Eric Pickles has accused Labour of “weakening integration and fuelling anti-Semitism” as a row erupted over the Government’s plans to crackdown on boycotts of Israel by local councils, writes Justin Cohen

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

Cabinet office minister Matthew Hancock, visiting Israel this week, is expected to unveil details of new measures that will make it easier to take legal recourse over boycotts, sanctions and divestment.

It’s been reported that the rules will apply to public bodies including councils and NHS trusts, and could also impact on student unions. Though the rules would not only relate to Israel, it is the Jewish state that has been the primary target of such measures in Britain.

But a spokesman for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “The Government’s decision to ban councils and other public bodies from divesting from trade or divestments they regard as unethical is an attack on local democracy.

“The Government’s ban would have outlawed council action against apartheid South Africa. Ministers talk about devolution, but in practise they’re imposing Conservative Party policies on elected local councils.”

Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles

The comments were roundly condemned by former Communities Secretary and Conservative Friends of Israel chairman Sir Eric Pickles, who said: “The Labour Party wants councils to pursue their own militant foreign policies at the expense of Britain’s economic and national security.

“By defending these divisive town hall boycotts, they are not only risking damage to Britain’s international relations, but weakening integration here at home and fuelling anti-Semitism.Counter-productive local foreign policies that promote hate have no place in British politics.”

Labour has a long-standing policy of opposition to boycotts but Jeremy Corbyn has previously expressed support for action targeting settlement goods and arms sales. Pressed for a guarantee that there would be no move to dilute the party’s position at a meeting with the Board of Deputies last week, he stressed that party policy was created by conference rather than him.

Joan Ryan, chair of Labour Friends of Israel, said: “The Labour party has a consistent and long-standing policy of opposition to boycotts against Israel. Such boycotts are wrong in principle and do nothing to advance the cause of peace or counter violence and extremism. I support any measure which seeks to prevent the delegitimisation of Israel and would also urge the government to take concrete steps to promote a two-state solution by investing in coexistence projects which bring the Israeli and Palestinian peoples together.”