The new chair of Labour Friends of Israel in Parliament, Steve McCabe, has described outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as “deluded” if he believes he can serve as shadow foreign secretary in any future Opposition grouping.
Mr McCabe, MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, told Jewish News: “My own advice to Jeremy Corbyn is that, like all previous Labour leaders that I can think of, he should walk away from the stage and leave it to new people who are coming in. If he himself honestly thinks that he would provide a service for the Labour Party by serving as, of all things, shadow foreign secretary, then I fear he’s deluded”.
The bluntly spoken, Glasgow-born MP has been in the Commons since 1997, first for the Birmingham seat of Hall Green, and then, after 2010 boundary changes, for Selly Oak, achieving a majority of more than 12,000 in the 2019 election. A social worker and then an academic, he has been a member of Labour Friends of Israel since he entered the Commons, believing support of Israel to be the natural position of the Labour Party which he first joined.
But he only visited Israel for the first time last year on an LFI mission, and now hopes to lead a delegation to the country in May, with the aim of attracting some of the new intake of Labour MPs to join him.
“I haven’t been super-active in LFI,” he acknowledges. Nor does he have a high number of Jewish voters in his constituency. But he says he was “really struck”, during the last election, “by the number of ordinary Labour voters who said how troubled they were by antisemitism and by Labour’s inability to deal with it, and it really made me think how far we had begun to marginalise ourselves in the way we were able to engage with people.”
He himself is in favour of a two-state solution, but was taken aback by the plethora of Palestinian flags waved at Labour’s most recent party conferences, as though debate on the matter were shut down. “That’s not the Labour Party I joined or the Labour Party I belong to”, Mr McCabe says, “or the party I want to belong to.”
With a wry smile, he says: “I’m hardly at the beginning of my parliamentary career”, implying that he has little to lose by taking on the chairmanship of LFI. He believes passionately in dialogue and co-existence, and thinks there are “wider regional issues” in the Middle East than simply the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A strong supporter of Sir Keir Starmer as future Labour leader (and an unabashed Remainer in the Brexit debate), Mr McCabe feels that things are about to change. “Now we’re about to have a change of leadership, Labour can, hopefully, deal with the scourge of antisemitism and can re-orientate itself in terms of dealing with Israel, and go back to the original Labour position that we are a friend of Israel — and that we can start to re-look at our foreign policy, in terms of a more balanced approach”.
He is clear about the tough time experienced by former LFI leaders such as former MPs Joan Ryan, Dame Louise Ellman and Luciana Berger, Mr McCabe and deplored the misogynistic attitudes taken against them. For himself, he says, he believes that Labour is “on the edge of being in a much better place… I think the focus of attention about LFI’s work could shift”.
Just the same, he is plainly unhappy about the latest development in Labour, the party’s headline-grabbing suspension of the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, over allegations of Islamophobia. Mr McCabe said: “It does make you wonder what kind of complaints process is the Labour Party operating at the moment, how do these administrative suspensions arise, what kind of charges are levelled, who makes these decisions, what’s the transparency of our procedures?
“This is weird, and it seems even more strange when we are about 24 days from the close of the leadership contest — and there are thousands of members throughout the country saying where’s my ballot paper? If officials, who we know are still sitting on a huge pile of antisemitism cases, can find the time to ferret out an administrative suspension against the man who gave us the term Islamophobia — well, that sounds really strange to me, and, I imagine, to a lot of other people.”
As someone with a long-standing interest in Iran, Mr McCabe says he wants LFI, under his leadership, to work with other parliamentary groups. As well as trying to attract new MPs, he’d like, if possible, to hold joint fringe meetings at this year’s party conference with organisations such as the Labour Middle East Council.
The MP quite plainly has a steely determination to change the conversation in Britain regarding Israel. Besides taking missions to Israel, he hopes to attract visitors to the UK, and though he says the current state of the Israeli Labour Party is “a source of sadness”, he is quick to add that “Israel is more than its immediate government”. In any case, he says he would most like to see a broad-based coalition there.
Away from politics, Mr McCabe says he can still play — badly — the same three guitar chords that he learned more than 30 years ago, and that he clears his head going walking and climbing hills. He looks like a man welcoming his new role with some relish. Anti-Israel supporters have a fight on their hands.