Jeremy Corbyn tells JW3 hustings Labour’s alleged anti-semitism ‘problem’ predates his leadership
- Credit: John M Fulton
Jeremy Corbyn defended himself against allegations that he has not done enough to stamp out anti-semitism in the Labour Party at a hostile hustings at the JW3 in Hampstead last night.
In the final Labour leadership hustings of the contest, both Mr Corbyn and challenger Owen Smith committed to backing proposals by the Jewish Labour movement to introduce stricter rules and sanctions for members found guilty of abusive behaviour, including anti-semitism.
Questions around Israel and anti-semitism were an inevitable, stormy feature of the evening, and Mr Corbyn drew applause when he told the audience: “I recognise and support the right of the state of Israel to exist” - although he added that he meant with the 1948 boundaries. When asked what he admired most about Israel and its achievements, Mr Corbyn replied “its verve and spirit” while Mr Smith plumped for “entrepreneurship”. Both contenders declined to describe themselves as Zionists, with both saying they believe in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
Although Mr Corbyn is expected to retain the Labour leadership with a landslide victory, the ongoing row about alleged anti-semitism in the party means Mr Smith probably at least has the “Jewish vote” in the bag – and the Welshman was certainly more warmly received at the JW3, telling the audience he is “deeply concerned” that some Jews have said they no longer feel welcome in the party. He said the recent Chakrabati report – which found no evidence of systemic anti-semitism within the party - “wasn’t a whitewash, but it was inadequate.”
Asked about boycotts of Israeli-produced goods, Mr Corbyn said it is “reasonable” to have sanctions against illegal settlements, as recognised by the EU – and said that he has personally boycotted goods produced in countries including South Africa, Chile and Burma in the past.
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Asked why Jewish support for Labour has declined dramatically over the past year, Mr Corbyn was heckled when he said the perception of anti-semitism within the party had begun before he took over as leader, and again when he refused to say whether his ally Ken Livingstone will be booted out of the party for comments he made about Zionism and Hitler. Mr Corbyn would only say that “due process will be followed”.
But Mr Smith suggested Mr Corbyn was “insensitive to the scale of the problem” of anti-semitism and said he believes Mr Livingstone will be allowed back into the party “shortly” – to cries of “shame!” from the audience.
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Mr Corbyn used the hustings to offer the olive branch to MPs who were part of a mass exodus from his front bench team, claiming he has a “big heart” and “wants to talk to them”.
This leaves the door open for MPs including Holborn and St Pancras member Keir Starmer, to return to the Labour frontline if – as is widely expected – Mr Corbyn comfortably sees off the challenge from Owen Smith this weekend.
But Mr Corbyn conceded that proposed boundary changes were “unfortunately very likely to go through” – meaning that MPs – himself included – will have to seek reselection as the number of parliamentary seats will be reduced by 50.
Mr Smith attacked Mr Corbyn over allegations that his supporters from grassroots group Momentum are planning to “take over” the party by deselecting MPs who have been hostile to the Corbyn leadership. He said: “I notice I’m on the deselection list now…I can’t understand why you have to belong to anything other than the Labour movement.”
But Mr Corbyn pleaded for unity rather than division in the party, and warned that a split would be catastrophic. Referring to the crushing defeat suffered by then-Labour leader Michael Foot in 1983, he said it was the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) which had done the damage. “It wasn’t as if there was a huge swing to the Tories. It was the split in the Labour Party,” he said.
But Mr Smith said: “The hard left is the most sanguine about the prospect of a split” and that it was “a bit rich” of Mr Corbyn to call for loyalty from MPs when he consistently voted against the party whip as a backbencher.
“You cannot have two types of loyalty...You’re either going to have to condemn yourself for having been previously disloyal or you’re going to have to accept there will be some disloyalty in the future,” he said.
Mr Smith pressed Mr Corbyn on whether he had reprimanded his friend, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, for describing Labour MPs as “useless fucking plotters” at a rally in Kentish Town earlier this year - to which the Labour leader replied that he “didn’t agree with the language he used”.
The pair clashed over proposals for new-style “Labour engagement officers” for each constituency, with Mr Smith saying: “I’ve no idea what they are (but) …it seems to me like they are another attempt to take over the CLPs.(Constituency Labour Parties).”
But Mr Corbyn said the engagement officers had been proposed because the party “should become a resource for campaigning and not solely focused on elections.”
But Mr Corbyn and Mr Smith found common ground over education. Both former grammar school boys, both said they are against Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent proposal to start building grammar schools again, with Mr Corbyn saying that selection at the age of eleven would be “so damaging to many of our children”.
The two also agreed on faith schools, with Mr Smith calling them “a relatively minor fringe issue”. Mr Corbyn called for more local authority involvement in schools, saying there had been too many “poor PFI (Private Finance Initiative) deals done in the past” – which he consistently opposed.
And the pair were united on the issue of Syrian refugee children with relatives in the UK being allowed to enter, with both condemning the fact that not one child has come into the country under this agreement, and calling on Mrs May to do more.
Although the hustings were at times hostile for Mr Corbyn, he performed better than many might have expected, with Mr Smith failing to make any real inroads, and some members of the audience praising Mr Corbyn and saying they shared his views on Israel.
The deadline for voting in Labour’s internal leadership election is this Wednesday, with the result due to be announced at the party conference in Liverpool on Saturday.