A former defence minister who chairs Labour’s Jewish affiliate has said the party will lose its chance to form the next government unless it deals comprehensively with the antisemitism crisis.
In an interview with the Guardian, Ivor Caplin, who was defence minister under Tony Blair, said the row was no longer only affecting the Jewish community, but raising broader questions about the party’s commitment to equality across the country.
“It’s been depressing for members of the Jewish community, but not just for us, for members of the public as well, because they want to see the Labour party as an effective opposition to this shambolic Tory government, and particularly on Brexit, the NHS, schools,” the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement said.
“I think that, for Labour, it is a very dangerous position to be in. It will affect any chance of a Labour government.”
The former MP for Hove, who left parliament in 2005, said most Labour members were concerned. “I went to a CLP [constituency Labour party meeting] in deepest east Sussex the other week. A lot of them were very concerned about how we had got into this position. They weren’t saying it was smears. And a majority for them had voted for Jeremy to be leader.”
Caplin said he regretted the departure of the MP Frank Field – who cited antisemitism as one of his reasons for quitting the party whip – but said he had never considered leaving the party himself.
The atmosphere, however, was taking its toll on some members, he said.
“In some constituencies, the constant aggressive nature of some people is wearing on activists and that is not right. One of the founding traditions of the Labour party is we are able to have different views but walk out and go for a drink afterwards, because that is what Labour is about. It is not about aggressive, nasty behaviour.”
Leading Jewish organisations called on Jeremy Corbyn to end the “impasse” over tackling antisemitism in the party earlier this week.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) and the Community Security Trust (CST) wrote separate letters to Labour’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, before a crucial meeting of Labour’s national executive committee next week.
The Guardian reported a fortnight ago that, after a consultation with Jewish groups, the party was preparing the ground to amend its antisemitism code of conduct to align with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, provided it can include additional protections for criticism of Israel.
The rows over the summer about the party’s handling of antisemitism complaints were sparked by a decision to implement a code of conduct that failed to adopt four of the 11 examples of antisemitism given by the IHRA.
The party is now prepared to accept all the examples, including one the leadership considers most controversial – “claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour” – but with caveats to allow members to describe actions of the Israeli government as racist and to criticise the circumstances of Israel’s creation.
Leading Jewish organisations, religious leaders and newspapers have been deeply critical of Corbyn’s approach. Three papers wrote a joint editorial saying there was an “existential threat to Jewish life” in the UK and Britain’s former chief rabbi compared historic comments made by Corbyn about Zionists not understanding “British irony” to Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.
Caplin said he did not believe Labour posed an “existential threat” and that a calmer debate was needed.
“Over the last 30 years, the Jewish community and the Labour party have been very close, and it’s a relationship borne out of trust, understanding and values.
“I am determined that the Jewish Labour Movement can be honest brokers, as we have been, as the only affiliated Jewish voice in the Labour party, to bring about some common sense on all sides.”
Caplin said he wanted to send a message to colleagues that while the issue was not just about Corbyn, it was up to the leader to solve the crisis.
“Jeremy has won two leadership elections, he did better in terms of seats than we had expected in 2017, and he is the leader. I would rather we solve this problem quickly and effectively rather than make it just about the leader of the Labour party.”