Jeremy Corbyn is facing mounting pressure to tackle the party’s crisis over antisemitism after three Jewish newspapers jointly condemned the party, with two shadow cabinet members among a series of senior figures calling on the Labour leader to change course.
Two shadow cabinet members openly called for the party to reverse its opposition to fully adopting an internationally-recognised definition of antisemitism, while other figures privately expressed anger at the situation.
A day after the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph printed unprecedented joint front-page editorials calling a Corbyn-led government an “existential threat” to Jewish life in the UK, there was no official response beyond a brief party statement defending the current policy.
Months of disquiet over claims Labour has failed to properly clamp down on antisemitism has culminated in anger over the decision to not adopt into the party code of conduct the full text on antisemitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the most widely recognised accepted definition.
While Labour accepts the definition, its national executive committee (NEC) decided this week to not adopt all 11 examples given by the IHRA, arguing that, under one of them, legitimate criticism of Israel could be deemed antisemitic.
The joint editorial said the NEC’s decision showed Corbyn had “a default blindness to the Jewish community’s fears” and that Labour risked being seen as institutionally racist.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said he was “very depressed” by the editorials and called for the NEC to reverse its decision.
“This international definition, which our democratically-elected members don’t feel is strong enough or appropriate, I think they need to reconsider that,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain. “It seems obvious to me that we do need to rebuild trust with the Jewish community, and the place to start is by accepting a definition which is broadly accepted internationally.”
The shadow international trade minister, Barry Gardiner, told Jewish News that he believed it “would have been better for the party to adopt the IHRA definition in full with all the examples”.
Other senior figures in Labour declined to go on the record, but expressed frustration at what several said was a decision on the IHRA definition led by a small group of people around Corbyn.
“The overwhelming majority of MPs want us just to accept the IHRA definition and be done with it,” one senior source said. “There is a view that some people close to Jeremy could end up falling foul of that and that’s the reason it hasn’t yet happened. It’s only the leadership standing in the way of this.”
A senior Labour MP said there was “absolute anger” at the situation: “I suspect that a lot of people on the frontbench will just be thinking, ‘What have we got into? Why are we in this position?’”
Another Labour insider said it was accepted that some opponents of Corbyn were capitalising on the row to undermine him “but even if that is the case, the bulk of the concern is absolutely genuine. The front pages mark a real low-point for us”.
Jon Lansman, the Momentum founder and a member of the NEC, said the joint editorials were “a matter of shame, a matter of great concern” but rejected the idea that Corbyn posed a threat to Jews in the UK.
He told Channel 4 News: “I can’t imagine a more serious accusation, but I don’t believe it to be true in any way.”
Lansman defended the way Labour had incorporated the IHRA wording into its code of conduct, saying it was “a different kind of document from a definition” and so could not be directly compared.
An immediate party showdown on the issue was averted on Monday when a vote by Labour MPs on whether to adopt the full IHRA definition was put off until September, while the NEC has agreed to reopen discussions on the code.
However, there were fears the row could become fiercer still if MPs then called for the full definition, only for it to be rejected by the NEC. Elections for the body began on Thursday and were expected to again return a majority supportive of whichever stance Corbyn supports.
Ivor Caplin, the former MP who chairs the Jewish Labour Movement, the most prominent body representing Jewish party members, warned that the perception of antisemitism risked harming Labour the polls.
He said he had been talking to Jewish representative councils in Manchester. “They all said the same thing: it isn’t just us,” he said. “This is also our non-Jewish friends, Muslims, Sikhs. It is now a matter of concern for the public generally. The damage will be electoral. Trying to just put your head in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening is frankly not a strategy that will lead us into government.
“In the 90s, the Labour party had to prove to the British public that we were to be trusted with the economy. We did that and we won power. I think that today the proof we have to give to the British public is that we are capable and able to deal with antisemitism within our own ranks.”
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