It’s difficult to know what does Ken Livingstone less credit – his comments to the effect that Kevan Smith MP should seek psychiatric help or the fact that it has taken an entire day of excuse-making for him to issue something that, in a dimly-lit room with the light behind it, might be mistaken for a full apology. In an age when those of us who live with mental health issues are at last able to claim that we are rolling back the stigma, and when the Labour Party has been in the forefront of campaigning to remove that stigma, Livingstone’s comments are wholly unacceptable.
Livingstone’s comments during the day deserve a little bit of scrutiny, because they give a useful insight into the disreputable art of excuse-mongering. First, he claims he was unaware that Kevan Jones had openly talked of his history of mental health problems – including a powerful and emotional speech in the House of Commons in 2012; that’s not the point. The comments were unacceptable, full stop. Second, his comments about not having been to Eton or Harrow and learned to smarm; it’s a bit surprising to hear someone on the left implying that good manners and decency are solely the preserve of the expensively educated and that a comprehensive education is somehow a let-out for ignorant behaviour. Having been privately-educated myself, I can testify that it isn’t that simple. And finally, his line that this is how we deal with each other in South London; presumably in much the same sense that not letting Rosa Parks sit at the front of the bus was how we do things in Montgomery, Alabama.
And perhaps the weariest aspect of all of this – like the furore over Jeremy Corbyn’s appointment of Andrew Fisher as his senior policy adviser, despite a history of (to put it at its politest) indiscreet behaviour on social media – is that the response has been tribal. Yet again, there are those on the Left who have rallied round one of their own caught out in behaviour that they would never accept in a political opponent.
Jeremy Corbyn has – to his credit – been a vocal campaigner for the rights of people with mental health problems. He has also said, repeatedly, that he wants a kinder, less confrontational approach to politics. But, let’s not forget, he’s the leader of the Party – and that means putting those principles into practise. It means requiring that those in prominent positions in the Party adhere to those values, and being prepared to remove them from those positions when they don’t. It means ensuring that there is no place for tribal excuse-mongering. Is Corbyn going to rise to that challenge?
And, as a very minimum step, it means removing Livingstone from his role in the Defence Review, and replacing him with someone who can behave in a manner that befits their Party’s values.