Is 'Red Ken' still in the pink?

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Ken Livingstone Ken Livingstone - Rob Greig
Posted: Thu Mar 1 2012

After recent accusations of homophobia against Ken Livingstone, can London's LGBT community still count on him?

For many LGBT people, Ken Livingstone is seen as some kind of folk hero - good old Red Ken, who supported pink politics long before it became fashionable to do so. Back in the days of the GLC, he stood up for lesbian and gay Londoners against a Tory tide of homophobia, most notoriously Section 28. When he became mayor, he introduced the gay partnership register, which predated the Blair government's introduction of civil partnerships. And he launched the annual Pride reception at City Hall, a tradition which Boris Johnson has since abandoned.

But lately Livingstone's gay-friendly credentials have taken a bit of a battering. A few weeks ago, he was even accused of homophobia when he was quoted as saying that the Tory party was 'riddled' with homosexuality. The quote came from an interview in the New Statesman and the right-wing press had a field day - as did gay mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, who's standing as the Liberal Democrat candidate.

Only that's not what Ken said. What he actually said was that the Tory party in the '80s and '90s was full of closeted homosexuals who voted against gay law reform - that the party was 'riddled with it'. In other words, the 'it' referred not to homosexuality but to internalised homophobia, which is a different thing entirely.

It was a poor choice of words, but far worse was his suggestion that, under New Labour, lesbians and gay men were given jobs simply for being gay. 'As soon as Blair got in, if you came out as lesbian or gay you immediately got a job,' said Livingstone, which is really rather offensive when you consider how long it took for any out gay MPs, Labour or Tory, to make it to the front benches.

And lest we forget, for a man so vocally supportive of lesbian and gay rights, Livingstone has associated himself with some very dubious people. In 2004, when he was in City Hall, Livingstone extended a warm welcome to Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi - a radical Muslim cleric who has argued in the past that gay people should be put to death.

Challenged at the time by the gay press, Livingstone insisted, 'You really shouldn't smear a man you haven't met. I met Sheikh Qaradawi. Am I to believe the Daily Mail rather than what I hear a man say with his own voice?'

Possibly not, but some of Qaradawi's anti-gay statements have been filmed, while others were published as quotes on his personal website. And it wouldn't be the first time a homophobic cleric has spoken with a forked tongue, saying one thing for a wider audience and another when preaching to the converted.

At best, it showed a lack of judgment on Livingstone's part. Would he have extended a similar welcome to someone on record as calling for black people to be put to death, or Muslims?

Still, the show must go on, and with recent polls indicating a tight race between Ken and Boris Johnson, London's sizeable LGBT vote could make a difference. This coming Monday, Livingstone's LGBT supporters are hosting a party at the Shadow Lounge in honour of the man who would be mayor (again). Speakers include Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg MP, hostess for the night is Duckie's Amy Lamé, and there'll be music from the cream of London's gay DJ talent, including Biggy C, Hifi Sean and Mark Johnstone and Mark Wood, aka The Readers Wifes.

The event is organised by LGBT Labour in conjunction with media partner Square Peg Media. Asked why they were backing the event, Linda Riley, head of Square Peg Media, told Time Out, 'Ken Livingstone is, and has always been, truly passionate about the rights, safety and quality of life of LGBT Londoners, regardless of their political inclinations. He is a true champion of the diversity of the city, with the backing of a party that has a good track record in supporting our community, making him the leading choice for mayor among LGBTs.'

Meanwhile, Mark Wood of The Readers Wifes maintains that, while Livingstone is not without his failings, he is still the man for the job.
'To many of us who were young and gay in the 1980s Ken Livingstone was one of the few politicians prepared to stand up and be counted', says Wood. 'When the Tory party were peddling their reactionary Section 28 legislation and the right-wing media piling filth and bile upon people with AIDS and upon gay people in general, his voting record and his support for LGBT people speak for themselves. I could never bring myself to trust Boris Johnson or indeed any Tory politician. And while I appreciate Ken's not perfect I look forward to the fundraiser so I can take him to task on a couple of things personally'.

He may have some tough questions to answer, but it seems that Ken Livingstone hasn't lost the support of the LGBT community.

'LGBT London for Ken' is at Shadow Lounge on Mon Mar 12.