Tony Blair STILL voting Labour despite Jeremy Corbyn
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Tony Blair STILL voting Labour despite Jeremy Corbyn

Former PM tells Board of Deputies dinner his 'position is fixed because of who I am' ahead of the election, as he warns that the antisemitism row is 'absolutely killing Labour'

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Tony Blair speaking at the Board of Deputies dinner, in conversation with Natasha Kaplinsky (Credit: Sam Pearce)
Tony Blair speaking at the Board of Deputies dinner, in conversation with Natasha Kaplinsky (Credit: Sam Pearce)

Tony Blair has said he understands why people would vote to “eschew the extremism” of both major parties as he suggested the antisemitism scandal was “absolutely killing” Labour.

The former Prime Minister also told the Board of Deputies President’s dinner that he had “more reasonable conversations in the Arab world about Israel than with parts of the left at home”.

Interviewed on stage by broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky, the former Labour leader predicted record levels of tactical voting at next month’s General Election. “I think in this election there will be more people that look carefully in a non tribal way – they will look carefully at the candidates in their constituency to a bigger degree than at any election I can remember.”

Blair suggested he wouldn’t personally be voting tactically, saying “my position is fixed because of who I am”. But he acknowledged there will be people who want to stand up…”and eschew the extremism of either side”.

He told the gathering that included 30 parliamentarians and diplomats from around the globe that he “understands why people in this election will want to support what I would call reasonable centre ground candidates”.

L-R: Natasha Kaplinsky, Tracy Ann Oberman, Tony Blair and Marie van der Zyl (Credit: Sam Pearce)

The former Prime Minister said there were Labour MPs standing for election who had stood up strongly on antisemitism “and I want to see them supported. It is essential we have some people who are going to stay and fight this out”.

He singled out Dame Margaret Hodge and Lord Mann for praise for their actions in the face of hate and wished Luciana Berger well in her campaign to take Finchley and Golders Green from the Tories.

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He predicted a “complete battle in the Labour party because what has happened over these past years – particularly over antisemitism – is absolutely killing the party. There is going to be a big battle to pull the party away from all that politics.”

Discussing the “phenomenon” of antisemitism on the left, he said: “This is not a few bad individuals. It’s not limited to Britain or the British Labour Party. There’s an entry point to antisemitism today on the left and it has to be combated .”

Blair – who received a standing ovation from the 450-strong audience – has made over 200 visits to Israel since leaving Downing Street including in his capacity as Quartet envoy. He insisted there was a need to “explain Zionism and the way Israel was created and why it deserves support today. We have to dress the Israeli democracy is a real democracy”.

Tony Blair at the Board of Deputies dinner with Natasha Kaplinsky (Credit: Sam Pearce)

The plight of the people of Gaza was “without doubt terrible“ but he said it was wrong to discuss this without referencing rocket attacks aimed at Israelis. “Tell me which democratic country would put up with that happening to their people,” he said.

Blair insisted that improving relations between Israeli and some Arab nations provided hope that the conflict with the Palestinians could be resolved – and he vowed to work “for as long as I can” to improve those ties.

The former PM reflected on his days at Number 10 and claimed “the plague of social media” made the job even harder for leaders today. He decried the absence of David Miliband from the British political scene, as well as the decision of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson to leave the scene. He said: “Politics would be a lot better if they were there.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel, offering the loyal toast, paraded the Board’s record on fighting antisemitism. She also pledged the government’s support at a time many British Jews “are feeling uncertain about the future”.

Priti Patel at the Board of Deputies dinner (Credit: Sam Pearce)

In her address, Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl described the “stand off” between British Jewish organisations and Labour’s leadership as “not acceptable, desirable or inevitable”

Welcoming the former Prime Minister as a “true friend”, she said: “When the dust settles after the election, I hope that the party’s current – or future leaders – will learn from his example that things can and indeed must change.”

Reflecting the current political uncertainties, she added: “The polls have been wrong in the past and the Board of a Deputies is preparing for all scenarios.”

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