he’s said but I think he should now apologise.
He added: “I know it’s been a setback for us, it’s been a dreadful week but people are campaigning hard out there and they know now we are going to tackle this issue.”
In his interview Livingstone apologised to Corbyn and the party for causing “disruption” but pointedly refused to apologise for his original comments. “I’m sorry to Jeremy and the Labour party that I am caught up in this but it wasn’t me that started this problem. This is embittered old Blairites bringing it up,” he said. “I’m sorry if anyone was upset by what I said, I’m sorry for that. But it happens to be a statement of fact.”