What is really offensive about the Livingstone case

Abolish all quangos, defend free speech - Eddie Ford comments

Ken Livingstone is now appealing to the high court against his four-week suspension as London mayor at the hands of the adjudication panel quango. This three-man body unanimously deemed that Livingstone had brought his office into "disrepute" by making "unnecessarily insensitive and offensive" remarks in February 2005 to London Evening Standard hack Oliver Finegold.

To recap the original incident which led to Livingstone's 'shaming'. After a party at London City Hall to mark the 20th anniversary of Chris Smith's coming out as Britain's first openly gay MP, Finegold approached Livingstone and  started to question him about the evening on behalf of his newspaper - not best known as a friend of either gays or 'Red Ken'.

Perhaps under the influence of a shandy or two, Livingstone suggested that the journalist's previous occupation was a "German war criminal". When Finegold retorted that he was Jewish, London's mayor nevertheless compared him to "a concentration camp guard", since he was "just doing it [working for the Standard] because you're paid to". After observing that Finegold's employers were "a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots", Livingstone rounded off a near perfect evening by kindly advising him to "work for a paper [he presumably meant newspaper chain - EF] that doesn't have a record of supporting fascism".

If Livingstone fails to get his suspension lifted on March 2, he will be replaced for the period by his deputy, Nicky Gavron. Whilst in the 'sin bin', Livingstone - not allowed to attend meetings, nor use the office facilities at City Hall - will continue to receive his paltry £133,997-a-year salary, but he will have to pay his own legal fees, which could reach over £80,000.

This is an outrageous violation of basic democracy. Livingstone has won two successive elections by a commanding majority, first as an independent, then as Labour's official candidate - this time receiving 828,300 votes, if you count second-preferences. Yet an unelected body of just three people has the power to contemptuously cast aside these votes merely on the basis that Livingstone uttered a few 'insulting' words that some people decided to get outraged about for purely self-serving - and cynical - political reasons.

Quite correctly, Livingstone described the suspension as striking "at the heart of democracy". Similarly, Socialist Worker noted that the quango's action "just shows how limited British democracy is" (March 4), and even the Alliance for Workers' Liberty has called for Livingstone's reinstatement, calling the decision "an outrage against democracy" (www.workersliberty.org/node/view/5663).

The Daily Telegraph - hardly a natural friend of Livingstone - was driven into apoplexy by the recent turn of events. 'Red Ken' may be "profligate, prolix and an insufferable busybody", but "it is for Londoners to sling him out, not for some para-judicial quango to anticipate their wishes". Then it asks a very good question: "Who on earth do they think they are, these adjudication panellists?" (February 25).

Curiously, BBC Online tries to reassure us that the panel "is not a quango", but rather a (non-elected) "non-departmental public body that came into being under the Local Government Act 2000, on the recommendation of parliament's committee on standards in public life" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4748116.stm). Who are the BBC bosses trying to kid?

According to its official remit, the adjudication panel was established - under part 3, chapter 4 of the Local Government Act 2000 - "to hear and adjudicate on matters concerning the conduct of local authority members" and, "pursuant to section 59(4)(d)", consider "references made to it by an ethical standards officer of the Standards Board for England" (www.adju-dicationpanel.co.uk).

As for the actual composition of the adjudication panel quango - sorry, "non-departmental public body" - its current president is David Laverick, the pensions ombudsman, who has a team of 11 legally-trained members plus 21 so-called 'lay' people. They are all appointed by the lord chancellor after consultation with the deputy prime minister.

Communists demand that this anti-democratic panel - and all others like it - be immediately abolished. In reality, it exists to place 'checks and balances' on democracy and stifle non-mainstream political views. The adjudication panel - if it had really decided to flex its muscles - could have suspended Livingstone for up to one year, or even disqualified him from office for a maximum period of five years.

In summing up the panel's reasoning, Laverick declared that Livingstone's "conduct was unacceptable" and "it was his comments that started the matter and thereafter his position seems to have become ever more entrenched". More bluntly, Jon Benjamin of the Board of Deputies of British Jews - whose initial complaint to the Standards Board kicked off the whole formal "para-judicial" proceedings - thought that the "message" everyone should "take away" from this business is "that an elected official can nevertheless go beyond what is acceptable and can offend people".

The disturbing implications of this reasoning, and the actual Livingstone judgment, are obvious. If Livingstone can be removed from office for making "insensitive" and "offensive" remarks - or for being 'insulting' - then just imagine how swiftly such powers would be deployed, for example, against a communist councillor who made a rousing speech denouncing that parasite and rightwing dissident, Charles Windsor, and lambasting the archbishop of Canterbury for being a liar and a hypocrite?

It is not even too far-fetched to imagine such a speaker being prosecuted under the religious hatred laws. Remember when Livingstone famously - or notoriously - declared a few years back that he "just longed for the day I wake up and find that the Saudi royal family are swinging from lamp posts and they've got a proper government that represents the people of Saudi Arabia".

At the time, Livingstone's Tory rival in the mayoral race, Steve Norris, huffed and puffed about how such a comment was tantamount to "incitement" to murder. No doubt the Saudi royal family, who claim to be divinely appointed defenders of islam's most holy places, were deeply 'insulted' by Livingstone's rather appealing day dream - perhaps now something else could be done to punish him.

Self-evidently, the entire Livingstone-Finegold 'scandal' has been characterised by humbug, cant and hypocrisy right from the beginning - with everybody wanting their pound of flesh - including the Tories, of course. Thus, we saw the London Assembly unanimously pass a motion censuring Livingstone and piously calling upon him to publicly apologise to Finegold.

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, gave a little lecture about how it is "disgraceful to use a reference to the period of the holocaust as a way of abusing people today". Nicky Gavron took it upon herself to speak for the whole Jewish 'community' and announce that Livingstone's words to Finegold were offensive "both to the individual and to Jews in London". The AWL too stepped into the politically correct  breech - with Solidarity calling on Livingstone to apologise to Finegold for making such a "nasty" jibe, after apparently having had a sudden "urge to kick the Jew in the crotch" (September 1 2005).

Quite how comparing someone - especially if they work for a rabidly rightwing newspaper - in a derogatory fashion to a Nazi concentration camp guard is meant to be an example of anti-semitism remains a mystery, of course. Livingstone baited a journalist working for "scumbags" who have been baiting him for many years, often in a vile or 'offensive' fashion.

The truth of the matter is that blowing Livingstone's essentially puerile - though in many ways understandable - exchange with Finegold out of all proportion is itself a form of witch-hunting, which creates a barrier to normal human interaction because it cuts off the possibility of serious debate.

And, frankly, the Standard is fully deserving of Livingstone's contempt and anger - it is part of Associated Newspapers, whose titles include the Daily Mail, which in the 1930s welcomed Hitler's rise to power and was an enthusiastic supporter of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. Today both newspapers feed their readers a steady diet of reactionary bile and preach the gospel of social intolerance, even if these days it is sometimes dressed up in the language of bourgeois anti-racism.

Livingstone's suspension is made doubly ridiculous given the seemingly arbitrary nature of the so-called Standards Board's adjudications. So, for instance, last year Jack Sayers - a Conservative member of Brent council in north-west London - was judged not to have broken the code of conduct despite his declaration that the "Jews run everything in Britain and practically run America".

In its wisdom, the board ruled that Sayers had "expressed a controversial opinion that offended a member of the public", but took no action because "he did not commit a criminal offence" - with part of the ruling being that his "comments would not put individuals or groups at risk". Unlike Livingstone's comments, we presume?

Yes, it seems that Livingstone has been the victim of selective 'justice'. Of course, there is no love lost between communists and the London mayor. During a public meeting in the midst of the 1992 general election, Livingstone labelled our entire organisation "M15 agents" "¦ when one of our comrades bravely and vociferously objected, Labour Party goons physically dragged him out of the hall. The whole thing was broadcast on London TV news.

Over the years we have thoroughly - and calmly - detailed Livingstone's occasional red-baiting and his unsavoury links with Gerry Healy and the thoroughly corrupt Workers Revolutionary Party back in the 1970s and 80s. The WRP - which still exists - is a truly diabolical organisation that used language and formulations which did indeed reek of anti-semitism.

As a matter of general principle democrats are against directly elected mayors - and presidents, for that matter. They function as elected monarchs, greedily acquiring ever more powers. So, while we demand that Livingstone's suspension as mayor be overthrown, we also look to the day when the office itself is abolished.