Here’s a thing. I cut my political teeth just over the river from Ken Livingstone’s GLC, as secretary of NALGO at Westminster City Council. It was led at the time by one of his arch enemies, one Lady Shirley Porter.
I only met Ken very briefly a couple of times. I didn’t especially warm to him despite the fact that I was firmly on his side. I know many people from that time who he has inspired enormously though, some of whom I respect a great deal.
He has been a formidable politician and done some very good things. Yet over the years my opinion of him hasn’t really changed much.
But here’s another thing. Despite my ambivalence about his style of politics and some of his views, I agree with him about Trident. And yet I find myself wondering about the politics of asking him to co-lead a policy review with Maria Eagle. But that’s another story.
Because here’s another much more important thing to me when it comes to his remarks about Kevan Jones. The thing that really matters. When I was growing up my late mother was clinically depressed. When I was six she had the second of a number of massive nervous breakdowns. She would bang her head against the kitchen wall until it bled and tell me and my siblings that she was lonely.
She needed psychiatric help. She subsequently spent a long spell in a large psychiatric hospital. It was an episode that was to be repeated throughout my childhood. As a very young child I was haunted by what appeared to be the waste of a life and I hoped nothing like that would ever happen to me. But it did. And at the age of 41 I had to reach out for psychiatric help and spent time in a psychiatric hospital.
So when I heard what Ken had said about Kevan Jones this week I was immediately aghast and appalled. Here was someone who professes to be opposed to discrimination in all its forms and who is apparently part of a new, kinder politics. Yet faced with frustration about a matter of political disagreement, his gut instinct was to say that Mr Jones needed ‘psychiatric help’.
And it got worse. He then said he was merely being rude (apparently people in south London are rude to each other). But of course this wasn’t a case of being rude. It was a case of being downright offensive. He said he didn’t know that Mr Jones had previously sought help for depression. But surely in some respects that made it worse. In a desire to meet alleged rudeness with rudeness he reached for the most offensive slur he could find at that moment which was to denigrate people who need psychiatric help.
Within an hour or two, we witnessed an extraordinary volte face. He had issued an ‘unreserved apology’. So it was over wasn’t it? But in fact it clearly wasn’t. On Newsnight that evening his unreserved apology looked qualified at best. Kevan Jones had ‘started it’ apparently. And then that weasel worded old chestnut. If people had been offended, he was sorry.
And then this morning he was interviewed on the Week in Westminster. He offered not an apology but an excuse. He’d woken up with chest pains, he’d had a bad day. His remarks had been over the top. But of course it wasn’t a case of being over the top. It was a case of being wrong.
As I write this I’m listening to the Moral Maze about ‘Islamic Terrorism’. So you could be forgiven for thinking, why is he still banging on about this row. Well here are three reasons.
First stigma against people with mental illness remains a huge problem in our society. Ken is a leading politician who can and should set an example. Decency matters, no more so than from those who can change hearts and minds.
Second despite numerous opportunities to offer a genuine apology and some careful reflection on what he said, Ken hasn’t done that.
Finally he could still do so. And it might go something like this.
‘I’ve thought really carefully about what I said and I accept that it was gravely offensive, first to Kevan Jones and then to many thousands of other people who have had to deal with the scourge of mental illness.
It was clearly not relevant in any way to the political disagreement we have about the future of Trident. There was no excuse for it and I realise that I need to reflect on why I responded in the way I did.’
How hard would it be to do that? Surely, nowhere near as hard as it is for many people to seek psychiatric help, in part because of the stigma at the heart of his response. So come on Ken. This isn’t about rubbing your nose in it. It’s just about asking you to do the decent thing.