Liberal Democrat hopeful Chuka Umunna on Wednesday accused the Labour leader of being “guilty of racism.”
In a seemingly unscripted remark, Umunna denied Jeremy Corbyn had “gone on a journey” of atonement similar to that described by Labour’s Naz Shah, who apologised “unequivocally” in 2016 for antisemitic comments made on social media.
Speaking at the JW3 alongside Labour’s Naz Shah and the Conservatives’ Robert Jenrick, Umunna said he was “so angry” and “disappointed with good people in the Labour Party defending the indefensible,” eliciting a round of applause from the audience.
He went on: “Naz [Shah] is a mate of mine, a dear friend of mine. I think she’s a a fantastic parliamentarian but I’m fed up hearing this from Labour colleagues who should know better. He is guilty of racism. He is guilty of it.”
Referring to previous comments made by Corbyn, he continued: “Imagine if you had a Member of Parliament, a member of parliament, defending a mural depicting black and Asian people in a particular way. Obviously racist on the face of it.
“Imagine having a parliamentarian who picks on two people who happen to be black in an audience and says, they don’t get an English sense of irony. I could go through the list. It is racism, pure and simple, and people keep making excuses for him, and they are sponsoring him to become the Prime Minister of our country.”
— Etan Smallman (@EtanSmallman) December 4, 2019
Corbyn apologised in 2018 for appearing to question the removal of an “antisemitic” mural depicting Jewish bankers playing a game of Monopoly on the backs of enslaved workers. The Labour leader also sparked outcry for claiming in 2013 that UK supporters of Israel had “no sense of English irony” despite having ‘lived in Britain all their lives”.
In her response to Umunna’s remark, Shah said: “On the mural stuff, we’ve had an apology and acknowledgement from Jeremy Corbyn. On every single thing that you’ve [Umunna] mentioned, there’s a whole list of where he has got it wrong, he’s apologised.”
She added that she would remain in the party despite sharing concern about ongoing issues “because people change, leaders change, members change, and [unintelligible] change, and there are people in the Labour Party who are absolutely, the vast majority of our members, are absolutely committed to having a society which is just an equal and fair.”
Earlier, in the debate chaired by Sky News political correspondent Tamara Cohen, Shah said it had been “really really important to make an unequivocal apology” over her social media comments, admitting that she would have handled the row over antisemitism “differently” compared to Corbyn.
On whether Corbyn should issue a personal apology, she pointed to previous statements made by him, adding: “Look, I’d have done things differently. I want the Labour Party to go on the same journey, and I think there’s … some members not all that need to go on that journey.”
Reading from her notes, Shah told the audience: “I know the low point my party’s relationship has reached with the Jewish community. I recognise the problems we have in our party.
“And I know that we didn’t act quickly enough in tackling them. I’m sorry for this and the hurt and the pain that has been called. We are determined to root out antisemitism and rebuild trust with the Jewish community.”
Umunna, a spokesperson for his party on foreign affairs, also tore into the Conservatives, pointing to previous remarks made by Boris Johnson referring to black people as “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles”.
“This is the state of British politics in 2019, two leaders who have no moral authority to lead our country whatsoever. And people, good people in both those parties, just trying to pretend it away,” he said.
To which, Jenrick replied: “I want to fight racism in every form. I don’t think the Prime Minister’s words, you know, are always the ones that I would choose myself.
“I don’t believe he’s [Boris Johnson] racist. I think making a false moral equivalence between the Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn does no service to anyone,” sparking a round of applause.
“No politician is perfect, but any day of the week, I would choose Boris Johnson to lead this country and to protect your interests in the Jewish community, and I would be fearful for the safety of my own children if we woke up on the 13th of December and had Jeremy Corbyn leading this country protecting your safety,” he said.
Jewish News editor Richard Ferrer wrapped up the evening by giving the vote of thanks.
The event was organised by Jewish News together with the Jewish Leadership Council, Board of Deputies and JW3.