LONDON — Britain’s bitterly divided Labour Party spun out of control today with the most bizarre and shameful public row in its 116-year history.
Two senior Labour politicians were filmed arguing about the legacy of Adolf Hitler in the street as an anti-Semitism crisis gripped the party. The former London mayor, and head of Labour’s defense review, Ken Livingstone, was accused by one of his colleagues of being “a lying racist” and “a Nazi apologist.”
The day began with Livingstone—one of party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s closest advisers—trying to defend a Labour Member of Parliament who was suspended after posting a Facebook message suggesting the Jews in Israel should be transported to the United States.
By the end of that live BBC radio interview, in which he repeatedly claimed Naz Shah was not anti-Semitic, he had—for some reason—made the outlandish claim that Hitler was a Zionist.
“Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism,” he said; apparently suggesting that the Fuhrer’s original policy proposals were relatively mainstream.
He continued: “This is before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.”
Livingstone, like his left-wing comrade Corbyn, has been accused of tolerating anti-Semitism during decades of involvement in the antiwar and pro-Palestinian movements, although this is the first time he seems to have been actively defending Hitler in some way.
He also said the reaction to Shah’s remarks had been “over the top.” When pushed to explain, he said: “To think of anti-Semitism and racism as exactly the same thing.”
Moderate members of the Labour Party, who have been in revolt—semi-privately—since Corbyn’s election, burst into the open to denounce Livingstone and attack the party’s leadership for failing to kick him out of the party.
John Mann, a Labour MP for 15 years, lost it completely.
He was filmed as he confronted Livingstone—accusing him of apologizing for Hitler, rewriting history and excusing anti-Semitism.
“You’re a fucking disgrace,” he said. “You’re a lying racist... You’re a disgusting Nazi apologist, Livingstone!”
Mann, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, later said Livingstone had “gone totally mad” and was “pushing neo-Nazi conspiracy theories.”
While he was being berated in the street by his Labour colleague, Livingstone was conducting another live radio interview over the phone.
“I’ve got a violent MP threatening me,” he told the presenter, who responded uneasily; “Are you OK?”
After the sound of muffled shouting, Livingstone returned to say: “Yeah, yeah, it’s just someone who needs to get over themselves.”
As this unfolding drama was being broadcast live on Britain’s televisions and radios, more than 30 Labour MPs had already publicly called for Livingstone to be suspended or even expelled from the party.
Did the former mayor, who later claimed he’d planned to spend the afternoon gardening, think he had done enough digging?
At midday, he walked into the Daily Politics BBC TV studio for yet another live interview.
He told the flabbergasted presenters that he was under no party pressure for his earlier remarks and insisted that the Labour Party did not have an anti-Semitism problem.
“As I’ve said, I’ve never heard anybody say anything anti-Semitic, but there’s been a very well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticizes Israeli policy as anti-Semitic. I had to put up with 35 years of this,” he said.
Still no word from the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate in next week’s London mayoral election to replace Boris Johnson, could no longer afford to wait. The reputation of the entire party was being traduced in front of his eyes.
By lunchtime, he summoned the Sky TV cameras to personally denounce Livingstone—and crucially his own party leadership.
“There have been too many incidents where the Labour Party leadership appears to be taking no action against comments which are clearly anti-Semitic,” Khan said.
“There should be no hierarchy when it comes to racism, there should be zero tolerance of these views in the Labour Party.”
Eventually, a party spokesman announced that Livingstone had been suspended pending an investigation for “bringing the party into disrepute.” And yet more than six hours after one of his closest colleagues had tried to rewrite European history—plunging the Labour Party into tumult—Jeremy Corbyn has failed to say a single word.