Leadership hopeful Lisa Nandy delivered a strong performance at the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) hustings on Thursday as candidates sought to make their case and vowed to mend relations with the community.
Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry and the front-runner Keir Starmer were grilled on the row over antisemitism in the Labour Party by ITV political editor Robert Peston at a packed Liberal Jewish Synagogue event in St John’s Wood.
All of the candidates apologised to the Jewish community for the Labour Party’s handling of the antisemitism crisis at the hustings backed by the Jewish News and Labour Friends of Israel.
Nandy, whose answers drew the loudest applause from audience members, revealed she had previously considered her position in the party over the antisemitism crisis.
She told the event antisemitism was a “particular sort of racism” and different to other forms of hatred.
“It’s a sort of racism that punches up not down, that argues that Jewish people are privileged and powerful, and because there are people on the left who believe that their job is to challenge privilege and power, therefore, wrongly and disgracefully argue that Jewish people are a legitimate target for racism,” she said.
On whether she would welcome back Jewish Labour MPs who resigned over antisemitism into the fold, Nandy suggested she would do so out of principle and “for the betterment of this country.”
“I want Louise Ellman back in the Labour Party because she was one of the best chairs of the transport select committee we’ve ever had,” she said, before praising the former MP Luciana Berger for her advocacy work on mental health.
Long-Bailey, widely seen as a key Jeremy Corbyn ally, hit out against the “tropes, the disgusting comments that are made, everything from Holocaust denial all the way through to blaming people within our community for every atrocity under the sun.” Reiterating claims she spoke out privately on the issue, she admitted she “could have done more” to stamp out antisemitism.
The 90-minute hustings saw all candidates vow to implement recommendations made by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission following their investigation into allegations of antisemitism in the party.
All candidates pledged to offer an apology and financial settlement to former staffers who spoke out against the party’s handling of antisemitism cases in the BBC’s Panorama programme, broadcast last year.
The whistleblowers were described by a Labour Party spokesperson after the programme aired as “disaffected former officials … with both personal and political axes to grind” in a public statement that prompted former members of staff to take legal action .
But it was a question from an audience member that delivered perhaps the night’s most noteworthy moment. When asked whether they identified as “Zionists,” all candidates bar Starmer replied they did.
“I believe in the State of Israel, a secure Israel. I also believe in an independent Palestinian state,” the shadow Brexit secretary replied, sparking a round of applause.
When pressed a second time by Peston, Starmer replied that he wouldn’t describe himself as a Zionist, but said that he had extended family in Israel.
“My parents’ family are Jewish, and we’ve got extended family in Israel,” he said. “I don’t describe myself as as Zionist, but I understand and I sympathise and I support Zionism. So I wouldn’t describe myself in that way. But, of course, you know, we have family in Israel. That is part of my family.”
Long-Bailey said she backed a secure Israel and two-state solution. “I suppose that makes me a Zionist because I agree with Israel’s right to exist and right to self-determine,” she told the event.
While most of the 750-strong audience identified as Labour Party members, a majority indicated in a show of hands they had not backed the party at the 2019 election. Many suggested they would consider backing the party again following the hustings.
Speaking shortly before candidates arrived on stage, the veteran MP Dame Margaret Hodge and JLM parliamentarian chair described herself as “virtually the last Jewish woman Labour left standing.”
“The last four years for me have been the most miserable and challenging and lonely years in my nearly 60 year membership of the Labour Party, and I know that’s what every Jew sitting here tonight feels too,” she said.
But she warned “the history of the last four years” had been “rapidly rewritten by those who are seeking our support.”
Some members of the shadow cabinet would “every now and then decry antisemitism in media interviews,” she conceded, but “where were their voices when we needed them the most?” she asked, prompting a round of applause from the audience.
The next Labour leader will be announced on 4 April.