Yesterday Ken Livingstone, responded to political criticism of his appropriateness to co-chair Labour’s policy making body on defence. In a previous debate about mental illness, Kevan Jones had spoken emotionally about his own experience of depression. Yesterday, in response to Jones’ criticism of his politics on defence, Livingstone said:
“I think [Jones] might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed. He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.”
Back in 2006, when Livingstone was Mayor of London, he responded similarly to a journalist who asked him for a quote outside a party for a Labour minister:
Oliver Finegold: “Mr Livingstone, Evening Standard. How did it …”
Ken Livingstone: “Oh, how awful for you.”
Finegold: “How did tonight go?”
Livingstone: “Have you thought of having treatment?”
This exchange preceded the one in which Livingstone famously accused the Jewish journalist of being ‘just like a concentration camp guard’ because he was ‘only doing his job’.
Later last night on Channel Four News, there was an exchange between the Livingstone and Jones:
Livingstone: [asked if he was forced to apologize] “Jeremy … reminded me that Jeremy’s strategy is that we don’t do all the offensive back-stabbing and rows that we’ve had in the past, so I just got on board with that.”
The reality is, … you provoked this row by questioning my ability to do this job …
Jones: “So that excuses your grossly offensive language?”
Livingstone: “And I thought your attack on me was grossly offensive.”
Livingstone understands that it is the practice of the new Corbyn politics to construct any political criticism as “grossly offensive”.
The standard response is then to act like a victim of powerful dark forces and complain about being “smeared” by the Tories/Zionists/Blairites/Tabloids.
But Livingstone took it one step further, giving everybody something concrete with which to “smear” him. Then his hurt at being “smeared” could be all the louder, and his public escape from opprobrium all the more brilliant.
‘Jeremy doesn’t do personal’ does not mean that the Corbynistas refrain from insulting others; it means that they refrain from responding to that which they are able to construct as insulting.
Livingstone pioneered the ad hominem response to political criticism with the “Livingstone Formulation“ – in which anybody who raises the issue of antisemitism is accused of doing so in bad faith in order to silence criticism of Israel.
Now the Corbyn faction is generalising the Livingstone Formulation into a political strategy. Any political criticism which is hard to deal with can be characterized as a “smear” and can be slapped down with the counter-allegation that the critic is acting dishonestly and out of malevolent motivation.
This way of doing politics is more than just a rhetorical tactic however. It is deeply rooted in the Corbyn faction’s Stalinist and ‘campist’ political tradition. This faction defines people as being part of the “community of the good” or part of the “community of the bad” and it assigns people or groups or even whole nations to one or the other. The Corbynistas do not relate to those who are bundled outside of the community of the good or the community of the oppressed by reason or by argument: instead they feel licensed to treat them as political enemies and to isolate and silence them.
For more on this, read: The Corbyn left: the politics of position and the politics of reason.