When I rang the Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, on Friday afternoon to tell her that she was sharing an event with a man who has justified the killing of British troops in Iraq, she gasped and was briefly speechless.
Now, as the bad headlines grow, how Harriet and her Cabinet colleague Ed Miliband, who also graced the proceedings, must be regretting their decision to associate themselves with “Progressive London,” the re-election vehicle and fan club of ex-mayor Ken Livingstone, and its sometimes bizarre smorgasbord of “progressive” chums.
As I described yesterday, Azad Ali, the progressive in question, was suspended from his civil service job last year after praising Abdullah Azzam, the key mentor of Osama bin Laden. Azzam was, said Mr Ali, one of the “few Muslims who promote the understanding of the term jihad in its comprehensive glory” as both a doctrine of “self-purification” and of “warfare.”
Mr Ali then quoted Azzam’s son, approvingly, as saying: “If I saw an American or British man wearing a soldier’s uniform inside Iraq, I would kill him because that is my obligation… I respect this as the main instruction in my religion for jihad.”
Last week Mr Ali lost a libel action against a newspaper which reported his comments. The judge said that he “was indeed… taking the position that the killing of American and British troops in Iraq would be justified” and said his libel claim had an “absence of reality.”
Azad Ali – who also disputes the Mumbai attacks were acts of terrorism, and has called for a global Islamic dictatorship under sharia law, despite taking a handy salary from the British government – was not the only person on show yesterday for whom the label “progressive” is misplaced.
Although the majority of those speaking were genuine progressives, democratic socialists or social democrats, there was a fair sprinkling of speakers whose politics could fairly be described as anti-democratic, illiberal or straightforwardly totalitarian, and a number who advocate discrimination against women and gay people.
In that respect, as in so many others, it was a re-run of Ken’s mayoralty, which wooed bigots and reactionaries far too much for many progressives’ liking. As one prominent Left-wing blogger, who attended yesterday’s conference, put it, the event “invited a whole range of old, stale voices because they were Ken’s friends… The problem, many have said, is that Ken is too loyal to people who have become a liability.” We were spared Lee Jasper and Sir Ian Blair yesterday, but they were about the only two.
Ironically, as others on the Left have pointed out, it is Ken himself who blew the best opportunity for at least a generation to create a progressive, non-party coalition in London. Let us not forget that in 2000 he was elected to the mayoralty as an independent. Then in January 2004, at the height of public anger about Labour’s behaviour over Iraq, he rejoined the Labour Party, just as virtually else I know was leaving.
Now, as they contemplate the universally bad headlines from Ken’s event, even the Labour Party will be reminded of what the 2008 election should already have told them – Livingstone is a liability.